Katherine Paterson’s List of Recommended Reads for Middle Grade and YA Readers

by Katherine Paterson

Photo credit: Samantha Loomis Paterson

Since I’ve always felt that I am more of a reader than a writer, I have read an awful lot of books in my time. The list of books that I’d hope every middle grade and YA reader would read is almost limitless.

When I was National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, I was often asked for recommendations. The person in charge of publicity said, rather sternly, “All the writers you recommend seem to be dead.”

“Well,” I said, “there’s a good reason for that. I have dozens of friends who are Very Fine Writers, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by leaving them off my list.”

But today I’m going to bite the bullet and tell you about some books that were written by living people whom I like to think of as my friends at the risk of hurting many other friends who are all Very Fine Writers.

Here goes…

  • Ghost

    by Jason Reynolds

    Everything Jason writes seems to turn to gold, but I truly love this book about a young boy who, with help from caring friends and adults, turns running from an abusive father into a race toward a good life. It’s a sports story, but it’s also much, much more.

  • The Crossover

    by Kwame Alexander

    While on the subject of sports stories that are much, much more, I can’t leave the subject without mentioning Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover. I have a suspicion that nearly every middle school boy in America has already read it and discovered, perhaps to their horrified amazement, that they were sneakily lured into a love of poetry when they thought they were just reading a basketball story.

  • Raymie Nightingale

    by Kate DiCamillo

    I don’t have to tell anyone that Kate DiCamillo is a wonderful writer, and I could easily just say, “Read anything she writes.” But I will put in a plug for her latest novel, Raymie Nightingale. It made me laugh a lot, but in the end I was laughing through my tears — my favorite sort of reading experience.

  • The Best Man

    by Richard Peck

    Speaking of laughing, everyone should read The Best Man by Richard Peck. I’m not sure anyone else could handle the tricky topic of gay marriage so wonderfully and in such a happy manner as Richard has. I truly laughed out loud reading it and wished I could share it with everyone who is troubled by the fact that gay marriage exists.

  • Listen!

    by Stephanie S. Tolan

    Stephanie Tolan won a Newbery Honor for a very funny book, Surviving the Applewhites, but my favorite of her books is the quiet, mystical Listen!, in which a 12-year-old girl who has had to endure the death of her mother and an accident that shatters her leg has her painful loneliness broken by the appearance of a feral dog — well, you have to read it to find out what happens.

  • X

    by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

    X is a novel, but it’s the story of Malcolm X’s boyhood and very close to biography. One of Malcom X’s daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz, asked Kekla Magoon to help her tell the story of her father’s young life. Shabazz supplied the family remembrances and chose Kekla to turn those stories into novel form for young readers. It is a powerfully engaging story for young people no matter what their race might be.

  • The Wonderling

    by Mira Bartók

    Mira Bartók has published her first novel for middle-grade readers, but I sincerely hope it won’t be the last. People who know me know that I’m partial to realistic fiction, so it has to be terrific fantasy for me to love it. Well, I think The Wonderling is not just terrific fantasy, it’s a terrific book. You don’t have to be a fantasy fan to love the wonderful assortment of characters, the suspense, the humor, the magic, and the poignancy of this tale. It’s for anyone who has every felt despised for being different, and for anyone who has ever despised someone else for being different.

  • Kidnapped

    by Robert Louis Stevenson

    Because I know there are many readers out there who are not intimidated by long books (or how could they have read all the Harry Potter installments?), I’m going to go out on a limb and mention a couple of very fat books by dead writers whom I have loved since I was this age. The first, Kidnapped, is an adventure story that I reread and loved all over again when I was trying to write my own adventure story. Robert Louis Stevenson is better known for Treasure Island, but I like Kidnapped better. (Could that be because we had to read Treasure Island in school and the teacher dissected it like a frog in a biology lab? Hmmmm.)

  • The Yearling

    by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

    The second fat book I’d recommend is my all-time favorite book from my school years and a book I still cherish — Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling. On rereading it as an adult, I could see how much this particular book had influenced my own writing. I owe Ms. Rawlings a great debt.

P.S. Dear Very Fine Writer Friend: Please forgive me if I didn’t mention your book. Maybe next time, okay?

Katherine Paterson’s work has garnered many awards, including two Newbery medals (Bridge to Terabithia in 1978 and Jacob Have I Loved in 1981), two National Book Awards (The Master Puppeteer in 1977 and The Great Gilly Hopkins in 1979), and the Laura Ingalls Wilder medal for her substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children. She served as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for 2010-2011 and is currently vice president of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. She lives in Vermont.