“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.
“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.
“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.
“‘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.
“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.
“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.
“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.