A Book Lover's Middle Grade Gift List

Monday, November 27, 2017

I love reading middle-grade fiction, which may be why I write it. With the gift-giving season upon us, I decided to share some of my favorites. I also decided to follow a theme and concentrate on middle-grade protagonists who are struggling to accept their differences and/or rise above them. Since I am only including books that I have read in the last two or three years, you might notice a preponderance of historical fiction. And, unfortunately, most of them have female protagonists, making them less appealing to boys. If you are shopping for boys, check out Wonder and Half a World Away, both described below.


  • The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is one of my favorites and my clear winner among those published in the past two or three years. The protagonist was born with a club foot and has led a very restricted life. The story moves from London to the English countryside and begins in 1939 at the start of World War II, which is the war of the title. I just finished reading the sequel titled The War I Finally Won, which takes place a year later but refers to a different war—this one inside the protagonist. Both books are excellent, and I highly recommend them.
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio is a very inspiring contemporary story about a boy who was born with facial deformities. I haven’t seen the movie, but I did read the book earlier this year. Amazon kept prompting me to buy it and I kept refusing because I thought it would be depressing. When I finally gave in, I discovered that the story isn’t depressing at all. A good book for boys as well as girls, you will even enjoy reading it yourself.
  • I don’t recommend The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for this age group. It’s a good book and I liked it, but there was some language that I was uncomfortable with. In addition, the autistic protagonist’s thought process is complicated and, although that’s part of the point, I think it might be too confusing for middle-grade readers.


  • The Colored Car by Jean Alicia Elster takes place in 1937. The protagonist has grown up in a black community in Detroit and doesn’t understand anything about prejudice until the summer she visits her grandmother in Tennessee and has to ride in the “colored car.” Back at home, she begins to notice the subtle discrimination that surrounds her in the North, and the way she views the world is forever changed.
  • Desert Jewels by Kaye Page doesn’t rank with the others on this list, but I had to include it because, after all, I wrote it. A story about the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the book has a protagonist with a Japanese father and a Caucasian mother. In those days, that meant her family was shunned by people from both the Japanese and the white communities. But by the time the story ends, Emi has learned that her value doesn’t depend on her ancestry.
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan could fit here or in the next group because both ancestry and poverty are strong themes. Esperanza has grown up as a spoiled heiress in Mexico. When circumstances force her to flee with her mother to California during the Great Depression, she must suddenly adjust to a new life. The lot of a Mexican farm worker is not an easy one, and the reader joins her as she tries to rise above it.  

Poverty and Homelessness

  • Hold Fast by Blue Balliett is a contemporary story about a girl who loses her home and must move into a homeless shelter. The ending feels a little unrealistic, but the description of life in a homeless shelter really held my attention.
  • The Truth about Sparrows by Marion Hale is another story that takes place during the Great Depression. The protagonist doesn’t want to move, but there is nothing left for her family in Missouri. She hates Texas, where she works in the cannery to help her disabled father. But when times get tough, she discovers that a community can exist anywhere.

Foreign Adoptions

  • Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata is the other book that is good for boys. The protagonist was adopted from Romania four years earlier, when he was eight, and he is a problem child. He thinks the child they are in the process of adopting from Kazakhstan is a replacement, and he doesn’t blame them for wanting to get rid of him. After all, he doesn’t love them—or does he? This book shows the difficulties that come with foreign adoptions, but it also highlights the joys.

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