Fiction books for middle schoolers are fantastic choices for teaching literary elements to tweens. Teaching literature in middle school is something that I love and do online through Outschool. One of my favorite parts about this job is reading and selecting books each year for my middle school book club. I like to find a variety of protagonists, genres, and themes.
This list of engaging fiction books for middle school was compiled from two years of teaching monthly fiction book clubs online. Each of these titles lends itself to teaching a specific literary device, though each title can be used to teach several different aspects of literature.
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Books for Teaching Middle School
Middle school is a great age for sharing stories and books with your kids or students. There is such a variety of literature available to spark their interest in reading. These are some of my favorite books over the last two years that have sparked great discussions in my Outschool book clubs.
2022-2023 Fiction Books for Middle Schoolers
The first nine books on this list were chosen for my 2022-2023 Middle School Monthly Fiction Book Club on Outschool. Each month we’ll discuss one of these titles in a live discussion format. These are great books to teach in middle school because they lend themselves well to teaching particular literary elements. As a result, select a literary element each month to focus on each month to make sure the learners are exposed to a variety of literary elements all year long.
Gary D. Schmidt
Literary Element: Story Arc
My Review: Seventh grader, Holling Hoodhood, is certain that his teacher, Mrs. Baker, doesn’t like him and now he must spend every Wednesday afternoon with her while the rest of the class goes to religion classes. Mrs. Baker decides to make Holling spend his Wednesday class time reading and studying the works of Shakespeare. In the meantime, Holling is handling many of the typical problems of middle school such as siblings, parents, bullies, and embarrassment. In the midst of it all, Holling will learn more about himself and how to embrace the person he wants to become.
I love this book. The time period is 1967 and the backdrop of the Vietnam War is an important part of the story. The impact of the war on the lives of everyday Americans is seen throughout the story from bombing drills in school to loved ones in battle. The setting is reflected in subtle but powerful ways.
I love so many of the people in this story. There is so much richness and depth to all of the characters – not just the main character. Everyone is on their own personal journey of discovery and growth, providing plenty of topics for discussion with your kids.
Many of the students in my Outschool book clubs thought the book had a slow start, but most enjoyed it in the end even though many still found it slow. It’s true that this story doesn’t have a dramatic climax because this story is more about personal growth and change, but I think it is definitely a winner!
When You Reach Me
Literary Focus: Elements of a Mystery
Publisher’s Description: “Shortly after a fall-out with her best friend, sixth grader Miranda starts receiving mysterious notes, and she doesn’t know what to do. The notes tell her that she must write a letter—a true story, and that she can’t share her mission with anyone.
It would be easy to ignore the strange messages, except that whoever is leaving them has an uncanny ability to predict the future. If that is the case, then Miranda has a big problem—because the notes tell her that someone is going to die, and she might be too late to stop it.”
Literary Element: Theme
My Review: Lucy and three other orphans have run away from the Home for Friendless Children. Together, they find an opportunity at a traveling circus where Lucy discovers a love for the elephants. Unfortunately, unless Lucy finally talks again, she might not be hired. In the meantime, people are searching desperately for Lucy and she doesn’t know why they won’t just let her leave.
This book was more of a page-turner than I anticipated. I absolutely adored Lucy and was desperately curious to know the outcome of her situation. She is a strong and likable character right from the story. As a reader, I was definitely cheering for her. All of the orphans are well-defined and mostly likable other than Bald Doris, but she is designed to be a character you like to dislike.
I particularly loved the theme of finding your voice as Lucy struggles to find the courage to use her actual voice again. The historical circus setting adds an element of wild fun to the story and the performers are a unique bunch. The author weaves in several historical details in this story and I appreciated this glimpse into the past.
NOTES: This is a great middle school read that might be intense for younger children because of the harsh treatment of the orphans, specifically the testing Lucy was involved in.
The Dragonet Prophecy
Tui T. Sutherland
Literary Element: Character Traits
Publisher’s Description: “Clay and his friends have grown up under a mountain, secretly raised by the Talons of Peace to fulfill a mysterious prophecy. The five young dragons are destined to end the war that’s been raging between the tribes of Pyrrhia — but how they’ll do this, none of them knows. But not every dragonet wants a destiny. When one of their own is threatened, Clay and his friends decide to escape. Maybe they can break free and end the war at the same time — or maybe they’ll risk everything …”
Emmy in the Key of Code
Literary Element: Free Verse Poetry
Publisher’s Description: “In a new city, at a new school, twelve-year-old Emmy has never felt more out of tune.
Things start to look up when she takes her first coding class, unexpectedly connecting with the material—and Abigail, a new friend—through a shared language: music. But when Emmy gets bad news about their computer teacher, and finds out Abigail isn’t being entirely honest about their friendship, she feels like her new life is screeching to a halt.
Despite these obstacles, Emmy is determined to prove one thing: that, for the first time ever, she isn’t a wrong note, but a musician in the world’s most beautiful symphony.
Literary Element: Framed Story/Story in a Story
Publisher’s Description: “1242. On a dark night, travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children. Their adventures take them on a chase through France: they are taken captive by knights, sit alongside a king, and save the land from a farting dragon. On the run to escape prejudice and persecution and save precious and holy texts from being burned, their quest drives them forward to a final showdown at Mont Saint-Michel, where all will come to question if these children can perform the miracles of saints.
Join William, an oblate on a mission from his monastery; Jacob, a Jewish boy who has fled his burning village; and Jeanne, a peasant girl who hides her prophetic visions. They are accompanied by Jeanne’s loyal greyhound, Gwenforte . . . recently brought back from the dead. Told in multiple voices, in a style reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, our narrator collects their stories and the saga of these three unlikely allies begins to come together.”
Love, Ruby Lavender
Literary Element: Setting
Publisher’s Description: “Ruby Lavender and Miss Eula are a pretty good team, for a couple of chicken thieves. What other granddaughter-grandmother duo could successfully drive the getaway car for chickens rescued from a journey to the slaughterhouse, paint a whole house shocking pink, and operate their own personal secret-letter post office?
So, when Miss Eula leaves for Hawaii to visit her new grandbaby, Ruby is sure that she will have a lonely, empty, horrible summer in boring old Halleluia, Mississippi. What happens instead? She makes a new friend, saves the school play, writes plenty of letters to her favorite (and only) grandmother . . . and finally learns to stop blaming herself for her grandfather’s death. Not too bad, for a nine-year-old.”
Elijah of Buxton
Christopher Paul Curtis
Literary Focus: Elements of Historical Fiction
Publisher’s Description: “Eleven-year-old Elijah lives in Buxton, Canada, a settlement of runaway slaves near the American border. Elijah’s the first child in town to be born free, and he ought to be famous just for that — not to mention for being the best at chunking rocks and catching fish. Unfortunately, all that most people see is a “fra-gile” boy who’s scared of snakes and tends to talk too much. But everything changes when a former slave steals money from Elijah’s friend, who has been saving to buy his family out of captivity in the South. Now it’s up to Elijah to track down the thief — and his dangerous journey just might make a hero out of him, if only he can find the courage to get back home.”
Literary Element: Narration and Point of View
Publisher’s Description: “Chase’s memory just went out the window. Chase doesn’t remember falling off the roof. He doesn’t remember hitting his head. He doesn’t, in fact, remember anything. He wakes up in a hospital room and suddenly has to learn his whole life all over again . . . starting with his own name. He knows he’s Chase. But who is Chase? When he gets back to school, he sees that different kids have very different reactions to his return. Some kids treat him like a hero. Some kids are clearly afraid of him. One girl, in particular, is so angry with him that she pours her frozen yogurt on his head the first chance she gets. Pretty soon, it’s not only a question of who Chase is–it’s a question of who he was . . . and who he’s going to be.”
2021-2022 Fiction Books For Middle Schoolers
The following books on this list were chosen for my 2021-2022 Middle School Monthly Fiction Book Club on Outschool. The following books are fantastic titles to teach in middle school because they lend themselves well to teaching particular literary elements. As a result, select a literary element each month to focus on each month to make sure the learners are exposed to a variety of literary elements all year long.
The Westing Game
Literary Element: Elements of a Mystery
Publisher’s Description: “A bizarre chain of events begins when sixteen unlikely people gather for the reading of Samuel W. Westing’s will. And though no one knows why the eccentric, game-loving millionaire has chosen a virtual stranger—and a possible murderer—to inherit his vast fortune, one thing is for sure: Sam Westing may be dead…but that won’t stop him from playing one last game!”
Literary Element: Story in a Story
Publisher Description: “Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnats. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes.
It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment—and redemption.”
NOTE: This book is also a movie so you can compare the two versions when you are done. Grab this list of questions that compare the book and movie.
Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Literary Element: Plot Arc
Publisher’s Description: “A hidden book. A found cipher. A game begins . . . .
Twelve-year-old Emily is on the move again. Her family is relocating to San Francisco, home of her literary idol: Garrison Griswold, creator of the online sensation Book Scavenger, a game where books are hidden all over the country and clues to find them are revealed through puzzles. But Emily soon learns that Griswold has been attacked and is in a coma, and no one knows anything about the epic new game he had been poised to launch. Then Emily and her new friend James discover an odd book, which they come to believe is from Griswold and leads to a valuable prize. But there are others on the hunt for this book, and Emily and James must race to solve the puzzles Griswold left behind before Griswold’s attackers make them their next target. “
Lion of Mars
Jennifer L. Holm
Literary Element: Theme
My Review: Bell is an 11-year-old kid who has spent most of his life on Mars. He enjoys his friends and community, but wonders why they must remain so isolated from the other communities on Mars. When a mysterious virus infects all of the adults in Bell’s community, he and the other kids must determine what to do. Will they turn to the other countries for help or follow the direct orders from Earth command?
This book was a completely delightful read. It is a science fiction book that feels very realistic and relatable. I loved the details about life on Earth that continually fascinated the kids on Mars, including information about animals and fashion. As a middle school book, this one has a lot of great potential for discussion with your tween. It’s an engaging story with some great themes about community and developing relationships outside of your own tribe.
The Friendship War
Literary Element: Conflict
Publisher’s Description: “This is war. Okay–that’s too dramatic. But no matter what this is called, so far I’m winning. And it feels wonderful.
Grace and Ellie have been best friends since second grade. Ellie’s always right in the center of everything–and Grace is usually happy to be Ellie’s sidekick. But what happens when everything changes? This time it’s Grace who suddenly has everyone’s attention when she accidentally starts a new fad at school. A fad that has first her class, then her grade, and then the entire school collecting and trading and even fighting over . . . buttons?! A fad that might get her in major trouble and could even be the end of Grace and Ellie’s friendship. Because Ellie’s not used to being one-upped by anybody. There’s only one thing for Grace to do. With the help of Hank, the biggest button collector in the 6th grade, she’ll have to figure out a way to end the fad once and for all. But once a fad starts, can it be stopped?”
The Prairie Thief
Literary Focus: Elements of Magical Realism
My Review: Louisa Brody’s Pa has been accused of being a thief, but she is convinced that he has been framed. Now she must live with the Smirch family, the very people who accused her Pa, while he awaits a trial for his alleged crime. While at the Smirches, she and her new friend, Jessamine, encounter a magical creature who has made his home on the prairie. With the help of her new friends and a few new discoveries, Louisa plans to save her Pa from a guilty verdict.
This was a unique historical fiction book for kids which makes it particularly fun to read. Life on the prairie takes an unexpected twist when a magical creature enters the story. Filled with exciting plot twists and a fun courthouse climax, this was a definite winner with my online book club students.
Vanderbeekers of 141st Street
Karina Yan Glaser
Literary Element: Character Traits
Publisher’s Description: “The Vanderbeekers have always lived in the brownstone on 141st Street. It’s practically another member of the family. So when their reclusive, curmudgeonly landlord decides not to renew their lease, the five siblings have eleven days to do whatever it takes to stay in their beloved home and convince the dreaded Beiderman just how wonderful they are.
And all is fair in love and war when it comes to keeping their home.”
Literary Element: Free Verse Poetry
Publisher’s Description: “With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” announces dreadlocked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court.
But Josh has more than basketball in his blood. He’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle-grade novel of family and brotherhood from Kwame Alexander. Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story’s heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family.”
Literary Element: Point of View and Narration
My Review: Three lives will intersect in this touching story which is told through alternating points of view.
Mavis Jeeter is fearless and bold. She has just moved AGAIN because her mother has taken a job as a housekeeper for the Tully family. Rose Tully doesn’t fit in with the neighborhood girls so her only friend is the gateman, Mr. Duffy. Henry is a runaway dog who is looking for kindness and love. When their lives intersect, they find friendship in unexpected places.
I absolutely adored this sweet story and highly recommend it for a family read-aloud or a great book for your child. This delightful story of friendship is an easy and quick read. The rotating point of view offers a variety of perspectives on the situations in the story.
In addition to having plenty of fun moments, there are also age-appropriate emotions and challenges faced by the characters. Of course, the best part is that this childhood story involves a dog that doesn’t die!
Literary Element: Framed Story/Story in a Story
Publisher’s Description: “When Jack Baker’s father sends him from his home in Kansas to attend a boys’ boarding school in Maine, Jack doesn’t know what to expect. Certainly not Early Auden, the strangest of boys. Early keeps to himself, reads the number pi as a story, and refuses to accept truths others take for granted. Jack, feeling lonely and out of place, connects with Early, and the two become friends.
During a break from school, the boys set out for the Appalachian Trail on a quest for a great black bear. As Jack and Early travel deeper into the mountains, they meet peculiar and dangerous characters, and they make some shocking discoveries. But their adventure is only just beginning. Will Jack’s and Early’s friendship last the journey? Can the boys make it home alive?”
Fish in a Tree
Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Literary Focus: Plot Arc
Publisher’s Description: “Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions. She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her—and to everyone—than a label, and that great minds don’t always think alike.”
The Monster Missions
Literary Focus: Element of Suspense
My Review: The world changed when the ocean rise covered all of the lands. Now Berkeley and her best friend, Garth, live with their families on an old cruise ship. They are both scavengers for the ship, diving to the covered cities to find usable supplies. Life is predictable and routine until one day they discover that there is more beneath the ocean depths than they have been told.
If you are looking for an enjoyable dystopian sci-fi read for middle schoolers, then look no further. This book had me hooked right from the start and I absolutely loved the ride. I enjoyed the way the author used sea monsters from myths and legends and brought them to life in this story. As soon as I finished this one, I handed it to my 14-year-old and 12-year-old kids to read next.
NOTE: If you have a sensitive reader, preview the first few chapters. If they can handle reading about the first encounter with the Hydra then they are probably fine to read the whole book. This is one example of the tense moments with sea monsters (and sea pirates later) in this book.
More Reading List for your Middle Schooler:
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- 100 Spectacular Winter Picture Books Your Child Will Adore - January 10, 2023
- How to Homeschool Literature With Graphic Novels: Everything You Need To Get Started - January 1, 2023