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Culture Children's Books

Middle-school stories

Children's Books

Middle-school stories

Recent middle-grade novels reviewed


Denise Gosliner Orenstein

A middle schooler, Yonder, has lost her mother to a car crash and her father to grief and alcoholism. Then she meets Dirt, a runaway pony whose affection helps her endure the bullying and neglect she faces regularly. Dirt moves inside with Yonder and her father, but having a pony in the house brings unwanted attention to the family’s problems. Yonder realizes that Dirt’s needs are greater than she can handle, and in doing so she learns how to better advocate for herself. This page-turner yanks, not pulls, at the heartstrings and could be triggering for readers who have experienced neglect or foster care.


Jason Reynolds

This follow-up to the best-selling Ghost introduces Patty Jones, a member of the Defenders track team who is out to prove she “ain’t no junk.” After their mother’s health deteriorates, Patty and her precocious little sister move in with their aunt and uncle. The burdens of worrying about her mother, caring for her sister, and trying to win track medals take a toll on Patty, but friends and family offer help along the way. Author Reynolds neither sensationalizes nor minimizes the emotional difficulties of being an 11-year-old girl and writes in a unique voice that makes Patty’s world accessible to readers.

The Misadventures of Max Crumbly: Middle School Mayhem

Rachel Renée Russell

A new student finds himself trapped after hours in his middle school and battles a trio of dim-witted bandits. Pretending to be a superhero gives him confidence to keep going despite making mistake after mistake. With its cartoon illustrations and journal-entry format, Max Crumbly resembles Diary of a Wimpy Kid—if the wimpy kid ate a bag of Skittles and drank a double shot of espresso. The frenetic pacing, hyperactive use of exclamation points, and even the book’s font will leave readers overstimulated. Also, the main character repeatedly bashes homeschooling.

Molly’s Story: A Dog’s Purpose Novel

W. Bruce Cameron

Molly is a cheerful poodle mix whose young owner adopts her without permission. The puppy devotes herself 100 percent to the happiness of her girl, C.J., but C.J.’s problems are more complicated than one pup can handle. The girl and her single mother both make selfish choices throughout the book, and it turns out Molly is the only character willing to sacrifice her own joy for someone else’s. The story introduces the hard work of pet care and relates interesting information about the many ways dogs can help humans.


James Patterson, best known for the Alex Cross detective book series, has a mission to make children book lovers for life. Since his 2011 smash hit Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, Patterson and collaborator Chris Grabenstein have created numerous middle-grade novels and donated the proceeds to reading initiatives. His latest kids book, Laugh Out Loud (2017), tells the fictional backstory of Patterson’s real-life Jimmy Patterson book imprint, the umbrella for his young reader novels.

Like many of Patterson and Grabenstein’s books, Laugh Out Loud uses crude humor, sass, and mischief to engage readers. Patterson seems to believe it doesn’t matter what kids read as long as they read something. The main character in Laugh Out Loud tries desperately to prove to kids that reading is fun. But reading is so much more than fun: At its best, it’s transformative, if you read the right book. —L.L.