Ten of My Favorite Middle-Grade Authors

Lisa Graff

“Some people aren’t good at anything. Some people just really like donuts” (Absolutely Almost).

Lis Graff writes empathetic books that focus on the trials of everyday children.  Some of them, such as the protagonist of A Tangle of Knots, might live in magical worlds where people possess extraordinary talents.  However, a great many of them, such as Albie from Absolutely Almost, are trying to find their way through life when feeling like they are not worth very much.  Graff reminds readers that there’s nothing wrong with being ordinary.

Victoria Jamieson

“So take it from me, kids: If you find yourself in hot water with your parents, try talking to them about your ‘crazy, mixed-up teenage feelings.’ It might just get you out of a jam” (Roller Girl).

Jamieson reminds readers of the trials of middle-school in her heartfelt graphic novels Roller Girl and All’s Faire in Middle School.  Her heroines make mistakes while trying to navigate new relationships, but, even when they fail, they remain redeemable and lovable.  Plus they get to do cool things like try out for roller derby or train as a squire at the Renaissance Faire.

Gail Carson Levine

“Step follows step,
Hope follows Courage,
Set your face towards danger,
Set your heart on victory” (The Two Princesses of Bamarre).

Ella Enchanted is a middle grade classic.  The Two Princesses of Bamarre, however, has always been my favorite.  I love Levine’s ability to create magical worlds with unexpected creatures and strong female friendships.

Natalie Lloyd

“Some people are born starry. Some people shine so bright you can’t help but sit back and stare. Some people can’t help but shine” (A Snicker of Magic).

Natalie Lloyd tells heartwarming stories where the characters are lovable and real, the type you want to call your friends.  She also has a way with words.  Her prose is often as magical as her stories, where the everyday and the fantastic quietly coexist.

Shannon Messenger

“‘I told you, Mr. Snuggles’s visiting hours are over,’ he called through the door” (Neverseen).

Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities series is absolutely magical.  It’s full of action, mystery, and drama–all set in an astounding world that readers get to explore, from an Elfen school to prisons deep beneath the earth.  Plot twists galore keep things exciting, but the humor ensures that readers don’t get too scared.

Kate Messner

“You have to let go before you can reach” (All the Answers).

Kate Messner is an empathetic author who takes the small trials of her characters very seriously, from wanting to buy a new solo dress for Irish dance to trying to pass science class.  She also sensitively addresses issues such as homelessness and the heroin epidemic.

Katherine Rundell

“Neither could speak. It was the day that a silence settled on the pair of them, and they were bound close by it. Will felt, in that moment, too small to face such misery, but she knew that she would have to expand now, with a terrible rush, to fill the empty space” (Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms).

Katherine Rundell is, in my opinion, a sadly overlooked middle-grade author.  Her books are poetical.  They take readers from Africa to boarding schools to the rooftops of Paris.  Everything is an adventure.  And everything feels just a little bit magical.

Trenton Lee Stewart

“She announced her age right away, for children consider their ages every bit as important as their names” (The Mysterious Benedict Society).

Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy is the epitome of great middle-grade.  It heralded a new generation of quirky books that allow readers to solve the puzzles along with the characters.  Its emphasis on teamwork marks it apart, however.  The children each bring something valuable to their journey and, in the end, form a real and lasting friendship.

Jonathan Stroud

“Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in messing them all up” (The Screaming Staircase).

Stroud is rightfully known for his incredible Bartimaues trilogy, which introduces readers both to a brilliantly-developed world and a cleverly sarcastic narrator.  Both make the story work.  What sets it apart, however, is its reluctance to talk down to its readers.  Stroud believes they are mature and he gives them a complex work.  Also a great read is the Lockwood & Co. series, which takes place in a modern-day England where ghosts walk the streets.

N. D. Wilson

“Cowards live for the sake of living, but for heroes, life is a weapon, a thing to be spent, a gift to be given to the weak and the lost and the weary, even to the foolish and the cowardly” (Empire of Bones).

If I absolutely had to choose the finest middle grade author currently writing, I would pick N. D. Wilson.  His stories are bright, shining things that reminder readers that goodness really exists–and that it depends on them.  Wilson never talks down to his audience.  He knows children really believe in good and evil.  He knows that they understand the stakes.  And he helps them to look inside themselves to see how they measure up.

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The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner

Information

Goodreads: The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.
Series: companion book to The Exact Location of Home
Source: Library
Published: 2009

Summary

Gianna Zales is looking forward to run in sectionals–if she can pass science class. Unfortunately, she forgot all about her leaf project.  If she can’t collect enough leaves in time, her arch nemesis will run in her place.  But how on earth is Gianna supposed to focus on school when she’s worried about her Nonna’s memory, she’s wondering if her best friend Zig might ever be something more, and her dad keeps embarrassing her by driving her around in the family hearse?

Review

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. is the type of book that reminds me why I love middle-grade so much.  Kate Messner provides an empathetic portrayal of one middle schooler’s attempts to keep it all together as she battles embarrassment from her family, new feelings for her best friend, a nemesis who wants her spot on the track team, a failing science grade, and a grandmother who might be experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s. Some people might think Gianna’s life not so hard after all.  But the young at heart remember that everything takes on great significance in middle school.

Gianna and her friends and family are a sympathetic cast of characters, who make you want to love them from the start.  From Gianna’s no-nonsense mother to her perfectly understanding grandmother to her tech-savvy friend Zig, the book is full of people who seem so real they might walk off the page.  They may be flawed, but they are still lovable.  Gianna’s wish to keep them all together, safe and happy, is a wish readers will share.  It’s that bond that readers form with the characters that makes the book so special.

There are not many authors who can capture my heart, but Messner’s work is consistently empathetic as she tackles issues like Alzheimer’s, homelessness, and the effects of the heroin epidemic.  The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. is another reminder of why all Messner’s books are now on my must-read list.

5 stars

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand

Information

Goodreads: Some Kind of Happiness
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Summary

Finley’s parents are sending her to spend the summer with her grandparents while they sort out their problems.  The thing is, Finley’s never met them before.  And she’s not quite comfortable with the way they and her aunts and cousins seem to think everything and everyone must be perfect.  She can never let them know about her blue days.  And so she escapes into the Everwood, a land of her imagination where orphans can become queens and pirates sometimes turn out quite unexpectedly.  But when the Everwood becomes endangered, Finley will have to face her worst nightmares in order to save it.

REview

Some Kind of Happiness is a beautiful and poignant look at the power of stories.  Finley is experiencing a lot of troubles.  Her parents are divorcing and they have left  her to spend the summer with family members she does not even know.  Those family members never talk about their pains or their worries or their imperfections.  But Finley knows she is broken.  Even when things are fine, she sometimes still feels like she is underwater.  She cannot let anyone know.  And so she escapes into the world of the Everwood, where she can be and do anything she wants.

Some reviews have compared the book to Bridge to Terabithia.  I am not sure this is an adequate description.  Bridge to Terabithia does deal with the ability of the imagination to offer escape, but it also focuses on loss.  Some Kind of Happiness focuses on mental illness and on how one girl uses storytelling to try to make sense of her feelings.  Some Kind of Happiness is about learning to let others in, trying to make sense of family members who are imperfect but still lovable, and finding the courage to speak out.  To me, they are both important books, but in different ways.

Finley instantly won my heart with her imagination and her love of life.  Even though she worries others will dislike her because of her differences, it is her differences that allow her to create change.  She dares to envision a new way of living and, in the process, discovers that others might have been waiting for something new, as well.  Her story is bright and bold and shining.  Just like her.

4 stars

The Friendship Experiment by Erin Teagan

The Friendship Experiment

Information

Goodreads: The Friendship Experiment
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: November 1, 2016

Official Summary

Future scientist Madeline Little is dreading the start of middle school. Nothing has been right since her grandfather died and her best friend changed schools. Maddie would rather help her father in his research lab or write Standard Operating Procedures in her lab notebook than hang out with a bunch of kids who aren’t even her friends. Despite Maddie’s reluctance, some new friends start coming her way—until they discover what she’s written in that secret notebook. And that’s just part of the trouble. Can this future scientific genius find the formula for straightening out her life?

Review

The Friendship Experiment is a book that combines whimsy and realism to introduce readers to an eleven-year-old girl who sometimes has it all—yet frequently feels like she has nothing.  She’s blessed to be born into a family of scientists who let her run her own microbiology experiments and who even give her access to state of the art labs at the nearby university where her father works.  She has a nice home, a membership to a local science museum, and a neighborhood with small town feel where everyone seems to know her name.  The problem?  She’s going to be starting middle school without her best friend from fifth grade.

The Friendship Experiment, then, is about Madeline’s struggle to adjust to a new school.  She actually knows several students there from her elementary school, so things are not quite as dire as she makes out, but she’s hesitant to connect with anyone other than her best friend, who is attending a fancy, apparently more challenging, private school.  She tries to get through the tough times by writing standard operating procedures a habit she picked up from her (world famous scientist) grandfather in a super-secret notebook.

I think the STEM aspect of the novel will draw in a lot of readers.  Madeline is serious about microbiology and her experiments and, as I said, she gets inside access to real labs and lab equipment at the nearby university.   Author Erin Teagan is a former research scientist, and her love and knowledge of science shines through the writing.  There’s also a character who’s going to be an astronaut (she went to the “real Space Camp” over the summer), as well as a boy obsessed with dinosaurs.  A bit more stereotyped are the non-STEM characters—a spelling bee champ who literally walks around spelling 30% of the words she uses, and a girl who does nothing but carry around encyclopedias and read them all day.  Still, the celebration of smart kids (mostly girls, but some boys) is exciting, and I think a lot of readers will appreciate it.

My main struggle with the book is that the protagonist is not a likable character; she’s unpleasant and frequently mean to everyone around her, ranging from her best friend to her sister to the kids at her new middle school.  Now, I don’t need characters to be likable to believe a book is good, and I understand that Madeline’s meanness is in fact the point of the story; she has to learn to recognize her own personality flaws and then to interact with others in more positive ways.  And yet…I didn’t find reading about her fun.  She’s not someone I would want to hang around in real life, so it makes sense I didn’t find hanging out with her for several hours while reading the book fun either.  There’s nothing wrong with the technical execution of the book and Madeline’s character arc, but if I’m rating the book for “personal enjoyment,” I admit I frequently didn’t feel any.

The Friendship Experiment is in many ways a good book, and much of it struck me as unique from what I typically read in middle grade fiction.  However, my lack of personal connection with the book (and lack of sense that I would have connected with it any better when I was actually in middle school myself) means it’s probably not going to be high on my list of books I personally recommend to people.  However, if you’re looking for a book with girls in STEM or even just a book about adjusting to a new middle school, this could be a good choice for you.

3 Stars Briana

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: The Way to Bea
Series: None
Source: ARC
Publication Date: Sept . 19, 2017

Summary

After her best friend decides to find a new group of girls to hang out with, Bea starts to lose her spirit.  She used to be enjoy being loud and colorful and alive.  But now everyone seems to think she’s weird.  Feeling invisible, she begins to write poems in lemon juice and hide them in an old wall.  Then someone begins to write back.  Is this a new beginning for Bea?

Review

In The Way to Bea, Kat Yeh introduces readers to an exuberant heroine who has started to lose some of her shine.  Now starting seventh grade, Bea is feeling awfully alone now that her best friend has decided she isn’t cool enough to hang around.  Acutely sensitive to the idea that others find her weird, Bea begins to shut down and to spend even more time with her poetry–except now she isn’t so sure she wants to share it.  The Way to Bea is the story of one girl’s journey to accepting herself.

This is a classic middle-grade novel about finding friendship and being true to yourself.  It is filled with delightful characters from the sweet fedora-wearing editor of the school paper to the boy obsessed with mazes to the girl who dreams of starting a band.  Bea may be missing her old set of friends, but she has a new group ready to embrace her if only she would give them the chance.  It’s difficult not to want to cheer Bea along the entire away.

Of course, there is a fun subplot about Bea’s attempt to break into a private estate so her new friend Will can walk its famous labyrinth before the owner tears it down.  Some sleuthing goes on and some escapades.  But, really, the action centers around Bea, the people who want to know her, her love of art and poetry, and her journey to delighting once more in the things that make life beautiful.  It’s the type of book that makes you want to be friends with its characters.

4 stars

The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell, Illustrated by James Mountford

Information

Goodreads: The Crooked Sixpence
Series: The Uncommoners #1
Source: Library
Published: January 2017

Summary

When Ivy and Seb’s grandmother falls and is rushed to the hospital, the two return to their home only to find police armed with toilet brushes trying to arrest them.  The two go on the run and, in the process, stumble into the secret underground world of Lundinor where ordinary objects have quite uncommon uses.  But an old evil is reemerging and Ivy and Seb will have to uncover their family’s past in order to defeat it.

Review

I wanted to love The Crooked Sixpence because it sounds like just the type of quirky middle-grade adventure I would enjoy.  Eleven-year-old Ivy and her fourteen-year-old brother Seb stumble into the secret city of Lundinor where people trade objects that have unusual uses.  Yo-yos can be used as weapons, lemon juicers as lights, and belts as levitation devices.  However, ultimately the book fell flat for me.

About the first 100 pages read like a series of info dumps, one after the other.  First, the teenage boy Ivy and Seb team up with must explain the world of Lundinor and the idea of uncommon objects.  Then Ivy conveniently walks past a store where a man is lecturing a group of children on some of the laws and traditions of Lundinor.  And so it goes.  And yet, even after 100 pages of this, I still felt a little disoriented and like I didn’t fully understand the rules of the world!

Furthermore, too much in the book relied on coincidence for me to be able to swallow the story.  Time and again Ivy and her brother simply stumble into the people and places that will further plot.  First, Ivy ends up on the doorstep of her grandmother’s old friend.  Then they foolishly reveal their circumstances to a stranger and find out she used to work for their great-grandfather and can provide pertinent information.  Then they conveniently find a place no one else could find for decades.  Then, through sheer stupidity, Seb destroys property only to reveal objects that are the answer to a question no living person can answer.  What are the odds for any of this, much less all of it?

Other problems made reading the book seem a bit of a chore.  The plot is fairly predictable.  Most will be able to identify one of the main villains upon their first appearance in the story.  And the characters never really seem to come alive or to form meaningful relationships with each other, so it’s difficult to feel invested in them or their friendships.  In the end, the part I enjoyed most were the illustrations, which are beautiful and quirky and make the book feel much more exciting than I thought it was.  The last 50 pages or so finally picked up and were full of action.  But I don’t know if 50 pages are enough to convince me to read the sequel.  I’d rather just look at Mountford’s art portfolio.

3 Stars

The Door in the Alley by Adrienne Kress

Information

Goodreads: The Door in the Alley
Series: Explorers #1
Source: Library
Published: April 2017

Summary

Sebastian always follows the rules and he always makes his decisions based on logic.  But then one day he finds a pig in a teeny hat and suddenly he’s inside the Explorers Society.  And then suddenly he’s helping a girl named Evie track down her long-lost grandfather and find a mysterious key.  But…is any of this adventure stuff quite appropriate?

Review

The Door in the Alley is what I think of as quintessential middle grade.  Full of quirky fun, fast-paced adventure, and steadfast friendships, it takes readers on a journey that begins with the wonderfully weird rooms of the Explorers Society and ends in unexpected places.  From the first page to the last, it delights in surprising readers not only with the plot twists but also with the narrator’s odd sense of humor.

Quirky narrative voices are a bit of a staple of middle grade books but Adrienne Kress’s really delivers.  From the recurring appearance of the pig in the teeny hat to the plentiful use of funny footnotes, the book is chock full of silliness.  True, the footnotes peter out a bit as the plot progresses and the danger rises.  But the absurdities continue within the story itself.  All around the book is simply a good time.

Sometimes it can feel like quite the feat to find an engrossing read.  The Door in the Alley, however, is one of those books that, once you start, you don’t want to put down.  I’m excited to see where the sequel takes us next.

4 stars