With our first day of school just around the corner, I am using my last, lazy summer days to update our home-library. In the process of organizing our most cherished titles, I have come up with a great list to share. These favorites are works of literature that every child (and adult!) should read. Though specifically pegged for Elementary and Middle Schoolers, the titles below were not necessarily written with children in mind. They are authentic, superb stories written by accomplished writers.
Before I continue, I know that book lists can be helpful, but also intimidating. Students of life (young or old) want to read every good book out there, yet there is never enough time. So we beat ourselves up when we don’t read enough, or are disappointed when our kids don’t read enough… There is a neat story I read in “Power of the Myth” by Joseph Cambell where, as a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, he gave his classes their required reading lists. The students were “spellbound” and one young woman spoke up to assert that they all had other classes and could not possibly read all he had assigned. To which Campbell replied, “You have the rest of your life to do the reading…”
So this list below is not meant to be done in one sitting, or one school year for that matter. Spread the reading out over time, weave these titles in and around everything else you and your kids are reading and enjoy the ride!
This is a LIFE LIST of books for middle-schoolers. In an effort to be brief, this tally is missing several modern works that are wonderful and worth reading. It is not comprehensive, but a healthy start. Each title is a pleasure to read. No book on this list is too childish for any adult reader, nor overly gender-specific for any choosey pre-teen – so if you see something here you have not yet read, I urge you to give it a shot (*for more suggestions, see our “Reading Lists” in the menu bar/home page).
These books can all be found at your local library and span a range of middle-school reading levels.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (there are 7 volumes)
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
by Roald Dahl: The Witches, The Twits (and anything else by Roald Dahl, actually)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Bridge to Terebethia by Katherine Paterson
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Cay by Theodore Taylor
Alice in Wonderland and the Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Giver by Louis Lowry
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Harry Potter Series – Books 1, 2 and 3 by J.K. Rowling
Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Mix it up! This is a lesson I learned while homeschooling, which had never occurred to me before. Encourage your reader to alternate between modern fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, and classics. For example, when your student finishes a biography on a sports hero, have them follow it with The Cay or Wonder, then a short story by Roald Dahl or Rudyard Kipling before going back to another great sports memoir. Round out the reading and your child’s vocabulary will flourish, along with their level of empathy, understanding of geography and overall creativity. If your child loves sports and only reads about sports, he or she will speak with a limited vocabulary and have a partitioned understanding of the world.
Reading above one’s grade level. This is something that young children who love to read will often do. They feel books within their grade level are too easy and feel empowered to read middle school or teen fiction. However, I encourage parents to watch this type of reading with care. A child who picks his or her own titles above their grade level might choose books with content which is not appropriate for a young reader. Content inappropriateness can turn a good reader into a non-reader.
I suggest–instead–these kids choose classics over modern fiction meant for the teenage mindset. For example, I have heard of seven-year olds reading the entire Harry Potter series. I love J.K. Rowling, but do not feel her masterful works beyond book 3 (or 4) are appropriate for young readers. The content in books 5 through 7 is quite dark and were written for a more mature reader. Likewise, middle-schoolers should not be reading The Twilight Series or Vampire Chronicles. Parents, hold your ground. Bottom line: if you have an elementary reader who is bored with the Magic Tree House books, know there are an abundance of titles for them, age-relevant, that they will love. Ask your local librarian–all of whom are super-heroes sans capes.
“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.” E.B. White
E.B. White, Shel Silverstein, C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl did not write for children, yet they are of the best children’s book authors we know. They spin pure magic in their stories and will keep a voracious reader loving title after title.
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” – C.S. Lewis
The importance of abridged works. Abridged versions of adult-sized classics are of extreme value for this age group. Exposure to a great work of literary art is beneficial to young readers and can give them a taste of some great stories, without overwhelming them. Abridged works meet a young reader at his or her level, by introducing a story to them – though is never a substitute for the original. Often times, prose in modern literature and even journalistic references are nods to the great classics. A Senator might be described as acting “quixotic” in a newspaper article (a reference to Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes). A football coach might lead his team like “Ahab” (from Moby Dick by Herman Melville). A town might have a pulse described in comparison to “IT” or the “Central-Central Intelligence” (from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle). Young or old, understanding classical references in any written work is a turbo-boost to every level of reading.
Last year, I wanted to read Don Quixote with the kids while we were traveling through Portugal and the southern valleys of Spain. It seemed perfect to marry this story with the geography and timelessness of the area. I had read the original version and knew the story would amuse our kids, while giving them a visual context as well. It is a great story and perfect for kids, though at 940 pages long, was more than I felt we could tackle together. Instead, I chose an abridged version (350 pages) that was beautifully adapted, retold the story-line well and captivated my middle-schooler’s imaginations. It did not disappoint.
Historical Fiction. There are Young Readers Adaptations of modern books like The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown and Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. These are great stories for middle-schoolers and it is wonderful that they have been retold by the authors to accommodate younger readers. These titles also serve as a basis to better understand history in the context of topics like racism, war or gender inequality.
Maurice Sendak said in an interview, “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’ E.B. White, author of Trumpet of the Swan and Charlotte’s Web, never wrote “down” to kids. He had way too much respect for them to do that. He also said that “Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth.”
So never let anyone pass judgement on your “classic” reading. Every amazing book on this list I have loved as an adult because they are exceptionally crafted and well-written. For Middle-Schoolers, this is a wonderful age of reading and we are all lucky to know the difference between a chore and a gift.
Happy reading ~ !
There are different levels of abridged, or retold, versions so it is important to look carefully through them when choosing an age appropriate book. It does help to have read the original, but not necessary.
E.B. White and Maurice Sendak quotes are from the timely and valuable writings of Maria Popova in brainpickings.com. Sendak also wrote: “It’s only adults who read the top layers most of the time. I think children read the internal meanings of everything.” ― Maurice Sendak, (www.goodreads.com)
“Power of the Myth” by Joseph Cambell was published in 1988.