20 (Old & New) Must-Read Classics for Middle Readers
Hello Chevalier’s readers, writers, book buyers and everybody else!
This month I’ve been re-reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet (the series that A Wrinkle in Time is a part of) and am reminded of the sense of wonder I still feel while reading the pages of a Middle Reader book—books designed for kids ages 8 to 12 year olds. While I can barely remember many of the books I’ve read over the past few years, it seems to me these books call out to me when I walk by and I suddenly get this aching sensation that these were the stories that moved and shaped me as a child.
The great thing about working at a bookstore, though, is learning new things about books from customers and co-workers. Kids are often the most devoted readers that I talk to. I’ve learned a lot from these young critics, and I have to say, nostalgia and pangs of mortality aside, there are lots of great NEW books for Middle Readers.
SO without further ado, I’ve created a list of amazing Middle Reader books. Each pair has one CLASSIC Middle Reader books matched up with a NEW Middle Reader book (oldies and newbies). These pairs may be relevant to each other in theme, concept, world-building, character, or tone. Whatever their content, I consider them cousins of a kind.
This list could get older readers into newer classics, or younger readers into classic classics or basically ALL readers into the magic and creativity of a Middle Reader book.
Thanks for reading!
Best, Lizzy Crawford
1. Walk Two Moons & Brown Girl Dreaming
Oldie: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
Sal’s Grandparents are hilarious, yarn-spinning sidekicks to Sal’s heartbreaking and joyous odyssey. This story touches brilliantly on themes of friendship, family, loss and young love. Do not miss.
Newbie: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
This Newberry Honor book is a tender weaving of US history alongside of Jackie’s profound journey into selfhood. As impactful, and absorbing as Walk Two Moons while focusing on similar themes of family, love, connection and tragedy.
2. Golden Compass & The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Oldie: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Excellent fantasy world-building with an adventurous and bold heroine. Lyra will take you places you’ve barely imagined!
Newbie: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
Newberry medal winner for 2017, this book (for ages 10 to 14) is swiftly reaching the status of a children’s fantasy classic! Barnhill brilliantly unravels the story of Luna, a baby who grows up to become an unlikely witch in this evocative upside down fairy tale.
3. The Boxcar Children & The Penderwicks
Oldie: The Box Car Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
They are a family of four orphans who live by themselves in a boxcar. They use their smarts and resolve to create a home for themselves and to surmount unusual obstacles. You will get hooked into their DIY adventure!
Newbie: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
A National Book Award winner first published in 2005 is already a bestselling classic. If you haven’t already you must follow the adventures of these four fantastic sisters, their friend and a few rabbits too. An outdoorsy, summery treat.
4. Ramona the Brave & The First Rule of Punk
Oldie: Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary
An original punk, our little Ramona is an unforgettable character whose trials and tribulations stick with us for a lifetime. It’s not at all easy to be Ramona but she’s going to handle it and she’s going to handle it her way!
Newbie: The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez
A Pura Belpré Honor Book, and overall fantastic novel, this story delves into the many frustrations of Malú, a lover of punk rock, skateboarding, and Syrizo. Like Ramona, Malú weathers the stormiest aspects of being a kid and embraces her own unique style along the way.
5. Number the Stars & Bronze and Sunflower
Oldie: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
When I first read Number the Stars, I remember I was very quickly transported to a different time and place while at the same time closely identifying with Annemarie’s character and her fierce friendship to Ellen. Lowry took me to a completely different context (Denmark during WWII), with different stakes and yet it all felt so real and relevant to my life as a sixth grader.
Newbie: Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan
This book is set in the 1960s and 70s during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It tells the story of a friendship between a peasant named Bronze and a girl named Sunflower. Sunflower is taken in by Bronze’s family and their friendship helps them overcome great turmoil and loss.
6. Island of the Blue Dolphins & Heart of a Samurai
Oldie: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
This is the true story of an incredibly courageous Native Californian girl who was stranded on an island off the coast of California for 18 years. This Newbery Medal Award winner was published in 1960 but Karana’s voice is still so compelling as she speaks to the sea and forges a life for herself despite the odds.
Newbie: Heart of Samurai by Margi Preus
A similar story of a young life deeply entwined with the wild nature of the sea—Manjiro and his four friends are stranded on a desert island in 1841. Unable to return to their home in Japan, Manjiro eventually escapes the island onto a whaling ship and travels the world. Another Newberry honor book, this book will keep you riding its heartfelt and adventuresome waves.
7. Matilda & Flora and Ulysses
Oldie: Matilda by Roald Dahl
This was a highly influential book when I was growing up in the 1990s, and it was turned into an excellent movie around that time as well. It’s a quirky tale about a brilliant and forceful young genius, Matilda, who is at odds with her anti-intellectual parents and demonic school principal.
Newbie: Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
Like Roald Dahl’s books, Flora and Ulysses has some killer illustrations. A similarly quirky tale with wondrous events. Flora befriends a squirrel with superpowers and these two heroes take on the world together. (Also a Newbery Medal winner).
8. The Borrowers & The Dollmaker of Krakow
Oldie: The Borrowers by Mary Norton
A bizarre and humorous story about a tiny family living in the walls of an English house. This family “borrows” items from the larger folks, which leads them to make contact with a big person. This is a classic, well-written fantasy with slightly unsettling moments!
Newbie: The Dollmaker of Krakow by R. M. Romero
A wondrous and poignant story about a doll, Karolina, who finds herself in Krakow during WWII. She befriends a doll-maker and a family of violin-players. The Dollmaker of Krakow is a warm-hearted, modern fairy-tale that plays out on the stage of one of history’s most violent eras.
9. Bud, Not Buddy & Ghost Boys
Oldie: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Newberry Medal Award winning and Coretta Scott King winner, Bud Not Buddy tells the story of the Watsons and their lives in Flint, Michigan in 1936. Bud is a writer and also a curious investigator of his father’s real identity who he thinks may have been a famous jazz musician. He sets off on a daring journey that takes him far from home, leading him to learn a lot about his family, art, society, and importantly, himself.
Newbie: Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Jewell Parker Rhodes blends charming and fantastic characters with important history and contemporary socio-politics. When 12 year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer he meets the ghost of Emmett Till who takes him further into the past and helps him gain a better understanding of what has happened to him. Ghost Boys is a profound and deeply critical story about the history of race in America and the possibility of facing harsh truths especially when armed with friendship and love.
10. The Man Who was Poe & The Graveyard Book
Oldie: The Man Who was Poe by Avi
Some people might not consider this a classic but I think we can all agree Avi is one of the greats of the Middle Reader genre, so I’m going to throw this in here because I absolutely loved this book as a child. It is super sinister but don’t we need that sometimes? It tells the story of two orphans in Providence, Rhode Island who befriend none other than Edgar Allen Poe. And even though he is a wallowing, selfish writer type, he helps them. The book is totally engrossing, mysterious and a great gateway to the classic horror author himself.
Newbie: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Another Newberry Medal winner, The Graveyard Book is beloved by readers of all ages. Like Mowglie in Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Bod is raised outside of human society by an unlikely sort of family—ghosts. Bod lives in a graveyard and is afraid to leave its perimeters. This is a morbid, and enchanting story.