Great novels for middle grades – or anyone really

By Caitlin Giffin

There’s absolutely nothing better than a well-written, middle-grade novel. Geared toward young people aged eight to 12, the genre offers increasingly diverse storylines and characters for all literary tastes while boasting some of the most talented authors in the business. Although crafted for independent readers, middle-grade novels also work well as family read alouds. Reading together is a great way to bond and spend quality time, even if your child is already an independent reader. This activity helps improve vocabulary, introduces reluctant readers to genres that they might not sample on their own, and sparks conversations around issues both serious and silly. It is also just plain relaxing! Don’t have a young person in your life? Consider reading children’s literature anyway. Serving magic, adventure and humour, these titles are great for kids and kids at heart.


Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

Calling all fantasy fans! B.B. Alston’s debut novel has been getting a lot of buzz, for good reason. Thirteen-year-old Amari Peters, who lives with her mom in a housing project in Atlanta, is reeling from the mysterious disappearance of her brilliant and high-achieving older brother Quinton. When a magical briefcase appears in her closet, containing a message from her missing brother and an invitation to a secretive summer camp, Amari knows she must accept in order to find out what happened to Quinton. Thus begins Amari’s introduction to the shadowy world of the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. This book has a lot of elements that will be familiar and satisfying to fans of the genre – a magical world that exists alongside our own human one, lots of mythical creatures and, of course, a thrilling struggle between forces of good and evil. Told with humour and heart, Alston also touches on themes of racism and economic inequality in thoughtful ways. For me, the winning element in this novel is Amari’s budding friendship with her camp roommate Elsie, a technological whiz with a heart of gold who just so happens to be a weredragon (yes, it is exactly what you think it is). Amari and the Night Brothers is a great pick for lovers of Artemis Fowl, Percy Jackson and Harry Potter and is the first in a forthcoming trilogy.


Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Readers may be familiar with Lauren Wolk from her first novel Wolf Hollow; Beyond the Bright Sea is just as captivating. A historical fiction set in the Elizabeth Islands in 1920s’ Massachusetts, the story centres on 12-year-old Crow and her search to discover where exactly she came from. She was taken in by Osh as an abandoned baby. Amid rumours that she came from a nearby leper colony, she is ostracized by the community. With her only friend Osh and their kindly neighbour Maggie, Crow embarks on an adventure to unravel the mystery of her birth that quickly becomes dangerous –pirates and buried treasure might also be involved! Wolk is known for her beautifully descriptive prose, and she does a wonderful job of building the characters and story. The action really picks up about halfway through the book, and you’ll have a hard time putting it down. This is such a heartwarming tale, reminding us of the importance of family (in this case, chosen family) and the very human endeavour of self discovery.


City Spies by James Ponti

James Ponti is a seasoned children’s author, and his newest offering doesn’t disappoint. I must admit that spy stories are so far outside my wheelhouse that I was hesitant to open this, but I’m really glad I gave it a shot. Fun and fast paced, City Spies follows a group of teenage super spies from around the globe and their handler, an MI5 agent known only as Mother.  It reads almost like an action movie, with enough mystery and humour in every chapter to keep you reading. Great for fans of Stuart Gibbs.


Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake

Badger lives a quiet and ordered life in an old brownstone studying geology or, as he likes to call it, his Very Important Rock Work. One day his life is turned upside down with the appearance of Skunk who, according to landlord Aunt Lulu, is to be Badger’s new roommate. The pair couldn’t be more different, and what follows is a charming and hilarious odd-couple story in which the two begrudgingly learn to live together. Jon Klassen’s illustrations add a whimsical visual element, and I was reminded of the classic Frog and Toad stories. This book is so sweet and silly and works well for family storytime, especially because the content is gentle enough for the younger ones in your household.

You can find these titles and many more at the Ottawa Public Library.


Caitlin Giffin is a children’s programs and public service assistant at the Sunnyside Branch of the Ottawa Public Library.

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