I know that we are in college, and that you probably haven’t picked up a middle-grade novel, typically aimed at grades 3-7, in years, but since I started working at Scholastic last summer, I have been more exposed than ever to the amazing world of middle-grade literature. Working at a children’s book publisher will do that to a person. Scholastic has definitely (re)opened my eyes to the importance and power of children’s books, and, honestly, how amazing a lot of them are. Maybe you fondly remember a handful of your favorite childhood books, like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, and I am here to assure you that many of these books don’t lose their magic overtime, and there are some new ones that you should definitely consider adding to your to-read list.
I love how many of the authors on this list tackle difficult topics—immigration, poverty, anxiety, police violence, loss—with grace and honesty, and in a way that is accessible. It often makes these challenging topics more digestible, even for me at 21. I also love and appreciate how many of the more recent authors especially advocate and exemplify the power of diverse representation in literature, in all ways, through their #ownvoices novels. For my senior Pathway Symposium presentation at Conn, I stressed the importance of representation in literature, from the earliest children’s books to the books we are reading in our college courses, and these fives titles exemplify not only a range of cultures and experiences but also the simple power of an amazing story. Even when it includes monsters or fairytale characters.
It helps, too, that because these books are aimed at a younger audience (although, honestly, I know several parents who also read these books as their kids were reading them and enjoyed them just as much), they usually don’t take as long to read as the books you are reading for class, making them the perfect choice for a book to read for fun.
In the last remaining days of Women’s History Month, I want to share a list of five incredible, female-led middle-grade novels that I love, and that I definitely think you should read, even as a college student.
- ‘The Sisters Grimm #1: The Fairy-Tale Detectives’ by Michael Buckley
The Fairytale Detectives is the first book in one of my all-time favorite series, with nine books total, that I read growing up and am currently re-reading. It follows the Grimm sisters, Sabrina and Daphne, as they discover that not only are they descendants of the fairytale chroniclers, the Brothers Grimm, but their new town Ferryport Landing is actually home to these fairy-tale creatures (and maybe one or two Shakespeare fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Their family’s job is to solve any mysterious or magical case that creates chaos in the town as fairy-tale detectives. In the first book, they have to find out who a giant released that has been wreaking havoc in their town—smashing houses and taking their grandmother and her best friend—and figure out how to stop it.
Although the first book came out in 2007, with new covers in honor of its 10th anniversary, this book hasn’t lost any of its excitement and mystery. With all the attitude that comes with being a pre-teen, our narrator Sabrina offers a cynical and humorous perspective on their crazy adventures. It’s a series I always wished would be turned into a movie or a TV show, and I would definitely recommend.
- ‘Front Desk’ by Kelly Yang
Front Desk, published in 2018, tells the story of Mia Tang, a young girl who moves to America from China, trying to navigate school along with helping her parents manage the front desk of the Calivista Motel. Mia grapples with the struggles of poverty and adapting to life and school in America, all while trying to work on her dream of becoming a writer. Inspired by her own childhood, Kelly Yang challenges her readers to consider what the American Dream really means, as she delivers an empowering story about the power of kindness, community, friendship, and, ultimately, the power of using your voice. And I think that is message that all of us need to be reminded of, especially at a moment of so much social and political turmoil. There is definitely are some things Mia can teach us.
- ‘Blended’ by Sharon M. Draper
Something I always lacked as a kid was books that represented me: a Black/White biracial female as a protagonist. Blended (2018) was a book I didn’t know that I was searching for my whole life until I found it, dedicated to “all the young people who must meld and merge, synthesize and harmonize, to create family fusion.” Although my parents are still married, not divorced like Isabella, her story of learning to navigate a world that revolves around binaries as someone who is always going to be both, resonates with me. The novel is heavy but heartfelt as Draper doesn’t shy away from the conversations of racism and police brutality as well as the aftermath of a parents’ divorce, but ultimately aims to show that what matters the most is love, and through love, we can celebrate what makes us the same and different without hostility.
- ‘Guts’ by Raina Telgemeier
Do you remember the book, Smile? It came out in 2010, when I was in fourth grade, and I remember it because the cover was this really pretty sea-foam green color, and it had a smiling emoji with braces front and center. Ring a bell? Since then, graphic novels have exploded as a genre, and, well, Guts, which came out in 2019, is another one of critically-acclaimed Raina Telgemeier’s autobiographical graphic novels about her life in middle school. Guts specifically focuses on her struggles with crippling anxiety, with stomachaches so bad that she would have to stay home from school and learning to work through her anxiety alongside her parents and therapist. It’s rare to find a book, especially aimed at a younger audience, that deals so honestly with the difficulties of anxiety and the physical challenges that go along with it, which makes this graphic novel even more impactful. Plus, Raina’s art and captions elevate the story even further, demonstrating exactly why more and more people—children and adults—have been increasingly drawn to graphic novels.
- ‘Aru Shah and the End of Time’ by Roshani Chokshi
If you were a fan of Percy Jackson, then I am confident that you will also enjoy Aru Shah and the End of Time (2018), the first book of the Pandava Quartet. It is, after all, a part of Rick Riordan’s own imprint at Disney-Hyperion for fantasy adventures inspired by mythologies around the world. The first book begins with Aru getting into trouble while visiting the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture where she accidently frees a demon whose job is to awaken the God of Destruction. Inspired by the Hindu epic poem, The Mahabharata, Aru has to find the reincarnations of the five Pandava brothers to stop him. This book has been named one of the best fantasy books of all time by Time Magazine, and is sure to keep you captivated all the way through. And the most recent and final book in the series is being published at the end of next week, so if you’re looking for a fresh and exciting book series, this one is the perfect choice!
If you give any of these five books a chance, I promise you will be pleasantly surprised about what you can find in the pages of a children’s book.