The best contemporary middle grade novels for girls who love the outdoors

The Books I Picked & Why


By Katherine Applegate

Book cover of Wishtree

Why this book?

Red, a monoecious oak tree, narrates this luminous and beautifully illustrated novel. Red is two hundred and sixteen rings old and happily provides shelter for seven opossums, four raccoons, five owls, six skunks, and a witty crow named Bongo. Together, Red and the animals concoct a plan to support Samar, a girl whose family has just moved into the neighborhood. Samar hasn’t made any friends yet, and she’s feeling sad and lonely. Wishtree is about inclusion and community, but at its heart, it’s a love song to the trees and creatures that call urban areas home. Have tissues ready: Samar’s comforting middle-of-the-night visits to Red and Bongo will have readers wiping away a tear or two. 

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You Go First

By Erin Entrada Kelly

Book cover of You Go First

Why this book?

I love books about smart and curious girls, and Charlotte, the main character of You Go First, fits the bill. She struggles with tricky middle-school friendships and her father’s declining health, but she keeps herself afloat emotionally by studying all sorts of interesting things, like sea creatures, wild animals, earthquakes, and geology. She maintains a collection of rock specimens on her dresser, and the sparkling hunks of Egyptian quartz, hematite, and feldspar remind her of her dream of studying minerals and gemstones at the base of a pyramid or volcano when she grows up. Charlotte is unapologetically herself, and her unwavering connection with the earth and its treasures is her saving grace during a very rough stretch.  

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Lena, the Sea, and Me

By Maria Parr

Book cover of Lena, the Sea, and Me

Why this book?

Maria Parr’s timeless novel takes place in Norway’s fictional Mathildewick Cove. The story centers on Lena and her best friend Trille, who are dealing with typical 12-year-old matters, including family arguments, rapidly growing bodies, and drama-filled school days. The setting of Lena, the Sea, and Me is especially charming, featuring mountains, hills, farm animals, and of course the water, which plays a significant role in the book. I appreciate that Lena and Trille spend all their time outside. Lena in particular—with her strong limbs and ruddy cheeks—is formidable as she builds rafts and plays goalkeeper for her soccer team. Irascible and lively, she will delight and inspire readers everywhere.

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Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers

By Celia C. Pérez

Book cover of Strange Birds: A Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers

Why this book?

This relevant and feisty story introduces four rising seventh graders in the Miami area. While Ofelia, Lane, Aster, and Cat reflect a variety of backgrounds, they share a similar love of the outdoors. They hang out in Lane’s treehouse with a peafowl named Eunice as their mascot, and they unite around a common goal of protecting endangered birds. Notably, Cat is a budding ornithologist who discovers that going for a walk with her binoculars is “magic for untangling mind knots.” During the girls’ long, hot summer together, they learn how to use their creativity and brainpower to stand up for their convictions and the environment. 

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Beyond the Bright Sea

By Lauren Wolk

Book cover of Beyond the Bright Sea

Why this book?

Twelve-year-old Crow lives on one of the tiny windswept Elizabeth Islands just off the coast of Woods Hole, Massachusetts. She loves fishing for lobsters, collecting mussels, and caring for her neighbor Miss Maggie’s barnyard animals. Crow climbs trees as skillfully as a squirrel, and her best friend is a cat named Mouse. Beyond the Bright Sea unpacks concepts of loss and selfhood—what it means to be abandoned, what it means to be found—but above all, it shines a dazzling spotlight on the ocean: shimmering, foaming, ominous, home. Crow is an indelible main character who will tug at readers’ heartstrings from the first page to the last. 

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