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Coraline by Neil Gaiman – Coraline’s family moves into a house with secret passages that makes for the perfect gothic setting. Wrapped up within its delightfully creepy, twisty aesthetic, this book offers a sweet, very true-to-life message about family.
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier – A presumably orphaned sister and brother find shelter at an English manor with a sinister reputation. Part Victorian history lesson, The Night Gardener is a can’t-put-down literary tale with a moral warning.
The Secret of Goldenrod by Jane O’Reilly – Trina and her father move into Goldenrod, a mansion everyone in the small nearby town believes to be haunted. It sounds like a setup for a spooky ghost story, but The Secret of Goldenrod turns out to be a charming story about love, family, and setting things right.
Alistair Grim’s Odditorium by Gregory Funaro – The first installation in the Odditorium series, Alistair Grim’s Odditorium is the story of young chimney sweep Grubb’s encounter and adventures with the magical and mysterious Odditorium,
Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix – In a society concerned with population control, Luke is one of the shadow children, a third child who must live hidden away from the Population Police. Cut off from anyone beyond his household, he is hungry for connection.
The Search for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi – Eva yearns to see what’s above the surface of her subterranean home, where she has grown up in the care of a robot nanny, Muthr. What awaits her on the surface, though, is far from what she had hoped for.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card– It’s difficult to describe this book’s plot without giving too much away. Let’s just say that the main character is a military genius child who believes he is being trained to win an intergalactic war.
I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier – Fans of mysteries and detective stories will enjoy this book’s gradual, increasingly disturbing reveal of the main character’s reality.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen – Before there was Survivor, there was Hatchet. Self-described city kid Brian is en route to see his newly-divorced father when his tiny plane’s pilot suffers a fatal heart attack. Brian has to overcome obvious and not-so-obvious survival challenges in what becomes a transformative experience for him and a fascinating experience for the reader.
The Giver by Lois Lowry – Jonas lives in what appears to be a utopia. When he is assigned the role of the Receiver of Memory in his society, he learns that things are not as they appear, and he must make difficult choices.
The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank – Anne’s diary survived Anne’s harrowing experience of the Holocaust, though she did not. This classic attaches a face and a real person’s suffering to lessons about World War II history.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – Meg, Charles, and Calvin travel across dimensions to rescue Meg and Charles’s father.
Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd – Chip Kidd offers insights about the thought and intention that goes into the graphic design work we encounter every day. You’ll never look at a book cover the same way again.
Fourth Down and Inches by Carla Killough McClafferty – Fourth Down and Inches appears at first glance to be a picture book, which is appropriate since the inside of the book is packed not just with narratives and information, but with photos and illustrations that help explain the science of concussions and CTE as well as the very real life repercussions. A must-read for all athletes, this book has the power to save lives.
Quiet Power: The Strengths of Introverts by Susan Cain with Gregory Mone and Erica Moroz – Our culture values the qualities of extroverts as ideal, but Susan Cain, who also authored a fantastic book on the same subject for adults, uses research and her own experiences as an introvert to explain how being an introvert can be an asset and offers advice for helping introverts navigate tricky social situations.
Stella by Stalight by Sharon M. Draper – Slavery is over, but segregation is very much a part of eleven-year-old Stella’s North Carolina community. Under threat of the KKK, Stella, her family, and her friends face an onslaught of discrimination with courage and grace.
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry – Number the Stars manages to document the profound tragedies of the Holocaust while also providing a hopeful message about the power of the human spirit via the very real ingenuities of the resistance that saved countless Jewish lives. This touching story told from the perspective of a Danish child with a Jewish best friend proves to be both educational and inspiring.
My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier – The beauty of historical fiction is that it can often help us to understand the complexities and morally ambiguous realities of historical events that get missed in textbook accounts. Tim’s brother Sam leaves home to fight on the side of the revolutionaries, but both Sam and his war-avoiding family must face the consequences of Sam’s choices.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly – Calpurnia is pulled between the restrictions and expectations her time places on her as a female and the curiosity she nurtures in science investigation with her grandfather.
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson – Told from the perspective of Isabel, a teenaged slave working in a Loyalist home, Chains offers a unique perspective on the Revolutionary War. Isabel’s experiences are at once harrowing, heartbreaking, and inspiring, and readers will no doubt want to continue following her in the rest of the series.
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson – Many people may not know that Philadelphia used to be our nation’s capitol, and I’d wager that still more people don’t know about the epidemic of Yellow Fever that killed 10 percent of the population of said former capitol when Congress was on break in 1793. This novel captures the terror and harsh realities of living through a lethal epidemic but also manages to avoid mature themes. The plot moves along at a rapid pace, making this book hard to put down.
Realistic and Literary Fiction
Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen – Flipped offers young readers a lesson on perspective, telling the story of Juli and Bryce’s young romance through their unique points of view.
Wonder by RJ Palacio – Auggie is an unforgettable main character. Middle school is hard for everyone, but Auggie has to do it with a severe facial deformity and other physical challenges. His courage and character make for an outstanding lesson in empathy and compassion.
Counting by 7’s by Holly Golderg Sloan – Willow is super-smart and eccentric, which has always made it hard to fit in, but she felt loved and understood by her parents. After her parents are killed in a car crash, though, she has to come to terms with her loss and find her new place in the world.
Mayday by Karen Harrington – 7th grader Wayne is a human compendium of facts, which has always helped him to diffuse situations he found difficult to navigate. When he and his mother sustain injuries from a surviving a tragic plane crash on the way home from his uncle’s funeral, he finds himself far outside of his comfort zone and must find his voice, both literally and figuratively.
Nothing But the Truth by Avi – Have your intentions ever been misinterpreted? Phillip faces a moral dilemma when he finds himself in the middle of a media firestorm.
Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea – Mr. Terupt is one of those rare, special teachers who makes every lesson memorable and challenges his students to be better people. The novel is the story of the class’s school year, told through the perspective of seven students, and leads to a climax that will change both teacher and students forever.
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli – Spinelli conveys important messages about conformity, popularity, and love through the story of magnetic Stargirl, who isn’t like anyone else at Mica High.
Poetry and Novels in Verse
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse – Poetic form captures the suffering of fourteen-year-old Billie Jo and her family during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of Oklahoma. (Warning: This book may be especially upsetting for very sensitive readers.)
Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton – The novel-in-verse form lends itself especially well to the story of Mimi, who sees the world around her in thoughtful, poetic terms beyond her years. Half-Japanese, half-black, and female in 1969, Mimi finds it challenging to make others take her ambitious dreams seriously. Courageous, kind, and resilient, Mimi may be fictional, but she’s a great role model.