The Best of the Underrated Middle School Books
In the world of children’s literature we are creatures with short memories. The new and shiny is always far more preferable to the old and worn. I’ve been in the children’s book reviewing game for roundabout eight years now and I’ve fallen in love with a fair amount of titles. But time goes on and I end up forgetting so many of them. Fortunately, I long ago had the idea of creating this handy dandy wiki of all the books I’ve reviewed. It’s been invaluable to me over the years, reminding me of the books I loved when they first came out.
Recently I was talking with somebody about recommended but too little loved titles and the subject of D.M. Cornish’s absolutely jaw-dropping Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy came up. I was singing its praises like crazy and it occurred to me that there are loads of titles I just don’t sing the praises of enough. To simplify matters, I decided to make a list of recommended books for the middle schoolers of the world. These are books that, as far as I’m concerned, deserve a lot more attention. Some you will have heard of. Many will be new to you. All of them are memorable and amazing by turns. These are the books I’ll never get out of my head . . . . in a good way!
The Winged Girl of Knossos by Erick Berry
So I’m kind of cheating right off the bat. Anyone who reads me may be aware that The Winged Girl of Knossos is my dream Bring It Back In Print title. A Newbery Honor winner of 1934, it doesn’t feel the least bit dated. And don’t be fooled by the lame cover. In this book you have a girl who hanglides, goes deep sea diving, and frickin’ does gymnastics off of the backs of live, angry bulls. Did I mention she also lives in Ancient Greece? Put a new jacket on it and watch in amazement as kids read it again. Just sayin’.
Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac
Okay. You know what this really reminds me of? I have no idea why, but something about the tone and feel of this book feels like Frozen to me. It’s something to do with the humor and the characters, I think. When this was released I wasn’t exactly rushing to pick it up. But when I finally did and read it cover to cover I was shocked by how thorough and truly enjoyable it was. And look what they did to it! Generic name, generic title, etc. The only indication that there might be something awesome beneath this cover is the fact that the author is Joseph Bruchac. If you want to shock a kid by giving them a book they love in spite of its packaging, this is the one to hand over.
Wabi by Joseph Bruchac
Two Bruchacs in a row? Well, he’s worth it. And this book was just the most awesome thing. A love story and a kind of superhero tale all at once, I loved how Bruchac mixed together myth and just awesome epic storytelling. Seriously, hand this to the kid that’s into DC/Marvel/superhero movies. It’s not as big a change of pace as you might think.
Monster Blood Tattoo by D.M. Cornish
There is no justice in the world. If there was then every single one of you would know this three book series. You’d be able list ably the characters and to say the names of every person on this book jacket. An Australian series, Cornish created what might well be the most original series I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. This is a world entirely unlike any other and my sole regret in life is that there are only three books thus far.
The Vengekeep Prophecies by Brian Farrey
Most of the books I’m mentioning today came out a while ago but this one was released as recently as 2012. That said, you may have missed it and that would be a true shame. Funny fantasy is hard to do. And funny epic fantasy? Almost impossible. The only word I can use to really describe this series is charming. It’s utterly the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen. And a thrill as well.
The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge
If you read only one book on this list today, read this one. I had a hard time not listing every last single Hardinge book on this list. To be fair, I limited myself to just one title. This is a book I think about constantly. It’s the kind of book I wish I had the talent to write. It’s the best middle school novel I’ve ever read or will ever hope to read. And I wish to high heaven someone in America would start importing Hardinge’s titles again. I miss them.
Thresholds by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
So weird to me that with this gorgeous cover and the crazy writing inside that this book isn’t better remembered. It’s basically the movie Alien, but if the Alien in question were a good guy instead of a bad guy. Intrigued yet?
Departure Time by Truus Matti
This is probably the only translation on this list. What I loved about the book most was probably the fact that it took the notion of an unreliable narrator to a logical extreme. This read like Sophie’s World but for kids.
The Boneshaker by Kate Milford
This August you’ll have a chance to read Kate’s latest novel The Green Glass House (and read it you will, but more on that later). Before you do, go back and read this book. I like my creepy titles nice and psychological. Milford provided with this amazingly, incredibly twisted, scary, delightful tale. Honestly, you’ve never read ANYTHING like this before. Not even Ray Bradbury.
Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri
When this came out I went a little crazy over it. It wasn’t just the fact that it was Greg Neri writing it (though that certainly didn’t hurt matters any). It was also the great storyline, characters, and original premise. I think it actually made it into paperback, which was a relief.
Larklight by Philip Reeve
You know I have a weakness for humor with my genre fiction. Well funny science fiction isn’t exactly common these days. Full credit them to this crazy cool series. I loved each book Reeve wrote, but it’s hard to top the first one. Hand this to budding Firefly fans.
The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski
Before Marie started getting all those loads of starred reviews for YA novels like The Winner’s Curse, she was a middle grade fantasy author. You know how nine times out of ten the Steampunk genre doesn’t work with middle grade? Meet the one time it does. Memorable characters, talking mechanical spiders, a prince so evil he could make Joffrey on Game of Thrones blanch, this book series had it all.
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
Every time I look at it I remember that though it should have won a Newbery, somehow this book by Schlitz did not. Yet it’s amazing. The only book I would honestly call a companion in spirit to The Secret Garden. Utterly, thoroughly, entirely, amazing.
A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton
The weirdest book on this list (and THAT is saying something). I think in my review I called it Waiting for Godot for kids. I stand by that and I stand by this book. Every librarian I know who read it said the same thing about it too. “It’s so weird . . . but I kind of loved it.” Yup.
Dreamdark: Blackbringer by Laini Taylor (ill. Jim DiBartolo)
Speaking of YA authors who wrote middle grade before they broke big, Laini Taylor is remembered for many things but not for her first series. Yet the fairies of Dreamdark were amazing in their construction. You can’t read this book and not understand that Laini was special and amazing.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi (ill. Yuko Shimizu)
It’s an animated series in Japan. A book with a woman so kickbutt that you’re aware that if she were a man there’d be a whole slew of movies about her already. When folks ask for something fast paced and filled with action/adventure, nothing beats this book. Absolutely nothing.
Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson
I love his latest book Boys of Blur. Sure I do. But no one can deny that it was Leepike Ridge that showed us all what the man was capable of. Should have gotten more attention. Maybe someday it will.
So spill. Your forgotten favorites. Go.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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