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

Diana Harmon Asher Author Of Upstaged
By Diana Harmon Asher

Who am I?

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...


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.

The books I picked & why

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The Ballad of a Broken Nose

By Arne Svingen, Kari Dickson (translator),

Book cover of The Ballad of a Broken Nose

Why 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).

Okay for Now

By Gary D. Schmidt,

Book cover of Okay for Now

Why 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 Rob Harrell,

Book cover of Wink

Why 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.

The Chance to Fly

By Ali Stroker,

Book cover of The Chance to Fly

Why 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.

Chasing Vermeer

By Blue Balliett, Brett Helquist (illustrator),

Book cover of Chasing Vermeer

Why 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.

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