Reading Up: Middle Grade Books for the Younger Reader

Updated: Dec 21, 2018

One of the requests for recommendations Grace and I get fairly often is from parents looking for books that scale. Specifically, we hear from those who have children who are in first or second grade but read at a middle grade level. Parents who are looking for books that are sufficiently challenging for young reader's language skills but with age-appropriate content may be interested in checking out some of these:


When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead


Stead's 2009 Newbery Award-winning novel will be a hit with those budding mystery and science fiction lovers. The first-person novel follows Miranda Sinclair, a 6th grader living in New York City in the late 1970's, who encounters some high strangeness in her neighborhood. This novel contains themes of friendship, time travel, 1970's culture, and more than a few references to Miranda's favorite book, A Wrinkle In Time.


The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg


If you read this book as a kid, you may remember wishing you, too, could run away to live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (and as it's the second NYC book on this list, apparently I have a theme going). I have great news for you: This is one of those classics that *totally* holds up. Even though it was written in 1967, the only glaring inaccuracy to today's world is the going rate for a Manhattan taxi ride. Themes of family, independence, mystery, and properly budgeting a runaway.


Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson


Woodson's autobiographical novel in verse hit the shelves in 2014 and promptly netted the National Book Award, a Newbery Honor, and Coretta Scott King Honor Award. Woodson, the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, grew up between South Carolina and New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. Her telling of her childhood during the Civil Rights era is both ordinary and extraordinary, and her brilliant freeform poetry is transportive.


The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick


Take a leap into the world of visual storytelling! Selznick's smash hit is told in both masterful illustration and illustrative prose, asking the reader to toggle back and forth between reading and understanding the story through visual sequence (in fact, the novel was the first to win a Caldecott Medal, normally reserved for picture books, in 2008). In addition to word and image, this novel also melds fiction and history with the inclusion the real Parisian filmmaker, Georges Méliès. Themes include belonging, mechanics, art, French culture, and a little bit of magic.


The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke


Our next stop in our literary globetrot: Venice, Italy. Two brothers, Prosper and Bo, find themselves alone in Venice. They're taken in by a group of street children living in an abandoned theatre who show them how to survive on the streets of this ancient Italian city. Including themes of friendship, family, survival, art, and growing up, Funke's novel is an un-put-downable adventure that readers will return to over and over.


The Island of the Aunts, by Eva Ibbotson


Etta, Coral, and Myrtle are responsible for taking care of an entire island of fantastical creatures, but they're growing old. In an effort to find young people to pass the island down to, the three pose as "aunts" (British for nannies) with the intention of each finding one child to bring back to the island and show them the ways of caretaking. Of course, no one asked the children if they wanted to be kidnapped and brought far from home to a bizarre island of incredible creatures. Hilarity ensues, but so does a tender story of our responsibilities as not only inhabitants of the Earth, but stewards as well.


Print this list! Click here for a link to a condensed version of this list in Google Drive.


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