As a 6th grade teacher, I have the hardest time finding books that challenge my students to think critically without crossing the line into mature content. YA novels can be some of the most violent, steamy, and explicit books on the market since they target readers aged ten to eighteen. On the other hand, middle-grade books can be too low for some of my advanced readers.
For this reason, I’ve spent a lot of time vetting books that have interesting themes, beautiful prose, or perspectives that my students might not encounter in their lives. Here are seven absolutely fantastic books that are age appropriate for middle school students. Offer them to readers who are looking for an engaging challenge!
1. The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse
Genre: Historical Fiction; Mystery
Page Count: 320
Age Range: 11-14
Set during WWII, The Girl in the Blue Coat follows Hanneke, a clever young girl who smuggles black market goods to customers in Amsterdam. Hanneke has a cynical outlook on the war after her boyfriend was killed fighting to keep the Nazis out of the Netherlands. But her desire to survive above all else is jeopardized when Mrs. Janssen asks her to perform a dangerous task: find the girl in the blue coat, a Jewish teenager that Janssen had been hiding. Hanneke’s journey leads her to resistance meetings, underground hideouts, and into the most notorious deportation center in Amsterdam. This is a stunning novel about courage, selflessness, and the human will to survive.
2. I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda
Page Count: 416
Age Range: 9-14
This is an excellent book about compassion, sacrifice, and learning. Martin, a young boy living in Zimbabwe, and Caitlin, a white girl living in Pennsylvania, become pen pals in 7th grade. While Caitlin’s family lives comfortably in the US, Martin’s family lives within a notoriously poor slum in Zimbabwe. Martin works incredibly hard to be the top of his class, knowing that an education will be his ticket to a better life. But when he is kicked out of school because his family cannot pay, he must rely on the friendship he has built through his letters for support. Caitlin and her family dedicate themselves to supporting Martin as he bravely pursues his future. Caitlin learns how truly privileged she is, recognizing the injustice of the world. Told through two distinct voices and perspectives, this memoir will give your students a perspective not generally addressed in teen literature.
3. The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Page Count: 336
Age Range: 12 and up
Jessica is a runner. Running means everything to her. But tragedy strikes when she loses her leg in an accident. While Jessica initially believes her life is over, she puts herself back together over the course of the novel. She confronts her own biases towards disabilities as she realizes that she treated Rosa, a girl with cerebral palsy, differently just because of her disability. Jessica overcomes the dramatic change in her life, her biases, and her negativity to realize her dreams in this inspirational novel.
4. Irena’s Children: A True Story of Courage (Young Readers Edition) by Tilar J. Mazzeo
Genre: Non Fiction
Page Count: 272
Age Range: 10 and up
This is the story of Irena Sendler, an incredible Polish woman who saved 2,500 children during WWII. Often called the “female Schindler,” Sendler’s story has largely disappeared from history books. This young reader’s edition of her tale brings the story to life. Sendler used her wits, bravery, and fearlessness to smuggle children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. She used sewers and secret passageways, coffins and coats, abandoned buildings, and a network of underground resistance workers. Her heroic tale will not only teach young students about one of the most horrific times in modern history, but also about choosing to do the right thing when it is not easy.
5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Genre: Historical Fiction
Page Count: 608
Age Range: 13 and up *
“When Death has a story to tell, you listen.” So goes the tagline of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, a story of WWII told through the perspective of Death—a cantankerous narrator with a verbose vocabulary. Death becomes fixated on a young German girl named Liesel and her foster family the Hubermanns. They are not like the other families on their streets. Rosa, Liesel’s foster mother, shows love by hurling profanities and wooden spoons at those she loves. Her husband, Hans, paints houses and plays the accordion. But this unconventional family takes on the greatest sacrifice: agreeing to hide a Jewish man named Max. Beautifully written, heart-wrenching, and endearing, this novel explores the power of words and the human will to survive. Above all else, this is a story about how far people will go to do what is right.
**This one is appropriate for more advanced and mature students because of the complex vocabulary and a few depictions of violence.
6. Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Page Count: 192
Age Range: 9-15
This is an incredible book by the author of “Brown Girl Dreaming.” It follows six kids whose teacher asks them to skip their last period on Fridays so that they can talk in the ARTT Room (short for A Room to Talk). These kids have seemingly unconnected experiences: There’s Esteban, whose father may be deported; Haley, whose father is in prison; Ashton, whose family just lost everything; and Amari, who fears being racially profiled by the police. But when they are together in the ARTT room, they are able to discuss all the issues on their minds. Through their conversations, readers learn about the very real problems facing different teens in the US.
7. The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
Page Count: 400
Age Range: 9-14
The Protectorate fears a witch. The people have been told that if they do not leave a baby every year as a sacrifice for the witch, she will destroy their city. Little do they know, their monster is actually a kind witch named Xan. Every year, Xan travels to the edge of the forest to rescue a baby that has been, seemingly, abandoned by its family. Xan feeds the child starlight and delivers it to a loving family in the Free Cities. However, on this journey, Xan makes a critical error: she feeds the baby moonlight and gives the human child magical powers. Now, Xan must raise the child as her own. But as Luna grows, so does the uncertainty in the Protectorate. A young man decides that he must hunt down the witch, and a volcano is close to erupting. This is a fast-paced, magical tale of love and self-discovery. It teaches the reader that stories, true or false, have power over one’s imagination.