11 Classic Middle Grade Books We Should Still Teach

Step aside, blockbuster franchises. These books stand the test of time.

The intoxicating smell of a new book never goes out of style. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter if the story inside is all that good—it’s just holding a fresh, new book that is exciting. Grownups get a similar feeling when buying a car. The new car smell, along with the possibility of fantastic travels, gives the owner a sense of adventure—just like a great book.

However, most new books, and new cars for that matter, lose their shine fairly quickly. Few novels become classics like Charlotte’s Web. Even fewer cars become as timeless as a ‘57 Chevy. In a world where people are driven by the newest and coolest trends, classic middle grade books often get the boot for the newest book-to-screen franchise. Snapchatting students think the books loved by an earlier generation are out of touch. Novels of 10, 20, or more years ago, may get overlooked by today’s young readers. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t love them, even if the new book smell has long faded. Here are a few to consider:

 

1. Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back

by Shel Silverstein (1963)

Silverstein’s poetry books remain classic favorites and Giving Tree is universally loved, but Lafcadio is an overlooked, read aloud treasure. The lesson of Lafcadio is as powerful today as it’s ever been for young people: Be true to yourself. Don’t forget who you are or where you came from. If you do, well, things can end up miserably.

 

2. Andy Buckram’s Tin Men

by Carol Ryrie Brink (1966)

This book is out of print, so if you can find a copy, grab it. Although the illustrations are out of date, the story of isn’t. Andy uses scraps around his farm to build several robots that will help him with his chores. Today you may very well find a robotics club at your neighborhood school and with good reason—robots have fascinated children for decades. The idea that young people can work hard and problem solve the toughest of challenges will never go out of style.

 

3. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret

by Judy Blume (1970)

Although sometimes controversial because of its religious and sexual content, there may not be a more impactful novel for several generations of young girls. The book chronicles Margaret’s religious curiosity at a time when she is also dealing with puberty, two themes that are always relevant. One side of Margaret’s family is Jewish, the other Christian. She doesn’t feel connected with either faith but is starting to question her family about God. Add Nancy, her more experienced and confidant friend, and her life really starts to swirl. Watching Margaret figure things out makes for a wonderful read.

 

4. Jonathan Livingston Seagull

by Richard Bach (1970)

This book won’t resonate with every young reader, but Richard Bach’s 1970 novel was either ahead of its time, or just in time. The story revolves around a young seagull who is searching for the meaning of life. Bored with daily grind for food, the seagull’s passion for flight drives him to better himself. A seagull like Jonathan doesn’t fit in with the flock and the book chronicles his journey of self-improvement. In today’s world, he’d most likely be flying to find a life coach. Frankly, the book is “out there,” but it stands the test of time.

 

5. Sideways Stories From Wayside School

by Louis Sachar (1978)

If you ever need a read aloud book, don’t hesitate to crack open this Louis Sachar classic. It’s hilarious, silly, and bizarre. Although it sold more than 4 million copies and spawned a few sequels, there’s nothing like the original. Due to a construction error, Wayside School was built with one classroom on each floor, but there is no 19th floor. Sachar’s uses his real-life experience as a yard teacher (recess supervisor) to create an array of kid characters who make his story both hard to believe and hard to put down. Comedy and fun never go out of style.

 

6. Hatchet

by Gary Paulsen (1987)

With popular TV shows like Survivorman and Man vs. Wild pitting humans against Mother Nature, who doesn’t want to be like Bear Grylls? Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet may be the best-written story of a kid trying to stay alive in the wilderness. Set in the Canadian Rockies, protagonist Brian Robeson finds himself surviving the crash landing of a small airplane with nothing but the clothes on his back and a hatchet on his belt. Luck and a cool head help Brian stay alive, but there are plenty of adventures along the way. Oh, and like Bear Grylls, your students will never look at food the same way again.

 

7. Matilda

by Roald Dahl (1988)

Most all of Dahl’s books are classics, but Matilda features one of the strongest female characters of all time. Dahl treats the reader like an adult, something not all authors do. Matilda is smart—smarter than the adults around her—which in her parents’ case isn’t too hard. It’s hard to believe this classic is nearly 30-years-old, and fun to imagine how Matilda would operate as an adult in today’s world. She would undoubtedly be a leading the charge.

 

8. Maniac Magee

by Jerry Spinelli (1990)

Spinelli won the Newbery Award in 1991 for his story about the complicated issues of illiteracy, homelessness, child neglect, and racism. That’s a heavy load to pack into a novel geared toward kids in elementary school, but if you haven’t seen these same issues in the news today, you haven’t been watching. Spinelli uses his character with a larger-than-life persona, Jeffrey “Maniac” Magee, to slip all of these issues into a book that reads as much as an epic adventure tale as it does social commentary. It’s complicated, but that’s what keeps it relevant.

 

9. Time for Andrew: A Ghost Story

by Mary Downing Hahn (1994)

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go back in time? Have you ever been curious about what your ancestors’ lives were like? Most of us have and that’s why Time for Andrew is still reader-friendly today. Though much less a ghost story than a journey back to 1910, Hahn’s story is about modern-day Drew switching places with a look-alike ancestor, Andrew. Like most time travel novels, things get interesting fast—especially when living in the past could complicate the present.

 

10. Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

by Wendy Mass (2006)

Just before his 13th birthday, Jeremy Fink receives a wooden box with a plaque that reads, “THE MEANING OF LIFE: FOR JEREMY FINK TO OPEN ON HIS 13TH BIRTHDAY.” The box is a gift from his father who died five years earlier in a car crash. The problem is that Jeremy doesn’t have the key. So starts his journey down the rabbit hole. Anyone, of any age, who has lost a parent will cry like a baby when the box finally is opened. Maas’ story of parental love is as heartbreaking as it is timeless.

 

11. Smile

by Raina Telgemeier (2010)

OK, OK. Smile is not even 10-years-old, but it will stand the test of time for years to come. It’s unique because it’s a graphic novel and autobiographical. Millions of kids have gone, and will undoubtedly continue to go through, the discomfort of wearing braces. They’re awful. But for the most part, Telgemeier’s personal ordeal will be worse than the average reader’s, so that is at least some comfort. The graphic novel layout makes for a quick read, which may be a plus for some struggling readers.

 

There are new and exciting novels coming out every year. So it stands to reason that some of those will too become classic middle grade books. When you think about the thousands of books on library shelves, a list like this could, and should, be hundreds of books in length. Different readers connect with different novels for different reasons. This list is just a starting point. Books also have a generational appeal—some favorites may not translate to today’s world. But talking about books is almost as fun as reading them.

Which books would you consider timeless? Which classic middle grade books do you still teach today?

 

 

Posted by Bill Flanigin

Bill Flanigin is a writer, retired teacher, speaker and lover of rock 'n' roll music. He lives in the Austin area with his wife and two rescued boxers. He can usually be found in some taco joint or at home listening to 8-track tapes. He is a regular contributor to Huffington Post.

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