The best middle grade novels about music, art, and friendship

Why am I passionate about this?

Just like my Upstaged heroine, my first stage experience was playing Mr. Jacey Squires in The Music Man. Both of my parents were singers and really, there’s never been a time when music—and the friends I made through music—haven’t been an important part of my life. Love of the arts can bring kids together in surprising ways. The characters in these books face varied challenges, home lives, and predicaments. But for all of them, it’s the support of friends, a dose of courage, and inspiration from the arts that get them through. That’s why I’ve chosen these five wonderful, readable, un-put-downable books.



I wrote...

Upstaged

By Diana Harmon Asher,

Book cover of Upstaged

What is my book about?

Shira Gordon doesn’t think she has the courage to be in her school musical, especially when she’s cast as Mr. Jacey Squires, first tenor in the barbershop quartet in her middle school production of The Music Man. But wearing a hat and mustache, singing arm in arm with three sweaty boys turns out to be the easy part, after she agrees to be the understudy for the show’s leading lady, school diva, Monica Manley. Shira’s friend Cassie, leading man Paul, a banana-haired guest director and the barbershop quartet boys are the main players and—I hope—make Upstaged a fun, funny, musical read.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Ballad of a Broken Nose

Diana Harmon Asher Why did I love this book?

I absolutely fell in love with twelve-year-old Bart—a kid who doesn’t complain when there are only pretzel sticks for dinner, who takes boxing lessons, but can’t punch, a kid who loves opera. Opera! (Specifically, the voice of baritone Bryn Terfel--Look him up and listen!) He lives near Oslo, Norway in shabby public housing with his loving, alcoholic, and often unemployed mother. Bart makes the best of everything in his life. His unique, gentle nature, some lovely friendships, and Svingen’s storytelling completely won my heart. I don’t know why this book hasn’t gotten more accolades—maybe because people expect every Norwegian novel to have Vikings and fjords. (Language Alert: There are some instances of the word sh*t—blame the translator).

By Arne Svingen, Kari Dickson (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ballad of a Broken Nose 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?

From award-winning Norwegian author Arne Svingen comes “an uplifting coming-of-age story” (The Wall Street Journal) about a relentlessly positive teenager who uses his love of opera to cope with his less-than-perfect home life.

Bart is an eternal optimist. At thirteen years old, he’s had a hard life. But Bart knows that things won’t get any better if you have a negative attitude. His mother has pushed him into boxing lessons so that Bart can protect himself, but Bart already has defense mechanisms: he is relentlessly positive…and he loves opera.

Listening to—and singing—opera is Bart’s greatest escape, but he’s too shy…


Book cover of Okay for Now

Diana Harmon Asher Why did I love this book?

I don’t have words for how masterful this book is. (I know, I’m a writer, I’m supposed to have words). I’m constantly blown away by Schmidt’s writing. The novel, set in 1968, is the story of fourteen-year-old Doug Swieteck, whose abusive father moves the family to a new town. Doug’s first-person voice is so alive and original. He tells you a lot, but not everything. And what he’s hiding is revealed in scenes that will stay with me forever, among them one in PE class, and another when Doug’s brother returns from Vietnam. On every page, you sense Doug’s emotional armor, but also his vulnerability. His growth as a person and an artist makes it one of my favorite books of all time.

By Gary D. Schmidt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Okay for Now 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?

Beloved author Gary D. Schmidt expertly blends comedy and tragedy in the story of Doug Swieteck, an unhappy "teenage thug" first introduced in The Wednesday Wars, who finds consolation and a sense of possibility in friendship and art.

At once heartbreaking and hopeful, this absorbing novel centers on Doug, 14, who has an abusive father, a bully for a brother, a bad reputation, and shameful secrets to keep. Teachers and police and his relatives think he's worthless, and he believes them, holding others at arm's length. Newly arrived in town, he starts out on the same path—antagonizing other kids, mouthing…


Book cover of Wink

Diana Harmon Asher Why did I love this book?

Wink opens as Ross, a seventh grader, is about to start radiation treatment for a cancerous tumor in his eye. Oh, no, you’re saying, I don’t want to read about that! But you really do. Rob Harrell amazed me with a first-person narration and drawings that are engaging and creative and funny! Ross is almost as concerned about not being seen as a dork as he is about getting through the pain and fear of cancer. He has loving parents and caring adults around him, but it’s music that finally lets him triumph over some mean—very mean—classmates, and say what he can’t express in any other way.

By Rob Harrell,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Wink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 9, 10, 11, and 12.

What is this book about?

Ross Molloy just wants to be normal. He doesn't want to lose his hair, or wear a weird hat, or deal with the disappearing friends who don't know what to say to 'the cancer kid'. But with his recent diagnosis of a rare eye cancer, simply blending in is no longer an option. Ross - and his friends and his family - all need to work out how to deal with this devastating challenge that Life has thrown down. Maybe Batpig can come to the rescue?

Based on Rob Harrell's own real life experience of eye cancer, and including amazing…


Book cover of The Chance to Fly

Diana Harmon Asher Why did I love this book?

It makes me happy to know that kids will be reading and loving this book about Nat Beacon, a thirteen-year-old girl who’s dreading her move to New Jersey—until she joins a summer production of Wicked. Tony Award winner Ali Stroker uses her first-hand experience to beautifully share how it feels to be a teenage girl in a wheelchair. I’d never thought about what it’s like not being eye-to-eye with your friends (or your crush!) when they’re hanging out, how a broken elevator can break your heart, or how insensitive people can be when they tell you no, you can’t be in the dance number. The story’s characters are colorful and diverse, Stroker and Davidowitz’s love of musical theater comes through on every page, and there’s a sweet, sweet kiss.


By Ali Stroker,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Chance to Fly as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A heartfelt middle-grade novel about a theater-loving girl who uses a wheelchair for mobility and her quest to defy expectations-and gravity-from Tony award-winning actress Ali Stroker and Stacy Davidowitz

Thirteen-year-old Nat Beacon loves a lot of things: her dog Warbucks, her best friend Chloe, and competing on her wheelchair racing team, the Zoomers, to name a few. But there's one thing she's absolutely OBSESSED with: MUSICALS! From Hamilton to Les Mis, there's not a cast album she hasn't memorized and belted along to. She's never actually been in a musical though, or even seen an actor who uses a wheelchair…


Book cover of Chasing Vermeer

Diana Harmon Asher Why did I love this book?

Balliett’s novel had me Googling the life and art of Johannes Vermeer and searching for museums where I could see his work. This book is so much fun to read and decipher, with hidden code writing, mysterious letters, quirky parents, a strange old lady and an inventive teacher, any of whom may or may not be involved in the mystery of a stolen Vermeer painting. It’s a puzzle and an adventure, and a story of friendship. I always love when oddball characters join forces, and this book’s main characters—Calder and Petra--two kids who at first see each other as “weird”— bond over their fascination with the art of Johannes Vermeer and his missing painting.

By Blue Balliett, Brett Helquist (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Chasing Vermeer 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?

This bewitching first novel is a puzzle, wrapped in a mystery, disguised as an adventure and delivered as a work of art. When a book of inexplicable occurences bring Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay together, strange things start to happen- seemingly unrelated events connect, an eccentric old woman seeks their company, and an invaluable Vermeer painting disappears. Before they know it, the two find themselves at the centre of an international art scandal. As Petra and Calder are drawn clue by clue into a mysterious labyrinth they must draw on their powers of intuition, their skills at problem solving, and…


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The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams Author Of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I was first a clinical social worker and then a social work professor with research focus on older adults. Over the past few years, as I have been writing my own memoir about caring for my parents, I’ve been drawn to memoirs and first-person stories of aging, illness, and death. The best memoirs on these topics describe the emotional transformation in the writer as they process their loss of control, loss of their own or a loved one’s health, and their fear, pain, and suffering. In sharing these stories, we help others empathize with what we’ve gone through and help others be better prepared for similar events in their own lives.

Kathryn's book list on Memoirs illness aging death moving vivid prose

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief…

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


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