Ah, the good old school days… I guess there’s nothing like university to make you nostalgic for when you were a kid and had tons of free time, even though you didn’t realize it back then. And of course, part of those childhood memories have to do with reading. When I was in elementary school, I was a voracious reader, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to go through at least two books a day. Some stuff I read is pretty well known. There’s Harry Potter, which I’ve been obsessed with since the day I first read it. And like many of my fellow classmates, I loved The Boxcar Children, The Babysitters Club, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Nancy Drew, Redwall, all of Enid Blyton’s and Roald Dahl’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia, the American Girl stories – you name it. However, there are also books that I adored but that are less well known, and I’m going to share eleven of these series/authors with you today. I love all of these from the bottom of my heart, and even if you are no longer a middle grade reader, I’m sure that won’t lessen your enjoyment of them.
Andrew Clements’ School Stories
Since I started this post by reminiscing about school, it seems only fitting to start this list with Andrew Clements, an author who has written tons of standalones that take place at school. His books explore ideas of friendship, teaching and learning, growing up, finding your place in the world, and are just so relatable to any elementary school kid or teacher. I have reread most of these books several times and must admit that some of my copies are in pretty bad shape by now. Especially The School Story, which is about a sixth grader who decides to publish her own novel together with her best friend. I learned so much about the publishing industry and writing from this story, and it was definitely one of the books that inspired me to keep writing myself. I also love A Week in the Woods, which is about a rich boy who moves to a new town and gets really interested in wildlife, Frindle, which follows a boy who makes up a new word, and The Last Holiday Concert, in which a school’s music teacher is fired due to budget cuts and his students decide to make their last concert extra special . But all of Andrew Clements’ books are excellent, heartwarming, and educational, so I’m sure that there is one out there for everyone.
Adrian Fogelin’s Books
Maybe my reason for liking these books so much is because the feel so real and familiar – all of Adrian Fogelin’s companion novels follow protagonists from a group of friends growing up in Tallahassee, Florida, which is also the city I spent most of my childhood in. Fogelin just captures exactly what it’s like to live in Tallahassee, but her books have more than that. They put so much emphasis on friendship and family, while not shying away from heavy topics like prejudice, racism, neglect, poverty, foster care, and more. Fogelin’s characters are real and diverse and it was always great to see them from another character’s perspective in a different book. My favorite book of hers is probably Crossing Jordan, which follows a girl named Cass. Cass’s family is white and relatively poor and when a black family moves in next door, her father does not want Cass to have anything to do with them. However, Cass and Jemmie, the next-door neighbors’ oldest child, soon bond over their shared love for running and reading, and the two of them begin a secret friendship. This book, like so many of Fogelin’s, deals with dark underlying issues of American society, but it is also funny, heartfelt, sad, and hopeful. If you haven’t tried these books yet, I highly recommend them to anyone looking for a good middle grade contemporary.
Carl Hiaasen’s Books
These are some more Florida nostalgia books, I guess, but I’m sure even non-Floridians will enjoy them. Actually, these might be among the better-known books on this list, but I still think they deserve more attention than they’ve been getting. All of these stories focus heavily on Florida’s wildlife and preserving it, and they are action-packed, funny, and utterly unique all at once. My favorites here are Flush and Chomp – I can’t pick between them. I mean, with a toilet seat on the cover, Flush is already pretty hard to resist, but it’s definitely more than that. The story follows two siblings whose father was arrested for sinking a casino boat. However, Noah and Abby soon find out that their dad had a good reason for doing so – and they are determined to bring the real criminal to justice. Chomp is a completely different story, but just as good. It follows a boy whose dad owns all kinds of animals, which sometimes get to star in TV commercials. However, their new job is very different from previous ones – the star of an extremely popular survivalist TV show wants some excitement on his Everglades adventure and decides Wahoo and his dad might just be the people to make his show more exciting. I laughed out loud several times while reading all of these books – but these are not just comedies: the characters feel utterly real, as does the Florida setting, and the plot is always ingenious and adventurous. I definitely recommend these to anyone who loves the outdoors!
Everything by Gordon Korman
Gordon Korman is one of those authors who writes just about anything – spy stories, historical fiction, school stories, adventure novels – if you can name it, Gordon Korman has probably written something in that direction. Despite the wide range, though, I have yet to find a book of his I don’t love. There’s the Chasing the Falconers and Kidnapped series about a brother and a sister who run away from a juvenile detention center to prove that their parents were framed for crimes against the government (these are probably my favorites). There is the Everest series about an expedition that is trying to get the youngest person ever to summit Mount Everest. The Island series about a group of kids being shipwrecked… There are so many awesome stories to discover here, and despite each book being relatively short, there is tons in there – family, friendship, loss, action, betrayal, character growth. These books are awesome!
John Bellairs’ Books
Now we get to some of the darker stuff I loved as a kid. John Bellairs’ books are creepy and have a definite Gothic vibe. He has written several series, each taking place in the 1950s and following a young Catholic boy and his friends as they try to save their town from curses, witchcraft and dark sorcery. My favorite of these series by far is the Johnny Dixon series. Johnny lives with his grandparents, since his dad is a pilot in the Korean War, and because he is rather shy, he has difficulty making friends. However, he soon strikes an unlikely friendship with the grumpy old Professor Childermass and the two of them have all kinds of occult adventures…
The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins
Since everyone is so obsessed with The Hunger Games, I am kind of surprised that these books are not that well-known, because I think they are certainly on par with Suzanne Collins’ second series. This series follows a boy named Gregor, who lives in a New York apartment with his mom, grandmother, and two sisters. One day Gregor and his younger sister Boots accidentally fall down a laundry chute and discover the Underland – a place where humans and giant bats, rats, cockroaches and lots of other animals live together in a state of constant tension. This series is absolutely amazing – it is unlike anything else I have ever read, has excellent world-building, great friendships, great villains, and it deals with heavy topics like war in a way that is accessible to children but still doesn’t gloss over the horrors involved. It has funny moments, it has sad moments, it has loveable moments. And I don’t think any book has ever made me cry as much as I did at the end of Gregor and the Code of Claw. Suzanne Collins’ first series is anything a reader could want, and I highly recommend that you don’t overlook it.
Cryptid Hunters and other books by Roland Smith
Actually, Roland Smith has written several series, one of which Cryptid Hunters is the first book of. I’m mentioning this book separately because it’s kind of hard to say where certain series’ distinctions are – many of Smith’s series actually intertwine in the course of the next few books, and this one also works as a standalone. So I decided to focus on Cryptid Hunters, since this is also my favorite of Roland Smith’s books. It follows Grace and Marty O’Hara, twins who are sent to live with their uncle on his private island after their parents disappeared in a plane crash. However, they soon discover that their uncle is anything but ordinary – he is a cryptozoologist and has made it his life’s mission to discover animals that nobody ever believed existed. Soon, Grace and Marty find themselves swept up in a mission to the Congo to discover what might be some of the world’s last living dinosaurs. But they aren’t the only ones looking. This is one of the most action-packed middle-grade sci-fi books I know, but in addition, it is also very character driven. Grace and Marty have a lot to learn about themselves, as well as their family history. And their uncle and his assistants also have their own demons to face. I read this book over and over again when I was in fifth grade, and there have been plenty more rereads since. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a good adventure story, although I have to say that sadly, the other books in the series aren’t as good. Don’t get me wrong – they’re still good, but I don’t think they’re up to the standard of this one.
The Children of the Red King Series by Jenny Nimmo
I’ve heard people compare this to Harry Potter and there are certainly similarities – there’s magic, there’s a British boarding school setting, there’s a band of friends fighting against evil. Still, I think that the Harry Potter comparison sets the wrong expectation, because this series has a completely different feel to it. It’s set in Wales, and I think it captures the mystical sense prevalent in Welsh mythology very well. It’s very much about the balance between good and evil and focuses on ancestral ties that have shaped the community into what it is. The story follows a boy named Charlie Bone, who discovers one day that he can hear what is going on in photographs. Charlie’s paternal family, who have a history of strange magical talents, immediately whisk him off to Bloor’s Academy, a school that teaches children gifted in art, drama, or music – and, secretly, children who are endowed with very different talents. This series has a huge scope and there is much more going on than Charlie just attending school: it’s about a battle against evil, about a family trying to find its way back together, about teenagers finding their place in the world. I was extremely obsessed with this series in elementary school. My writing at the time badly plagiarized it and my friends and I played lots of games based on the magic system of this series. I highly, highly recommend this.
The Septimus Heap Series by Angie Sage
This is yet another excellent middle-grade fantasy series that has a very unique setting and magic system which is difficult to explain in just a few words. Basically, some people in this world (which is actually our world very far in the future) are trained in magyk and become wizards. The story takes places in a town called the Castle, which is ruled by a queen and home to the Wizard Tower, where the ExtraOrdinary Wizard presides and magyk is taught to others. One day, however, peace in the castle is shattered. The Queen and ExtraOrdinary Wizard are assassinated and, although it doesn’t seem that significant at the time, the seventh son of an extraordinary wizard called Silas Heap is kidnapped and presumed dead. Since they lost their son, Silas and his wife agree to take in an orphaned baby girl – not knowing that this is actually the princess who survived the assassination. Years pass without incident, but then the darke stirs again and events are set in motion that will determine the future of the magykal world.
The Guardians of Ga’Hoole Series by Kathryn Lasky
(Picture from https://www.kathrynlasky.com/assets/covers/allowls.jpg)
Maybe part of my obsession with this series has to do with the fact that it’s a fantasy series about owls. I mean, that’s basically my dream combination right there. But I think it’s more than that. Even though this is about owls, not humans, this world is rich in mythology and deals with some very human themes: love, war, betrayal, family, bravery. The series begins when a young barn owl named Soren falls out of his nest and is kidnapped by an evil organization of owls trying to build their own army. Together with a friend, Soren manages to escape and clings to his faith that the childhood stories he heard about brave and honest owls living at the Great Tree on the Island of Ga’Hoole are real. Soren is determined to find the tree and become one of the guardians himself, not knowing what that dream truly means for him and his family.
Warriors by Erin Hunter
There are tons of books in this series by now, but before you get overwhelmed, you should be aware that the overarching series actually consists of several separate six-book series and standalones. I’d definitely recommend reading the first two book series – unfortunately, I think the series goes a bit downhill from there and especially after the fourth series, it gets a bit repetitive (not bad, by any means, but I just don’t think it’s up to the standard of the first books). To put it briefly, this is a series about cats that live in clans, kind of like Native American tribes. One day, a house cat called Rusty gets adopted by one of these clans to be trained as a warrior and the story goes off from there. Though it might be surprising for a series all about cats, this is an extremely political fantasy story about growing up, acceptance, war, religion, hatred and love, and, just generally, life. I’m not sure why this series hasn’t gotten more attention because in my eyes, it definitely deserves it!
So – that’s it for recommendations today. If you’d like some more, just let me know! Since I focused more on series or several books by one author here, I might do another post on standalones at some point, if anyone’s interested 😉