The best middle grade books featuring protagonists with grit

Who am I?

I’m a middle grade writer with a passion for books that inspire readers to feel empowered. Children’s books, especially middle grade books, played a crucial, transformative role in my own life. When I became a public school teacher in New York City, I was able to see firsthand the importance of providing kids with books that offer windows to new worlds, reflect their own experiences, and build connections across differences. Strong protagonists are able to do just that. This list features books with some of my favorite middle grade protagonists – some from my own childhood, and others more recent discoveries. I hope you and the middle grade reader(s) in your life enjoy these recommendations!


I wrote...

The Ice House

By Monica Sherwood,

Book cover of The Ice House

What is my book about?

The Freeze changed everything: Winter has lasted for months and might herald a new ice age, and nobody knows how it’s going to end.

Stuck in her apartment with her firefighter dad, little brother, and mom while grieving the loss of her grandmother, Louisa’s life feels oppressive. Downstairs live her father’s best friend, Brian; his wife, Alesha; and their son, Luke. When Brian suffers an accident that causes memory loss, Luke, Louisa’s classmate and estranged former best friend, needs to escape too. Despite the tension, they set to work building a house of snow and ice in their backyard but soon discover strange magic inside it that could change the course of both their lives. Sherwood shows with gentleness and realism how happiness, creativity, and humor exist alongside tragedy and upheaval.

The books I picked & why

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Lily's Crossing

By Patricia Reilly Giff,

Book cover of Lily's Crossing

Why this book?

This is a personal favorite from my own middle grade years; I credit it with fostering my love of historical fiction. Lily is a preteen living in Queens, New York during World War II. The War serves as a backdrop for Lily’s disillusionment and confusion over the world around her. Her struggle with grief over the death of her mother is compounded by a new anxiety as her father goes off to fight in the War. As a protagonist, Lily is far from perfect. She has a tendency to lie to her family, and struggles to be a good friend. Maybe this is part of the reason that I found her relatable as a preteen reader myself. Even though her world was vastly different from my own, she was trying to navigate issues that all kids deal with – friendship, loyalty, and family – while wondering what her own future would look like during a chaotic, tragic world event. Lily’s relatability will help readers build connections: kids like them have struggled through unimaginable world events throughout history and have persevered. Readers can, too.

Lily's Crossing

By Patricia Reilly Giff,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Lily's Crossing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This “brilliantly told” (New York Times) Newbery Honor Book gives readers a sense of what it was like to be on the American home front while our soldiers were away fighting in World War II.
 
As in past years, Lily will spend the summer in Rockaway, in her family’s summer house by the Atlantic Ocean. But this summer of 1944, World War II has changed everyone’s life. Lily’s best friend, Margaret, has moved to a wartime factory town, and, much worse, Lily’s father is going overseas to the war.
 
There’s no one Lily’s age in Rockaway until the arrival of…


Bud, Not Buddy: (Newbery Medal Winner)

By Christopher Paul Curtis,

Book cover of Bud, Not Buddy: (Newbery Medal Winner)

Why this book?

Bud is one of my absolute favorite middle grade protagonists. Equally heartbreaking and hilarious, Bud is determined to find his father, who he believes is a jazz musician. He embarks on a journey from Michigan out west, which vividly depicts life during the Great Depression. Bud’s honest account of the evils he encounters – racism, violence, and poverty – illuminates the tragedy and absurdity of racist ideologies and the suffering of so many.

Throughout the novel, Bud’s humor provides a beautifully child-like perspective that will delight readers. The novel also does a wonderful job of celebrating jazz and highlighting the ways that adversity can create strong bonds.

I remember reading this book as a ten year old and loving Bud’s determination to succeed despite the obstacles placed in his way.  It’s historical fiction at its best. It will open readers’ eyes to historic wrongs captured through Bud’s preteen lens, while inspiring them to emulate Bud’s grit and persistence in the face of adversity.

Bud, Not Buddy: (Newbery Medal Winner)

By Christopher Paul Curtis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Bud, Not Buddy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A heart-warming, funny and fast-moving story set in 1930s America - past winner of the highly prestigious Newbery Medal.

Bud is on a journey. He has hit the road with one idea in mind - he wants to discover his father. He's not got a lot to go on - just a flyer for a jazz band and his very own Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself. Despite encounters with a car-driving vampire, a monster-infested woodshed and even a real live girl, Bud presses on towards a surprising discovery ...


The Two Princesses of Bamarre

By Gail Carson Levine,

Book cover of The Two Princesses of Bamarre

Why this book?

This fantasy novel tells the story of two sisters, Princesses Meryl and Addie, who are living in a kingdom plagued by the Gray Death, a deadly disease. Meryl is the courageous older sister, while Addie, younger, is easily frightened and shy. When Meryl catches the Gray Death, Addie’s love for Meryl inspires her to go on a quest in search of a cure to save Meryl’s life. Addie’s devotion to and love of her sister despite their differences celebrates sisterhood and family bonds.  Her journey beautifully illustrates that fear and bravery are not mutually exclusive. She is a hero not in spite of, her fear – it inspires her to investigate and plot her steps carefully on her quest.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre

By Gail Carson Levine,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Two Princesses of Bamarre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Another fantasy adventure from the author of ELLA ENCHANTED. Two princesses in a kingdom of magic, evil and sorcerors. When Princess Meryl succumbs to the terrible Grey Death, can Princess Addie overcome her fears and embark on a dangerous quest to find the cure?

Princess Meryl and Princess Addie, two sisters as close as can be, are growing up in a world full of magic. When their mother dies of the terrible Grey Death, a mysterious illness for which there is no known cure, they must look after each other. Addie looks to Meryl for inspiration - her brave, lively…


All the Greys on Greene Street

By Laura Tucker,

Book cover of All the Greys on Greene Street

Why this book?

This novel captures SoHo in 1981 so vividly. Ollie is twelve years old and dealing with overwhelming turmoil at home: her father disappears in the middle of the night, and her mother is bedridden, struggling with depression.

Ollie is an easy protagonist to root for. Her struggle to navigate the complexities of the adults around her is something many children will relate to, and the mystery and importance of her quest to find her father provides a captivating, page-turning plot for readers. Add in some authentic, vintage SoHo grit and a cast of multi-dimensional, well-developed characters, and readers will easily identify with Ollie’s confusion, curiosity, and grit in the face of adversity.

All the Greys on Greene Street

By Laura Tucker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked All the Greys on Greene Street as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A dazzling debut novel about resilience, courage, home and family."--Rebecca Stead, Newbery Award-winning author of When You Reach Me

SoHo, 1981. Twelve-year-old Olympia is an artist--and in her neighborhood, that's normal. Her dad and his business partner Apollo bring antique paintings back to life, while her mother makes intricate sculptures in a corner of their loft, leaving Ollie to roam the streets of New York with her best friends Richard and Alex, drawing everything that catches her eye. Then everything falls apart. Ollie's dad disappears in the middle of the night, leaving her only a cryptic note and instructions to…


Because of Winn-Dixie

By Kate DiCamillo,

Book cover of Because of Winn-Dixie

Why this book?

Most fans of middle grade are already well acquainted with 10-year-old Opal and Winn-Dixie, her loyal canine companion. Opal is missing her absent mother, and is isolated in a new town – Naomi, Florida when she discovers Winn-Dixie at the supermarket. Winn-Dixie is the catalyst that leads her to consider her new community through fresh eyes. It’s a story of learning to heal, forgive, and find comfort through the friendship of others.

One of the reasons I think I enjoyed this book so much as a kid was because I was often bored by the town I grew up in and wanted to live somewhere more exciting. There was something inspirational about the way Winn-Dixie leads Opal to explore the mundane world around her with curiosity. Naomi is not an exciting place, but Winn-Dixie helps shift Opal’s perspective. As she begins to stop making assumptions about people, she learns important lessons about how she wants to live and begins to focus more on creating a happier life in the present.

Because of Winn-Dixie

By Kate DiCamillo,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Because of Winn-Dixie as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Funny and poignant, this 2001 Newbery Honor novel captures life in a quirky Southern town as Opal and her mangy dog, Winn-Dixie, strike up friendships among the locals.

One summer's day, ten-year-old India Opal Buloni goes down to the local supermarket for some groceries - and comes home with a dog. But Winn-Dixie is no ordinary dog. It's because of Winn-Dixie that Opal begins to make friends. And it's because of Winn-Dixie that she finally dares to ask her father about her mother, who left when Opal was three. In fact, as Opal admits, just about everything that happens that…


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