The best middle grade books of breathtaking imagination

Sheila Grau Author Of The Boy with 17 Senses
By Sheila Grau

Who am I?

I am an author of five books for children. I am also an avid reader of middle grade fiction, especially speculative fiction. I love exploring other people’s imaginations. It’s not only entertaining, but incredibly inspiring. Like most people, when I discover a book that I love, I can’t wait to share it with my friends. I hope you love these selections as much as I do! It was really hard to limit myself to just five. 

I wrote...

The Boy with 17 Senses

By Sheila Grau,

Book cover of The Boy with 17 Senses

What is my book about?

It’s a Jack and the Beanstalk retelling that takes place on a planet where everyone has synesthesia. On this planet, people don’t just hear sounds; they see and taste them, too. On this unusual planet, poor Jaq Rollop must save his family’s farm. To do so, he is forced to sell his beloved pet and only friend. Unfortunately, he gets swindled into trading it for a seemingly worthless key. But then something very strange happens. The key leads Jaq through a wormhole to a terrifying and magical land full of riches, overwhelming sensations, and giants. The name of this frightening land? Earth. 

School Library Journal described it as, “Cleverly told, this original take on a classic tale uses an unconventional setting to explore universal emotions.”  

The books I picked & why

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Island of the Aunts

By Eva Ibbotson, Kevin Hawkes (illustrator),

Book cover of Island of the Aunts

Why this book?

Imagination + humor. The opening line of this books is one of my favorites – “Kidnapping children is not a good idea. All the same, sometimes it has to be done.” – Ibbotson was a genius at combining fantastical settings with humor. This book in particular spoke to my childhood fantasies of taking care of strange animals and visiting exotic locales. It’s a whole lot of fun, like all her books.

Fly By Night

By Frances Hardinge,

Book cover of Fly By Night

Why this book?

Imagination + beautiful writing. I love books that surprise me. Whether it’s with imaginative settings, intricate plots, beautiful writing, or humor. Surprise me, and I’m hooked. For me, no writer does this better than Frances Hardinge. Her books are incredibly unique. There is nobody who writes like her, who thinks up plots like her. Any one of her books is a trip on a totally new adventure. I started with Fly By Night and have read everything by her since.

The Screaming Staircase

By Jonathan Stroud,

Book cover of The Screaming Staircase

Why this book?

Imagination + adventure! This series is for older readers, as it can be quite scary, but I just love it. You might think you’ve read every possible twist on the ghost story, but then he comes up with a totally fresh concept. Stroud develops wonderfully unique characters in his books, too. I also loved the Bartimaeus series, and I just finished (and loved) his latest, The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne.

Rump: The (Fairly) True Tale of Rumpelstiltskin

By Liesl Shurtliff,

Book cover of Rump: The (Fairly) True Tale of Rumpelstiltskin

Why this book?

Imagination + fairy tales. Back to younger readers for this recommendation. I love this creative spin on a familiar fairy tale, beautifully written and filled with humor. “Read fairy tales and more fairy tales,” Einstein is famously quoted as saying when asked for book recommendations for children. He understood the importance of creative imagination to intellectual curiosity. Me? I just love a good story, with an edge of humor, that takes me on a new journey.   


By Akwaeke Emezi,

Book cover of Pet

Why this book?

Imagination + everything. I’ve been telling everyone to read this book. It’s a bit older than the other recommendations, but it is a wholly original fantasy, covering topics and themes that are so pertinent to today. Jam, a trans teen, has unintentionally summoned a grotesque creature from one of her mother’s paintings. Pet is a monster sent to hunt another hidden monster that nobody believes exists. It’s a thought-provoking masterpiece about hidden evil and what we must face to eradicate it.

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