Fitting In, Sticking Out, and Finding Yourself: 16 Books for Middle Schoolers
by Kari Ness Riedel
“You said that you didn’t even know why they had middle school, that there ought to be some government program where, as soon as kids graduated elementary school, they got scooped up and sent to a lab where scientists could put them in a deep freeze until they were old enough for high school. For their own sake.” –Trent, from Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff, quoting his mom two days before he starts sixth grade.
If this sentiment resonates with your middle schooler, here are 16 books — ranging from funny to sad to dramatic — that accurately portray the ups and downs of middle school life, and how to survive it.
Middle School Bites
The day before sixth grade begins, Tom is bitten by a vampire bat. Also, a werewolf. And — oh yeah — a zombie. Talk about tough luck! Nothing gets you out of middle school, not even becoming a Vam-Wolf-Zom, so Tom grits his (fanged) teeth and does his best to fit in. A little help from his best friend, Zeke, goes a long way in this zany yet relatable new series.
All's Faire in Middle School
Imogene has spent the first 11 years of her life at the Renaissance Faire, where her parents work, and she’s also been homeschooled. Now Impy, who dreams of being knighted, is entering the jousting ring of public school, and she has a lot to learn. Suddenly, Impy’s family seems strange, and not everyone is genuine. When she goes against her values to fit in, will she be able to get back to her true, heroic self?
The 47 People You'll Meet in Middle School
“I wish I could tell you that the first person I saw on the first day of school was someone I knew. It was not.” So begins Gus’s advice to her younger sister, Lou. And who better to reassure (and forewarn) you about middle school than someone who’s just survived? Funny and authentic, The 47 People You’ll Meet in Middle School perfectly captures the growing pains — and joys — of stepping out on your own.
Lights, Camera, Middle School!
In the new Babymouse series, Tales from the Locker, the sassy mouse we all know and love takes on middle school. What she finds there is an obsession with stuff — labels, the best new gadget, and so on. But Babymouse has her own style, and she embraces it by joining film club and writing a major screenplay. Other books in the series take on cell phones, school plays, and more opportunities for Babymouse to be herself.
Middle School's a Drag, You Better Werk!
Twelve-year-old Mikey Pruitt has a major entrepreneurial spirit, and he embraces it by starting a talent agency. With the school talent show on the horizon, clients are lining out the door, including eighth-grader Julian Vasquez (drag queen name: Coco Caliente), who shows Mikey that he can come out of the closet and be loud and proud, whenever he’s ready.
It’s hard to pick just one read from Jacqueline Woodson’s oeuvre, but Harbor Me is a wonderful start for new and soon-to-be middle schoolers. Six students meet weekly in what they dub the ARTT Room (“A Room to Talk”), where they discuss all the things they feel unable to outside: deportation fears, an incarcerated parent, racial microaggressions, and more. A poignant reminder that sometimes our peers can be our best support.
Middle schoolers may find themselves at difficult crossroads with tough decisions to make, especially as old friends grow and change. That’s what Bryan’s going through, as his friend Mike tries to pressure him into ideas that seem foolish and risky to Bryan. Bryan looks to his comic book superheroes to guide him down the right path.
Molly Frost learns that she can stand up and use her voice when things seem unfair, like when she starts noticing that girls at her school (unlike the boys) are constantly dress coded for their outfits, and some girls more often than others. Molly starts a podcast about the matter that snowballs into a full-on movement.
Stand Up, Yumi Chung!
For anyone who’s ever felt totally misunderstood, Yumi Chung is their gal. At school, everyone teases Yumi for being shy; at home, her parents want her to get good grades in order to get a private school scholarship. But all Yumi wants to do is step up to the mic and deliver the best stand-up set of her life. One summer, Yumi goes for her dreams — even though it might mean disappointing others.
Zenobia July is starting middle school on a fresh new page: she’s moved from Arizona to Maine, she’s living her true gender for the first time, and she’s making new friends in coding club. Zenobia has serious computer skills, so when an anonymous bully starts leaving hateful posts on the school website, Zenobia knows she’s the person to put an end to the hate and help her school heal.
Totally Middle School
This collection of short stories from favorite authors gives readers an array of middle school experiences, tackling important topics like peer pressure and cultural barriers through fun mediums (text messages, emails, and a mini graphic novel). Your reader will feel seen and encouraged, and be highly entertained along the way.
Lost in the Sun
In this powerful story, Trent starts sixth grade in the aftermath of a freak accident that left his classmate dead and left Trent with all kinds of terrible thoughts. Although most readers will not directly experience this type of tragedy, Trent’s concern with how others perceive him, his efforts to find goodness after screwing up, and his struggle to figure out how to act when he feels angry and lost are highly relatable.
Fish in a Tree
Sixth grader Ally struggles with school and is considered "dumb" and a "pest" by most teachers — until she gets in Mr. Daniels's class. Her life turns around when this teacher realizes she struggles with dyslexia and brings out the best in her. It’s a moving story about friendships, overcoming adversity, and appreciating the uniqueness in all of us.
The story centers on three seventh graders, Bridge, Tab and Emily, who are dealing with typical middle school issues — taking selfies, liking boys, staying friends when your interests start to diverge, divorced parents — but this story takes it a few layers deeper. It's about knowing who you are and who you want to be, and dealing with who others think you should be.
Twelve-year-old Michael throws serious heat when he pitches. He is accused of being older than he is and doesn’t have a birth certificate to prove his age. Newly orphaned since his father passed away, he is living with his 17-year-old brother and is constantly in fear of being sent to foster care or back to his hometown in Cuba. Sports drama mixes with family drama as well as the typical friendship and school issues faced by middle schoolers.
In this Newbery Honor winning graphic novel, best friends, Astrid and Nicole, are used to doing everything together. But the summer before sixth grade, Astrid discovers her love of roller derby while Nicole heads to dance camp. This is a highly relatable story about figuring out your own identify, forming new friendships, and holding on to old friendships that are slipping away.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2016 and updated in 2020.