The Essential Middle School Reading List

How can I prepare my awkward child for middle school?

Collage of book covers.
Photo illustration by Slate

The following is a special edition of Slate’s Ask a Teacher column for Slate’s children’s summer reading coverage. Get inspired with summer reading recommendations from beloved children’s authors here. Got a reluctant reader on your hands? This librarian can help. Want to broaden your high-schooler’s horizons? Read YA author Tochi Onyebuchi on school summer reading lists.

My son goes to a K–5 elementary school. The kids matriculate into one of four schools that all begin middle school in sixth grade. My son’s teachers recently brought to my attention that they don’t think that he is socially or emotionally ready for middle school. I tend to agree with that assessment. My problem is that they didn’t tell me this before the cutoff to enroll him in another elementary school for the upcoming school year. I’ve spoken with several officials at the district office. There is no possibility of making an exception to enroll him late.

If he doesn’t matriculate to one of these four middle schools, he will be assigned to the elementary school closest to our home, which is a failing school. The whole reason he goes to the elementary school that he does is that he’s “advanced” and was bored in regular school. (The school that he goes to now is a regular public school, not a charter school or private school. It’s just one that has more advanced classes.) How do I prepare my son, socially and emotionally, for middle school? Scholastically, I know he’ll be fine. But how do I teach him to navigate the social minefield of middle school—friendship groups, cliques, etc.? Especially when I was never that adept at handling those things myself?

—Socially Awkward

Dear Socially Awkward,

Oh, that’s a tough situation, but given he’s academically advanced, you’re probably right not to retain him in elementary.

I’m an English teacher, so pardon me if this sounds like a “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” situation, but my first reaction was “Books!” Is he a reader? If not, will he let you read to him? Or listen to audiobooks? There are 11 million great books about the tremendous awkwardness and personal struggles of middle school. With the help of a friend who has 15 years of middle and high school experience, I created a list of such books below. They’re all great for students on the cusp of (or in the throes of) middle school, and reading any of them this summer would serve your son well:

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Alexander’s Newbery Medal–winning novel told in verse will win over even readers who claim to hate poetry. Twins Josh and Jordan are basketball stars and best friends, until life gets in the way. When Jordan gets his first girlfriend and the boys’ dad gets sick, Josh will have to come to terms with the fact that life is not just about basketball. Alexander absolutely nails the conflicting emotions of early adolescence.

The Crossover book cover.
HMH Books for Young Readers

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Watch in awe as your anti-poetry child gets sucked into Alexander’s captivating verse.

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

A tornado takes away nearly everything Ivy has ever owned, including her secret art notebook which includes recent drawings of girls holding hands. As her family tries to rebuild their life and Ivy struggles to come to terms with her sexuality, Ivy’s pictures start appearing in her locker, along with notes encouraging her to live her truth. Blake is a lovely writer, and she accurately portrays the thrill and confusion that comes with a first crush.

Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World book cover.
Little, Brown

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Aven Green didn’t really lose her arms in a wrestling match, but when her parents move the family halfway across the country to manage a run-down theme park, she’d rather tell them tall tales than the truth—she was born without them. It’s not until she meets a new friend with another kind of disability that she learns to accept people’s differences, including her own. Really funny, fun read.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus book cover.
Sterling Children’s Books

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya

In middle school, being different can be a disaster, and eighth grader Marcus Vega definitely can’t hide his differences—he’s 6 feet tall and 180 pounds. Mostly he uses his bulk for good, but when Marcus gets in a fight, his mom decides it’s time for a change of scenery. She takes him and his brother, who has Down syndrome, to Puerto Rico to meet relatives they don’t know, and Marcus wonders if his dad will be one of them. I’d recommend this one for reluctant readers.

Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish book cover.
Puffin Books

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya

Even the most reluctant reader will enjoy Marcus Vega.

Summerlost by Ally Condie

Summerlost is the story of Cedar, who’s still hurting after the sudden death of her father and her autistic brother. Cedar develops an unlikely friendship and gets involved in a summer theater festival. Then come the mysteries, not the least of which is how to heal from a loss so great. It’s a really moving portrait of how a middle-schooler grapples with grief.

Summerlost book cover.
Puffin Books

Summerlost by Ally Condie

Summerlost is a wonderful resource for any child coping with grief.

The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez

The First Rule of Punk follows 12-year-old Malú, who barely survives her first day in a new school. She’s saved when she remembers to follow the first rule of punk—“be yourself”—and eventually finds a motley crew who will help her stand up to a decidedly anti-punk administration. This one is a story about finding your identity and blooming where you’re planted, told in a funny, realistic voice.

The First Rule of Punk book cover.
Puffin Books

The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez

For the student learning to build confidence.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

Award-winning author Jason Reynolds’ Track series starts with a story about Castle “Ghost” Cranshaw. Ghost runs fast enough that the coach of an elite track team is willing to let him walk on, but he has to get his mom on board. She reluctantly agrees, as long as Ghost can keep his temper in check and stay out of trouble. This is a book for anyone who’s ever been on a team, made a less than rational decision, or needed a second chance.

Ghost book cover.
Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

The impulsive child might find a kindred spirit in Castle “Ghost” Cranshaw.

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick

On Steven’s list of most annoying things, his little brother, Jeffrey, ranks high. But when Jeffrey gets sick, Steven has to balance complicated emotions and support his family, all while surviving middle school. It’s the perfect read for anyone who’s ever felt like the geek. Or actually anyone who has a family!

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie book cover.

Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick

For anyone who has a family. Which means—for everyone.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Leo has never met anybody like Stargirl, nor has anyone else at his high school. The student body is at first entranced, then enthralled, and finally repulsed by this oddball. Leo struggles over whether he should listen to his heart and succumb to his feelings for Stargirl, or give into peer pressure and shun her as well. Spinelli excels at writing complex pariah characters, making us examine our own biases. (Read Loser too! It’s a little young for middle school, but it’s hilarious and poignant with an important message.)

Stargirl book cover.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Stargirl explores: How should we treat those who don’t fit in?

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Newbery-winning author Rebecca Stead tells the story of three best friends as they navigate seventh grade. They’ve made a pact—no fighting—and they try to keep their promise through all the physical, emotional, and social changes that come with middle school. It’s a nuanced portrayal of the early teen years, and the audiobook is well done too.

Goodbye Stranger book cover.

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Great for the girl navigating the waters of preteen female friendship.

After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson has won about every award out there—Newbery Honor, National Book Award, and Coretta Scott King Award, to name a few—so I could recommend a whole bunch of her books. One that really touches on the struggles of middle school is After Tupac and D Foster. When a new girl walks into the lives of Neeka and her lifelong best friend, the three bond over their love for rapper Tupac Shakur, whose lyrics help them navigate their difficult experiences and the search for their own greater purpose in life.

After Tupac and D Foster book cover.
Puffin Books

After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson

Children should read every one of Woodson’s amazing novels. After Tupac and D Foster is an excellent starting point.

Aside from encouraging him to read books—if there is anything else (ha!)—make sure he finds his people. Early, if possible. Are they in band? Science Olympiad? Theater? Battle of the Books? Debate team? There are people he will fit in with. Help him connect with them, and then invite them over to your house to hang out.

You ended your letter by saying you weren’t “adept at handling” the social parts of middle school yourself. I see that as an asset—use it. Talk to him. Share with him all the ways you struggled and embarrassed yourself and any triumphs, tiny or otherwise, that you had. Make him feel like it’s OK to struggle socially in middle school because it’s OK to struggle socially in middle school. Everybody struggles in middle school, even if it seems like they don’t. There are so many new feelings and hormones and interactions and big words and independent tasks. If a kid doesn’t struggle socially in middle school … he’s not in middle school.

One last thing not for him, but maybe for you: PEN15 on Hulu is the most hilarious, on-the-nose depiction of middle school I’ve ever seen on screen. Perhaps it would turn some of your uncomfortable memories into laughs. It has mine!

—Ms. Scott