GUEST ARTICLE: Middle Grade and Me - Then and Now

8:00 AM Tif Sweeney 6 Comments

Our very own Armchair BEA team member, Deb of Read Write Tell, is back today to share some wonderful middle grade recommendations with you.  Get your list read to be adding some more titles!


Way back in 1986, I started working in a branch library of a large public library system (Calgary). Part of my job was to provide school tours and go out and do school visits and talk books.  So, I was provided with a book list as it was my first time working in youth services. The list was required reading, if you will. On that list were books like:

"When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back, Three from the circle, three from the track; Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone; Five will return, and one go alone." Will Stanton turns 11 and learns from Merriman Lyon, the Lady, and Circle of Old Ones, that he must find six Sign symbols and battle the Black Rider, blizzard and flood.

When suburban Claudia Kincaid decides to run away, she knows she doesn’t just want to run from somewhere, she wants to run to somewhere — to a place that is comfortable, beautiful, and, preferably, elegant. She chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Knowing her younger brother Jamie has money and thus can help her with a serious cash-flow problem, she invites him along.

Once settled into the museum, Claudia and Jamie find themselves caught up in the mystery of an angel statue that the museum purchased at auction for a bargain price of $225. The statue is possibly an early work of the Renaissance master, Michelangelo, and therefore worth millions. Is it? Or isn’t it? 

Claudia is determined to find out. Her quest leads her to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the remarkable old woman who sold the statue, and to some equally remarkable discoveries about herself.

Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?

Jess Aarons' greatest ambition is to be the fastest runner in his grade. He's been practicing all summer and can't wait to see his classmates' faces when he beats them all. But on the first day of school, a new girl boldly crosses over to the boys' side and outruns everyone.

That's not a very promising beginning for a friendship, but Jess and Leslie Burke become inseparable. Together they create Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods where the two of them reign as king and queen, and their imaginations set the only limits.

I loved these titles and they were some of my go to book talks over the next years.

Needless to say the list of books I used grew over the years so that I could go into a school with a variety of book talks. Some of those titles included:

Watch out world!

The Great Gilly Hopkins is looking for a home. She's a foster kid who's been angry, lonely, and hurting for so long that's she's always ready for a fight. Be on the lookout for her best barracuda smile, the one she saves for well-meaning social workers. Watch out for her most fearful look, a cross between Dracula and Godzilla, used especially to scare shy foster brothers. Don't be fooled by her "Who me?" expression, guaranteed to trick foster parents, teachers, and anyone who gets in her way.

It's Gilly Hopkins vs. the world! And so far, Gilly seems to be winning. But what she doesn't realize is that every time she wings, she really loses, until she discovers a love as formidable as any enemy she's ever known.

"How could someone like Mick die"? He was the kid who freaked out his mom by putting a ceramic eye in a defrosted chicken, the kid who did a wild dance in front of the whole school--and the kid who, if only he had worn his bicycle helmet, would still be alive today. But now Phoebe Harte's twelve-year-old brother is gone, and Phoebe's world has turned upside down.

With her trademark candor and compassion, beloved middle-grade writer Barbara Park tells how Phoebe copes with her painful loss in this story filled with sadness, humor--and hope.

When Marty Preston comes across a young beagle in the hills behind his home, it's love at first sight9 and also big trouble. It turns out the dog, which Marty names Shiloh belongs to Judd Travers who drinks too much and has a gun9 and abuses his dogs. So when Shiloh runs away from Judd to Marty, Marty just has to hide him and protect him from Judd. But Marty's secret becomes too big for him to keep to himself, and it exposes his entire family to Judd's anger. How far will Marty have to go to make Shiloh his?

During that time I also discovered Mary Downing Hahn and one of my still all time favorite scary middle grade reads, Wait Till Helen Comes.

It's 1936, in Flint, Michigan. Times may be hard, and ten-year-old Bud may be a motherless boy on the run, but Bud's got a few things going for him:

1. He has his own suitcase filled with his own important, secret things.

2. He's the author of Bud Caldwell's Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.

3. His momma never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: flyers of Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!!!!

Bud's got an idea that those flyers will lead him to his father. Once he decides to hit the road and find this mystery man, nothing can stop him--not hunger, not fear, not vampires, not even Herman E. Calloway himself.

Bud, Not Buddy is full of laugh-out-loud humor and wonderful characters, hitting the high notes of jazz and sounding the deeper tones of the Great Depression. Once again Christopher Paul Curtis, author of the award-winning novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, takes readers on a heartwarming and unforgettable journey.

Tree-ear, an orphan, lives under a bridge in Ch’ulp’o, a potters’ village famed for delicate celadon ware. He has become fascinated with the potter’s craft; he wants nothing more than to watch master potter Min at work, and he dreams of making a pot of his own someday. When Min takes Tree-ear on as his helper, Tree-ear is elated–until he finds obstacles in his path: the backbreaking labor of digging and hauling clay, Min’s irascible temper, and his own ignorance. But Tree-ear is determined to prove himself–even if it means taking a long, solitary journey on foot to present Min’s work in the hope of a royal commission . . . even if it means arriving at the royal court with nothing to show but a single celadon shard.

Moving into 21 first century, I ran a middle grade book club in which I used some of the above titles. But I also grew my go-to list. A couple of books that were popular:

Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins (yes, of Hunger Games fame!) This was a book that had one of my young library patrons decide she LOVED to read. It was her gateway book.

Millicent Min: Girl Genius by Lisa Yee (funny and oh so fun to booktalk!)

Millicent Min is having a bad summer. Her fellow high school students hate her for setting the curve. Her fellow 11-year-olds hate her for going to high school. And her mother has arranged for her to tutor Stanford Wong, the poster boy for Chinese geekdom. But then Millie meets Emily. Emily doesn't know Millicent's IQ score. She actually thinks Millie is cool. And if Millie can hide her awards, ignore her grandmother's advice, swear her parents to silence, blackmail Stanford, and keep all her lies straight, she just might make her first friend. What's it gong to take? Sheer genius.

Fast forward to today and I am still a librarian except now I am in a school library. Has my list of great books to share grown? Oh my yes it has. And now I share on the interwebs (as one of my librarian buddies calls the internet and all its social media).  For some of my favorites from last year you could head over to Cybils and have a look at the middle grade fiction list. 

I was on that particular committee. You can check out my blog and Middle Grade March to find many (many) more of the middle grade I love.  I could go on and on and…on. Instead I will leave you with a few more titles from my 2014 reading I think you should check out:

Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart.

But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck's about to change. A "word collector," Felicity sees words everywhere---shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog's floppy ears---but Midnight Gulch is the first place she's ever seen the word "home." And then there's Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity's never seen before, words that make Felicity's heart beat a little faster.

Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she'll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that's been cast over the town . . . and her mother's broken heart.

The Night Gardener follows two abandoned Irish siblings who travel to work as servants at a creepy, crumbling English manor house. But the house and its family are not quite what they seem. Soon the children are confronted by a mysterious spectre and an ancient curse that threatens their very lives. With Auxier’s exquisite command of language, The Night Gardener is a mesmerizing read and a classic in the making.

Victoria Secord, a 14-year-old Alaskan dogsled racer, loses her way on a routine outing with her dogs. With food gone and temperatures dropping, her survival, and that of her dogs and the mysterious boy she meets in the woods, is entirely up to her.

1986-2014. It boggles my mind, but I am very lucky to have the job I do. What I appreciate most about having read middle grade for so very long is being able to combine past and present when looking for that just right read for my young patrons…of course, I am also careful not to overwhelm them with a pile of books to choose from. I will admit I can get carried away. But I guess as long as they don’t run from the library saying, “No more Mrs. Marshall, no more!” I am doing okay. 

Alrighty then, I just have to share one last book. Here it is:

August “Auggie” Jones lives with her Grandpa Gus, a trash hauler, in a poor part of town. So when her wealthy classmate’s father starts the House Beautification Committee, it’s homes like Auggie’s that are deemed “in violation.” Auggie is determined to prove that she is not as run-down as the outside of her house might suggest. Using the kind of items Gus usually hauls to the scrap heap, a broken toaster becomes a flower; church windows turn into a rainbow walkway; and an old car gets new life as spinning whirligigs. What starts out as a home renovation project becomes much more as Auggie and her grandpa discover a talent they never knew they had—and redefine a whole town’s perception of beauty, one recycled sculpture at a time. Auggie’s talent for creating found art will remind readers that one girl’s trash really is another girl’s treasure.


Deb is one of our own Armchair BEA team members and blogger at Read Write Tell.  After working for many years in the public library system and as a professional storyteller she now is an elementary school librarian and aspiring writer of picture books and middle grade novels. 


  1. Great list, Deb! I aspire to be a children's librarian and I hope one day I'll be able to compile something like this. :) Lately I've been reading less middle grade books than I would like, so I'm happy to add some of these to my TBR pile. A Snicker of Magic especially sounds like a great book.

    1. Yay for more children's librarians in the world! Good is a rather fabulous job I must say :)

  2. So. Many. Amazing. Books. I'm glad to see some of the older books like Mixed-up Files aren't forgotten. I've read at everything on that 1986 list that you've mentioned. Loved A Single Shard.
    Now I feel like I should read any of the others I haven't read...

  3. SHILOH! I forgot all about that book. I used to love that book in 5th grade! I wonder if my mom still has it.

  4. To this day, I love leaving the library with books stacked and tilting this way and that. Great post.

  5. Yikes! I have only read two of the books on this list. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I am scribbling down the others on the list.

    Thanks for sharing your journey!