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Find more Booklist's 50 Best Middle-Grade Novels of the 21st Century
There are a lot of questions that arise when someone decides to make a “50 Best” list. We discovered many of them while pulling together our 50 Best YA Books of All Time list, in 2017, and even more reared their heads as we endeavored to whittle down libraries’ worth of middle-grade books. The first question we tackled was, What is middle-grade literature? We opted to paint with broad strokes here, limiting ourselves to novels—yes, a graphic memoir sneaked onto the list, but it reads so much like fiction that it doesn’t seem out of place at all—for kids in the third through eighth grades (roughly).
Next, we realized there needed to be a time constraint, both for practicality and for usefulness. We wanted to create something relevant to kids today, and, for this reason, we kept to books published no earlier than 2000. Now for our criteria: this was a fuzzy blend of literary quality and kid appeal. We wanted a list that reflected the myriad backgrounds and experiences of today’s readers. We wanted magic and silliness and talking mice and earnest contemplation, because these are all things that middle-grade novels do remarkably well. Another hallmark of middle-grade literature is the prevalence of series fiction, so in several instances you will see an entire series included as a single entry on our list. This also allowed us to make another teensy exception: look, we know the first book in Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series was published in 1999, but the bulk of the series came out after 2000, and it was just too good to skip! So, yes, we cheated a little!
With this framework in place, the Booklist Youth staff holed up with color-coded spreadsheets, highlighters, Post-its, and cookies (thanks, Carolyn Phelan!) and got to work. It was tough, but, in the end, we were pleased with—and proud of—the results. Not every choice was unanimously approved. How can Harry Potter not be on the list? There was almost an incident over that one. I get it; there’s a Time Turner in my desk at this very moment, but everyone already knows Harry Potter is the greatest. The same goes for Wimpy Kid and Percy Jackson. We decided we’d rather give some overlooked titles a moment in the spotlight, in addition to seeing which initially well-received books still pull their weight.
There’s every chance you won’t agree with all our picks, but that’s where we invite you to turn this list into a conversation starter. Share your favorites and build an even stronger collection! At the end of the day, we hope you and the young readers in your life find something here that reminds you of what wondrous things middle-grade novels can be and makes you excited to pick up a book.
The Abominables. By Eva Ibbotson. Illus. by Fiona Robinson. 2013. Abrams/Amulet, $16.95 (9781419707896). Gr. 3–6.
This imaginative comedy-adventure boasts a rich cast of idiosyncratic characters—of both the human and yeti persuasion. After a family of friendly yetis is threatened, it’s up to two kids to whisk them safely off to England.
Amina’s Voice. By Hena Khan. 2017. Simon & Schuster/Salaam Reads, $16.99 (9781481492065). Gr. 3–6.
Pakistani American Amina loves singing, but she’s too shy to perform and struggles to balance her family traditions with her American life. When the Islamic Center is vandalized, Amina discovers things about her community that help her through her difficulties.
As Brave as You. By Jason Reynolds. 2016. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy, $16.99 (9781481415903). Gr. 5–8.
Brooklynites Genie and Ernie are spending the summer at their grandparents’ house in backwoods Virginia. Over the course of the summer, long-buried, generations-old conflicts surface, but love always abides in this evocatively written novel.
Babymouse series. By Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. Illus. by the authors. 2005–16. Random. Gr. 4–6. (20 titles)
In this 20-volume, ongoing comics series by a brother-sister team, wisecracking Babymouse, a stand-in for your average adventure-seeking nine-year-old, gets up to round after energetic round of episodic, high-interest high jinks.
The Best Man. By Richard Peck. 2016. Dial, $16.99 (9780803738393). Gr. 4–6.
A 12-year-old with good intentions but limited awareness, Archer finds plenty of things confusing, but gradually he begins to sort them out and learns to speak for himself. A witty, engaging novel from a master storyteller.
Better Nate Than Ever. By Tim Federle. 2013. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781442446892). Gr. 5–8.
Eighth-grader Nate runs away from his troubled family to try out for the Broadway-bound E.T. the Musical. Nate’s emerging sexuality is tactfully addressed in an age-appropriate manner throughout, and the classic Chorus Line theme is made modern and bright.
The Birchbark House series. By Louise Erdrich. Illus. by the author. 1999–2016. Hyperion (vol. 1) and Harper (vols. 2–5). Gr. 4–8. (5 titles)
This expansive five-book series tells the multigenerational story of Omakayas’ Ojibwe clan, from the arrival of small pox–carrying white colonists to the stories of Omakayas’ own sons, 22 years later. Gentle details of daily life and fantastic characters buoy this heartrending story of displacement.
Booked. By Kwame Alexander. 2016. HMH, $16.99 (9780544570986). Gr. 5–8.
When a ruptured appendix keeps Nick from playing in a soccer tournament, a passionate former-rapper-turned-school-librarian takes the boy under his wing. Newbery winner Alexander blends poetry, humor, and insight into a relatable sports story.
Calpurnia Tate series. By Jacqueline Kelly. 2009–15. Holt. Gr. 4–7. (2 titles)
Growing up in rural Texas in 1899, Callie describes daily life in her large family with wry humor and a sharp eye for details. But her growing love of science is at the heart of this captivating pair of novels.
The Children of the King. By Sonya Hartnett. 2014. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763667351). Gr. 4–7.
Three children evacuated from London take shelter at Uncle Peregrine’s home in the country. As they listen to harrowing stories about Richard III, ghosts appear in the ruins of a nearby castle and the Blitz begins back home.
Dog Man series. By Dav Pilkey. Illus. by the author. 2016–18. Scholastic/Graphix. Gr. 1–3. (6 titles)
This madcap comics series about a policeman with a dog’s head combines doodly artwork, gross-out humor, cartoonish antics, and an intoxicating brand of frenetic pacing that’s irresistible to middle-graders. Even better, each installment in this ongoing, six-title series keeps the sure-bet premise fresh.
Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie. By Jordan Sonnenblick. 2005. Scholastic, $16 (9780439755191). Gr. 5–8.
After his younger brother is diagnosed with leukemia, Steven throws himself into drumming. A story that could have been melodrama is told with reality, rawness, and wit.
El Deafo. By Cece Bell. Illus. by the author. 2014. Abrams/Amulet, $21.95 (9781419710209). Gr. 4–7.
Cheerful artwork featuring anthropomorphized characters helps tell the story of Bell’s childhood experiences with deafness, specifically the bulky Phonic Ear, which helped her hear in class. This empowering graphic novel perfectly balances buoyant humor with winsome heart.
The First Rule of Punk. By Celia C. Pérez. 2017. Viking, $16.99 (9780425290408). Gr. 4–7.
Upon moving to Chicago, seventh-grader Malú finds courage in punk rock. Its music and culture inspire her to form a band and create zines, which lead her to explore her Mexican heritage and find her feet.
Flipped. By Wendelin Van Draanen. 2001. Knopf, $14.95 (9780375811746). Gr. 5–8.
When seven-year-old Bryce moves to town, Julianna falls hard, and Bryce is horrified. Six years later, Bryce is enthralled with Juli’s uniqueness while Juli is repulsed by Bryce’s immaturity. Told in alternating perspectives, this tween romance has substance and subtlety.
Gaither Sisters trilogy. By Rita Williams-Garcia. 2010–15. Amistad. Gr. 4–8.
Narrated in a strong, true voice by the oldest of three sisters, Delphine, this trio of books explores historical events like Vietnam and the Black Panther movement, but, at its heart, it’s a beautifully told story of family.
Garvey’s Choice. By Nikki Grimes. 2016. Boyds Mills/Wordsong, $16.95 (9781629797403). Gr. 4–6.
Garvey is tired of his father’s attempts to turn him into something he’s not: an athlete. In the end, they connect through a mutual love of music. This affecting verse novel tells Garvey’s story with clarity and finesse.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon. By Kelly Barnhill. 2016. Algonquin, $16.95 (9781616205676). Gr. 5–8.
Rescued as a baby by the kind witch Xan, Luna’s life begins to change as her magical powers emerge, resulting in a quest filled with imagination, whimsy, and treachery.
The Great Greene Heist. By Varian Johnson. 2014. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $16.99 (9780545525527). Gr. 5–8.
Corruption threatens the integrity of a student-council election, but smooth operator Jackson Greene can handle it. This fast-paced caper reads like a middle-grade Ocean’s 11, complete with dizzying plot twists, unflappable swagger, and a multicultural cast of brilliant tweens.
Greenglass House. By Kate Milford. Illus. by Jaime Zollars. 2014. Clarion, $17.99 (9780544052703). Gr. 5–8.
Dreamy Greenglass House, with an enviable attic and a thrilling past, is home to many mysteries, and it’s up to shy Milo and his new friend, Meddy, to uncover the clues. Plush world building and well-rounded characters make this enchantingly cozy.
Harbor Me. By Jacqueline Woodson. 2018. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, $17.99 (9780399252525). Gr. 5–8.
When six students are given teacher-free class time, powerful connections and stories emerge, which reveal the variety and depth of experiences these students face, from missing parents to bullies to gang violence. Woodson’s mastery of voice makes these stories profoundly resonant.
How to Catch a Bogle series. By Catherine Jinks. Illus. by Sarah Watts. 2013–16. HMH. Gr. 4–6. (3 titles)
In Victorian London, a series of children serve as bait for monstrous bogles, luring them into the open so that the Bogler can kill them. Suspense mounts when the human enemies become more terrifying than the supernatural ones. An intense trilogy with lovable protagonists.
Ida B: . . . and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World. By Katherine Hannigan. 2004. Greenwillow, $15.99 (9780060730246). Gr. 4–6.
After Ida B’s mother gets cancer, the girl’s heart hardens. Hannigan brilliantly shows the fury children can experience, the tenacity with which they can hold on to their anger, and their inability to back away once the emotion no longer serves them.
The Inquisitor’s Tale; or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog. By Adam Gidwitz. Illus. by Hatem Aly. 2016. Dutton, $17.99 (9780525426165). Gr. 5–8.
Three gifted children and a holy greyhound are causing a stir in medieval France. During a time of miracles and saints, fiends and dragons, Gidwitz spins a humorous and inspired historical adventure.
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel. By Firoozeh Dumas. 2016. Clarion, $16.99 (9780544612310). Gr. 5–8.
In 1978 California, Iranian-born Cindy Yousefzadeh tries to keep a low profile (with hilarious results) as she navigates middle school—until the Iranian hostage crisis puts her in the spotlight.
Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World. By Ashley Herring Blake. 2018. Little, Brown, $16.99 (9780316515467). Gr. 4–7.
When a massive tornado destroys their home, Ivy and her family face difficult change. Everything unravels as Ivy develops romantic feelings for a girl in her class. A poignant, emotionally complex portrayal of burgeoning sexuality set against a background of displacement.
Last Day on Mars. By Kevin Emerson. 2017. HarperCollins/Walden Pond, $16.99 (9780062306715). Gr. 5–8.
Literally the last kids on Mars, Liam and Phoebe rush to warn the rest of their human colony, already on their way to a more hospitable planet, about impending sabotage. Cinematic pacing and an sf plot grounded in real science make this propulsive adventure soar.
Lockwood & Co. series. By Jonathan Stroud. Illus. by Kate Adams. 2013–17. Disney/Hyperion. Gr. 4–8. (5 titles)
Lockwood, Lucy, and George, young psychic investigators, battle the often-malevolent and increasingly deadly spirits terrorizing England after dark. Stroud’s vivid scene setting, consummate storytelling, understated wit, and idiosyncratic characters make this five-volume series completely captivating.
The Mysterious Benedict Society series. By Trenton Lee Stewart. Illus. by Carson Ellis and Diana Sudyka. 2007–12. Little, Brown/Megan Tingley. Gr. 4–7. (4 titles)
“Are you a gifted child looking for Special Opportunities?” So begins the adventure in an ongoing three-book series (and prequel) that combines well-plotted mystery with personal concerns such as fear, abandonment, and loyalty.
The Nest. By Kenneth Oppel. Illus. by Jon Klassen. 2015. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781481432320). Gr. 5–8.
A seemingly angelic wasp promises to help anxiety-ridden Steven heal his baby brother, but things turn sinister when the wasp’s true intentions emerge. Questions of worthiness and perfection imbue this spine-chilling story about monsters both outside and in.
Okay for Now. By Gary D. Schmidt. 2011. Clarion, $7.99 (9780544022805). Gr. 6–9.
When his volatile father gets fired and moves the family to a small town, Doug is furious. Set in the late 1960s, Doug’s first-person narrative becomes a stealthily powerful, unexpectedly affirming story of discovering and rescuing one’s best self.
Ottoline and the Yellow Cat. By Chris Riddell. Illus. by the author. 2008. HarperCollins, o.p. Gr. 2–4.
A dognapper is on the loose in this delightfully illustrated mystery, guaranteed to steal readers’ hearts. But never fear: quirky, young Ottoline and her hairy companion, Mr. Monroe, are on the case!
The Penderwicks series. By Jeanne Birdsall. 2005–18. Knopf. Gr. 3–6. (5 titles)
The five-book series, which follows the Penderwick sisters, some to adulthood, has both a delightful freshness and a lovely whiff of nostalgia, thanks to timeless storytelling. The eponomously named first book won the National Book Award, but all are beautifully crafted.
Poison Is Not Polite. By Robin Stevens. 2016. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781481422154). Gr. 5–8.
In a 1920s British boarding school, Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong form the Detective’s Society. The mystery elements are handled to perfection, but what also shines are the depictions of bossy, eccentric Daisy and loyal, smart Hazel, who’s always aware she’s an outsider.
Race to the Bottom of the Sea. By Lindsay Eagar. 2017. Candlewick, $17.99 (9780763679231). Gr. 4–7.
In a swashbuckling voyage of self-discovery, 11-year-old Fidelia Quail gets kidnapped by a notorious pirate, who needs her knack for invention to retrieve a precious treasure from the sea floor.
Rain Reign. By Ann M. Martin. 2014. Feiwel and Friends, $16.99 (9780312643003). Gr. 4–6.
Rose, diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, follows the rules. That means Rain, a found dog, must be given back despite the affection and protection he offers. Emotional resonance is the hallmark of this nuanced, first-person narrative.
The Ranger’s Apprentice series. By John Flanagan. 2004–11. Philomel. Gr. 5–8. (12 titles)
Apprenticed to Halt, a member of the mysterious Ranger Corps, Will tries to reach the grim-faced man’s standards. Flanagan creates believable, down-to-earth characters within stories of action and suspense. An outstanding (and ongoing!) adventure series in 12 volumes.
The Serpent’s Secret. By Sayantani DasGupta. 2018. Scholastic, $17.99 (9781338185706). Gr. 4–7.
In this breathtaking adventure steeped in Bengali folklore, Kiranmala is displeased to learn that she isn’t a normal New Jersey tween but rather an Indian princess from another dimension. She can’t dwell—time to save her parents from a rakkhosh demon.
A Single Shard. By Linda Sue Park. 2001. Clarion, $17.99 (9780395978276). Gr. 4–8.
Today’s readers will respond to the story of Tree-ear and his quest, and realize the hearts and minds of characters living in twelfth-century Korea are not so very different than their own.
The Smek Smeries. By Adam Rex. Illus. by the author. 2007–15. Disney/Hyperion. Gr. 4–8. (2 titles)
Rex unleashes hilarious antics in The True Meaning of Smekday and Smek for President!, as young Gratuity Tucci and renegade alien J. Lo pair up to save the world and clear J. Lo’s name.
The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread. By Kate DiCamillo. Illus. by Timothy Basil Ering. 2003. Candlewick, $17.99 (9780763617226). Gr. 3–6.
Forgiveness, love, light, and soup are the essential ingredients in a story about a little mouse with big ears. Desperaux risks all to save the princess he loves in a classic fairy tale that is both clever and uplifting.
Tales from Alcatraz series. By Gennifer Choldenko. 2004–18. Putnam (vol. 1), Dial (vol. 2–3),and Random/Wendy Lamb (vol. 4). Gr. 5–8. (4 titles)
Mysteries and run-ins with criminals (most famously, Al Capone) punctuate Moose Flannigan’s life as he comes of age on Alcatraz, his family’s unusual home since his father became a prison guard. A unique yet relatable historical series told over four books.
Three Times Lucky. By Sheila Turnage. 2012. Dial, $16.99 (9780803736702). Gr. 4–6.
Mysteries abound in this unusual story, set in tiny Tupelo Landing, North Carolina, and narrated by “Miss Moses LoBeau, rising sixth-grader,” aka Mo. Turnage’s lively novel features a community of unique characters whose interconnected stories are immensely engaging.
The Wanderer. By Sharon Creech. Illus. by David Diaz. 2000. HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler,$6.99 (9780064410328). Gr. 6–8.
In their journals, 13-year-old Sophie and her cousin Cody record their thoughts during a cross-Atlantic sailboat trip with their family. Sophie’s narrative shifts as she gradually remembers painful parts of her past. A novel lit by wit, subtlety, and grace.
The War That Saved My Life. By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. 2015. Dial, $16.99 (9780803740815). Gr. 5–8.
Ada’s congenital clubfoot has made her an outcast, but when she and her brother flee to the country during the London Blitz, she finds unexpected acceptance with kind, if prickly, Susan. WWII home-front realities and Ada’s rocky emotions ring powerfully true.
When You Reach Me. By Rebecca Stead. 2009. Random/Wendy Lamb, $15.99 (9780385737425). Gr. 4–7.
Time travel can make a story complicated, but the mental gymnastics required of readers here are invigorating. Stead’s characters, children and adults, contain honest bits of humanity no matter in what place or time their souls rest.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon series. Grace Lin. Illus. by the author. 2009–16. Little, Brown. Gr. 3–6. (3 titles)
Inspired by Chinese folktales, the sagas unspooled in these companion novels are a mesmerizing blend of adventure, storytelling, art, and enchantment. An unofficial trilogy comprising Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Starry River of the Sky, and When the Sea Turned to Silver.
The Wild Robot series. By Peter Brown. Illus. by the author. 2016–18. Little, Brown. Gr. 3–6. (2 titles)
Wilderness survival meets sf/adventure in The Wild Robot and The Wild Robot Escapes, wherein castaway robot Roz finds a family in her island’s animals and risks all to be reunited with them.
Wishtree. By Katherine Applegate. Illus. by Charles Santoso. 2017. Feiwel and Friends, $16.99 (9781250043221). Gr. 4–7.
When Red, a century-old oak tree, has the word leave scrawled into her trunk—a threat to a Muslim family—she and the neighborhood animals decide to take action. Timely, necessary, and brimming with heart.
The Wolf Wilder. By Katherine Rundell. 2015. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781481419420). Gr. 4–7.
In the snowy wilderness of Russia, Feo and her mother retrain domesticated wolves to survive in nature. But when her mother is arrested, Feo determines to save her, with the help of her wolf pack. A deft and inspiring adventure.
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