I don’t remember when I stopped reading children’s books, but I do remember when I started again. I was in college, working on my BA in English, and I signed up for what was considered a notoriously difficult class: Children’s Literature. I’d taken a class with the professor before, though, and loved her, and it seemed the main difficulty most students had was that the course required you to read at least fifty books, which to me just sounded like fun.
The professor for that class, Dr. Kayla Wiggins, made me rethink what I’d been conditioned to believe about children’s literature. She insisted that children’s literature wasn’t just for kids. In fact, she went on, the worst children’s books were usually the ones where the authors tried desperately to write for children, because they often just wound up writing down to them.
In C. S. Lewis’s essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” which I first discovered in that course, the acclaimed children’s author goes so far as to suggest that “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” Lewis states that far too often the word “adult” is used as a term of approval, especially in the literary world.
Recently, I’ve come face to face with this concept quite a lot. My debut novel, The Story That Cannot Be Told, will be an adult book in some countries, but a middle grade book in the US and Canada. People often are surprised such a thing is even possible.
I, decidedly, am not—the books below help illustrate why.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay
The heartbreaking, true story of how this book came to be was enough to make me first pick it up. The idea came from the award-winning author Siobhan Dowd, who passed away from cancer before she could finish her story. In this masterpiece, thirteen-year-old Conor O’Malley is struggling with the harsh reality of his mother’s terminal illness when he unwittingly summons a monster to his bedroom window. The monster says he will tell Conor three stories, and then Conor must reciprocate with a tale of his own. The themes of grief and learning to cope with loss are equally painful and beautiful no matter your age. The fact that this book won both the Carnegie and Greenaway Medal should also pique your interest.
The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
When people talk about timeless novels, this Newberry Medal winning title always comes to mind. Jess Aarons becomes fast friends with new girl Leslie Burke—even though the first thing she does is beat him in a race. Eventually, the pair builds a fantastic imaginary land, named Terabithia, in the nearby woods, but when Leslie visits the sanctuary alone one day, tragedy strikes. This was the first book to make me ugly cry as a child. I read it again in college with much the same reaction, but a deeper understanding of its themes of loss, religion, and even wealth disparity. As a testament to its impact, I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to read it a third time, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
One of the things perhaps more often seen in middle grade than adult fiction is the novel-in-verse. Children seem to have little problem reading book-length poetry—a habit more adults should definitely adopt. In Woodson’s autobiographical story about an African American girl growing up during the Civil Rights movement, she captures a time in our history defined by change and progress, while taking readers along on an eloquent journey of self-discovery that no one should miss. Brown Girl Dreaming is a National Book Award and Newberry Honor winner.
The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
When The Story That Cannot Be Told was on submission, a friendly editor sent me a copy of this Newberry Honor book, drawing kind comparisons to my own, so I put it on my to-be-read shelf. A few months later, I finally picked the book up, and though I’m a fairly slow reader, once I got started the rest of the world simply stopped. I nearly finished it in one sitting. Bradley’s novel follows Ada and her younger brother, Jamie, who are sent away to the country outside London for their safety during World War II. Ada, who has been abused her whole life because of her club foot, discovers the real meaning of family in her new home, as well as the importance of self-respect. I’m sure I would have loved this book as a child for many reasons, not the least of which is the pony named Butter and the tense climax of the novel. As an adult, I reveled in the carefully crafted, beautiful language and the meaningful subtext layered throughout, as well as the author’s inclusion of a queer main character.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
I’ll admit it up front: I’m a huge fan of Applegate, and I always have been. She was one of my favorite authors as a child, back when I knew her by her initials. Several of her books fit this list, but The One and Only Ivan is a must-read. This Newberry Medal winner puts readers behind the eyes of a captive gorilla who loves to paint. Inspired by a true story about a real animal, Applegate’s touching novel reveals some very human truths about friendship and the power of art. Even if you’ve never read her other work—and you should—you just can’t miss this one.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
It’s really hard to pick only one novel by Reynolds for this list, but the award-winning Track series is a great place to start if you’re new to his work. The series follows four kids on a middle school track team as they try to overcome their differences to qualify for the Junior Olympics. Each book is told from the perspective of its title character, and this stunning start to the series will have readers of all ages hooked with its snappy, casual voice and layered, dynamic protagonist, who’s just trying his best—like all of us—to carve out his own path.
Hurricane Season by Nicole Melleby
This 2019 debut novel interweaves themes of art, music, and mental illness into a story that’s bursting with heart. Sixth-grader Fig’s father is a struggling composer whose undiagnosed bipolar disorder worsens during hurricane season. Readers of all ages will be captivated by Melleby’s lyrical prose and tense plot, which seems to speed up with the surging storms. The novel also includes both a queer parent and a protagonist questioning her sexuality—both of which will hopefully become more common in middle grade books as diverse representation and inclusiveness in children’s literature continues to grow.
Refugee by Alan Gratz
This New York Times bestselling historical novel, praised often for its authenticity, tells the stories of three different children separated by decades, each striking out from places fraught with political violence to find new homes where they can be safe. Although set in very different times and locations, Gratz’s themes of survival and courage serve as a powerful bonding agent to this affecting and singular work of fiction, which any thoughtful reader will find moving.
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
Set in 1947, just after Britain’s rule of India has ended, this Newberry Honor book follows Nisha, a half-Muslim, half-Hindu girl, who must embark on a journey to escape the newly established Pakistan for what her father hopes is a safer home in India. I’m always a big fan of historical fiction, especially when it’s set in places I don’t already know a lot about, and when talented authors, like Hiranandani, manage to make issues from the past relevant to modern readers. The epistolary structure of this book is also unique, and is a big draw—the story is told through letters Nisha writes to her dead mother. No matter how old you are, you’ll find something to love in this beautiful examination of the value of hope in a divided world.
All of Me by Chris Baron
I’ve read so many amazing middle grade titles this year that I could have come up with a list three times this long just composed of 2019 debuts. I restrained myself, somehow, but still couldn’t keep from adding All of Me by Chris Baron. This novel-in-verse tells the story of Ari, an adolescent, Jewish boy who attempts to go on a diet one pivotal summer after experiencing bullying about his weight. Adults and kids alike will be blown away by this complex and poignant exploration of body image issues and how we can all learn to accept our perfect imperfections.
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien
I think many people, even avid readers, are sometimes a bit surprised when they discover that The Hobbit was written for children, most likely a middle grade audience, so I thought it important to include this here at the end. I first read this classic, a prequel to The Lord of the Rings series, when I was a bit older—early high school, I think—but it sent me absolutely spinning down the rabbit hole of high fantasy, from which I’ve never quite climbed back out. If you aren’t familiar with the book or the movies, the story follows Bilbo Baggins, the titular “hobbit,” on his first great adventure, which is set in motion by the wizard Gandalf. But, of course, this book about much, much more than that.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include J. Kasper Kramer’s debut novel, The Story That Cannot Be Told, out now from Atheneum Books for Young Readers! – Ed.
The Story That Cannot Be Told by J. Kasper Kramer
Ileana has always collected stories. Some are about the past, before the leader of her country tore down her home to make room for his golden palace; back when families had enough food, and the hot water worked on more than just Saturday nights. Others are folktales like the one she was named for, which her father used to tell her at bedtime. But some stories can get you in trouble, like the dangerous one criticizing Romania’s Communist government that Uncle Andrei published—right before he went missing. Fearing for her safety, Ileana’s parents send her to live with the grandparents she’s never met, far from the prying eyes and ears of the secret police and their spies, who could be any of the neighbors. But danger is never far away. Now, to save her family and the village she’s come to love, Ileana will have to tell the most important story of her life. Read an exclusive excerpt from The Story That Cannot be Told here.