The best middle grade books for chess lovers

The Books I Picked & Why

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

By Lewis Carroll

Book cover of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Why this book?

Bear with me for a moment. Yes, there are grave and deep questions about Lewis Carroll, none of which I’d ever minimize, but when talking about great MG books featuring chess, Alice is the OG. Alice’s second adventure mirrors a game of chess in the action and character arcs. At the beginning of this tale, Alice is powerless, a true pawn. In order to reach her goal, she has no choice but to follow the rules of the game; all of which are fixed and unmovable. Yet, through the story, she becomes more confident and able, maturing and eventually evolves into a Queen. As an adult, I love the symbolism, but as a kid, this was the book that first introduced me to the wonders of chess and seeing life as a game that one must both take seriously and enjoy.


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My Name Is Tani... and I Believe in Miracles: The Amazing True Story of One Boy's Journey from Refugee to Chess Champion

By Tanitoluwa Adewumi, Kayode Adewumi, Oluwatoyin Adewumi

Book cover of My Name Is Tani... and I Believe in Miracles: The Amazing True Story of One Boy's Journey from Refugee to Chess Champion

Why this book?

My Name is Tani... is the inspiring story of an 8-year-old Nigerian immigrant who, after playing chess for only one year, went on the win the NYS Chess Championship. But it’s also a story about family, faith, resilience, and the very real power of kindness. The Adewumi family lived prosperously in Nigeria, until they were targeted by the terrorist organization Boko Harem. After fleeing to America their lives were categorically changed, and they wound up living in a homeless shelter. Yet they were never going to be defeated. Tani’s journey of learning, and quickly mastering, chess is one part of this story, yet the very real truth that “Talent is universal, opportunity is not,” provides the beating heart, highlighting as it does the vast inequities in our society. 


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Focused

By Alyson Gerber

Book cover of Focused

Why this book?

Focused is a beautiful exploration of one girl’s experience coming to terms with an ADHD diagnosis. The writing is rich and filled with emotion, and I very much felt like I was living inside Clea’s head, which gave me incredible insights into her strengths and struggles. That she’s a gifted chess player perfectly illustrates for young readers that neurodiversity isn’t about being broken in any way, it’s not a reflection of intelligence or ability, but simply it’s another way of being in the world, one that requires finding the right tools. 


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Check Mates

By Stewart Foster

Book cover of Check Mates

Why this book?

I love intergenerational stories, and Check Mates fulfills that love with the added glory of including a chess subplot. 11-year-old Felix is constantly getting into trouble as his ADHA makes it very hard for him to focus and attend in-class. His Grandfather, who he’s never been particularly close to, is also suffering greatly following the death of his wife. The beauty and power in this story comes when the two are thrust together and the grandfather begins to teach Felix to play chess, while also sharing stories of his life during wartime. The result is a moving story filled with connection, discovering your strengths, and a fantastic immersion into the game of chess.


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Forbidden City (City Spies 3)

By James Ponti

Book cover of Forbidden City (City Spies 3)

Why this book?

Let me begin by saying that if you haven’t yet read the first two books in the City Spies series, please get on it. Packed with adventure, fantastic characters, and brilliant plots twists, the entire series is a complete treat. As with the two previous installments, the book follows a diverse group of international kids who’ve been brought together to keep the world safe from the nefarious Umbra, a secret organization bent on world domination. The plot of this adventure revolves around team member, Paris, when he’s sent undercover to an international chess tournament to keep tabs on the son of a North Korean nuclear physicist. Like a well-played game of chess, the story relies on clever tactics, keen insights into your opponent, and good old-fashioned strategy.


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