10 Novels Every Middle Schooler Should Read

10 Novels Every Middle Schooler Should Read

by Jessica Ashley

1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

"I cry every time I read it," Meghan Robison, a middle-school classroom teacher for 13 years who is now a magnet school integration specialist, says of her favorite classroom read. "There is so much in this book, that every time I read it, I catch something new."
It follows a boy named Milo as he travels in an electric car to places like Dictionopolis, a land of words, and Digitopolis, a land of numbers. Robison says the literary techniques and word plays will engage students at different stages. And while it is centered on the love of numbers and words, she says "it also teaches bravery, determination and friendship." Robison advises saving this "beautiful story" first published in 1961 to wrap up the school year.

2. Wringer by Jerry Spinelli

When boys in Palmer's town turn ten, they are expected to become "wringers" by ending the life of pigeons wounded in a town event. At the far edge of age nine, Palmer not only abhors the tradition, he is hiding a pigeon in his room. Powerful themes of bullying, peer pressure and courage make this a moving story for older middle-school students.
Robison counts this book among the Hunger Games genre and has found that male students particularly connect to the themes of boy friendships and pressures.

Newberry Award-winning author Jerry Spinelli offers a unique style of writing that is compelling, notes retired fourth- and fifth-grade teacher and differentiation coach Debbie Brown. 

3. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

The author of oft-taught Newberry Honor-winner The Watsons Go to Birmingham unfolds a new story of an eight-year old on a Depression-era trek to find the man he believes to be his father. With only his scrappiness and a poster that created a stir with his mother before she died, Bud (not Buddy) sets out from a foster home in Flint, Michigan in search of a mysterious upright-bass player.

"The author has a gift for dealing with important issues with great style and humor," Baldwin offers. "His books can be loved by kids as young as fourth grade. Older students would gain a deeper understanding of the real world events and appreciation of the author's craft."

Teacher Ashley Stockdale Dennis of Tennessee concurs.

"This book hits all the literature standards," Stockdale Dennis shared with us via Facebook, "but also pulls in history, math and science. Plus, my students love the story!"

4. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Two competitive fifth graders develop an extraordinary bond by creating an imaginary sanctuary in the woods called Terabithia in this story about acceptance, imagination and freedom. Jess and Leslie's tale is packed full of humor, intense emotion and even grief after an accident changes everything for them. Much-lauded author Katherine Paterson, who twice won Newberry Medals and National Book Awards among other honors, creates a world within a world that pulls intently at the heartstrings of readers.

5. The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree by Bill Brittain

This Newberry Honoree depicts three children's misadventures in getting what they asked for when a stranger visits the Coven Tree church and offers to make wishes come true for those who believe in magic. Consider the character studies the three tales prompt, Robison offers, and how read-alouds using different voices can be incorporated into the book unit.

6. The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt

Holling Hoodhood is a seventh grader in the school year of 1967-1968. While the Vietnam War consumes his father's attention, Holling is locked into Wednesday lessons with a teacher who insists he read the plays of Shakespeare. The Newberry Award-winning book gets high marks for wit and making a complex sociopolitical era accessible for present-day middle-schoolers. 

Drawing on pop culture, politics and daily news that defined the time, Kitty Palmer says the cross-curricular opportunities — including English, social studies, music and government — are packed into this book.

 7The Witch of Blackbird Pond  by Elizabeth George Speare

It is colonial Connecticut 1867 and the headstrong Kit Tyler has just been uprooted from tropical Barbados to live with a her aunt and uncle in a Puritan home. Displaced and wanting to belong, Kit befriends a widow who is accused of witchcraft, causing more upheaval for her and the community.

"[It] is a wonderful introduction into colonial America and issues about religious freedom, superstitions and life in that time of our history," notes Baldwin of the book that used to be standard fifth-grade reading. "The story also has romance, adventure and suspense. I loved reading it as a student and teaching it early in my career. I hope it doesn't fall by the wayside. It's worth the effort to read."

Teacher Robbie Lyles Shehane agrees, adding that it offers opportunity for rich hands-on projects.

"I used [this book] to teach history to fifth graders," she shared with our Facebook community. "We learned to make candles and soap. We used the stockade concept to explore punishment fitting the crime."

Students can relate to the period text by focusing on prejudicial themes, Lyles Shehane said, and how society treats people who seem different.

8. Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Salamanca "Sal" Tree Hiddle's mother is missing. She sets out on road trip with her grandparents to follow her mother's steps in hopes of finding her.

Not only does this standout book center on a girl (and one with strong Native American ancestry) on a quest, but also because of the beautiful heartbreak and literary technique. Baldwin says it took her several reads to fully embrace the ending — and that the investment was worth it.

"[It is] funny, sad, touching, extremely well-written. I didn't want to believe the ending," Baldwin explains. "After reading it the second time, I found all the foreshadowing. This is an amazing road-trip story with the girl's quirky grandparents."

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

"I love utilizing multicultural books so children are reading books with characters that look like and have a similar background as themselves, their classmates, and their neighbors and friends," says literacy specialist and children's author Kathryn Starke.

She chooses The Watsons Go to Birmingham to enhance social studies units on the Civil Rights Movement and in studying Martin Luther King, Jr.

"I find this book is best for students from fourth to sixth grade since they understand the historical significance and can engage in conversations regarding past to present and making connections from family stories or experiences," she advises. "Children are both honest and curious, which leads to great questions, thoughts, and expressions."

10. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

The journal of the two years diarist Anne Frank and her Dutch Jewish family were in hiding has become a classic student read. But when
 pop singer Justin Bieber recently visited her landmark home and scribbled in the guest book that he hoped teenaged Frank would have been "a Belieber", the questions she privately posed nearly 70 years ago about self-centeredness, awareness and compassion have resurfaced for a new generation. Using the timely Twitter controversy that ensued as an entree, Frank's diary is a timeless look at one girl's curtained perspective on a world at war, on people and on hope for a freer life.