It’s August now, and that means the back to school ads are rolling out. It also means all my teacher friends are busy putting their classrooms together—or more specifically, putting their classroom libraries together. Knowing my lifelong love of books, sometimes they’ll ask me when they’re needing some ideas on rounding out their collections (and sometimes I just can’t resist gushing when I see they’ve pinned a personal favorite). After several discussions and much thought, I’ve whittled my favorites for middle-schoolers down to a top 10 to share with all.
Now, it’s been a while since I was in middle school, so I’m sure there are some newer books I’ve missed, but these are the ones that stuck with me.
1. The Giver by Lois Lowry
A classic dystopian story, Jonas is a teen living in a world where everyone’s path in life is chosen for them and feelings and color have been sacrificed in the name of peace. When he is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memory, an important and unique job in his society, Jonas begins to learn that there was once more to the human experience than following the rules, and uncover the darker secrets that keep his society running smoothly. This was an assigned read when I was in the 8th grade, a stepping stone to dystopian authors like George Orwell and Ayn Rand that I’d get to in high school.
2. Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl
Anne Frank’s diary is one of those books that everyone should read, but I think the best time to read it (at least the first time) is in middle school because Anne herself was 13 when she began writing it. Not only is it a powerful way for students to connect with a major moment in world history, but because Anne was a real, ordinary person and discusses day-to-day things and not just larger world events and themes, I believe it can show students that what they have to say has value and empower them to find their voices. What might people learn from their diaries in 75 years? What would they want the world to know?
3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Before I was sorting my friends into their Hogwarts houses, I was sorting them into Battle School armies (not because they have any kind of sorting system; I just like making lists). Decades after an attempted invasion of Earth by an alien race, Ender’s Game follows a promising six-year-old as he is sent to an elite army academy in space, where he must deal with years of mental and physical challenges from both his peers and mentors as he is shaped into the ultimate strategist for Earth’s defense.
I will say, the representation of women in this book is not great (it’s practically stated outright that there are only a few girls in Battle School because women aren’t aggressive/strong enough), and there are only two female characters I can actually recall, but it does present some complex ideas about human nature, nurture, war, and politics for students to mull. A recommended read for West Point cadets, Ender’s Game is great for starting discussions about military ethics and psychology.
4. Dr. Franklin’s Island by Ann Halam
How many different lists can I recommend this book on? Half desert island story, half science-fiction, it’s inspired by The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. The story follows three teens after a plane crash leaves them stranded on a deserted island. As they struggle to survive, they discover that they are not actually alone; the island is also home to Dr. Franklin, a geneticist infamous for his daring and questionable experiments. While it’s definitely good for starting discussions on ethical science, psychological trauma, and resilience, it also opens the door for more introspective questions like: How would you handle isolation? How self-reliant are you? Which would you rather be, a bird or a fish?
5. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Let me start by saying that there is so much more to this book than what is in the movie. Both feature a plot centered on Ella, a girl who was gifted/cursed at birth with obedience by a misguided fairy, and her struggle to overcome this curse. That is where the similarities end. The book is SO much better! Ella is a spunky, rebellious heroine who struggles to survive with and break her curse first and foremost, and she just happens to develop a friendship with a prince along the way that grows into something more (FRIENDS first? What a crazy and yet emotionally healthy notion to share with pre-teens).
6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
A Wrinkle in Time is actually the first in a series of five (followed by A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time), but it works as a stand-alone. The story follows Meg Murry, a smart, short-tempered, and insecure girl, as three mysterious beings—Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which—whisk her, her little brother, and her friend Calvin away on a mission to rescue Meg’s missing father, a scientist who was experimenting with a form of dimensional time-travel called a tesseract.
These books are an interesting exploration of faith and science, and I appreciate how L’Engle demonstrates that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. There are some great quotes for teachers to use to start deep conversations, and even as essay topics if they want kids to really think hard.
7. Howl’s Moving Castle by Dianna Wynne Jones
I love this book and still read it regularly. It follows Sophie Hatter, an unfortunate young woman who, one very unlucky day, is transformed by the Witch of the Waste into a very old woman. Rather than stick around and live with her family like that forever, Sophie decides it’s finally time to strike out on her own and seek her fortune. She ends up taking shelter in the ever-roaming castle of the Wizard Howl, whose reputation isn’t much better than the Witch’s, and soon finds herself employed as housekeeper.
The characters are entertainingly snarky, the magic is fresh, and though it has a familiar fairy tale feel, the plot is totally original. There are two books that follow Howl’s Moving Castle, but it works as a stand-alone (fun fact: the third book was published 22 years after the original).
8. Any Book by Margaret Peterson Haddix
I couldn’t choose just one of her books to be represented here. If ever I struggled to find a book during our weekly trip to the school library, I always knew if I could find something with her name on it, I’d be safe. Margaret Peterson Haddix is a great author for middle-schoolers, and her books pull from multiple genres, like the dystopian Shadow Children series, the fairy tale inspiration in Just Ella, and science fiction elements in Double Identity. What they have in common are teen/pre-teen characters trying to make sense of the world around them, whether those worlds are filled with secrets, danger, or injustice, and how they struggle to find their place amidst all of that or strike out on their own. Some have more action than others, but I would recommend any of them to all middle-school readers.
9. Holes by Louis Sachar
Holes follows the unlucky story of Stanley Yelnats IV, whose entire family has been cursed every since his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather failed to honor a promise. Because of his bad luck, Stanley finds himself falsely convicted of stealing a pair of tennis shoes and sent to Camp Green Lake, a boys’ detention center where the inmates are expected to dig holes in the dried-up lake every day to build their character. Of course, there’s more to Camp Green Lake than there appears, and Stanley soon finds himself on a journey to help a friend that might just turn his luck around and break more than one curse in the process.
10. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
What’s truly magical about this series is that, if you pace yourself (not easy), you can start this series in middle school and it will age with you into high school. No wonder so many people are so attached, we’ve literally grown up with the characters and felt our world change and expand alongside theirs.