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Teen Reads for Middle Grades

by Anita Silvey
 | Oct 15, 2014

The last 10 years have been called “a golden age” for books for young adults and certainly publishers have focused on titles for readers ages 13 on up. Although many of these books will be enjoyed best by older teens, here’s a list of titles from the past few years ideal for ages 13-15.


Coaltown Jesus by Ron Koertge

“In spare, lean verse, Ron Koertge takes readers on a broken young boy’s spiritual journey. He explores one of the most serious questions of adolescence: ‘Is there a God and what is my relationship to Him?’ He builds a plot almost completely dependent on ideas and philosophy. And he creates a provocative book that challenges assumptions about the son of God and religion. For this is no cardboard, conventional Jesus–but a modern day hipster who could convince even a reluctant adolescent boy that he and God exist. Coaltown Jesus tackles serious questions and does so in an approachable, readable format.”

Tangerine by Edward Bloor

“Over the last decade, because of soccer’s obvious advantages—an exciting game, team play, and inexpensive equipment—the sport has been embraced by American children. Consequently, a lot of books about this sport have been published… Bloor brilliantly explores so many things in this book—sibling relationships, sports drama, the environment, and the tensions of race and economic class. He also creates Paul Fisher, one of the most endearing sports heroes in the children’s literature cannon. In the seventh grade Paul and his family move to Tangerine, FL—once a citrus paradise. But the groves of trees have been burned and new housing developments placed over them. However, because of destruction to the native environment, these new residential areas face severe problems like muck fires that constantly burn, or termites that eat their way out of tree roots. Torrential rains happen every afternoon; lightning strikes all the time, sometimes even killing children. Into this disordered landscape, Paul and his highly dysfunctional family immediately begin to add to the chaos.”

We Were Liars by E. Lockheart

“Exploring the world of the extremely rich, this realistic novel is set on a privately held island off the coast of Massachusetts where four friends, three of them cousins, vacation during the summer… With a protected and well-preserved veneer of wealth and privilege, the Sinclairs are, as the title tells us, not particularly given to truth-telling. In fact, the book has one of the most engaging, unreliable narrators since Holden Caulfield of TheCatcher in the Rye. From the title, readers know that they cannot trust 17-year-old Cadence Sinclair Eastman, who relates the events that take place on her family’s enclave. Slowly, the details of this family’s less than ideal life emerge, and in addition to the mix of alcoholic parents and the estate’s ownership being fought over, four rebellious teenagers bring their own brand of destruction to the family. Much like the adult thrillerGone GirlWe Were Liars twists and turns until its end, pulling readers along at a breathless pace… A spare, lean text makes the book quite accessible for readers aged 13 and up.”

Curse of the Blue Tattoo by L.A. Meyer

Curse of the Blue Tattoo, set in the early 1800s and the second volume in Meyer’s Bloody Jack Adventures, continues the saga of Jacky Faber, London orphan, who dressed up as a boy and shipped out on the H.M.S. Dolphin. In this book, Jacky has been returned to shore, but not London. Placed in the Lawson Peabody School for Young Girls in Boston, the intrepid Jacky, who faced down pirates, meets her most difficult challenge yet: How do you fight like a lady? In an establishment in which Jacky is decidedly common and the other girls born with silver spoons in their mouths, her instructors want her to master embroidery, deportment, music, and art… If you fall in love with Jacky there are many other volumes of her tale. What I particularly love about Curse of the Blue Tattoo is the way Meyer skillfully weaves together American, British, and Boston history. It never overwhelms the story but certainly inspired me to read about the post-Colonial history of Boston. I hope it does the same for some inquiring young readers. All readers can certainly go along for the ride, enjoying the high jinx of an extremely attractive protagonist.”

Krabat & the Sorcerer’s Mill by Otfried Preussler

“For several years, our book of the day—Krabat & the Sorcerer’s Mill by Otfried Preussler—has been available only in libraries. But in September, the New York Review published this singular title in their children’s collection. First appearing in the United States in 1972 under the title The Satanic Mill, the book has long been considered one of the great German masterpieces for children of the twentieth century and has inspired writers such as Neil Gaiman and Cornelia Funke. Since it has never been as widely known in the United States as it deserves, I hope the new edition helps it reach its audience. Krabat was one of those books that changed the way I looked at the world; its imagery has haunted me for more than forty years.”

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

“On the bestseller list in the United States since in appeared in 2006,The Book Thief has been used in classrooms from fifth grade through high school. It answers the question: What should young readers pick up after The Diary of Anne Frank? … Using the audacious narrative voice of death himself (third-person, omniscient in the extreme), Zusak introduces readers first to the character of 9-year-old Liesel Meminger who is being delivered, along with her brother who dies, to the Hubermans of Himmel Street in Molching. A modern Anne of Green Gables, Liesel becomes the foster child of the Hubermans. They shelter her in Nazi Germany even though they are poor and she comes from a Communist family. On her way to them, Liesel steals the first of many books, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. She can neither read nor write, but her foster father, Hans, teaches her how to do both from this slim volume.”

Graphic Novels

The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds

Various versions of The Odyssey have been created over the years, to make this story accessible to younger readers. In 2010 Gareth Hinds rendered an exciting version of this great story in a graphic novel format. Young readers watch Telemachus try to deal with his mother Penelope’s suitors; they find themselves trapped in claustrophobic illustration panels with the Cyclops; they see Odysseus on the sea, battled by the elements, as he tries to make his way home. Through alternating text blocks that provide the story line with frequent illustration sequences relaying the action, Hinds presents a great hero saga. Now Odysseus can stand beside Spider-Man and all the other action figures beloved to comic book readers. Yet at the same time Hinds protects the integrity of the original text.

Little White Duck by Na Liu

When books for American children focus on other parts of the world, they tend to be in line with accepted American political thinking. But told as a series of short stories, Little White Duckstands apart from that trend presenting a positive portrait of Maoist China … Almost every child has flying dreams, but this version, showing a graceful crane, presents that dream in a different cultural context. …readers experience, from Quin’s perspective, the sad day when Mao died. And they hear stories about her daily life, like the four pests that the children help eradicate. A splendid New Year celebration and feast round out Qin’s narrative. During the book Qin presents a positive message about how the Maoist government made her father and mother’s education possible; and she looks with distaste on the old China, where people have not embraced the new Communist thinking. The final story, ‘Little White Duck,’ explores the issues of the haves/have nots in a Communist society. In the end, Qin emerges as a very real child, one worth learning about and appreciating no matter how different her experiences may be.”

The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang

“Most of Gene’s brilliant output, which includes Boxers & Saintsand American Born Chinese, was written for a teenage audience. But this year, he teamed up with Sonny Liew to craft a graphic novel for the 11- to 14-year-old set called The Shadow Hero. The book’s backstory is fascinating: The Shadow Hero grew out of Gene’s lifelong passion for comic books, particularly the classic comics of the early part of the 20th century. As a comics fan, he was excited to explore the work of Chu Hing, one of the first Asian Americans to publish comics, who eventually worked for Marvel. Gene had always been intrigued by the idea that superheroes hold particular power for minorities who face discrimination, and found evidence of this in Chu Hing’s story. Hing longed to create an Asian superhero, but his publishers prevented him from moving forward with this idea. After discovering Chu Hing’s World War II superhero, Green Turtle, Gene honored his work by writing a more contemporary script for this Asian-American character.”

Narrative Nonfiction/Poetry

The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez

“Now a university professor, Jiménez began his journey toward United States citizenship as a child when he and his family were illegal immigrants and migrant workers in California. … In the The Circuit, he explores his own story, showing it through the eyes of young Francisco. That life begins as he enters the United States, “Under the Wire,” and ends with the immigrant guard (INS) removing him from his eighth grade classroom for deportation. In between, the family constantly moves around searching for work. Francisco struggles with English and has to repeat first grade because he does not understand anything his teacher says.”

Carver by Marilyn Nelson

“Marilyn Nelson has long distinguished herself as a poet for adults. Marilyn met editor Stephen Roxburgh while he was defending a picture book by Margot Zemach, Jake and Honeybunch Go to Heaven, against charges of racism. Later Roxburgh convinced Nelson that she should also attempt to write for a young audience. The resulting book was Carver, which won awards, garnered fabulous critical attention, and convinced Nelson that she had something to say to children and teens.”

The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin

“I welcome the unique story that appears in Steve Sheinkin’sThe Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights. The author of Bomb and The Notorious Benedict Arnold, Steve focuses his new book on the American Navy in World War II, and particularly on the black servicemen stationed at California’s Port Chicago. He opens this account with a chilling quote: ‘At some time, every Negro in the armed services asks himself what he is getting for the supreme sacrifice he is called upon to make.’ … With his usual craft and skill, Sheinkin has set out his theme and subject matter in one dramatic chapter. He then takes readers quickly through the history of blacks fighting in American wars and begins his exploration of the conditions for black servicemen in World War II. Readers are introduced to those training for the navy, who must struggle against patterns of discrimination well-worn and accepted.”

The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf

“On July 13, 1864, John Jacob Astor IV was born in Rhinebeck, NY. He would become the richest man in the world—a land developer, inventor, and even author of a science fiction novel. Today Astor is best remembered as one of the victims of the Titanic. … He serves as one of the multiple narrators of today’s book The Watch that Ends the Night by Allan Wolf. This amazing re-creation of the journey of the Titanic provides ample opportunity for the rich and poor—even the ship’s rats—to tell their version of the story. When I first read this book, I thought it could be best used in high school. But I was happy to learn from my good friend Betty Carter that it has been extremely popular in Texas middle schools, grades six through eight.”

With a unique career in children's books, Anita Silvey has served both as the editor of The Horn Book Magazine and publisher of a major children's book imprint. She is the author of several books, including Henry Knox: Bookseller, Soldier Patriot and I’ll Pass For Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. Her latest project, The Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac, is an interactive website she describes as a "daily love letter to a book or author," with each entry offering a glimpse into the story behind the story.

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  1. kendi kamundi | Oct 26, 2015

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