I recently finished a middle grade book that was so good it sent me on a diatribe against how bad most of the books were for that age when I was a preteen.
It’s a good thing we had Saint Judy Blume writing in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, because otherwise we may never have known anything about puberty or encountered decent literature. Sure, there were decent classics for us to pick up if we encountered them at the library. But the ’80s and ’90s also provided us with sooooo many formulaic, slapstick, just okay books.
I feel like the middle-grade authors in 2020 assume much more of their readers.
They know that preteens and young teens have already encountered tough topics, like divorce, death, sexuality, abuse, grief, and more. And if a kid hasn’t had a reason in their personal life to deal with a hard topic, it’s still OK for them to learn about it in a healthy way through a good book. Kids don’t want books that are just silly and entertaining. (Although, please, they want those too!) They want books with characters who are mirrors, characters who are windows into another world, and characters who have real-life emotions and make mistakes — whether that is in our known world, in the future, or in a fantasy land.
We still read aloud to all of our kids, even the almost-12-year-old sixth grader. I think it’s great bonding, gives you inside jokes, and helps bedtime go better. I would highly encourage you to start, no matter how old your child is! Reading a book with your child — where you are both reading it, like a book club — can be equally fun and facilitate great conversations.
Here are some favorite books that make GREAT reads for you and your preteen daughter to read aloud or read together:
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
In 1936, Abilene finds herself alone in Manifest, Missouri, where her father spent some of his formative years. Convinced she will be reunited with her father after a summer apart, Abilene makes some friends and finds some clues that lead her to a town mystery that the girls make quick work of uncovering. The story of 1918-19 Manifest, a town with an influx of coal-mining immigrants and dealing with World War I, is both fascinating and heartbreaking. The tale involves the KKK, prejudice, war, orphans, bootlegging, and other topics that can lead to great discussion and learning. My daughter happened to be learning about the 1910s at the same time we were reading this, and it was a great example of some of the history she was being taught.
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
Spunky Aven is our young teen protagonist. Being born without arms hasn’t stopped Aven from making best friends and developing a devilish sense of humor. But at the beginning of the novel, her parents have moved her to Arizona to run a dilapidated theme park, and Aven finds herself the New Kid at her school. As she makes friends with a few fellow outcasts, Aven also sets out to uncover a mystery of Stagecoach Pass — and maybe her own past. I absolutely adored the hilarious thoughts and stories of Aven while reading about the more serious topic of kids with different disabilities and how they learn to accommodate those.
Stella By Starlight by Sharon M. Draper
Draper drew from her own grandmother’s experience to write this novel about Stella, a young girl in a segregated Southern town during the Depression. There are definitely very serious things in this novel, including the KKK, withholding voting rights, and just how different people of color have been treated in America. This is interspersed with Stella working on her writing, a place she’s always struggled in school. I promise you will cheer and be moved by Stella and her sweet family and their accomplishments, and it’s a great way to open the door to talking about race relations and what is currently going on in the US.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
May B. is a novel in verse, set in 1860s Kansas. May is a young teen taken by her family to another homesteading couple to work. Distressed by being taken out of school and away from her family, May finds herself even worse off than she thought she would be. May could be any modern young girl struggling with dyslexia, and watching her fight for her life is inspiring. A quick read because of the poetry.
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
This is the book that made me mad at the middle-grade books of my own youth. Because it is EVERYTHING. Coyote and her father (but don’t call him that) Rodeo live in a remodeled school bus, and they’ve been crossing the country back and forth for five years. I truly don’t want to spoil ANYTHING in this story, so I suggest skipping any reviews and just diving in. As Coyote and Rodeo pick up several traveling companions and make their way from Florida to Washington, they are forced to face the past they are running from. Funny, sad, perfect.
Here are a few others I recommend as well:
- The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate diCamillo
- Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
- Sweep by Jonathan Auxier
- Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
- Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
- Ban This Book by Alan Gratz