We’ve put together the best books for Middle School students that can’t seem to read enough.
One of the perils of middle school is that the tween years are when many kids lose interest in reading for pleasure. Not on my watch. If you want kids to read, you have to have books in the house that kids want to read. That’s what my Mom told me when I asked why she bought Mad Magazine every month for my brother and I, and it turns out she was right. Here is a list of books that might help you keep your middle schooler’s interest in reading going.
Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities books tell the story of Sophie Foster, a young woman who has grown up thinking that she is the only person who can read others’ minds. She meets another telepath, and soon she travels to the Lost Cities of the Elves and learns more about her growing powers and her role in the conflict between the wise leaders of the Black Swan and the malicious Neverseen. There are nine KOTLC books, and they are all stupendously long, which is a good thing given how much free time we’re about to have after the end of school. My daughter, her friends and if 30 seconds of Googling is any guide, a lot of other people are very, very into KOTLC. Being part of a fandom is good for middle school aged kids. It’s fun and it can help kids who are isolated by the pandemic connect with their peers. The comedian Patton Oswalt has a bit where he talks about how a lot of nerds have a “realm”, a fantasy world that “you know as if you live in it.” My daughter’s realm is KOTLC.
Korean space opera! Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee, is part of the Rick Riordan Presents series, which publishes fantasy and science fiction novels written by people from populations that are underrepresented in kids’ literature. Min lives on Jinju, a bleak planet that promises her a bleak future. Her brother Jun escaped by joining the Space Forces, but now he’s being accused of a crime that Min is sure he did not commit. Here’s the wrinkle though: Min is a Fox Spirit who can use the power of Charm to literally change people’s minds. Fox Spirits aren’t popular in the rest of the galaxy, and Min’s family requires her to stay in human form and avoid using her abilities. Min’s heroic journey takes her off of Jinju and into the Thousand Worlds to clear her brother’s name. This book is a great blending of traditional Korean stories and very American science fiction stories. It’s also a fairly short stand-alone novel, which might be a good thing for reluctant readers intimidated by the 50 million or so pages of KOTLC.
Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious and its two sequels The Vanishing Stair and the Hand on the Wall, are a murder mystery set at a boarding school for gifted youngsters (no, not that one) in Vermont. In 1936, Ellingham Academy founder Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and never returned. The kidnapper left behind a note, signed “Truly Devious” that cheerily lists a number of ways to commit murder. The Truly Devious case has attracted a lot of obsessive attention over the years, most recently by an aspiring detective named Stevie, who is brilliant enough to be admitted to present-day Ellingham Academy. As Stevie is getting adjusted to her new school, messages signed by Truly Devious start appearing, and a famous YouTuber is found dead on school grounds. Stevie Bell is a complex heroine, an observant and methodical young woman who also struggles with anxiety, is rather shy, and isn’t an easy person to be around a lot of the time. I like that both the 1936 and the present-day mysteries in the Truly Devious series have solutions that make sense and are satisfying. There are several murders and some discussion of sex in the books, but if your kid is ready for that, then they’re in for a real treat.
I Will Always Write Back is a memoir by Caitlin Alifrenka and Martin Ganda, with Liz Welch. Caitlin and Martin started out as pen pals in the late 90s. Caitlin is from Pennsylvania and Martin is from Zimbabwe, and their lives were very different. This book was an eye-opening experience for my daughter. Before she read it, she didn’t understand that there are people in the world for whom $20 is a lot of money. Martin and his family live in one room with another family- that stayed with my daughter for weeks. Over time, Caitlin and Martin get to know each other through letters. Caitlin’s mother eventually facilitates Martin’s education in the US. Caitlin and Martin are adults now, and still friends. It’s very difficult for middle-class people like me to talk with their kids authentically about poverty, but I Will Always Write Back is a good starting point.
Beautiful Lego, by Mike Doyle, is great if your kid likes Lego and is ready to take on more complex, more original projects. Beautiful Lego is a coffee table book full of photos of meticulously detailed, highly elaborate Lego builds. These builds are far beyond what I had thought was possible with Lego. The models in these books are full of life and personality. The Lego dragons look like they’re about to breathe great gouts of fire. The Lego birds look like they just alighted on a branch. The artists in this book provide amazing demonstrations of how to evoke uneven surfaces like stone and water using plastic bricks. I particularly like the micro-builds of cityscapes and funky little robots that use just a handful of bricks. My daughter and I have connected over the Lego sculpture of an Edvard Munch-style screaming man that both of us find rather unsettling and that she thinks would make a great addition to our house. There are two other books in the series: Beautiful Lego Wild and Beautiful Lego Dark. Lego can start as a toy and turn into an artistic medium if you let it.
This may be a tough sell, but here goes: Tailchaser’s Song is an epic fantasy novel in which the main characters are all cats. Fritti Tailchaser is a naive young cat from the provinces who must undertake a quest to save his “catfriend” Hushpad and confront the ancient evil of Grizraz Hearteater. This very, very easily could be cutesy-patootsy and dumb, but it’s not. Tad Williams creates a world that feels like it has a long history and stakes that are real and high. Tailchaser’s world is dangerous, the villians will kill him and his friends if they get the chance. Tailchaser’s Song is longer and more challenging than the other books on this list. If your middle school aged kid is a strong reader and loves animals, then they might get a kick out of Tailchaser.