The best middle grade novels about mysterious strangers

Caroline Starr Rose Author Of Miraculous
By Caroline Starr Rose

Who am I?

I write books to make sense of the world  — this gloriously weird, sometimes heartbreaking, marvelous place we call home. Years ago, while visiting a museum in St. Louis, I heard a woman give a talk on charlatans (people who intentionally deceive others for their personal gain). It sparked a number of questions in me: Why do we believe the things that we do? What might we be willing to try to change our circumstances? Exploring these ideas was the starting point for my book, Miraculous, and its mysterious stranger, Dr. Kingsbury. I hope the stories you read in these pages fill you wonder as they did me.

I wrote...


By Caroline Starr Rose,

Book cover of Miraculous

What is my book about?

Thirteen-year-old Jack knows what cured his baby sister when his family thought she might never get well—Dr. Kingsbury’s “Miraculous Tonic.” Dr. Kingsbury’s potion can cure everything from pimples to hearing loss to a broken heart, and Jack himself is a witness to the miraculous results and the doctor’s kindness. When Dr. Kingsbury and Jack arrive in Oakdale, the town at first feels like any other they’ve been to. But it’s clear Oakdale is a town with secrets, and its citizens are slow to trust strangers. 

Then Jack meets Cora, and a friendship neither expected starts to bloom. Together they uncover something else they didn’t expect. As they race to discover the truth, they’ll have to decide who and what to believe before it’s too late.

The books I picked & why

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When You Reach Me

By Rebecca Stead,

Book cover of When You Reach Me

Why this book?

Miranda Sinclair is confused by the odd words the “Laughing Man” — a homeless man who lives on her street corner — always repeats when he sees her. Then she starts receiving mysterious notes that seem to predict the future, notes Miranda learns have come from the Laughing Man.

This book knocked my socks off! Set in the late seventies, it reminded me of my childhood days, right down to the book Miranda always has with her, A Wrinkle in Time (which I read for a book report in fifth grade.) When You Reach Me is undefinable. Part mystery, part science fiction, the whole story is sprinkled with clues and second chances.

A Fine White Dust

By Cynthia Rylant,

Book cover of A Fine White Dust

Why this book?

Pete’s whole life changes the summer the Preacher Man comes to town. Hearing the Man speak fills Pete with purpose. No one understands Pete like the Preacher Man — neither Pete’s parents, who no longer attend church, nor his best friend, who is an atheist — and Pete will do anything to hold fast to his devotion.

I read this short, deceptively simple book twice while working on Miraculous. It is an honest look at the longings and purpose so many of us search for, the power a persuasive individual can have, and the flaws that make us all human. I’ll never forget this book.

The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree

By Bill Brittain, Andrew Glass (illustrator),

Book cover of The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree

Why this book?

What happens when a person gets what they think they truly want? For only fifty cents, a mysterious stranger offers to give the people of Coven Tree exactly what they wish for, but unexpected (and humorous) problems arise when those wishes come true.

When I was a student teacher, The Wish Giver was on my state’s reading list. I read it and was intrigued! A little creepy, a whole lot mysterious, I’ve remembered this book for years.

Tuck Everlasting

By Natalie Babbitt,

Book cover of Tuck Everlasting

Why this book?

Exploring the woods near her home, ten-year-old Winnie meets a teenager named Jesse Tuck as he drinks from a bubbling spring. Jesse’s family is carefree, like none Winnie has ever met, but they’re also strange, staying hidden away from the rest of the town. Winnie learns their secret comes from the spring: Its water offers everlasting life to anyone who drinks it.

I first read this book years ago and revisited it while writing Miraculous. It examines interesting questions (much like The Wish Giver): What makes life meaningful? What if we could change our “dissatisfying” lives — would the cost be worth it?

The Boneshaker

By Kate Milford, Andrea Offermann (illustrator),

Book cover of The Boneshaker

Why this book?

Thirteen-year-old Natalie Minks loves to tinker and is fascinated when a traveling show comes to town with a mysterious contraption hidden under a tarp. But something is wrong with the show and its healer, Jake Limberleg. Natalie realizes for the sake of her town, she is the one who must discover the truth and finally set things right.

Like my book, Miraculous, The Boneshaker is centered on a traveling medicine show. The story is mysterious and atmospheric — two of my favorite things. I loved how the town’s past informed its present. Most of all, I loved Natalie’s bravery.

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