“It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” says middle-grade author Jason Reynolds. He knows. He didn’t start reading until he was nearly an adult. Teachers kept giving him what they considered classics, but those middle school books had nothing to do with who he was and what he saw each day. So he never touched them.
Middle school kids today are coming of age in a time when they will have more access to information than ever before but lack the tools for integration. They’ve LOL’d and “liked” more things this morning than you’ve considered all month, but they haven’t reflected on why. Just because a middle schooler has more access doesn’t mean they understand how to build their identity. Giving them the tools to build a reading identity first will give them what they need to grow into whom they really want to be.
Every one of these books offers a path to identity. But remember: you know each child best. Be sure to read the books you plan to put in the hands of your students. This is serious work to undertake as a teacher (or trusted adult), but take heart in the knowledge that it’s the best work we can do.
Oh, and here’s another thing: Don’t insist that these books be read silently or independently. Read some aloud to your students, give them some audiobooks to listen to, or let them read one chapter at a time to each other. It is when students process what they’ve read in these books that they begin creating a reading identity. It doesn’t matter how that happens, just that it does.
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1. Wringer by Jerry Spinelli
When boys in Palmer’s town turn 10, they are expected to become “wringers,” ending the lives of pigeons wounded in a town event. At the far edge of age nine, Palmer not only abhors the tradition, but he is also hiding a pigeon in his room, causing a moral dilemma.
4. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Born with extraordinary physical deformities, Auggie finally braves going to an actual school. He is stared at and tormented, but he also finds friendship. Middle schoolers will cheer for him and cry for him.
5. The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
Holling Hoodhood is attending seventh grade in the late 1960s. While the Vietnam War consumes his father’s attention, Holling is locked into Wednesday lessons with a teacher who insists he read the plays of Shakespeare.
6. Ghost by Jason Reynolds
Castle Crenshaw, known as Ghost, has been running ever since his father threatened him and his mother with a gun. It’s not until he starts running for the middle school track team that he begins to see what running can do for him.
7. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Native American teenager Arnold Spirit leaves the reservation to attend an all-white school, learning about his own strength and resilience in the process.
8. Paperboy by Vince Vawter
9. The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry
Jonas lives in a society in which the government controls everything: childbearing, careers, marriages. His utopia has sacrificed emotions and uniqueness in favor of a safe and predictable life. When Jonas learns that life could be different, he can never turn back to the life he’s always known.
10. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Ponyboy and his brothers, Darry and Sodapop have a tough life. They know they can count on their friends—true friends who will do anything for them. Unfortunately, the Socs, a vicious gang of rich kids, make them prove their loyalties after a night of fighting goes too far.
11. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
On a trip to visit her mother’s grave, Sal learns about herself and her family.
12. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Is eternal life really that wonderful? Ten-year-old Winnie Foster discovers that, for the immortal Tuck family, the answer is more complicated than you might expect.
13. Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Bud Caldwell, is a 10 year old orphan who has grown up in Flint, Michigan. It’s 1936, four years after Bud’s mother’s death and Bud has just been placed with the Amoses, his third foster family. This book follows Bud’s brave path to find his father.
14. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Basketball-loving twins Josh and Jordan find their way through isolation and conflict in this novel in verse by master poet, Kwame Alexander.
15. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Melinda Sordino can’t tell anybody why she called the police to break up a party the summer before ninth grade. In fact, after the trauma she suffered, she can’t speak at all.
16. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
In a dystopian future, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games, in which children fight to the death for the entertainment of the corrupt Capital.
17. The Breadwinner series by Deborah Ellis
Parvana is eleven when the Taliban comes to power in Afghanistan. Her father is arrested, and women are not allowed to leave the house without a male escort. Parvana must disguise herself and find work to save her family.
18. Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine
Ling Chang must find a way to survive after her father is taken away during China’s Cultural Revolution.
19. Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper
Stella and her brother aren’t supposed to leave the house at night, but run into much bigger problems when they stumble on a Ku Klux Klan rally. She fights racism within her community and learns about compassion in the process.
20. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Woodson’s verse memoir tells the story of coming of age during the Civil Rights Movement.
21. Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn
Molly has concerns when her family moves into a church with a graveyard next door, but when her already-odd stepsister makes a sinister new friend, things get downright dangerous.
22. Refugee by Alan Gratz
Gratz weaves together stories of child refugees in three different eras: Nazi Germany, 1990s Cuba, and present-day Syria.
23. The Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Luke Garner’s existence is illegal. A third child in a world where only two children are allowed per family, he’s been in hiding since he was born. When he finally gains the courage to venture out, he finds himself faced with an impossible choice.
24. Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers
Twelve-year-old Jamal already has to be the man of the house now that his older brother is in jail. Will he also take his brother’s place as leader of a gang?
25. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt
Jack Hurd gets a foster brother, Joseph, an eighth grader whose only dream is to be with his daughter.
26. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Nine-year-old Cassie Logan faces racial discrimination and financial hardship during the Great Depression.
27. The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
Sixth grader Percy Jackson finds out he’s actually the son of the Greek god Poseidon. A great introduction to Greek mythology!
28. Uglies by Scott Westerfield
Tally Youngblood lives in a dystopia in which all sixteen-year-olds have cosmetic surgery to make them pretty.
29. We Should Hang Out Sometime by Josh Sundquist
Youtuber Josh Sundquist tells the true story—with graphs!—of his failures in dating.
30. Feed by M. T. Anderson
The Feed scrolls constantly through Titus’s brain, providing him with entertainment, advertising, and social networking. On a spring break trip to the Moon, he meets a girl who sees life differently.
31. Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
Max is big and dangerous, just like his father. He never had a brain, or so he says, until Freak came along. With a brain that more than makes up for his physical disabilities, Freak teaches Max how to think for himself.
32. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Leo’s a normal kid in a normal town. When Stargirl shows up with her rat, her ukelele, and her crazy ideas, nobody knows quite what to make of her.
33. Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Spoiled princess Esperanza moves from her family’s ranch in Mexico to a migrant camp during the Great Depression. She learns to rely on her inner strength and the support of her family.
34. Bridge to Terebithia by Katherine Paterson
Jesse Aarons knows all about hard work, but his new friend Leslie teaches him about the power of his imagination. Keep a box of tissues handy.
What do you think are the best middle school books? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.