I love middle grade books. Middle grade fiction explores what it means to discover who you are and what you want to be, compared to YA, which tends to ask questions about where you fit in with the world. With middle grade you get action-packed adventure and journeys where characters begin to discover who they are as rational, intelligent people without all the sexual tension holding them down. And while I like romantic subplots that make me squee and roll around my bed in “will-they-or-won’t-they” agony as much as the next girl, there’s something special in watching a character discover themselves before they romantically connect with other people.
I decided to compile a list of five middle grade novels that have an awesome girl as the leading character. Getting inside the head of a strong, willful girl is one of the reasons I love to read. The following books are in no particular order; they’re all awesome!
Summary from Amazon:
Boston, 1891. Sophia Tims comes from a family of explorers and cartologers who, for generations, have been traveling and mapping the New World—a world changed by the Great Disruption of 1799, when all the continents were flung into different time periods. Eight years ago, her parents left her with her uncle Shadrack, the foremost cartologer in Boston, and went on an urgent mission. They never returned. Life with her brilliant, absent-minded, adored uncle has taught Sophia to take care of herself.
Then Shadrack is kidnapped. And Sophia, who has rarely been outside of Boston, is the only one who can search for him. Together with Theo, a refugee from the West, she travels over rough terrain and uncharted ocean, encounters pirates and traders, and relies on a combination of Shadrack’s maps, common sense, and her own slantwise powers of observation. But even as Sophia and Theo try to save Shadrack’s life, they are in danger of losing their own.
The Glass Sentence plunges readers into a time and place they will not want to leave, and introduces them to a heroine and hero they will take to their hearts.
The Glass Sentence is a unique middle grade fantasy–probably one of the most interesting and quirky premises I have read in a long time. In its essence it is a time travel story, but it’s the earth itself that has fragmented, meaning the characters travel in time just by physically moving from place to place. I’m unsure where to categorize this as far as genre–historical fantasy? Science fiction? Steampunk? The genre-bending line-blurring of The Glass Sentence is one of the reason I love it so much. The premise is just so fresh.
The main character, Sophia, seemed really relatable to me, as well. I like that she was timid and emotional and didn’t always make good choices. Most young teens are like that, but with most middle grade adventures it’s like they suddenly burst from their shell as full-fledged, confident adults. Sophia’s anxiety was a breath of fresh air. She got frustrated. She cried. She stomped her foot. And even though she resented these emotions, they’re just so real to me. We aren’t all stoic statues that can control ourselves, and controlling my own emotions was something I struggled with a lot as a teenager–I still struggle with it sometimes today.
Summary from Amazon:
A hilarious and heartwrenching story about a bullied girl whose search for a new beginning takes a dire wrong turn.
Newcomer Kammie Summers has fallen into a well during a (fake) initiation into a club whose members have no intention of letting her join. Now Kammie’s trapped in the dark, growing increasingly claustrophobic, and waiting to be rescued—or possibly not.As hours pass, the reality of Kammie’s predicament mixes with her memories of the highlights and lowlights of her life so far, including the reasons her family moved to this new town in the first place. And as she begins to run out of oxygen, Kammie starts to imagine she has company, including a French-speaking coyote and goats that just might be zombies.
Summary from Amazon:
With her glass slippers and devotion to good deeds, Sophie knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and join the ranks of past students like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Meanwhile, Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks and wicked black cat, seems a natural fit for the villains in the School for Evil.
The two girls soon find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School for Good, thrust among handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.
But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are?
This book sounds cheesy, and it kind of is. It’s fun and ridiculous and it doesn’t take itself seriously. I know I said I liked my middle grade romance-free, and this could be considered a deviation from that. But I would argue that the romance in this book is only there to parody itself; is finding your “true love” even necessary in a story? Not just in fairy tales, but in all narratives. Did we really have to pair off all the Harry Potter characters at the end? Does not having a True Love by the end mean you’ll be an old maid forever (and is that a bad thing)? I think this book, through satire and tomfoolery, really gets to the heart of love stories purpose in narratives for children and young adults.
As a bonus, it explores the dynamics of friendship between girls, a theme I always love to see. The girls in this novel actually have distinct personalities–something that can be rare even in books with a strong female lead. Both Sophie and Agatha are strong in their own way, and neither way is good or bad.
Summary from Amazon:
WHEN YOUNG TENAR is chosen as high priestess to the ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth, everything is taken away — home, family, possessions, even her name. For she is now Arha, the Eaten One, guardian of the ominous Tombs of Atuan. While she is learning her way through the dark labyrinth, a young wizard, Ged, comes to steal the Tombs’ greatest hidden treasure, the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. But Ged also brings with him the light of magic, and together, he and Tenar escape from the darkness that has become her domain.
This is an oldie, and it’s technically in the YA section, but I see it fitting in more with middle grade themes. Middle grade as a genre didn’t exist back in the 70s when this was published, and if it were published today I believe it would be sorted definitively into middle grade rather than YA.
I chose The Tombs of Atuan because it changed the way I see coming-of-age stories about girls. Tenar is a girl who lost everything, even her name–but through sheer willpower she finds the light in the darkness (quite literally). Many authors, most recently David Mitchell of Cloud Atlas fame, have said that LeGuin’s Earthsea series is one of the best fantasy series of all time, and I absolutely agree. I don’t think there exists a series that packs as much of an emotional, literary punch through the fantasy genre as Earthsea does. Out of the entire series, The Tombs of Atuan is a strange, beautiful outlier.
What are some middle grade novels you love and recommend? Let me know in the comments!