My Top Seventeen Middle Grade Books of all Time!
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
Originally posted in 2013 when I was working on my thesis. (Which I earned in 2014! W00T!) I have now updated this list with a short synopsis of each book (sans spoilers, of course!) and current verbiage for clarity.
~ JS, 2022
If you follow me -- or just know me at all -- you know I have a master's degree in children's literature. I've been asked by more than a few people exactly what children's titles a graduate student would possibly want to study, and why. So I decided to post the bibliography of my final document proposal, with a short note on each about why I included it in my thesis.
Submitted for your approval: my own top seventeen middle grade books of all time!
(Your mileage my vary; in fact, I hope it does! Please add your own entries in the comments below so we can build this list high!)
1) Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Columbus: Weekly Reader Books. Print.
Alice, a proper young Victorian girl, finds herself falling down a rabbit hole into literal madness. The story follows her as she tries to make some kind of sense of this crazy new world full of mad tea parties, pepper-covered chefs, tarts and queens and swimming carpenters, and all sorts of other insanity, so she can find a way home.
If you're breathing, chances are you know who Alice is, that the Mad Hatter isn't angry (but he is totally nutso), and / or have had some kind of argument over weather Lewis Carroll's classic work of children's fantasy is about math, drugs, both, or neither.
As an undeniable staple of classic kidlit, leaving Alice's Adventures in Wonderland out of a study on children's books would have been like leaving Shakespeare out of a study on classic adult literature.
2) Cooper, Susan. The Dark is Rising. New York: Scholastic, Inc Publishers. Print.
Eleven-year-old Will Stanton has learned a shocking secret -- he is an Old One, one of a small group of powerful immortals who protect and defend the world from the Dark, an ancient force of evil bent on domination. Now, for the next twelve nights as the Dark rises once more, Will has to find it in himself to take up the mantle of the Light for the good of all.
The Dark is Rising, by celebrated novelist Susan Cooper, is a Newberry Honor book and as been the favorite of many generations of children. It's classic fantasy, but with a real-world twist of history and ancient Celtic culture that adds so much more depth to the world in which Will lives. Throw in a deep resonance of the human condition that few children's books have ever emulated, and this book was an absolute must-have for my study.
3) Dahl, Roald. Danny the Champion of the World . New York: Alfered A. Knopf (1975). Print.
Danny lives in a gypsy caravan, he's the youngest master car mechanic around, and his best friend is his dad. In other words he has a great life! But when he uncovers a shocking secret that his father has kept hidden for years, he realizes that making things right might be the only way to truly become the champion of the world.
Having published a myriad of well-known and beloved books for kids, Roald Dahl is arguably one of the great pillars of modern kidlit, so of course leaving him out of my thesis would have been a gross oversight. Still, I wondered, which of his wonderful, witty kids' books should be included to represent the whole?
In the end, I opted to forgo his well-known fantastical whimsy in preference for a life-lessons story every kid can relate to. After all, there were enough fantasy stories in my list already, and the whole point of my study was to prove that kidlit emulates the human condition just as deeply and profoundly as its adult counterpart. For anyone who has read Danny, its inclusion for this reason should be a no-brainer. It certainly was for me!
4) Ende, Michael. The Neverending Story. New York: Penguin Books (1996). Print.
Bastian Balthazar Bux is drawn to a book he finds in a bookstore titled "The Neverending Story". This book transports him to a land called Fantastica filled with all kinds of magical, mystical, and monstorous things. When Bastian learns the world and their empress are doomed, he's shocked to also find out that he's the only one who can save it all.
But as he travels deeper and deeper into Fantastica, Bastian begins to lose more and more of who he truly is. Can he find the courage and confidence he needs to save Fantastica... and himself?
Most know of The Neverending Story from the popular 1984 film adaptation. However, Michael Ende's powerful fantasy book about the importance of imagination and hope in a sometimes fearful world is as relevant to today's children as it was when it first appeared in Germany under the title of Die Unendliche Geschicte back in 1979.
As both a classic kid's book and a well-known fantasy epic through the last three generations, including The Neverending Story in my study just made sense.
5) Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. New York: Scholastic (2003). Print.
Nobody Owens, known as Bod, is a normal boy. Or at least he would be completely normal if he didn’t live in a graveyard, being raised by ghosts, with a guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor the dead.
There are adventures in the graveyard for a normal boy—an ancient Indigo Man, a gateway to the abandoned city of ghouls, the strange and terrible Sleer. But if Bod ever leaves, he will be in danger from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod’s family.
It was current. It was popular. It's a Newberry Award Winner. And, perhaps most importantly, it resonated deeply with young readers. Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book was such a perfect modern counterpart to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that not including it, as a comparison between classic and current kidlit at least, would have been a terrible oversight on my part.
But even beyond that, Graveyard is a great story in its own right, which was a must for inclusion on my list. Plus, while I adore the classic titles I grew up with, I wanted to make sure I included great titles from every era including my own.
6) Collins, Suzanne. Gregor the Overlander. New York: Scholastic (2003). Print.
Gregor the Overlander is the story of a boy named Gregor who embarks on a dangerous quest in order to fulfill his destiny -- and find his father -- in a strange world beneath New York City.
Though a middle grade story, Gregor the Overlander has been very popular with teenagers and adults as well, which spoke to thesis-planning me of the societal impact of children's fiction on our culture as a whole. Suzanne Collins herself is also a highly gifted and beloved children's writer of our modern age, though her most famous series, "The Hunger Games", is YA rather than MG, which was the age-group focus of my thesis.
7) Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper Collins (1993). Print.
To Kill a Mockingbird follows the lives of three children: Scout; her brother, Jem; and their friend, Dill as they play, adventure, and learn important lessons as well as hard truths in Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression.
Back to classics! Whether you wanted to or not, chances are you read To Kill a Mockingbird in school. For me, it was ninth grade English and I fell in love with it instantly. There is a reason this book has been studied by schoolkids all over for generations: it is the epitome of the human condition, the very thing that makes literature worth reading, writing and studying.
Some would argue that Mockingbird is more of a Young Adult title than Middle Grade. However, I had set up certain conditions (clearly outlined in my full thesis), as to what was considered Middle Grade for my study. One of those conditions was the age of the protagonists being between 7 and 12 years. To Kill a Mockingbird fully met this requirement, and I would have felt personally remiss to leave it out.
8) L’Engle, Madeline. A Wrinkle in Time. New York: Laurel Leaf Imprint, Random House Publishers (2005). Print.
A Wrinkle in Time tells the story of Meg Murray, her little brother Charles Wallace Murray, and Meg's friend (and more?) Calvin O'Keefe, as they adventure through space and time in search of the Murray's father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government.
Best described as a modern classic, Madeline L'Engle's brilliant tale of good versus evil is quickly taking its deserved place among the ranks of the timeless. Though it is usually classified as a fantasy book, Wrinkle actually mixes fantasy with science fiction to form a deeply relevant story that has touched the hearts and minds of children for many years now. It is also a Newberry Award winner, which I must admit I was a little biased towards for my thesis. After all, there is a reason certain titles earn that prestigious award!
9) Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: Harper Trophy (1994). Print.
Young siblings Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy Pevinse step through a wardrobe door and into Narnia, a land enslaved by the power of the White Witch. But when almost all hope is lost, the return of the Great Lion, Aslan, signals a great change . . . and a great sacrifice.
Like Alice in Wonderland, C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an undeniable staple of classic kidlit. That alone gave it an instant place in my study, as its timeless ability to fascinate the hearts and minds of children from so many different generations made it a perfect example of how children's literature directly affects, even as it mirrors, society. Its religioiusly-based metaphores, too, were perfect examples of society-reflected-in-literature, which I couldn't ignore.
10) Palacio, R.J. Wonder. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers (2012). Print.
August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face.
Beginning from Auggie’s point of view and expanding to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others, the perspectives converge to form a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.
I initially chose Wonder because it was a very modern (published in 2012), award-winning Middle Grade book that was making the rounds of literary fame through book clubs, raving reviews, and bookstore center isles even as I worked on my thesis. For this reason I hadn't yet read it when I first chose it, and was ready to take it off the list if I felt it didn't make the cut.
Of course as you can see here, that didn't happen. What did happen was I found yet another wonderful example of the human condition reflected in a children's book. The lesson in Wonder of not judging each-other is deeply woven into the storyline and narrative style, both with the main character being so unique himself, and the narration switching points-of-view between him and many others in is life whom he has touched. In this way, the story shows that not only does everyone have feelings they aren't always proud of, but everyone has a story to tell that directly affects how they see others and the world around them.
11) Riordan, Rick. The Lightning Thief . New York: Hyperion Books (2005). Print.
Mythological monsters and the gods of Mount Olympus seem to be walking out of the pages of twelve-year-old Percy Jackson's textbooks and into his life. And worse, he's angered a few of them. Zeus's master lightning bolt has been stolen, and Percy is the prime suspect. Now, he and his friends have just ten days to find and return Zeus's stolen property and bring peace to a warring Mount Olympus.
The Lightning Thief was included in my study as a modern popular title, with Rick Riordan being a huge success with both in Middle Grade and Young Adult readers at the time. When studying how literature impacts a society, one must include the literature that society most craves, as it is a direct mirror to the psyche. Also, as a modern adaptation of classic mythology -- the precursor of most original fairy tales -- Lightning could be studied in-relation to the evolution of children's literature over eons of time. This alone was invaluable to my study.
12) Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 1997. Print.
Harry Potter has never even heard of Hogwarts when the letters start dropping on the doormat at number four, Privet Drive. Addressed in green ink on yellowish parchment with a purple seal, they are swiftly confiscated by his grisly aunt and uncle. Then, on Harry's eleventh birthday, a great beetle-eyed giant of a man called Rubeus Hagrid bursts in with some astonishing news: Harry Potter is a wizard, and he has a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. An incredible adventure is about to begin!
It would have been a very difficult thing indeed, in 2013, to study Middle Grade literature and its place in society without including "Harry Potter". The impact that JK. Rowling's boy wizard had (and in many ways still has even today) on children and society as a whole was almost deafening, and so my thesis would literally have been incomplete without it. Indeed, its absence would have been noted as a gross neglect of the subject matter, had it been left out.
Though the later books can be classified more as Young Adult titles, the earlier ones are clearly Middle Grade, and The Sorcerers Stone is the very earliest. That, and the fact that it began the whole phenomenon is why I chose this particular title in the series.
13) Spinelli, Jerry. Maniac Magee. New York: Scholastic, Inc Publishers. Print.
Jeffrey Lionel "Maniac" Magee might have lived a normal life if a freak accident hadn't made him an orphan. After living with his unhappy and uptight aunt and uncle for eight years, he decides to run -- and not just run away, but literally run. This is where the myth of Maniac Magee begins, as he changes the lives of a small, racially divided town with his amazing and legendary feats.
Another Newberry Award Winner, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli deserved its place on my list for its poignant yet simple vision of life as an outsider, and what it means to belong, as well as its unmistakable paralells to Mark Twain's classic Huckleberry Finn.
One argument against children's books being irrelevant in academic study is that they are shallow and therefore only relate to the shallow minds of children. Now, ignoring the obvious fallibility of children's minds being shallow in the first place, Maniac Magee blows that entire argument out of the water. It is simple to understand and entirely relatable for Middle Grade readers, yet so deeply conveys the human condition that I challenge any adult to read it and not see it as a masterpiece in its own right.
14) Patterson, Katherine. The Great Gilly Hopkins. New York: Harper Trophy (1978). Print.
Eleven-year-old Gilly Hopkins has been stuck in more foster families than she can remember, and she's hated them all. She has a reputation for being brash, brilliant, and completely unmanageable, and that's the way she likes it. So when she's sent to live with the Trotters—by far the strangest family yet—she knows it's only a temporary problem.
As another Newberry winner, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson already deserved a spot on this list. Still, there have been many Newberry winners and honors over the years -- including another more famous title by Patterson herself -- so why was Gilly so special to me?
Like every book that was on my list, Gilly reflects society and the human condition, which are still key elements in weather a piece of literature is considered worthy of inclusion into the canon of scholarly study. The story is deep and meaningful, especially to children who feel like outsiders in their world. The themes therein of family, devotion, and the pain of loss are just as relevant to adults as they are to all the children who have read and loved this book over the years.
15) Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Dover Publications; abridged edition (1998). Print.
In short, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells the story of young Finn's escape from his alcoholic and abusive father, and adventurous journey down the Mississippi River together with the runaway slave Jim. Seen through Huck's innocent and often ignorant eyes, the story successfully hits on difficult themes that are still relevant today including classism and racism in a way that kids can understand. (As long as they can translate Twain's quite unique narrative voice!)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an undeniable classic, and its inclusion in my study was threefold: One, I simply love Mark Twain and couldn't stand to do any study without him included (call me biased). Two, the themes and how they are presented were literary thesis gold. And three, as an already acknowledged classic that fit perfectly into my definition of Middle Grade children's literature, it led credence to my study of kidlit as a whole. Win-win!
16) White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1952. Print.
Some Pig. Humble. Radiant. These are the words woven into Charlotte's web, high up in Zuckerman's barn. They tell of the wise spider's feelings for a little pig named Wilbur, who simply wants a friend. They also express the love of a girl named Fern, who saved Wilbur's life when he was born the runt of his litter.
A classic Newberry Honor book, Charlotte's Web, like Alice in Wonderland, is a staple of children's literature. The mismatched friendship of Fern the girl, Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig is a perfect example of how children use their everyday surroundings to better understand themselves and others -- a lesson that even adults must continue to learn throughout their lives. The basics of respect and understanding emulated in Charlotte's Web will continue to be relevant to mankind as we enter a future that is bright with promise, hope, and peace. For all these reasons and more, it was an easy addition to my thesis list.
17) Snyder, Zilpha Keatley. The Witches of Worm. New York: Dell Yearling, 1972. Print.
Jessica's never liked cats. Especially not a skinny, ugly kitten that looks like a worm. In fact, Jessica wishes she'd never brought Worm-the-witch's-cat home with her at all, because now he's making her do terrible things. She's sure she isn't imagining the evil voice coming from the cat, telling her to play mean tricks on people. But how can she explain what's happening?
The Witches of Worm was given to me for Christmas the year before my thesis began. Another Newberry Honor book, Witches is everything that award emulates -- depth, spirit, and a reflection of the fear and emotional pain that every human being goes through no matter what their age. Another book of metaphor, Witches personifies that theme within the mind of its pre-teen protagonist as she struggles to come to grips with the loss of her childhood and the realization of her mother's own human failings via her discovery of a very strange stay cat. As a children's mirror to societal psyche and the human condition, it was difficult to find a better story to include in my thesis than The Witches of Worm.
So, there you have it -- the seventeen books I studied for my master's thesis on Middle Grade children's literature. Of course this is a short explanation only, but if you have any questions or relevant additions / arguments to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section. And thanks for reading!