Reading in Between: 13 Diverse Titles for Middle School Readers | Great Books

Many tweens and young teens will see themselves in these middle grade and YA selections.


As many middle school librarians know, recommending titles to 11- to 14-year-old students can be a delicate balancing act, taking into account reading difficulty, complexity of plot, and maturity of content. Additionally, these students need works that can help them navigate tough topics and coming-of-age experiences surrounding their identity, friendships, family, and, at times, trauma. To feel validated in their school experience, many students also need books that reflect their family, culture, and home life.

As librarians search for titles that “match” a reader, some may find themselves leaning on young adult books that are more appropriate for older teens—books that may lack readability or cross the threshold of maturity for a particular child. But real life does not begin at high school. This roundup offers titles that address real-life topics at an accessible level for tweens and young teens. Featuring several #OwnVoices narratives, these books will diversify collections and help students who fall in between the two age categories see themselves represented in their school library program.

ACEVEDO, Elizabeth. Clap When You Land. HarperTeen. 2020. ISBN 9780062882769.
Gr 8-12–When a flight to the Dominican Republic crashes, Yahaira and Camino mourn the loss of their father. The untimely tragedy reveals the secret life of their beloved Papi and brings together two daughters who are completely unaware of one another. Acevedo explores the complexity of grief through alternating points of view and takes readers through the cultural dimensions of life in the Dominican Republic and the United States.

CALLENDER, Kacen. King and the Dragonflies. Scholastic. 2020. ISBN 9781338129335.
Gr 6-8–When Kingston’s brother Khalid suffers a fatal heart attack, the James family is forced to deal with an unspeakable loss. Kingston grapples with negative statements Khalid made toward his gay friend, Sandy, just before his death. The comments push King to abandon his friendship and to silence his own identity. When Sandy runs away from a physically violent home, King renews their bond and begins to view Sandy as a model of strength. Callender’s intersectional narrative amplifies the voice of a young Black boy struggling to share his identity in a homophobic culture at school and at home.

CHASE, Paula. Turning Point. Harper­Collins/Greenwillow. 2020. ISBN 9780062965660.
Gr 6-8–Best friends Rasheeda and Monique are separated by summer plans. Monique attends a ballet intensive in a predominantly white program, while Rasheeda participates in church activities under the watchful eye of her strict aunt. Monique feels confident until she engages with a new skill level and competition. Life becomes complicated as Rasheeda develops secret feelings for Mo’s brother. Chase highlights the strain of changing adolescent friendships and discomfort as a necessary ingredient for self-discovery and defining one’s path in the world.

COLBERT, Brandy. The Only Black Girls in Town. Little, Brown. 2020. ISBN 9780316456388.
Gr 5-8–Alberta is a rising seventh-grader, talented surfer, and the only Black girl in Ewing Beach. Just as Alberta feels increasingly misunderstood by her peers, Edie moves in next door, and she is no longer alone. Edie’s gothic style and New York life experiences help Alberta explore new perspectives and ideas. Alberta and Edie navigate family changes while uncovering the mystery identity of a woman whose journals are found in Edie’s bedroom. Colbert highlights microaggressions and misunderstandings experienced in a community that does not represent either protagonist while developing characters who are free to define themselves.

GINO, Alex. Rick. Scholastic. 2020. ISBN 9781338048100.
Gr 4-7–Rick starts middle school with one close friend, Jeff. When Jeff objectifies girls, makes homophoboic remarks, and dictates what is cool, Rick begins to outgrow the relationship. As Rick begins to question whether he is asexual, he starts attending the Rainbow Spectrum group after school but hides it from Jeff. Saturday afternoons with his Grandpa Ray, who reveals his secret love for cosplay, support Rick’s need to speak his own truth. While Gino’s narrative focuses on an asexual protagonist, it also answers questions and builds deeper understanding about the LGBTQIA+ spectrum for young readers.

HA, Robin. Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. 2020. ISBN 9780062685100.
Gr 7-9–Ha’s graphic memoir focuses on her move from Korea to Alabama. Arriving under the pretense of a vacation, Robin discovers her mother is actually getting married and her new household includes a stepsister and extended family. Readers witness daily frustrations at school, cultural isolation, and resentment of leaving Korea without closure. As she finds friendship and an escape in Japanese comics, she begins to realize her mother’s strength in pursuing a new life. Ha’s memoir paints an appreciative portrait of a mother who fought against the negative cultural perception of single parenthood and a daughter who overcame the hardships of leaving home.

JUNG, Mike. The Boys in the Back Row. Levine Querido. 2020. ISBN 9781646140114.
Gr 5-7–As best friends and bandmates, Matt and Eric are inseparable. An unexpected opportunity to participate in the band competition at World of Amazement leads them to simultaneously hatch a plan to attend DefenderCon. As they prepare for their last great adventure before Eric moves to New York, the boys endure bullying, homophobia, and toxic masculinity. Jung creates a protagonist who feels confident in his love for band and the bond of male friendship.

KIM, Jessica. Stand Up, Yumi Chung! Penguin/Kokila. 2020. ISBN 9780525554974.
Gr 4-7–Yumi struggles to fit in at Winston Preparatory Academy, and her home life revolves around an intense schedule supporting the family’s once-successful Korean barbecue restaurant. Yumi feels passionate about working on comedy routines but her parents are more concerned with grades and a scholarship to her school. When an opportunity to join a comedy camp unfolds, Yumi takes the seat of a student who never arrives, and a new identity. Quirky humor and the journey of a shy middle schooler finding confidence through her talent will resonate with students.

McANULTY, Stacy. Millionaires for the Month. Random. 2020. ISBN 9780593175255.
Gr 5-8–When Felix and Benji find a wallet and “borrow” $20 before returning it, they are challenged by billionaire Laura Friendly: With a penny doubled exponentially each day for an entire month, the boys must spend the entire amount of $5,368,709.12 without telling anyone or risk losing the real reward. Readers will find themselves entertained by the unbelievable challenges and hard lessons brought on by spending under strict rules. Offering opportunities for deeper discussion on privilege and integrity, this title is also guaranteed to prompt the ever popular “What would you do?” conversation.

NAYERI, Daniel. Everything Sad Is Untrue: (A True Story). Levine Querido. 2020. ISBN 9781646140008.
Gr 7-10–In this autobiographical novel, Nayeri shares fragmented memories of his early life in Iran and later as a refugee until his resettlement in Oklahoma. Framing his story in a series of nonlinear tales like Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, Daniel (formerly known as Khosrou) goes on to share the trauma of his family’s separation, the abruptness of fleeing his homeland, and the constant cultural hostility and misunderstanding of his Oklahoma classmates. While readers may note the unfamiliar plot structure, they will feel the pull of middle school stories of poop and triumph over bullies.

OGLE, Rex. Free Lunch. Norton. 2019. ISBN 9781324003601.
Gr 6-8–Ogle’s memoir recalls the beginning of his middle school experience and his struggle in an unstable and sometimes violent home environment. From the lunch lady who consistently publicizes his status in the free lunch program to the overwhelming responsibilities he faces as he cares for his younger sibling, Rex shares an intimate portrait of poverty and the complexity of a family struggling to stay afloat.

RHODES, Jewell Parker. Black Brother, Black Brother. Little, Brown. 2020. ISBN 9780316493802.
Gr 5-8–As a new student at Middlefield Prep, Donte is targeted by a bully named Alan. Teachers blame him for things he does not do until it snowballs into an arrest, which amplifies the struggles Donte faces within a multiracial family. His lighter-skinned brother, Trey, has a completely different experience. Donte decides to take up fencing to challenge Alan. The only caveat is Donte is more of a gamer, making it an uphill battle. A compelling story that addresses topics of colorism and institutional racism within schools and the legal system.

STONE, Nic. Clean Getaway. Random/Yearling. 2020. ISBN 9781984892973.
Gr 5-8–William “Scoob” Lamar takes off with G’ma in her newly purchased Winnebago to escape being grounded for trouble at school. However, he soon realizes that G’ma is not quite herself and is taking him on a predetermined journey down memory lane with the Green Book as a guide. Along the way, he discovers painful family secrets that remind him that love is complex and good people can still make mistakes. Stone addresses family relationships, segregation, and the Green Book in a way that fluidly pulls readers into past and present.

Monica Cabarcas is a middle school librarian in Charlottesville, VA, and a reviewer for SLJ.

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