Hello, readers of the YAAR blog! I’m author Elizabeth Woodrum. Some of you may be familiar with my children’s mystery series, The Maisy Files. But, you may not be aware that I am also an educator with thirteen years of experience teaching language arts. I currently teach sixth grade at a small school in Ohio. After having spent many years working with fourth grade students, one of the things I have enjoyed most is getting to discover, and in some cases rediscover, books to share with older students.
I’ve compiled a list of my top ten books for middle school students. Though, I did cheat a little. Since most of the books are part of a series, there are actually many more than ten books you may discover from this list! The suggested minimum ages for these books range from eight through thirteen. So, there should be something for every reader who is around the average age of middle-school students.
I’ve broken my list into the categories of dystopian, science fiction/fantasy, realistic fiction, and historical fiction. Keep in mind that sometimes books walk a thin line between genres. So, if you’re not sure something is in a preferred genre, check it out anyway. You may be surprised!
As a teacher, I’m always cautious of content I’m sharing with my students. So, I’m placing an age recommendation from Common Sense Media with each book description. Parents, if you question whether or not a book is appropriate for your child, I highly recommend the site. But, be warned. They are very specific and you will spoil the book for yourself if you read their descriptions. Personally, I would have no trouble sharing any of these books with my sixth-grade students, who are generally around eleven years of age. In fact, I have read several of these books with them.
With books like The Hunger Games and Divergent, everyone is familiar with the term dystopian by now. The following are a selection of books that may not be as well known, but still entirely deserving of attention by dystopian lovers. For those unfamiliar with the term, if there are any of you still out there, a dystopia is the opposite of a utopia. A dystopian society is generally one in which things are as bad as they can be. Usually there is some form of a totalitarian government or a natural disaster has caused such turmoil that the world is intolerable. Often, the characters are complacent and accept their world until someone begins uncovering secrets. Though the recent surge of dystopian novels may lead you to believe that an all out war is the only solution to these types of societies, some dystopian novels have a calmer approach. Though there is often an uprising of some sort, extreme violence is not a requirement.
The Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
The Books of Ember contain three books and a prequel. The City of Ember, The People of Sparks, and The Diamond of Darkhold tell the story of the people of Ember. The Prophet of Yonwood is a prequel and was published as the third book in the series. However, I have not read it. Some of my students have, and they shared that it was good. But, it takes place far before the events of Ember.
The City of Ember introduces the reader to the character of Lina Mayfleet. The story is told in third person, but focuses mostly on Lina. We learn about Ember, a city which would always be in darkness if the light keepers didn’t regulate the lights. But, the people of Ember have started experiencing black outs and shortages of supplies. Doon, one of Lina’s former classmates, is sure that Ember is in trouble. After Lina finds an ancient message, she is convinced that there is a way out of Ember and that there is actually something beyond the city. Lina and Doon work together to discover that all is not as it seems.
I’ve read this book with my students and most of them greatly enjoyed it. I was able to figure out the twist involving the location of Ember very early into the book. However, the ending, and the reveal, has always surprised my students. This is a very tame dystopian novel, with light action and a little sadness. Common Sense Media’s recommended age is for readers 8+.
The Shadow Children Series by Margaret Peterson Haddix
The Shadow Children is a seven book series which begins with Among the Hidden. I admit, I have not yet finished the series. But, the books I have read are excellent! In the first book, we’re introduced to Luke. He is one of the shadow children. In the world developed in the series, there is a population problem and every family is restricted by law to only having two children. So, Luke, being the third child, must keep his existence a secret. That has been relatively easy since his family’s farm is located in a somewhat secluded area. But, all of that changes when a new housing development is built next to his home. Luke’s movements become even more restricted. But, one day, he sees a new child’s face in a home that already contains two children. Luke’s real journey begins as he ventures out to meet this other shadow child.
Parents can rest easy knowing that the dystopian elements are not overly graphic. There are some emotionally charged events and light action in the series opener. Common Sense Media’s recommended age is 9+.
The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry
The Giver quarter contains four books, beginning with Newbery-Medal-Winner The Giver. Unlike a lot of series, each book could actually stand alone. However, they do build on each other in a way that will make more sense if you read them in order. But, the second book isn’t necessarily a continuation of the first, and so on.
In The Giver, we meet Jonas. He and his family live in a seemingly utopian community in which everything is decided upon by The Elders. Families have two kids and everything from their daily vitamins to their careers are managed. At the age of twelve, children receive their career assignments. Jonas is given the assignment of the Receiver of Memories. Being placed in the position means that Jonas will receive the world’s collective memories from the previous receiver, who has now become the titular character of The Giver. Only The Giver and his protégé know the full, true history of the world. In part, it is this ignorance that keeps the community in its utopian order.
It is through receiving the memories and talking with The Giver that Jonas, and the reader, learn about the hypocrisy of the society. Unlike more overt dystopian novels, the rebellion aspect is limited mainly to Jonas and The Giver. Because of this, I’ve seen it classified as both utopian and dystopian, depending on who is doing the reviewing. But, since the people are oppressed, even if they don’t really know it, I’m still considering it a dystopian novel.
I found it interesting as a reader to learn more about the world the story is set in through Jonas’ receiving of the memories. There were quite a few interesting and novel aspects. There are some disturbing events and revelations that arise as the story reaches its climax. They are written in a way that makes them suitable for young readers. But, the content may be objectionable to some. I suggest parents check out this book’s description on Common Sense Media’s website here. Common Sense Media’s suggested age for the series is 11+.
The Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie
The series is made up of the books Matched, Crossed, and Reached. The story begins as the main character, Cassia, learns who The Society has chosen to be her mate. However, there is a “glitch” in the system. As the story continues, Cassia is faced with many choices. She begins to question the government’s decisions. The world in the Matched trilogy is not as over the top dystopian as many readers may have come to believe is the norm. A main aspect of the trilogy is a romance with the backdrop of a dystopian world that is slow to reveal its secrets. The books will likely appeal more to female readers because of the romance aspects and the narrator being Cassia. However, as the series progresses, it takes on a multiple perspective format. Prominent male characters are also narrators later in the series. Common Sense Media’s recommended age is for readers aged 12+.
The Selection Series by Kiera Cass
The Selection series will also likely appeal mostly to female readers. It consists of three main books, The Selection, The Elite, and The One. The dystopian aspects of these stories don’t reveal themselves in a heavy-handed way. The main focus is on America Singer as she finds herself in The Selection, an event in which a prince chooses his bride. It is a bit of a fairytale story, set amidst a turbulent society. However, the dystopian drama mainly takes a back seat to America’s romantic entanglements throughout most of the series. For those who really love to get your hands on a good series, this one has extra content. There are novellas and two more novels that take place 20 years after the end of the original series. The first, The Heir, is already released. The final book, The Crown, comes out in May. Common Sense Media’s suggested age is 13+.
Science-Fiction and Fantasy
I’m sure all of you avid readers are familiar with these genres. In general, fantasy contains some sort of element that does not exist in reality, such as magic. Science-fiction is often considered to be a type of fantasy, except it must contain a large focus on technology.
The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
The Lunar Chronicles consists of four main books and one prequel. Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter are the main books. Fairest was published third, but takes place before the main series.
This is one of the most unique series I have ever read. Well, I’m actually still reading Winter, which was just released four days prior to my writing of this post. But, I still hold that opinion.
The books are a futuristic telling of some of your favorite fairytales. I admit, I actually picked up Cinder on several different occasions and placed it back on the shelf at the bookstore. After reading that Cinder is a cyborg, my fantasy-genre-preferring brain said, “No, thanks!” But, I’m glad I finally gave it a try, because I couldn’t put it down. These stories are what I would call genre-bending. I am classifying them as science-fiction because of all of the futuristic technology. There are genetically mutated humans living on the moon, space travel is an everyday occurrence, Cinder is a cyborg, and androids are as common as sliced bread. There are some aspects that could qualify as dystopian. But, I’m categorizing based on the most prevalent feature.
It may not be too hard to guess that Cinder is the future’s answer to Cinderella. But, she is so much more than that. The first book begins with Cinder, a mechanic, living in plague-ridden New Beijing with an evil step-mother and two step-sisters. Of course, she has a chance meeting with Prince Kai, and eventually their stories become intertwined when Cinder accidentally receives a message intended for the prince. Cinder sets off on a course that will help her unravel her mysterious past and meet some rather interesting characters, including an evil Lunar queen, along the way.
I found it fascinating how the author spun new stories that are somewhat parallel to the stories we all know. You’ll meet future versions of other fairytale characters with cleverly updated stories of their own as the series progresses. I don’t want to give away too much in terms of what other fairytale characters are involved. But, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how these old tales found an entirely new life. Common Sense Media’s recommended age is 12+.
The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
This six book series is a fantasy that centers around the legend of the French alchemist Nicholas Flamel. In the first book, appropriately titled The Alchemyst, we meet brother and sister Sophie and Josh Newman. They are thrown into a clash between Flamel and the evil Dr. John Dee, who wishes to destroy the world. If he can get his hands on an item that Flamel has been protecting for his long life, he’ll be able to. But, as it turns out, Sophie and Josh may be the only ones who can stop him. They are prophesied to be powerful magicians, which is quite a surprise to them.
I enjoyed reading this entire series, which is filled with magic, immortals, and historical figures. If you enjoyed books such as The Harry Potter series, you’ll definitely enjoy this series. The recommended age by Common Sense Media is 10+.
Realistic fiction is just as it sounds. These stories are set in the real world and could actually happen. All three of these books come with my highest recommendation, because my sixth-graders loved them.
Wonder by RJ Palacio
I’ve read Wonder with my students for two years now. They really enjoyed it. This book is about acceptance and friendship. It is the first book I read with them as it has a great message for kids at what is often a difficult age to navigate.
August Pullman was born with such a rare combination of genetic abnormalities that there isn’t technically a name for his condition, which has left him disfigured.
The story begins with August learning he is going to be going to a regular school for the first time. The story covers his fifth grade year. One of my favorite things about the story is that it has multiple narrators. The majority of the story is told by August, but readers also get to see August through the eyes of two of his new friends, his sister, his sister’s boyfriend, and one of his sister’s friends.
Throughout the story, August encounters a lot of bullying and discrimination because of his face. But, he also makes some friends and teaches others about friendship and loyalty.
Parents should know there are some sad moments and some intense scenes involving bullies from another school. Also, some of the narrators are high-school students, so their narration is more mature. If you’re concerned, please check out the book’s entry on Common Sense Media’s website. But, their recommended age is 11+.
If I could choose only one book to recommend to every person, adult and child alike, this would be the book. Read it. It’s that good! In fact, I asked last year’s students which book they would suggest for me to read with future sixth-graders if I could only choose one. Most of them chose Wonder.
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
This Newbery Medal winner is another one of my favorites. But, you may need some tissues by the time it’s all over. I had to walk around my class with the tissue box on a couple of occasions while reading this book with my class.
The great thing about this book is it has the structure of a parallel plot. Salamanca Tree Hiddle is the main character. As Sal goes on a road trip with her eccentric (and hysterical) grandparents to find her missing mother, she tells the story of her friend Phoebe. The two girls’ stories are similar in that at one point, Phoebe’s mother is also missing.
This may not sound like a light read, but the reality is that most of it is rather light-hearted and funny. Sal’s grandparents bring a lot of levity and Phoebe’s story is often so ludicrous, you start to wonder if Sal is spinning yarns just to entertain her grandparents.
But, things do turn serious and parents should know there are some mature topics that are dealt with. But, they are done so in a way that is appropriate for young readers. Again, if you’re concerned, check out Common Sense Media’s website. Their recommended age is 10+.
Ungifted by Gordon Korman
Most middle-schoolers are probably already familiar with Gordon Korman. He’s very popular, at least with my students. Ungifted is the book I chose to end the year with last year. It is hysterical, but also has a good message. Most importantly, it grabbed my students from the very first page and didn’t let go until the last word.
Donovan Curtis is a popular kid and a bit of a trouble-maker. He’s not very motivated, and he is not a great student. When he accidentally demolishes his school’s gymnasium, he is petrified of his parents finding out he was responsible and learning his punishment. But, a mistake, perhaps a twist of fate, finds him receiving a letter congratulating him on being accepted into a school for gifted students. He ponders his options, and decides it may be best to hide out at a new school for a while.
Donovan meets his new school’s decidedly dorky robotics team when he is placed in their homeroom. Throughout their time together, they face stereotypes on both sides. Ultimately, friendships are formed and loyalties tested.
My students were roaring with laughter on more than one occasion. Where Wonder teaches similar life lessons with a touch more serious subject matter, Ungifted is simply light-hearted fun. Even its tense moments are broken by funny antics. Common Sense Media recommends this book for ages 9+.
Bonus! Historical Fiction
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
I couldn’t write a list of recommended books for middle-school students and leave out this one. It’s a historical fiction because it takes place with a backdrop of the civil war in Sudan that lasted from 1983-2005 and ended with South Sudan becoming its own country. This is another one of my student’s favorites. Some of them had a tough time deciding between this story and Wonder as their favorite.
You should know that this story is based on the real life of Salva Dut. You’ll have a chance to learn more about him as he wrote a message to readers at the end of the book. If you listen to the audio book, you’ll get to hear him read the message himself.
This story focuses on two different characters at two different times. Salva’s story begins in 1985 when as a child he becomes a refugee of war after his village is attacked. He is separated from his family and they are always on his mind as he wanders. He joins with other refugees and they make it to safety, but not without heartbreaking struggles and loss along the way. The story follow him into adulthood.
Alternating chapters with Salva’s story is that of Nya, who is entirely fictional. However, she represents many young girls in a similar position. Nya’s story is also set in Sudan, but begins in 2008. She must walk miles each day to a pond to collect water for her family. She makes the trip multiple times each day. Unfortunately, the water is contaminated and her sister falls ill.
Readers will enjoy wondering about the connection between Salva’s and Nya’s stories. I can say without a doubt that it was definitely a “teacher pride moment” when all of my students’ gasped at the same time when it was revealed. I was glad I found a book that had them so entranced.
Parents should know that there are unsettling events that happen to Salva during his years as a refugee. But, they are never described graphically. Common Sense Media’s recommended age is 11+.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this list of recommended books and found a few new ones to check out! Thanks for reading!