The best middle grade books my bookworm daughter got me into

Jeffrey Michael Ruby Author Of Penelope March Is Melting
By Jeffrey Michael Ruby

The Books I Picked & Why

The Matchstick Castle

By Keir Graff

Book cover of The Matchstick Castle

Why this book?

This madcap book, about a boy and girl who discover a crazy mansion in the forest that looks like it was built by a drunken madman, made me laugh out loud. As they join forces with the house’s unforgettably weird inhabitants to try to save the house from the wrecking ball of a “crazed bureaucrat,” it’s impossible not to be drawn in. It’s one of those quirky adventure stories where every twist and turn comes from seemingly nowhere, while also making perfect sense. Plus: wild boars! Graff has made a career out of creative stories populated with memorably eccentric characters, and this one is my favorite. 

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Red Menace

By Lois Ruby

Book cover of Red Menace

Why this book?

Lois Ruby is a YA veteran who has more than 20 books to her name, many of them historical fiction, including the beloved Steal Away Home, which appeared on basically every year-end best list back in 1994. She also happens to be my mom. And her latest book, which takes place during the “red scare” of the 1950s, is among her best. It’s a tense story about a baseball-crazy 13-year-old boy whose parents are accused of being communist sympathizers, turning his life upside down when he’s supposed to be studying for his bar mitzvah. The clock-ticking backdrop, leading up to the notorious execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for supposedly passing on nuclear secrets to the Soviets, gives the whole book terrifyingly high stakes.

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The Bone Houses

By Emily Lloyd-Jones

Book cover of The Bone Houses

Why this book?

I don’t understand why this book wasn’t a massive cultural phenomenon with movies and action figures and volumes of online fanfic and whatnot. First of all, Lloyd-Jones can write with a capital W. In this fantasy novel, she paints a bleak and vivid picture of a tough-as-nails gravedigger living in a world where the dead don’t always stay dead. But even as these living corpses begin to attack their village and the plot gets particularly dark, the narrative is always character-driven and full of heart. On one level, The Bone Houses is great, taut horror, but it also has the kind of poignance and insight that make it stick with you long after you close the book.

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When You Reach Me

By Rebecca Stead

Book cover of When You Reach Me

Why this book?

Count me among the zillions of people who loved When You Reach Me, winner of the Newbery Medal in 2010. I’ve seen more than one person describe it as a modern-day A Wrinkle in Time—a book that figures heavily in Stead’s plot. But When You Reach Me resonates with me far more than L’Engle’s classic. There is something about the sad, enigmatic way this is constructed with multiple storylines that just stick with you. It’s got time travel but it’s not sci-fi; it’s got puzzles but it’s not a mystery exactly. It’s just a weird, lovely book about the mysteries of life and power of friendship.

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Out from Boneville

By Jefferson Smith

Book cover of Out from Boneville

Why this book?

I admit I have never entirely warmed to most graphic novels, but this one, the first in the Bone series, is timeless. The epic adventures of cousins Fone Bone, Smiley Bone, and Phoney Bone—all of whom look like a cross between Casper the Friendly Ghost and a giant tooth—start here with lots of slapstick and cutesy animals. But there’s a lot going on under the surface. It’s a twisted fairy tale with striking art, endearing characters, and swashbuckling adventure. The whole thing is packed with so many whimsical ideas and situations that whenever I read it, I find myself energized and eager to write.

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