Realistic Middle Grade Books that Inspire

Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

This week, I want to talk about three wonderful middle level novels, all realistic fiction, that are truly inspiring. They show young people with agency who remain true to themselves while also making change in the world around them.

The Cardboard KingdomThe first one is The Cardboard Kingdom, a graphic novel from the USA by Chad Sell. A neighborhood of 16 kids, who join in the imaginative play of two siblings–a Sorceress and minion–create adventures that help them vanquish some of their angst about themselves and the world before the summer ends. This lovely novel that author Chad Sell brings to life with his charmingly illustrated graphics, highlights different stories from many contributors who address topics of identity, doubt, fear, and a host of concerns with which middle level students wrestle. From the very beginning, readers are introduced to a cast of characters who aptly represent young people in many neighborhoods throughout the world. A cast of characters embraced for who they are, and encouraged to become the young people they aspire to be. An added bonus is the way the characters use cardboard to create their scenarios, inspiring younger readers to take on their own anxieties in kingdoms of their own.

Merci Suárez Changes Gears, a Newbery winner by Meg Medina from the USA, is the second novel for this week. Another inspiring story about 6th grader Merci Suárez, who is navigating middle school and the changes in her home life, will resonant with so many readers! Merci, a scholarship student at a private school, becomes the target of one of the popular girl’s jealousy, making life at school less than optimal. Then there is the issue of Merci’s home life, where her parents are a bit too strict and her grandfather is becoming more than a bit too forgetful. Trying to negotiate between her Cuban–immigrant home and the swanky school she attends, Merci takes on the changes in her life that she isn’t sure she is ready for, but must balance as a way of making sense of the world. An added bonus is the Spanish sprinkled throughout. What a wonderful way to add to our language repertoire!

The Truth as Told by Mason ButtleFinally, there is The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, a middle grade realistic novel by Leslie Connor from the USA. Mason Buttle is a big, sweaty kid who has a learning disability that he is attempting to handle. He goes to the counseling center, where he can work on his reading and writing, and where he feels the most comfortable at school. While there, he meets Calvin Chumsky, who quickly becomes his new best friend. Truth be told, which is the only thing Mason can do, Mason’s last best friend ended up dead in the apple orchard run by Mason’s family. Calvin and Mason are both bullied by the neighborhood boys, and to escape them, they build an underground haven. But even a haven can be dangerous. A wonderfully enjoyable read with a protagonist you cannot help but love, this is an inspiring book that would make a terrific read aloud. An added bonus is Mason’s voice. A real treat and great example for young people hoping to write their own authentic tales.

All three of these books are must reads for anyone who might feel just a bit defeated by the world. They not only highlight some terrific protagonists but can serve as great examples of how there are times when our weaknesses become our biggest strengths.

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