What to Read With Middle Schoolers

Junior high. Middle school. No matter what you call it, there is no getting around the fact that those years are painfully in-between. They are almost, but not yet. They are well past “that” but just shy of “there.” They are off-kilter, imbalanced, and overlooked. They are a parenthesis. (But like most things in parentheses, the overall effect would be diminished and incomplete without them.)

I look back on my junior high days and have very visceral reactions. I am, by turns, laughing or sobbing; nodding or cringing; dancing or fetal-position rocking at the memories of those tumultuous years. How do you make sense of a time that was equal parts “Pictures of Me” by The Cure and “Ain’t Nothin’ But a G Thang” by Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre? Or a time that was equal parts #metoo and bullying those brave enough to let their differences show. Or a time that was equal parts towing the line and breaking every rule.

With two daughters on the brink of junior high, I still have no words to prepare them for the confusion, elation, torture, and fun of that time of life. I have no answers for how to navigate it with your dignity intact. I will be relaying solely on God’s grace and the help of those around me. But I am becoming more and more convinced that it is a time for parents to mimic the dichotomy of that age and hold their middle schoolers tight while, simultaneously, giving them free-ish reign.

Parents are keenly aware that we have the first five years of a child’s life to deeply instill in them a sense of who they are, how much they are loved, and what their family stands for. After that, they begin to take in the voices of the masses. And we hope that what we have instilled solidifies. I am becoming increasingly aware that junior high is another one of those times when we should pause, close ranks, and intentionally re-instill in them a sense of who they are, how much they are loved, and what their family stands for. All the while, competing with the voices of the masses.

Again, I have no answers for how to do this. Except that I found inspiration from a series of texts with a dear friend telling me about reading with her junior high age daughter. Finally, I had something tangible.

You keep reading together.

(Yes, Mom, you did just hear that right. I, the child who begged and pleaded with you to stop reading out loud to me, am now strongly advocating for parents everywhere to do the same. The irony is not lost on me. Please take this as a nod to your wise persistence!)

So the question becomes, where do you start? And here, here is where I actually have some answers!

  1. The Book Thief  (Markus Zusak) – This is a thought-provoking, perspective stretching, fantastic read.
  2. A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle) – While you are at it, just keep reading the whole Time Quintet series or anything else by Madeleine L’Engle.
  3. Jason ReynoldsGhost is one of the best children’s literature books I have read this year. Reynolds’ brilliant writing style captures your imagination and transports you into the characters’ world. He is an author to read extensively.
  4. The Giver (Lois Lowry) – This is one of my all-time favorite middle school reads. The story is excellent and sure to spark many wonderful conversations. And again, while you are already reading Lois Lowry, you should keep going with Number the Stars.
  5. Seeds of America (Laurie Halse Anderson) – Chains, Forge, and Ashes are fantastic historical fiction novels that every junior high student should read.
  6. Kwame AlexanderCrossover, Booked, and Solo are excellent places to start. But read everything you can get your hands on that he has written. He is that good.
  7. Rita Garcia-WilliamsOne Crazy Summer is the book to start with, but this is another author to read thoroughly.
  8. The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)  – While now, admittedly, over-hyped, this series is still very, very good. It is interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking.
  9. The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank) – This is the one to pull out when your junior higher thinks their problems are insurmountable and the worst humanity has ever seen. A little perspective goes a long way.
  10. The Princess Bride (William Goldman) – This book is as hilarious and charming as the movie and is a must read.
  11. Holes (Louis Sachar) – This is my personal favorite to read out loud to junior highers. It is funny, serious, and pertinent. Definitely read this one!

You will notice that many of these books are of a more serious and heavy nature. That is intentional. I think that this age can become so tunnel visioned and “me” centered that it is the perfect time to have them read outside of themselves. Exposing middle schoolers to the difficulties of the world around them is vital for their ability to see beyond their personal drama. Reading these books with them additionally serves the purpose of giving parents a natural, tangible way to have deep, serious discussions with their children.

At least in theory!

You know how before you do something you have all the answers for how to do said thing? Like how when you are a kid, you know exactly how to be a functional adult. Or how before you become a parent, you know all about how to make a fit-throwing child relent. Or how before you become a teacher, you know *just* how to connect with that one kid. Yeah, I may have just done that.

I’ll get back to you in a few years and let you know how those theories are holding up in practice. If it’s anything like all the rest of my theories, my next post on this matter will be very different!



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