The best books about boys for middle graders whose reading is falling off

Why am I passionate about this?

My boys greedily consumed books until middle school when screens began to pull them away. I still brought home piles of books, especially stories that stirred empathy, hoping they would pick them up (especially during enforced no-screen times). My then-5th grader complained that I brought home too many “sad books about kids having a really hard time,” and that’s when I realized I was choosing titles I liked and wanted them to read. The novels I had written thus far were heavy stories for teens, but after this little episode with my boy, I decided to pay attention to what they really wanted to read. And to write one they might like.  


I wrote...

Enly and the Buskin' Blues

By Jennie Liu,

Book cover of Enly and the Buskin' Blues

What is my book about?

Twelve-year-old Enly Wu Lewis is determined to go to band camp and follow in the footsteps of his musician father, who died years ago.

But his mom, a single parent working two jobs, is saving every penny for his older brother's college tuition. So Enly sets out to earn the money for camp on his own, by busking with an obscure instrument he can only kind of play. When someone drops a winning scratch-off lottery ticket into his tip box, Enly thinks it's the answer to his problems―but he'll have to overcome teenage thieves and his own family if he wants to achieve his dreams.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of My Side of the Mountain

Jennie Liu Why did I love this book?

This story of a 12-year-old boy who runs away from his New York City home to live alone in the Catskills is a comfort read in my house.

The detailed description of how Sam survives—foraging, building traps, hollowing out a tree—and the theme of independence are catnip to the introverts in my family. The book is read on repeat with my boys.

By Jean Craighead George,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked My Side of the Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

"Should appeal to all rugged individualists who dream of escape to the forest."-The New York Times Book Review

Sam Gribley is terribly unhappy living in New York City with his family, so he runs away to the Catskill Mountains to live in the woods-all by himself. With only a penknife, a ball of cord, forty dollars, and some flint and steel, he intends to survive on his own. Sam learns about courage, danger, and independence during his year in the wilderness, a year that changes his life forever.

"An extraordinary book . . . It will be read year after…


Book cover of A First Time for Everything

Jennie Liu Why did I love this book?

If I leave a graphic novel around the house, it will certainly be read.

This one, a memoir about the author’s student trip to Europe in the summer of 7th grade, hits just the right tone for middle schoolers making that break from childhood to teenager. The story takes place in the eighties (and Europe!), and the author has experiences that involve a level of freedom that’s rare for kids these days.

There are also the highs and lows of the first crush, and I love to know that my son has read this, even if he didn’t discuss it with me.

By Dan Santat,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked A First Time for Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

At first, he's right. Stuck with the same girls from his middle school who love to make fun of him, Dan doesn't know why his teacher insisted he come on this trip. But as he travels through France, Germany, Switzerland, and England, a series of first experiences begin to change him - first Fanta, first fondue, first time stealing a bike from German punk rockers . . . and first love.

Funny, heartwarming, and poignant, A First Time for Everything is a feel-good coming-of-age memoir based on New York Times bestselling author and Caldecott Medal winner Dan Santat's awkward school…


Book cover of Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

Jennie Liu Why did I love this book?

I love everything written by Jack Gantos, but the Joey Pizga series is so fun.

With his unnamed diagnosis (most likely ADHD), Joey is often wild and impulsive and gets into all sorts of trouble.

My son has moaned that I bring home too many books about kids having a hard time, and Joey Pizga is a kid who has struggles, but his difficulties are balanced by the funny and shocking situations into which he gets himself. And he wants so much to be better!

By Jack Gantos,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

Joey is a good kid, maybe even a great kid, but his teachers never know what he's going to do next. He sharpens his finger in the pencil-sharpener and swallows his house key. He can't sit still for more than a minute - Joey is buzzing!

Told from Joey's own unique viewpoint by acclaimed American author Jack Gantos, this is an exceptionally funny and touching story about a boy with severe attention deficit disorder (ADD).


Book cover of Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995

Jennie Liu Why did I love this book?

For reluctant and waning readers, graphic novels and comics are the key.

Calvin and Hobbes is so witty, so sharp in illustration, so charming. It’s really one of those delightfully layered works that can be enjoyed at any age.

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes set includes a fifteen-plus page introduction by Bill Watterson which details his way into comics, how Calvin and Hobbes came into being, and why he decided to end it—an incredible story in itself that older kids may find interesting. 

By Bill Watterson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Calvin and Hobbes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

Celebrating an exhibit of ten years of Sunday comics featuring the beloved boy and his tiger, Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995 is sure to bring back memories.

New York Times best-seller!

Everyone misses Calvin and Hobbes.

It reinvented the newspaper comic strip at a time when many had all but buried the funnies as a vehicle for fresh, creative work. Then Bill Watterson came along and reminded a new generation of what older readers and comic strip aficionados knew: A well-written and beautifully drawn strip is an intricate, powerful form of communication. And with Calvin and Hobbes, we had…


Book cover of Ghost

Jennie Liu Why did I love this book?

Although Ghost is heavy on hardship (angry kid, incarcerated father), and a struggle story for sure, it’s such a tight, fast-paced one with a voice that you can’t help but fall right into the narrative.

Add to that sports (track), bad choices (stealing shoes), and all the intense emotions of a seventh-grader, any kid will have a hard time putting it down. 

By Jason Reynolds,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Ghost as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

Running. That's all Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons -until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medallist who sees something in Ghost: crazy natural talent. If Ghost can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed, or will his past finally catch up to him?

READ THE RUN SERIES:
Ghost. Lu. Patina. Sunny. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for…


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A School for Unusual Girls

By Kathleen Baldwin,

Book cover of A School for Unusual Girls

Kathleen Baldwin Author Of Sanctuary for Seers: A Stranje House Novel

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Loves God Mother to Many Wilderness Adventurer History Enthusiast

Kathleen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

A spy school for girls amidst Jane Austen’s high society.

Daughters of the Beau Monde who don’t fit London society’s strict mold are banished to Stranje House, where the headmistress trains these unusually gifted girls to enter the dangerous world of spies in the Napoleonic wars. #1 NYT bestselling author Meg Cabot calls this exciting historical series "completely original and totally engrossing."

A School for Unusual Girls

By Kathleen Baldwin,

What is this book about?

A School for Unusual Girls is the first captivating installment in the Stranje House series for young adults by award-winning author Kathleen Baldwin. #1 New York Times bestselling author Meg Cabot calls this romantic Regency adventure "completely original and totally engrossing."

It's 1814. Napoleon is exiled on Elba. Europe is in shambles. Britain is at war on four fronts. And Stranje House, a School for Unusual Girls, has become one of Regency England's dark little secrets. The daughters of the beau monde who don't fit high society's constrictive mold are banished to Stranje House to be reformed into marriageable young…


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