Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

The Caterpickles Middle Grade Gift Book Guide: Part 2 – Fifteen Great Middle Grade Novels

“Do you have any book recommendations for middle schoolers?”

My favorite thing about December is that people start contacting me out of the blue asking for book recommendations. This year, I’ve gotten a larger than usual number of requests specifically aimed at buying books to give to middle schoolers, so I thought I’d post some recommendations here on Caterpickles. 

Last week, I posted a list of ten graphic novels popular with the kids at the middle school library where I volunteer. This week, I’ll tell you about some of their favorite fiction writers.

The Caterpickles Middle Grade Gift Book Guide Criteria

In some cases, I put a book on this list because somebody at Caterpickles Central read it and loves it without reservation. In other cases, I put books on the list because:

  • The kids keep checking it out at the library, so I have to keep reshelving it
  • I keep having to repair the library’s copy because the kids are reading it so enthusiastically
  • I overheard one of the librarians recommend it to a student who then checked it out

I’ll let you know for each book which criteria snagged them a place on the list.

The Caterpickles Middle Grade Gift Book Guide:
Part 2 – 15 Great Middle Grade Novels

(Books are listed in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.)

#1 Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

From the book description on Goodreads…

“They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

“Now we rise.

“Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

“But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

“Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

“Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.”

Why The Children of Blood and Bone is on the list: Kids check it out a lot. That said, The Twelve-Year-Old wants me to warn you that this book is pretty intense.

#2 Suggested Reading by Dave Connis

From the book description on Goodreads…

In this standalone, a bookworm finds a way to fight back when her school bans dozens of classic and meaningful books.

“Clara Evans is horrified when she discovers her principal’s “prohibited media” hit list. The iconic books on the list have been pulled from the library and aren’t allowed anywhere on the school’s premises. Students caught with the contraband will be sternly punished.

“Many of these stories have changed Clara’s life, so she’s not going to sit back and watch while her draconian principal abuses his power. She’s going to strike back.

So Clara starts an underground library in her locker, doing a shady trade in titles like Speak and The Chocolate War. But when one of the books she loves most is connected to a tragedy she never saw coming, Clara’s forced to face her role in it.

“Will she be able to make peace with her conflicting feelings, or is fighting for this noble cause too tough for her to bear?”

Why Suggested Reading made the list: The Twelve-Year-Old recommends it.

#3 Refugee by Alan Gratz

From the book description on Goodreads…

Three different kids.

One mission in common: ESCAPE.

Josef is a Jewish boy in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world…

Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety and freedom in America…

Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe…

All three young people will go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers–from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But for each of them, there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, surprising connections will tie their stories together in the end.”

Why Refugee made the list: Kids keep checking it out. (Actually, several of Alan Gratz’s books are on fairly constant rotation in and out of the library, including Prisoner B-3087 and Allies, so if Refugee doesn’t appeal, it may be worth looking at some others.)

#4 Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

From the book description on Goodreads…

“’Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.’

“Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions. She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her—and to everyone—than a label, and that great minds don’t always think alike.” 

Why Fish in a Tree made this list: I adore this book.

#5 Masterminds by Gordon Korman

From the book description on Goodreads…

“Eli Frieden has never left Serenity, New Mexico…why would he ever want to? Then one day, he bikes to the edge of the city limits and something so crazy and unexpected happens, it changes everything.

“Eli convinces his friends to help him investigate further, and soon it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems in Serenity. The clues mount to reveal a shocking discovery, connecting their ideal crime-free community to some of the greatest criminal masterminds ever known.

“The kids realize they can trust no one—least of all their own parents.”

Why Masterminds made the list: The Twelve-Year-Old and her friends recommend it.

#6 Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

From the book description on Goodreads…

THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD MIN comes from a long line of fox spirits. But you’d never know it by looking at her. To keep the family safe, Min’s mother insists that none of them use any fox-magic, such as Charm or shape-shifting. They must appear human at all times.

“Min feels hemmed in by the household rules and resents the endless chores, the cousins who crowd her, and the aunties who judge her. She would like nothing more than to escape Jinju, her neglected, dust-ridden, and impoverished planet. She’s counting the days until she can follow her older brother, Jun, into the Space Forces and see more of the Thousand Worlds.

“When word arrives that Jun is suspected of leaving his post to go in search of the Dragon Pearl, Min knows that something is wrong. Jun would never desert his battle cruiser, even for a mystical object rumored to have tremendous power. She decides to run away to find him and clear his name.

“Min’s quest will have her meeting gamblers, pirates, and vengeful ghosts. It will involve deception, lies, and sabotage. She will be forced to use more fox-magic than ever before, and to rely on all of her cleverness and bravery. The outcome may not be what she had hoped, but it has the potential to exceed her wildest dreams.”

Why Dragon Pearl is on the list: The Twelve-Year-Old recommends it, and Yoon Ha Lee is one of Daddyo’s favorite authors.

#7 Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

From the book description on Goodreads…

“In the valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli spends her days working hard in the fields and her nights listening to her father spin fantastic tales about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon. Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense. But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.”

Why Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is on this list: The librarian recommends it. Also kids keep checking out books by Grace Lin.

#8 The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

From the book description on Goodreads…

“In a discontent kingdom, civil war is brewing. To unify the divided people, Conner, a nobleman of the court, devises a cunning plan to find an impersonator of the king’s long-lost son and install him as a puppet prince. Four orphans are recruited to compete for the role, including a defiant boy named Sage. Sage knows that Conner’s motives are more than questionable, yet his life balances on a sword’s point—he must be chosen to play the prince or he will certainly be killed. But Sage’s rivals have their own agendas as well.

“As Sage moves from a rundown orphanage to Conner’s sumptuous palace, layer upon layer of treachery and deceit unfold, until finally, a truth is revealed that, in the end, may very well prove more dangerous than all of the lies taken together.” 

Why The False Prince is on this list: Kids check out so many books by Jennifer A. Nielsen that I can find her spot on the shelves blind-folded. Her Mark of the Thief series is popular too.

#9 Wonder by R. J. Palacio

From the book description on Goodreads…

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

“August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a #1 New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.”

Why Wonder is on the list: This is another one that gets checked out so often that reshelving it is essentially an automatic act. I’ve repaired it a few times too.

#10 Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

From the book description on Goodreads…

“The compelling story of a girl’s fight to regain her life and dreams after being forced into indentured servitude.

“Life is quiet and ordinary in Amal’s Pakistani village, but she had no complaints, and besides, she’s busy pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher one day. Her dreams are temporarily dashed when–as the eldest daughter–she must stay home from school to take care of her siblings. Amal is upset, but she doesn’t lose hope and finds ways to continue learning. Then the unimaginable happens–after an accidental run-in with the son of her village’s corrupt landlord, Amal must work as his family’s servant to pay off her own family’s debt.

“Life at the opulent Khan estate is full of heartbreak and struggle for Amal–especially when she inadvertently makes an enemy of a girl named Nabila. Most troubling, though, is Amal’s growing awareness of the Khans’ nefarious dealings. When it becomes clear just how far they will go to protect their interests, Amal realizes she will have to find a way to work with others if they are ever to exact change in a cruel status quo, and if Amal is ever to achieve her dreams.” 

Why Amal Unbound is on the list: It seems like every time I put this book on display, someone picks it up before school ends for the day. Kids seem to like Aisha Saeed’s Written in the Stars too.

#11 City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab

From the book description on Goodreads…

“Cassidy Blake’s parents are The Inspecters, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one.

When The Inspecters head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass—and Jacob—come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly. Then she meets Lara, a girl who can also see the dead. But Lara tells Cassidy that as an In-betweener, their job is to send ghosts permanently beyond the Veil. Cass isn’t sure about her new mission, but she does know the sinister Red Raven haunting the city doesn’t belong in her world. Cassidy’s powers will draw her into an epic fight that stretches through the worlds of the living and the dead, in order to save herself.”

Why City of Ghosts is on the list: Kids keep checking it out.

#12 The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

From the book description on Goodreads…

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

“Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

“But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.” 

Why The Hate U Give is on the list: Kids ask for this one by name.

#13 Property of the Rebel Librarian by Alison Varnes

From the book description on Goodreads…

“When twelve-year-old June Harper’s parents discover what they deem an inappropriate library book, they take strict parenting to a whole new level. And everything June loves about Dogwood Middle School unravels: librarian Ms. Bradshaw is suspended, an author appearance is canceled, the library is gutted, and all books on the premises must have administrative approval.

“But June can’t give up books . . . and she realizes she doesn’t have to when she spies a Little Free Library on her walk to school. As the rules become stricter at school and at home, June keeps turning the pages of the banned books that continue to appear in the little library. It’s a delicious secret . . . and one she can’t keep to herself. June starts a banned book library of her own in an abandoned locker at school. The risks grow alongside her library’s popularity, and a movement begins at Dogwood Middle–a movement that, if exposed, could destroy her. But if it’s powerful enough, maybe it can save Ms. Bradshaw and all that she represents: the freedom to read.

“Equal parts fun and empowering, this novel explores censorship, freedom of speech, and activism. For any kid who doesn’t believe one person can effect change…and for all the kids who already know they can!”

Why Property of the Rebel Librarian is on the list: The Twelve-Year-Old recommends it.

#14 Pie by Sarah Weeks

From the book description on Goodreads…

“From the award-winning author of SO B. IT, a story about family, friendship, and…pie!

“When Alice’s Aunt Polly, the Pie Queen of Ipswitch, passes away, she takes with her the secret to her world-famous pie-crust recipe. Or does she? In her will, Polly leaves the recipe to her extraordinarily fat, remarkably disagreeable cat, Lardo . . . and then leaves Lardo in the care of Alice.

“Suddenly, the whole town is wondering how you leave a recipe to a cat. Everyone wants to be the next big pie-contest winner, and it’s making them pie-crazy. It’s up to Alice and her friend Charlie to put the pieces together and discover the not-so-secret recipe for happiness: Friendship. Family. And the pleasure of doing something for the right reason.

“With Pie, acclaimed author Sarah Weeks has baked up a sweet and satisfying delight, as inviting as warm pie on a cold day. You’ll enjoy every last bite.”

Why Pie is on the list: I keep having to reshelve it. Also The Twelve-Year-Old loves this book.

#15 Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

From the book description on Goodreads…

“Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn war machine and a loyal crew of men.

“Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.

“With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.”

Why Leviathan is on this list: The Twelve-Year-Old loves giving copies of this book to her friends. If Leviathan doesn’t appeal, you might take a look at Westerfeld’s Uglies series. The kids check out the books in that series a lot too.

Bonus: 10 well-known series that kids keep checking out

These series are pretty well-known by now, so I’m not going to summarize them. However, don’t let that stop you from gifting these to a reader who hasn’t encountered them yet. The kids at our middle school are constantly reading these books, which tells me that their appeal hasn’t yet faded.

  1. The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer
  2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  3. Ranger’s Apprentice by John Flanagan
  4. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
  5. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
  6. Middle School by James Patterson
  7. Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
  8. Divergent by Veronica Roth
  9. Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
  10. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

(All links are to the first book in the series.)

A final note

Obviously, not every book on this list will appeal to every reader. This list is only intended to help you start your search.

Also, I am certain I’ve missed some great writers and even better books. The Twelve-Year-Old and I would love it if you’d leave a comment and tell us about the books you’d put on your gift list.

Related Links:

8 Responses to “The Caterpickles Middle Grade Gift Book Guide: Part 2 – Fifteen Great Middle Grade Novels”

  1. Amy

    HI! Some favorites of mine:
    Shouting at the Rain by Linda Mullaly
    Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
    Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green
    24 Hours in Nowhere by Dusti Bowling
    Ban this Book by Alan Gratz

    Thanks for the suggestions above there are a few I haven’t read yet. I’ll check them out!


    • Shala Howell

      You’re welcome. Thank you for all of the recommendations! Alan Gratz is super popular on this coast as well, and the cover for Other Words from Home is so lovely I added it to my to-read pile based on the artwork alone, because I am a serious and never judge a book by its cover sort of reader. I loved Fish in a Tree so much that I’ve recklessly decided to read whatever else I can find by Linda Mullaly. The others I haven’t encountered yet but look forward to.


  2. Kate's Bookshelf

    I don’t read a lot of middle grade or YA books now that I’m not at the library much these days, but you have definitely sparked my interest with several of these. ‘Pie sounds absolutely lovely, and this entire list is one I’m going to pass on to my town librarian as she was asking about YA type books.


      • Shala Howell

        Thank you! Merry Christmas to you as well. I definitely miss snow, at least hypothetically. I suspect it wouldn’t take too long for me to get over it, if I were ever confronted with the real thing again. 😉


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