5 Middle Grade Series You’ve Gotta Read (With or Without Your Kid)

by Traci Cothran

I love reading middle grade books and young adult novels. Why? Because they’re just so darn good, and smart, and clever, and many have strong female characters of which I — or is it my inner child? — just can’t get enough. Sometimes my 12-year-old daughter will read the books, too — but kids aren’t really required for you to enjoy these entertaining gems. Best of all, each of these authors has many other excellent and award-winning books to explore when you’ve read through the series below.

  • The Doll People Series

    by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, illustrated by Brian Selznick

    Don’t write these off as “girl books” — they are very Borrowers-like and action-packed! The Doll family features an antique, porcelain-crafted youngster named Annabelle who, along with her family, finds herself on various adventures (on land and sea), often alongside the sturdy plastic Funcraft family. It isn’t as easy as it looks to rescue missing family members, venture outdoors, or take a hike in a backpack when you’re only a few inches tall. Plus, they can only animate when humans aren’t about, lest they risk the lifeless PDS (Permanent Doll State) — and no one wants to be rendered a spirit-less Barbie. Gorgeous illustrations by Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret) bring these little friends to life. There are four books so far (The Doll People, The Meanest Doll in the World, The Runaway Dolls, The Doll People Set Sail), with fingers crossed for more.

  • The Gaither Sisters Trilogy

    by Rita Williams-Garcia

    Rita Williams-Garcia has conjured up three little girls I want to group hug! The Gaither sisters — Delphine (the oldest), Vonetta (the middle), and Fern (the youngest) — bicker and fight and love each other in 1968 Brooklyn. In One Crazy Summer, they travel to Oakland, CA to visit their absent mother Cecile, who introduces them to the Black Panthers, Chinese food, and independent living. They return home in P.S. Be Eleven in time for Delphine to tackle sixth grade, and adjust to life with Dad’s new girlfriend. In Gone Crazy in Alabama, the girls head down south to visit Big Ma (grandma) and Ma Charles (great-grandma), and learn some interesting family history … along with how to milk a cow. Family, social issues, and race are all fair game in this wonderful trilogy.

  • The Chasing Vermeer Series

    by Blue Balliett, illustrated by Brett Helquist

    Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, The Calder Game, and Pieces and Players currently comprise this series, linked by friends Petra and Calder and mysteries involving art. But your middle grade reader may ask: Can a mystery about some dusty old art actually be interesting? In the right hands it sure can, and author Blue Balliett delivers! Best of all, the reader needn’t have any art knowledge to delve in and enjoy (and you’re sure to learn along the way). A missing Vermeer? Is something evil afoot at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House? Why has Calder disappeared along with an Alexander Calder sculpture? And how about a huge art heist (not unlike the one at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) to whet your mystery whistle? (The illustrator of the Series of Unfortunate Events, Brett Helquist, provides art for this group as well, which adds to the fun.)

  • The Theodosia Series

    by R.L. LaFevers, illustrated by Yoko Tanaka

    This series currently qualifies as a quadrilogy, but I keep tweeting author R.L. LaFevers to write more of these adventures so you never know. Look, I admit it: I’m a little obsessed with the Theodosia Throckmorton. She’s a bright 11-year-old in turn-of-the-century London who has the run of the London Museum of Legends and Antiquities (her dad works there and her mom’s an archeologist). Theo has a cool black cat named Isis and loves all things ancient Egyptian. Dark magic, long dark hallways, and cursed artifacts don’t scare her — she’s happy to stow away on a boat at a moment’s notice if it means solving a mystery. But don’t take my word for how engaging this series is, read one of these tales for yourself. Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris, Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus, Theodosia and the Last Pharoah.

  • Al Capone on Alcatraz Series

    by Gennifer Choldenko

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    Imagine a trilogy set on a famous island prison, on which you live — as a kid — along with your family (all law-abiding citizens). Yup, that’s the series that kicks-off with Al Capone Does My Shirts, starring a kid named Moose Flanagan. It’s 1935, and his dad’s the island electrician, there are tons of strict rules to follow, a limited number of playmates, and “tons of bird crap.” It’s not exactly what Moose had in mind, but it’s where his family needs to be to get his autistic sister the treatment she needs in nearby San Francisco. So what happens when Moose starts getting messages from Prisoner #85 (Al Capone) alongside his freshly laundered socks? These books are fun and imaginative (and a tiny bit dangerous) — and each includes a map of the island so you know exactly where the action takes place!

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