I learned to read when I was 4. By first grade I was reading chapter books for 5th graders. So by the time I got to the age where most kids read middle grade books, I had graduated to Stephen King and Charles Dickens.
One of the things I love most about my two favorite authors is that their books tend to have a young boy in them. Especially King almost always has an 11 or 12 year old character and there’s always a coming-of-age theme around that kid no matter what the story is about. I love coming-of-age stories. 12 is probably my favorite age for a kid, because it’s so cool to watch them discover the world beyond the cocoon of early childhood.
As an adult, becoming a children’s librarian made me go backward in time and start reading books for kids again. It’s probably the best thing I ever did for myself, because it helped me to choose books for my own kids.
Don’t worry about reading levels
You know I’m not a fan of reading levels, and if that story doesn’t tell you why, I don’t know what will. If my teachers and parents had tried to hold me to reading levels when I was young, they might have stymied my love of reading and ruined my favorite way of discovering the world. I might have ended up making my boys stick to reading levels and they wouldn’t have had the pleasure of Dickens before they were 10 or be ready for All Quiet on the Western Front now (which we are thoroughly, thoroughly enjoying even though it’s very sad).
Since we began homeschooling, I have chosen books that will let my boys enjoy that coming-of-age experience, and middle grade books are fantastic for that. The reason I recommend middle grade for all ages is that they help kids understand how to navigate the world. Navigating the world is hard, especially if you’re 12 years old and you can’t decide whether you’re a child or you’re becoming a grownup. The lessons middle grade books teach are incomparable, so whether your kid is 5 or 15, he should be exposed to them.
Navigating the world
There are so many new things to understand when you’re 12, and it doesn’t hurt to learn about some of it when you’re younger (so you know what to expect) or to be reminded of how to handle a situation when you’re older (in case you forgot or never learned).
Life isn’t always fair
When a child has been taken care of for a decade, hitting the real world where they have to make their own decisions and live with them can be hard. Middle school is tough for a reason. Reading a book that lets them know they aren’t the only ones dealing with unfairness can not only help them feel normal, it can teach them how to handle the situation (or how not to).
What to do with a secret
The secrets of a tween can be much more mature than the secrets of a young child. Keeping secrets is always touchy, but as your children grow up the secrets can get much more dangerous. If they’re struggling with such a secret, a good book can help them decide what to do with it.
One of the biggest struggles any child endures is letting go of childhood. Learning how to make mistakes and learn from them, how to take care of themselves, and how to handle the friendships they choose is a lot of newness for a kid that’s used to mama or dada doing everything for her. Middle grade books touch on this topic regularly.
Heading into puberty
Oh, so much to deal with. Body changes. Physical attraction. Brain changes. All these things are the reality of every single human being at some point. I mean, who knew that some day you’d want to kiss a girl or hold a boy’s hand? How could you ever have expected you’d be the tallest kid in your class one day, or the shortest, or the first one to grow hair on your face? Kids need to know they aren’t weird, and middle grade books can show them just how normal they are.
Communicating for yourself
Your friends ask you a question. There’s no one to answer it but you. Or your friends are talking about something you don’t really understand yet. Do you ask or do you pretend you know all about the subject? Choppy waters there. Kids are used to having the same opinions as their parents or even having their parents answer for them, and suddenly they realize they can answer for themselves. It’s heady stuff, but it is also terribly confusing. Yeah, there are middle grade books about that.
Some of our favorites
There are so many other new things kids have to discover as they navigate their second decade. A good story can prep them, remind them, teach them, let them know they aren’t alone.
We have been reading middle grade together since the boys were toddlers. They’ve been reading it on their own since they could read. I’ve been reading it for nearly 40 years (goodness, I’m old!).
We have some favorites that have helped us all understand the world around us a little better. In no particular order, they are:
Not really written as a middle grade book but starring a 14 year old boy in the deep South, this novel about navigating gossip is beautiful and timeless. Will’s grandfather creates a scandal when he announces he’s going to marry a much younger woman just 3 weeks after Grandma dies. Will is the only person in town who approves of the match and he has to watch everyone else come to terms with it while being there for his grandfather. Talk about growing up.
Ludlow is running from a frightening past when he arrives in Parvus Pravil. Having nothing and no one to call his own, he teams up with a pawnbroker recently arrived in the village. But this is no simple pawnbroker. Joe Zabbidou trades in secrets. In return for a safe place to live, Ludlow takes on the job of transcribing secrets into Zabbidou’s Black Book. But can he trust a man who knows everything about everybody?
Is there anything funnier than this charming tale of a really disgusting bet? Billy bets Alan he can eat 15 worms in 15 days. If you can keep from upchucking, you’ll enjoy the hilarity.
I love this story. I love the imagination. I love Paterson’s gentle handling of tragedy. A must-read for all kids as far as I’m concerned, this one touches on so many of the problems a tween might have to deal with, not the least of which is death hitting close to home.
Got an animal lover? Absent parent? This book is the go-to. When Opal meets Winn-Dixie at the grocery store, she brings the dog home. Their love for each other and adventures together give her the courage to finally ask her dad about her mom (who left when Opal was 3). Having been through a similar thing with Big, I can tell you that DiCamillo handles the situation beautifully.
I can’t say enough about this one. Set in a Dystopian world, The Giver touches on themes of acceptance, freedom, and and the importance of the individual. In a futuristic society, married couples are allowed to have exactly 2 children, careers are assigned at age 12, the old live in group homes until they are ‘released’ with great ceremony, and there is no pain. But there is also no memory of what came before. Except for Jonas, who is training to be the revered Receiver of Memory. What he discovers reveals an hypocrisy in his society he’s not sure he can live with.
Okay, so I could go on and on and on… I mean, have you met me?
All of these books will teach your kids a little about the world and how they can make their way through it with maturity, flair, or at least strength. If you haven’t read them with your littles already, you have time. So get reading.