Whether you are in the mood for lighthearted fiction about the struggles of middle school or a fantastical and fast-paced adventure, here are a dozen recommendations to bulk up your summer to-be-read pile.
The Girl in the Well Is Me by Karen Rivers
“The thing is, if God is dead, who is looking after us?”
Karen Rivers’ pithy middle grade novel about a girl trapped in a well is an onion—at its surface, we just have a girl who is tricked into falling into a well, much to the delight of a Mean Girls-esque crew at her school. As we progress through the story, our heroine, Kammie, begins to reveal exactly why she recently moved to Texas, why her father is in prison, and why she even cares what these girls think. As Kammie begins to suffer from oxygen deprivation, she thinks back to the events that led up to her escapade and even hallucinates about talking goats. By the end of its 215 pages, I was affected, emotionally, by Kammie’s story—it’s certainly not what it seems at first glance. Highly recommended for a quick, thoughtful read
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson
The first book in a historical fiction trilogy, this novel follows the arduous journey of 15-year-old Lee Westfall, from Georgia to California during the Gold Rush of 1849. Lee is special in that, like some people can sense water in the ground, she can sense gold—it “will be like a string tugging my chest.” The problem is, her nefarious uncle Hiram Westfall has murdered her parents and is now chasing Lee in the hopes of using her gold-sensing abilities. An exciting, dramatic, and interesting take on the Gold Rush, Rae Carson’s latest is full of bold action and well-defined characters.
Kalahari by Jessica Khoury
It sounds so simple—five teens go on an educational safari in the Kalahari Desert with fellow teen Sarah as one of their guides. Things go terribly wrong, however, when Sarah’s father is hunted by poachers. The group of teens must trek across the desert in hopes of finding assistance—but yet again, trouble strikes, this time in the form of a bonafide silver lion. When the group discovers the nefarious truth behind the silver lion, they become prime targets for an evil corporation bent on keeping it a secret. Full of twists and turns, and scientifically interesting, this is a fast-paced action-adventure that tween readers will love.
We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen
What do a 14-year-old snobby princess and a 13-year-old socially clueless nerd have in common? They are both made of molecules—a fact that does little to initially help the pair get along when their parents move in together. Ashley is still reeling from her parent’s divorce and father subsequently announcing he is gay; Stewart is still grappling with the death of his mother from cancer. When Ashley’s mother and Stewart’s father fall in love, the kids are thrown together and must learn how to live with each other. Full of feel good humor, Nielsen’s novel reminds us that no matter how different we may seem, we are fundamentally the same.
Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova
When new girl Peppi joins the art club, she doesn’t realize the deep and ongoing feud they have with the Science Club. When the two clubs must compete for space at a school fair, the competition is fierce. Complicating things is the fact that Peppi embarrassed herself by tripping over and yelling at quiet Jaime, a nerdy science club member. The two clubs are more similar than they think, and both have to be creative in order to win the competition. Peppi’s trial of fitting in and having her first crush is adorably illustrated in this graphic novel that captures the essence of the middle school experience.
As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds
Eleven-year-old Genie, a curious kid who uses Google on a daily basis to look for answers to life’s questions, and his older brother Ernie leave the creature comforts of their Brooklyn home to spend the summer with their paternal grandparents down South. Ernie soon discovers, to his dismay, that his grandparent’s rural Virginia home is an Internet-free zone. And his grandfather, who is blind, has secrets to keep–including a strange “nunya bidness” room. With loads of heart and humor, this is a perfect summer read.
El Deafo by Cece Bell
Cece is deaf (and a bunny), but she doesn’t let that stop her from achieving greatness and dreaming big as her superhero alter ego, El Deafo. Her new hearing aid, a Phonic Ear, allows her to have superhuman (or superbunny, as it were) hearing. Can she use her superhearing powers to make new friends? Author Cece Bell shows readers a unique and personal side of the Deaf experience with grace and vibrant illustrations.
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
There are some things you can always count on—the number of minutes in an hour, the rising and setting of the sun. Other things are unpredictable, such as life itself. Young Suzy’s former best friend recently died in a drowning accident. But Franny knew how to swim, so there has to be another explanation, Suzy believes—and latches onto the venomous Irukandji jellyfish as a prime suspect. Suzy is convinced they are the reason behind her friend’s untimely demise and is determined to find out why and how. This novel explores the grief of a young girl who just wants a rational, scientific explanation for something that makes no sense—the loss of a loved one. Artful prose and an interesting structure—centered around the scientific method—allow readers to experience Suzy’s journey to forgiveness and resilience.
Child Soldier by Jessica Dee Humphries and Michel Chikwanine
This non-fiction graphic novel deals with the physical and emotional aftereffects of being kidnapped and trained as a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The story itself is horrifying: when Michel was just five years old, he and a group of his friends were kidnapped at gunpoint and taken to a rebel training camp, where they were assaulted mercilessly. Luckily, Michel was able to escape a while later and meet up with his family–but the family was still in danger. They moved to a refugee camp and desperately tried to get visas to North America. Michel was granted a visa; one of his sisters was not, and she was never heard from again. When he gets to Canada, Michel is astonished: people here cared more about their cell phones and appearance than the fact that there are children killing and dying another continent away. “So I share my story, as painful as it is for me to tell you and as sad it is for you to hear,” he says, determined to not let this reprehensible practice continue quietly. The story and illustrations are well-done and poignant enough to invoke an emotional response but not frighten middle grade readers.
Drowned City by Don Brown
Most middle grade readers were only toddlers when Hurricane Katrina came ripping through the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coasts on August 29, 2005. Don Brown’s non-fiction graphic novel superbly illustrates the plight of the people left stranded in New Orleans, with no way to escape and with water rapidly rising by the foot. The peoples’ desperation is evident as they struggle to survive in a crowded Superdome and then migrate into Texas. Brown’s illustrations are subtle, yet show the depth of horror and emotion–but also hope–that came from the disaster.
Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres
Stef Soto, a seventh grader, is embarrassed: her father owns a run-down taco truck and insists on picking her up from school. While her dad is the purveyor of absolutely delicious food, his profession also leads other girls in the school to pick on Stef and call her the “Taco Queen”. When Stef learns that the food truck is coming under fire from local business owners, she begins to realize that her fondness for old Tia Perla goes deeper than she expected. Can she save her family’s food truck business and help her school’s art department gather funds for supplies? A lovable story, this is lighthearted and fun story–just don’t read it when you’re hungry.
Terror at Bottle Creek by Watt Key
Alligators, boars, cottonmouths, and bears–oh my. Thirteen-year-old Cort has grown up in the swampy delta of Alabama, riding along with his river-guide father. When a hurricane threatens the Gulf Coast, Cort finds himself solely responsible for the safety of two neighbor girls. They end up trapped as the wind whips, the rain thrashes, and the snakes bite. Complicating matters even further is an angry, snake-bit boar that Cort names Rusty. Cort must navigate through alligator-infested waters and angry native wildlife to find help for the two girls. Full of action, this book is great for reluctant readers, especially if they have already enjoyed Hatchet.
Amanda Buschmann is the librarian at Atascocita Middle School in Humble, TX. She enjoys inspiring others to read, the smell of books, and all things sparkly.