The Best Upper Middle Grade Books For Tweens

Best Upper Middle Grade Books For Tweens

What do you do when you have a middle schooler who reads on a high school or collegiate level, but isn’t emotionally or socially ready for young adult literature? Middle grade books look and feel too young for them — but young adult books feature characters who are toeing the line of adulthood and grappling with mature issues in more detail than is suitable for a 12 year old. You may be looking for upper middle grade books that are suitable for tweens — but these books seem to be hard to find.

I saw several tweets recently in which teachers lamented about this very problem and discovered the problem isn’t new. MG Book Village, a blog by several middle grade educators, discussed this issue in a post in 2019 by upper middle grade author Melanie Sumrow. Writer’s Rumpus mentioned the issue in their 2020 post by middle grade author Josh Roberts.

While clearly the topic has been covered, I also know that the list of books can get stale quickly, so I’m starting a list here and working over time to categorize it in a way that will make sense to teachers who are looking for books for the students in their upper middle grade classes.

Before we start with the list though, let’s talk about what makes an upper middle grade book. Generally speaking, a book that fits in this category meets the following criteria.

  • Upper middle grade books are written for readers between the ages of 11-15.
  • The main characters in these books tend to be 12 years and older.
  • While the books tackle topics like complicating emotions and family issues that are too complex for middle grade books, they do so in a way that’s appropriate for tweens.

You can also learn more by watching the Middle Group Book Fest middle grade panel featuring authors JMM Nuanez, Barbara Dee, Paula Chase, Kristiana Sfirlea, and Torrey Maldonado. Also in the video are middle school library media specialist Kelly Zatorksy and moderator Shannon Doleski.

I've decided to categorize the list by genre so you can easily find what you need for your students. I'm also linking the images and order buttons to BookShop (when possible) and Amazon, so you can purchase a copy for your classroom library.

Contemporary

Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids (2021) 

Edited by award-winning and bestselling author Cynthia Leitich Smith, this collection of intersecting stories by both new and veteran Native writers bursts with hope, joy, resilience, the strength of community, and Native pride. Featuring stories and poems by Joseph Bruchac, 
Eric Gansworth, Dawn Quigley, Andrea L. Rogers,
Kim Rogers, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Traci Sorell, Tim Tingle, and more.

Crashing in Love by Jennifer Richard Jacobson (2021)

When Peyton comes across the victim of a hit-and-run, she knows it's destiny. But what exactly does fate have in store for her and the boy in the coma?

Since her parents divorced, twelve-year-old Peyton has known that to achieve happier outcomes in her life, she's got to focus on eliminating her flaws--and on making sure her first boyfriend is truly right for her. Guided by her collection of inspirational quotes and her growing list of ideal boyfriend traits, Peyton is convinced that this summer will be the perfect summer, complete with the perfect boyfriend! But when she discovers a boy lying unconscious in the middle of the road, the victim of a hit-and-run, her perfect summer takes a dramatic detour. 

Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya Menon (2021)

For Princess Jaya Rao, nothing is more important than family. When the loathsome Emerson clan steps up their centuries-old feud to target Jaya's little sister, nothing will keep Jaya from exacting her revenge. Then Jaya finds out she'll be attending the same elite boarding school as Grey Emerson, and it feels like the opportunity of a lifetime. She knows what she must do: Make Grey fall in love with her and break his heart. But much to Jaya's annoyance, Grey's brooding demeanor and lupine blue eyes have drawn her in. There's simply no way she and her sworn enemy could find their fairy-tale ending...right?His Lordship Grey Emerson is a misanthrope. Thanks to an ancient curse by a Rao matriarch, Grey knows he's doomed once he turns eighteen. Sequestered away in the mountains at St. Rosetta's International Academy, he's lived an isolated existence--until Jaya Rao bursts into his life, but he can't shake the feeling that she's hiding something. Something that might just have to do with the rose-shaped ruby pendant around her neck...

Fantasy

Alanna by Tamora Pierce (2010)

In a time when girls are forbidden to be warriors, Alanna of Trebond wants nothing more than to be a knight of the realm of Tortall. So she finds a way to switch places with her twin brother, Thom. Disguised as a boy, Alanna begins her training as a page at the palace of King Roald. But the road to knighthood, as she discovers, is not an easy one. Alanna must master weapons, combat, and magic, as well as polite behavior, her temper, and even her own heart.
Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna's first adventure begins--one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and make her a legend in the land.

Historical Fiction

House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle (2014)

A Choctaw tale of tragedy, good and evil, revenge and ultimately forgiveness, laced with healing Choctaw humor and a little magical realism thrown in. The hour has come to speak of troubled times. It is time we spoke of Skullyville. 

Thus begins Rose Goode's story of growing up in Indian Territory in pre-statehood Oklahoma. Skullyville, a once-thriving Choctaw community, was destroyed by land-grabbers, culminating in the arson of New Hope Academy for Girls in 1896. Twenty Choctaw girls died, but Rose escaped. She was blessed by the presence of her grandmother Pokoni and her grandfather Amafo, both respected elders who understand the old ways.

Children of the Longhouse by Joseph Bruchac (1998)

When Ohkwa'ri overhears a group of older boys planning a raid on a neighboring village, he immediately tells his Mohawk elders. He has done the right thing--but he has also made enemies. Grabber and his friends will do anything they can to hurt him, especially during the village-wide game of Tekwaarathon (lacrosse). Ohkwa'ri believes in the path of peace, but can peaceful ways work against Grabber's wrath?

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (2002)

During the summer of 1793, Mattie Cook lives above the family coffee shop with her widowed mother and grandfather. Mattie spends her days avoiding chores and making plans to turn the family business into the finest Philadelphia has ever seen. But then the fever breaks out.

Disease sweeps the streets, destroying everything in its path and turning Mattie's world upside down. At her feverish mother's insistence, Mattie flees the city with her grandfather. But she soon discovers that the sickness is everywhere, and Mattie must learn quickly how to survive in a city turned frantic with disease.

Mystery

Enola Holmes: The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer (2020)

Meet Enola Holmes, teenage girl turned detective and the younger sister to Sherlock Holmes. When Enola Holmes, sister to the detective Sherlock Holmes, discovers her mother has disappeared, she quickly embarks on a journey to London in search of her. But nothing can prepare her for what awaits. Because when she arrives, she finds herself involved in the kidnapping of a young marquess, fleeing murderous villains, and trying to elude her shrewd older brothers--all while attempting to piece together clues to her mother's strange disappearance. Amid all the mayhem, will Enola be able to decode the necessary clues and find her mother?

Daughter of the Deep by Rick Riordan (2021)

Ana Dakkar is a freshman at Harding-Pencroft Academy, a five-year high school that graduates the best marine scientists, naval warriors, navigators, and underwater explorers in the world. Ana's parents died while on a scientific expedition two years ago, and the only family's she's got left is her older brother, Dev, also a student at HP. Ana's freshman year culminates with the class's weekend trial at sea, the details of which have been kept secret. She only hopes she has what it'll take to succeed. All her worries are blown out of the water when, on the bus ride to the ship, Ana and her schoolmates witness a terrible tragedy that will change the trajectory of their lives. 

Mythology

Argos: The Story of Odysseus as Told by His Loyal Dog by Ralph Hardy (2018)

For twenty years, the great hero Odysseus struggles to return to home on Ithaka. He defeats monsters. He outsmarts the Cyclops. He battles the gods. He does whatever it takes to reunite with his family.

And what of that family--his devoted wife, Penelope; his young son, Telemachos; his dog, Argos? For those twenty years, they wait, unsure whether they will ever see Odysseus again. But Argos has found a way to track his master.

Any animal who sets foot or wing on Ithaka brings him news of Odysseus's epic voyage. These tales bring hope that one day his master will return. Meanwhile, Argos the loyal dog watches over his master's family and protects them from the dangers that surround a throne without its king.

Demigods Academy: Year One by Elisa S. Amore (2019)

On their eighteenth birthday, everyone in the world receives a Shadowbox—a magic box that is a gift like no other… because it’s a gift from the Gods.

For the majority of people, there’s only a birthday message inside their Shadowbox, which is still considered a blessing. For a few chosen, though, there’s something more. Nobody knows what those special guys receive. What’s known is that they disappear and never come back.

Rumors say they are invited to join the Gods’ Army… I think it’s just a load of crap.

Science Fiction

Michael Vey Series by Richard Paul Evans (2012-2018)

To everyone at Meridian High School, Michael Vey is nothing special, just the kid who has Tourette’s syndrome. But in truth, Michael is extremely special—he has electric powers. And he’s not the only one, either…

Join Michael, Taylor, Ostin, and the rest of the Electroclan as they use their powers and wits to prevent a dangerous organization from achieving its sinister goal of global domination.

The Missing Series by Margaret Peterson Haddix (2008-2015)

Thirteen-year-old Jonah has always known that he was adopted, and he’s never thought it was a big deal. Then he and a neighbor, Chip, who finds out he’s also adopted, begin receiving mysterious letters.

Jonah, Chip, and Jonah’s little sister Katherine are plunged into a mystery that involves the FBI, a vast smuggling operation, an airplane that appeared out of nowhere—and people who seem to disappear and reappear at will...until they make a staggering discovery: Jonah and Chip, and other kids are actually missing children from throughout history, stolen for profit by time travelers. Now, they are caught in a battle between two opposing forces that want very different things for them—and their choices will determine the course of their own lives, and the lives of their friends.

Sports Fiction

Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson (2020)

For as long as ZJ can remember, his dad has been everyone's hero. As a charming, talented pro football star, he's as beloved to the neighborhood kids he plays with as he is to his millions of adoring sports fans. But lately life at ZJ's house is anything but charming. His dad is having trouble remembering things and seems to be angry all the time. ZJ's mom explains it's because of all the head injuries his dad sustained during his career. ZJ can understand that--but it doesn't make the sting any less real when his own father forgets his name. As ZJ contemplates his new reality, he has to figure out how to hold on tight to family traditions and recollections of the glory days, all the while wondering what their past amounts to if his father can't remember it. And most importantly, can those happy feelings ever be reclaimed when they are all so busy aching for the past?

The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mike Cochrane (2010)

For an eighth grader, Molly Williams has more than her fair share of problems. Her father has just died in a car accident, and her mother has become a withdrawn, quiet version of herself.

Molly doesn't want to be seen as "Miss Difficulty Overcome"; she wants to make herself known to the kids at school for something other than her father's death. So she decides to join the baseball team. The boys' baseball team. Her father taught her how to throw a knuckleball, and Molly hopes it's enough to impress her coaches as well as her new teammates.

Over the course of one baseball season, Molly must figure out how to redefine her relationships to things she loves, loved, and might love: her mother; her brilliant best friend, Celia; her father; her enigmatic and artistic teammate, Lonnie; and of course, baseball.

More Upper Middle Grade Books

Note: This is a living list of books, meaning I'll be updating it over time. So far, I have a list of at least five books in each category, but am publishing this now so you can start checking out the books I've already found. If you have suggestions, leave them in the collaboration area below.

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

Collaborate

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  1. House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle: This is a wonderful, wonderful novel about the Choctaw people of Oklahoma. I literally had goose bumps reading the last page of this book. It is narrated by Rose, when she was a young Choctaw girl and later as an old women near death.

  2. This is such a relevant issue for middle level, readers and educators. I think your point on finding books that still address the issues that are in young adult novels but in a more age appropriate way is super important regarding is an author that I read in middle school, and I find that his novels are great for middle school students.

    1. Thank you so much for the comment and suggestion, Alaina! Several of my students over the years have loved Rick Riordan’s books. My daughter loved his work so much that she is writing one in a similar mythology-meets-contemporary-world genre.

      Also, I have comments sent to require approval before they’re published to prevent spamming. Sorry about the confusion!

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