The Magic of Middle Grade Novels
Middle Schoolers are creatures that live half in the world of fairy and half in brutal reality. They are living through a time of metamorphosis. They are transitioning from a world where their heroes are adults, like their parents and grandparents, to an alternate reality where they want to be accepted by their peers and understand their place.
When you combine these enchanting creatures with heroes their own age in otherworldly adventures, these fairy beings enter a world of imagination that can be more real than the mundane reality of adults.
I vividly remember the first time that I overheard my students discussing which Hogwarts House they would have been in if they had gotten the letter. I was transported in my own mind to Bilbo in Bag’s End negotiating his contract with Thorin. They were immersed in Hogwart’s like I had been in the Middle Earth.
I was tickled when a fellow teacher told me she was a Hufflepuff. This is another glorious aspect of the best of the middle grade novel or series; they appeal to a much wider population that is in transition, like an empty-nester teacher with grandchildren. A very significant portion of the readers for these books are adults who have never given up the magic of their youth.
By the way, I am a Hufflepuff too. And a hobbit. And Gilbert. And Sam with Frightful. And many, many others.
How the List Was Generated
When I began to make a list of Middle Grade Novels to review for Book Chats, the list kept growing and growing. The list was out of control. I had over fifty books on my list (and more to add). No body wants to read a list of fifty books.
So I decided to split the list up into smaller bites, but how to organize such an ungainly list. I could put the Newberry winners together. That seemed pedestrian. How many lists of Newberry lists already exist?
I could have divided them by time period, but with the explosion of great middle grade books in recent years that just didn’t make sense. There were would be too many in recent years.
In the end I decided against any particular structure. This is just a list of books that I love divided into several different lists. I have tried to have variety in each grouping to appeal to different readers.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
This is a fantastic book that my wife, Mary Kathryn, introduced me to early in our marriage.
Can I say that the blending of libraries that occurs when two people become a couple is one of the great blessings of marriage? My books, your books, our books.
The Secret Garden is populated with characters that are easy to identify with. Mary Lennox is the unloved. Her parents neglected her and left her with servants. Her life is tragic. Cholera takes with parents and poor little Mary is found alone in an empty house. Then she is sent to live with a cold uncle thousands of miles away.
Colin is the embarrassing child hidden away in a secret bedroom and tended by servants. He is told who he is by the adults in his world and he believes them. He is the cripple.
The Secret Garden is a mix of the two children. It is hidden, neglected, and unloved. It withers and dies. The gardener, Ben, wishes that the lady were back to set things aright, but she died in an accident in the Secret Garden.
Then there is my favorite character, Dickon. He is the whole, healthy child who is still in touch with the magic of youth and life. Dickon understands the very nature of life, and he is the agent of healing for his young friends, the garden, and Colin’s father.
There is a little of the supernatural in the Secret Garden. Colin’s father, Archibald, is a mirror of the Garden as well. When his wife, Lilias, the keeper of the Garden, dies, he sinks into despair. He can’t bear to be at home and see his wife in his son. As Colin thrives under the care of Dickon in the Garden, Archibald begins to come out of the depression. Finally, he dreams of his wife calling to him from inside the Garden.
The ending of The Secret Garden completes the parable. The order of the world is restored. Everyone and everything is back in its proper place.
There have been several excellent film translations of The Secret Garden.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is one of those books that transforms a generation. Rowling captures the genre perfectly. Harry, Hermione, and Ron are ideal characters for the genre. Each character is the quintessential example of a character type.
Harry is the orphan, the target for derision, the insecure hero. Hermione is the other, the muggle-born witch, the smartest girl in class, the real hero of the story. Ron is the little brother in the shadow of older brothers, the poor kid, the child of awkward parents.
Rowlings continues to reach out to her readers with a rich cast of supporting characters, like Neville, Malfoy, Seamus, Crabbe, and Goyle. Her readers have characters to identify with and others they recognize as their persecutors.
One of J. K. Rowlings superpowers as an author is to create an equally rich cast of teachers and that appeal to her adult readers. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is rich enough to keep the interest of readers of all ages.
As a bonus, I think that the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone going to become one of the all-time classic of film for kids. It captures the beauty and magic of the book. It will be up there with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Winnie the Pooh, Aladdin, Toy Story. I sure that list of movies is skewed to my favorites and the one I watched with my kids.
My Side Of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
My Side of the Mountain captured my mind when I was 11 or 12. Sam longs to escape New York City to his grandfather’s abandoned farm in the Adirondacks. With his father’s tentative blessing, Sam gets on a bus and begins his long adventure alone in the woods.
I wanted to be Sam. Sam lived in a hollow hemlock tree. He cured a deer hide into leather in an oak stump. He had Frightful, the peregrine falcon. He ate from turtle shells. Sam was a civilized wild boy living off the land. He was free of the torments of life among his peers.
Do you wish that your child who reads every day all Summer would spend some time outside? My Side of the Mountain may be the perfect book to give your child.
Do you wish that your child who spends all day playing in the woods with your dog would become a reader? My Side of the Mountain may be the perfect book to give your child.
Like many books in this list, My Side of the Mountain fuels dreams and the imagination.
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
This is a book that my wife introduced me too only recently. This is one of the lovely “lost” books that you read as a kid, but you never owned. We were surfing our devices looking for something to watch when Mary Kathryn squealed. “Can we watch this one? I loved this book.”
It was a film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons. We watched. MK was lost in nostalgia and I was reading about the series determined that I would read these books.
We currently live at the mouth of the Neuse River. It is 5 miles wide and has lots of creeks that open onto the slow moving river. As I read Swallows and Amazons, I imagined growing up on these creeks with my own crew of dread pirates sailing up and down the wide water searching for the enemy Amazons. I started to feel deprived that I had grown up in Mississippi with a different set of dreams.
Swallows and Amazons is a story of high adventure and exploitation. The kids aren’t trying to save the world from destruction. You will never feel like their lives are a stake. The Swallows (the Walker kids) are sailing for the honor and glory of besting the Amazons (the Blackett sisters) for “possession” of a rocky island in the middle of a lake.
Swallows and Amazons is a very long book. Ransome’s tale unfolds at the speed of a catboat on a lake, but he allows his reader to glimpse and anticipate the coming adventure that awaits on the horizon. It is a leisurely read that gently pulls the reader through.
Be careful with this book. When your children want a sailboat, send them to a sailing camp and let them dream.
Anne of Green Gables
The screen adaptation of Anne of Green Gables with Megan Follows came out while I was in college as part of the WonderWorks series on PBS. I sat in the student union watching this with a bunch of my classmates. Like Gilbert, I fell in love with the spunky Anne with an “e” Shirley.
When I married MK, a very Anne-like creature, she came with the paperback, boxed series by L. M. Montgomery. I don’t know why, but I secretly read those books. I didn’t want MK to catch me. The books were old and swollen with humidity so they didn’t fit back into the box when removed. One always stood out separate.
While Kevin Sullivan’s adaption is phenomenal, the books are richer, broader and altogether more magnificent. The best complement that I can give the books is Anne stopped being Megan Follows and became Anne of Green Gables. She became herself.
I will also say the Gilbert’s development through the series is wonderful. Montgomery does a fantastic job of showing his transition from smug young man who is aware of his own attractiveness to steady, patience, kind, loving husband and father.
Don’t think of the Anne series as books for your girls. Gilbert is a strong enough character that your boys will like these as well.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson
This is another book that I saw on the WonderWorks series while I was in college. As I write this I wonder how much influence this and Anne of Green Gables influenced me in the choice of a bride. I will never know, but it is fun to think back on those days wondering who I might marry. Not that Jess and Leslie marry in Bridge to Terabithia. The story is much more wonderful, and tragic, than that.
Jess is a poor artistic boy who is tormented by his four sisters. When we first meet Jess, we find that he has decided to make himself significant among his classmates by being the fastest. He has trained all Summer, but there is the new kid, a girl, Leslie, who wins handily.
Bridge to Terabithia presents the life of Jess and Leslie in a complex and realistic world. Patterson has tragic story arcs that course through the book. When we meet Janice, the bully, she is unsympathetic. We see the cold Mrs. Myers who unwittingly contributes to Leslie’s ostracization. We feel May Belle’s loneliness and need for a friend. However, each receives redemption or understanding along the way.
Bridge to Terabithia is centered around the transformation of Jess and his personal growth. With the help of Miss Edmunds and the trip to the art gallery, he begins to see the beauty of Terabithia in the world around him. On the death of his friend, he brings the little sister, May Belle, and installs her as Queen of Terabithia.
Leslie may be the most interesting character. As I was reading years ago, I saw her as a sort of guardian angel for Jess. Patterson shows that Jess may have seen her similarly –
She had tricked him. She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there.Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson
I cannot recommend this book too much. Bridge to Terabithia does not soft pedal or ignore the cruelty that exists in life, neither does it wallow in it. More importantly it encourages empathy and understanding and seeing the beauty of life amid the pain. This is a lesson for the rest of life.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a unique Holocaust novel and fable. It will not be to everyone’s taste, and some may see it as trivializing the Holocaust. You may want to read some in depth reviews with spoilers before sharing this book with your children.
John Boyne imagines the horror of the holocaust from the point of view of two young boys on different sides of the “Out-With” fence. Young Bruno, the son of the Commandant of “Out-With,” has wealth and privilege. The war is inconvenient for him, but it has not been tragic. He has had to depart Berlin and his friends.
Schmuel, the boy in the the striped pajamas, has had a much different experience of the war. Schmuel has been forced from his home with his parents into a room shared with another family. He has been crowded into a cattle car so full of people that there wasn’t enough air to breathe. His mother has been “taken away.” His grandfather has disappeared from the camp.
The boys are the same age and share the same birthday. That is the only thing that they have in common until we last see them holding hands.
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
Where the Red Fern Grows has the feel of a tale that Billy has enriched and perfected over the years of telling. Even as a boy reading this book, I had the feeling that it was a “tall tale” like the ones about Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyon.
There are hints. Early on we find out that Bill really wants a couple of redbone coon hounds. He tells that he works and saves the money for the dogs. Later we found out that he had help from his grandfather. How much help did the grandfather provide? For the teacher or homeschooler Where the Red Fern Grows is an excellent introduction to the unreliable narrator.
There is a lot of thematic complexity to Where the Red Fern Grows. The story moves along because Billy is so monomaniacally focused, but in the end Billy learns the value of balance. Also, Billy does absolutlely amazing things through the book, like giving his candy to his sister, or cutting down the biggest tree in the forest, but he is still only twelve and he cries a lot.
Grandpa, for all he does to help Billy, is really a foil to show Billy what not to become later in life. Grandpa drives Billy with “deals.” One of the Grandpa’s deal leads directly to the death of Rubin Pritchard. The rough Pritchard family is the opposite of the loving Colman family, just as the mature Billy is the opposite of the Man-Boy Grandpa.
This is a book that will get you talking to your children about maturity family. Enjoy it with them.
Spies of the Revolution by Katherine and John Bakeless
Alright, I will be honest. This is not the greatest book in the world, but it is still a lot of fun to read. This book is on the list because it is the first big book (over 200 pages) that I ever read.
I sat in a lawn chair under a big oak tree, read and read some more, and then I read a little more. Several hours later I had read fifty pages. It was finished in less than a week. This is the book that showed me that I could be a reader. The next week I did the same thing with the Hobbit.
Spies of the Revolution is filled with the glorious spies and tradecraft of the Revolutionary War. Anyone can be a spy? The codes and ciphers are very interesting as well. I wish that I remembered more about it but time has clouded my memory. Still this was a pivotal book in my past.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
When I read The Giver, I loved the central idea. Young Jonas lives in a time and “community” that has stripped suffering, hunger, war, and other negative things from society. However,it has come at the cost of most of the joys of life. At the big ceremony, Jonas is passed over to the end, when he learns that he will be The Receiver.
The Receiver acquires the memories of the human past from The Giver. The first memory that Jonas receives is sledding down a hill. Soon he is receiving memories from the time before the community was established. There was Christmas and birthday parties , and sex, O my.
The Giver has been controversial. Since it has come out, librarians have been receiving requests to remove The Giver from their collections. The most common reason expressed for removal has been that it is inappropriate for the age group and violence. Since The Giver came out, authors have gone on a spree of dystopian fiction for younger readers. Personally, I dislike attempts to remove books from libraries. I feel that such efforts tell me more about the “banners” than the books.
I believe that it is unfortunate that people get tied up in knots over the themes of The Giver. Middle Grade Readers love the dystopian because it fits so seemlessly into their fantasies (remember the soap scene from “A Christmas Story.”) Kids love the tragic, especially when they see another kid beating the system (think Harry Potter).
The Giver is the perfect catalyst for entering into a discussion with your children about what is beautiful in society (like when Jonas saves the little baby with light eyes) and what is ugly about society. If you are a homeschooler who likes the Great Conversation approach to education, The Giver needs to become a part of your curriculum.
If you would like a more optimistic version of the story, try Orson Scott Card’s The Worthing Chronicle. It is unfortunately out of print, but try Abe Books.
Join me for the other installments of My Personal Favorite Middle Grade Novels and books. As I get them written, I will link them together.
Let me know what you think in the comments below.