HomeBooks by AgeAges 4-8The Essential Book List for Navigating Middle School

The Essential Book List for Navigating Middle School

Stacy McAnultyThe Children’s Book Review | July 10, 2018

Navigating Middle School with Novels

My family lives in an area of North Carolina where we have school choice. This means my kids select their school, rather than having a school assigned based on where we live. When my oldest was in fifth grade, we toured three middle schools, in an effort to find the “perfect” one. She was stressing out about the decision, so I turned to her and said, “Relax. It doesn’t really matter where you go, because middle school stinks.” Perhaps not my best parenting moment, but come on, everyone has at least a few crummy middle school memories. I had more than a few.

As in life, each middle school experience is unique, and that can make kids feel alone and isolated. It can help for kids to see characters experiencing similar issues in the books they read. I’ve touched on some common trials of middle school life, illustrated them with my own experience, and then suggested novels that do a fantastic job navigating these bumpy roads.


Books About Academic Pressure

Bonjour. Je m’appelle Stacy. Je déteste le classe de Français. Before sixth grade, I was excited to learn French. I imagined having secret conversations with my BFF that my mom would not be able to understand! But I quickly realized learning a language was HARD (and trés difficult pour moi!) And, being a kid who preferred to blend into the furniture, this class required a ton of participation. I don’t believe I raised my hand once in all of middle school (and maybe even high school).  I basically felt like a failure every time I entered Madame Bonbon’s* room.

*name changed to protect the innocent

I would have loved a book that showed kids struggling, and eventually overcoming, academic hurdles. The end result does not have to be going from an F to an A. It can be a powerful thing for a kid to realize everyone’s strengths are different.

UNGIFTED by Gordon Koman (2014)


SPIN THE GOLDEN LIGHT BULB by Jackie Yeager (2018)

FISH IN A TREE by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (set in elementary school) (2015)

ABSOLUTELY ALMOST by Lisa Graff (2014)

SAVE ME A SEAT by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan (2016)

Books About Friendship and Fitting In

My middle school divided its approximately two hundred fifty students into three teams. They assigned us the creative names of Team A, B, and C. Your team assignment dictated which kids you spent your day with, from math to music, to the all important Lunchtime. If you were on C and your friend was on A, she might as well have lived on Mars.  My anxiety while awaiting team assignment reminds me of the reaping in The Hunger Games. No one wants to go through life alone, and that sentiment feels magnified in middle school.

So many middle-grade books focus, at least in part, on friendship, including my debut, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl. Novels that illustrate the complexity of these relationships can become lifelines to a lonely kid trying to understand their changing world.


POSTED by John David Anderson (2017)

THE MAGIC OF MELWICK ORCHARD by Rebecca Caprara (Sept 2018)

WISH by Barbara O’Connor (2016)


THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC by Amanda Rawson Hill (set in elementary school) (Sept 2018)

REAL FRIENDS by Shannon Hale (2017)

YOU GO FIRST by Erin Entrada Kelly (2018)

GOODBYE, STRANGER by Rebecca Stead (2015)

FREAK THE MIGHTY by Rodman Philbrick (1993)

Books About Social Issues and News

Every morning before school, my mom tuned our small black-and-white TV in the kitchen to the Today Show. As I ate Rice Krispies, I watched Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley deliver the news. I remember the Gulf War and something about Oliver North, but I don’t think my dose of morning news was anything like what kids see and hear today. I recall the ‘don’t do drugs’ message (and how a frying egg represented your brain on drugs) and a vague fear about AIDS. I think my children are exposed to much more news, including social issues and social injustices. And, at 12-years-old, they care much more than I did. Kids know about Black Lives Matters, #metoo, immigration, and March for Our Lives. They have opinions and concerns, and they don’t expect adults will take care of the problems.  They’re living these moments too.

GHOST BOYS by Jewell Parker Rhodes (2018)

REFUGEE by Alan Gratz (2017)

GHOST (TRACK Series) by Jason Reynolds (2016)

FRONT DESK by Kelly Yang (2018)

FOREVER, OR A LONG, LONG TIME by Caela Carter (2017)

THE STARS BENEATH OUR FEET by David Barclay Moore (2017)

THE NIGHT DIARY by Veera Hiranandani (2018)

Books About Self Esteem

A group of people posing for the camera

Stacy McAnulty (Right)

Skinny with a blond bowl cut suitable for a medieval pageboy, she hunched her shoulders because if she stood up straight, everyone would realize she didn’t even need a training bra.

That was eighth-grade me.

Middle school students are experiencing change—as any pamphlet on puberty will tell you. But it’s more than just their bodies. It can be tough to sort out your individual strengths and abilities, especially when you’re spending most of your time just trying to blend in with everyone else.  Differences aren’t always celebrated.

SHORT by Holly Goldberg Sloan (2017)

ROLLER GIRL by Victoria Jamieson (2015)

THE FIRST RULE OF PUNK by Celia C. Pérez (2017)


GERTIE’S LEAP TO GREATNESS (elementary school) by Kate Beasley (2016)

LIONS & LIARS by Kate Beasley (2018)

FRAZZLED by Booki Vivat (2016)


Books About Screwing Up Big Time

In sixth grade, I lied to a new “friend,” by telling her that a boy had a crush on her. I made up this tale because I wanted this cool girl to like me. The boy was a family friend, so she believed me. It gets worse. I forged notes from him and put them in her locker.  This Parent-Trap-like ruse went on for a while until she got the courage to call him. I, inexplicably, supplied his phone number. Of course, after she made the call, the jig was up. He didn’t even know who she was. She was embarrassed and mad, and our friendship ended. Wow, had I screwed up. But I wasn’t doing it to be mean. I just wanted to connect with a new friend.

In the best novels, it’s not just the bullies making mistakes. It’s the main character making mistakes, and either fixing it or living with the results.


EVERY SHINY THING by Cordelia Jensen (2018)

LOVE SUGAR MAGIC by Anna Meriano and Mirelle Ortega (2018)

THE HOUSE THAT LOU BUILT by Mae Respicio (2018)

THE 11:11 WISH by Kim Tomsic (2018)

RESTART by Gordon Korman (2018)

“Middle school is supposed to be the worst. It’s like a giant hazing for adulthood. We all gotta go through it”.


We can’t protect kids from everything they’ll see and endure in middle school. But chances are, there’s a novel out there that can accompany them on the journey.

Book The Miscalculations of Lightning GirlThe Miscalculations of Lightning Girl

Written by Stacy McAnulty

Publisher’s Synopsis: A lightning strike gave her a super power…but even a super genius can’t solve the problem of middle school. This smart and funny novel is perfect for fans of The Fourteenth Goldfish, Rain Reign, and Counting by Sevens.

Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning. She doesn’t remember it, but it changed her life forever. The zap gave her genius-level math skills, and ever since, Lucy has been homeschooled. Now, at 12 years old, she’s technically ready for college. She just has to pass 1 more test–middle school!

Lucy’s grandma insists: Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that’s not a math textbook!). Lucy’s not sure what a girl who does calculus homework for fun can possibly learn in 7th grade. She has everything she needs at home, where nobody can make fun of her rigid routines or her superpowered brain. The equation of Lucy’s life has already been solved. Unless there’s been a miscalculation?

A celebration of friendship, Stacy McAnulty’s smart and thoughtful middle-grade debut reminds us all to get out of our comfort zones and embrace what makes us different.

Ages 8-12 | Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers | 2018 | ISBN-13: 978-1524767570

Available Here: 

About The Author

Stacy McAnulty is a children’s book author, who used to be a mechanical engineer, who’s also qualified to be a dog therapist (is that a thing???), a correspondent for The Daily Show (why not), and a Green Bay Packer coach (totally!). She has written dozens of books including her debut middle-grade novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl , a Junior Library Guild Selection, and the 2017 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor book Excellent Ed, illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach. Her other picture books include Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years, illustrated by David Litchfield; Max Explains Everything: Grocery Store Expert, illustrated by Deborah Hocking, Brave and Beautiful, both illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff; Mr. Fuzzbuster Knows He’s the Favorite, illustrated by Edward Hemingway; and 101 Reasons Why I’m Not Taking a Bath, illustrated by Joy Ang. She’s also authored the chapter book series Goldie Blox, based on the award-winning toys, and The Dino Files. When not writing, Stacy likes to listen to NPR, bake triple-chocolate cupcakes, and eat triple-chocolate cupcakes. Originally from upstate NY, she now lives in Kernersville, NC with her 3 kids, 3 dogs, and 1 husband.

For more information, visit: http://www.stacymcanulty.com

The article The Essential Book List for Navigating Middle School was written by Stacy McAnulty, author of The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2018). For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with , and .

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