15+ Classic Novels for Middle Grade Readers

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh 50th anniversary edition

These classic novels for middle grade readers, written by women authors of the distant and recent past, spark curiosity and take the reader on grand adventures. They also impart wisdom that can be enjoyed by all ages.

Books provide guidance, exploration, and companionship among so many other things – this is especially true for young readers. A good novel can expand our knowledge of the world; when the world feels overwhelming, a novel provides a comforting and familiar companion.

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1864)

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: There is no need for me to explain what it is about the writing and the characters that are so powerful and endearing, for I know that many, many readers have experienced it too. We laugh at Jo’s antics, and feel Teddy’s heartbreak, and weep when Beth takes her last breath.

I know that Little Women will always be a book I come back to for comfort, guidance, and enjoyment. It will be a book I will read to my children. It will be a book that will still teach me, even as I age. And I hope I will never cease to find a piece of myself within it.

 

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Hans Brinker by Mary Mapes Dodge (1865)

Hans Brinker modern cover
Hans Brinker 
by Mary Mapes Dodge is the classic tale of Hans and his sister Gretel (not to be confused with Hansel and Gretel). It takes place in Holland, and though the author created a lovely picture of Dutch life in the early 19th century, she never visited the country until well after the book’s publication.

The family is relatable and timeless because they “are very real people with ambitions, hopes and problems that the young reader shares as he or she reads their story. The Brinkers are very poor, but during one eventful winter many wonderful things happen to them.” 

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Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1877)

Black Beauty first edition cover 1877

Black Beauty  by Anna Sewell wasn’t intended as a children’s book; rather, she wrote it for those who owned or worked with horses, “to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses.”

A unique feature of the book is that the story is told by the horse; it is, after all, subtitled The Autobiography of a Horse. He’s sensitive and intelligent, sharing his feelings and thoughts as his story unfolds. 

Black Beauty was published in 1877 in England, and in 1890 in the U.S. and ever since, has been one of the best-selling children’s books of all time.

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A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905)

A Little Princess

A Little Princess  by Frances Hodgson Burnett has endured as a timeless tale. The story of A Little Princess follows a young girl with a vivid imagination as she faces abandonment at a posh boarding school in London with a cruel headmistress.

The riches-to-rags story was so successful that in 1902, Burnett adapted the story of Sara Crewe into a three-act stage play under the title, A Little Un-Fairy Princess. The novel has since been adapted into several film versions, TV shows, musicals, and other theatrical productions.

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Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908)

Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables  by L.M. Montgomery was a great success from the time it was published, and has appealing to generations of readers of all ages and backgrounds sine.

Anne Shirley is a dreamy, imaginative 11-year-old orphan girl mistakenly sent to middle-aged brother and sister Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, who meant to adopt a boy to help on their farm.

Set in Prince Edward Island, where the author grew up, the original volume and its sequels follow Anne from her arrival in the fictional town of Avonlea, through school, college, marriage, and motherhood.

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A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton (1909)

A girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

A Girl of the Limberlost was Gene Stratton’s third novel, published in 1909 as a sequel to Freckles (1905), both of which are stories for “children of all ages.” Gene was enchanted by the great outdoors from an early age and was encouraged by her parents to explore her surroundings. Her love of nature served as the foundation for her career as a naturalist, photographer, and writer.

In the course of her early explorations, Gene came upon the Limberlost Swamp near her home in rural Indiana. There she discovered birds, butterflies, and wildflowers that captured her imagination. A 1909 review of the book wrote:

“Here’s a sweet and tender tale which is a welcome addition to the libraries of our young people, as well as delightful reading for older ones. It is a sympathetic story with the ennobling love of nature as its basic thought.” 

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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett follows the journey of Mary Lennox, a sickly and unloved ten-year-old girl born to wealthy British parents in India.

After a cholera epidemic kills her parents, Mary is sent to England to live with her Uncle Archibald in an isolated, mysterious house. The tale follows the spoiled and sulky young girl as she slowly sheds her sour demeanor after discovering a secret, locked garden on the grounds of her uncle’s manor.

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Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery (1923)

Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery

Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery is the start of a trilogy of novels about Emily Byrd Starr that invites comparison with the beloved Anne of Green Gables series. These books, as is true for many of L.M. Montgomery’s writings, are meant for “children of all ages.”

Legions of readers have been devoted to Anne, while others prefer the more contained Emily, who is grounded in her passionate ambition to become a writer. The Emily trilogy shows her in the act of writing, living, and breathing writing, and working to improve her craft. That single-minded devotion to the art of writing is a rarity in children’s literature.

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The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932)

Little house in the big woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder is an autobiographical series of novels that reflect on the authors life on the American frontier. Though beloved by generations of young readers, they haven’t been without controversy, as we’ll soon discover.

The Ingalls family traveled by covered wagon through Kansas and Minnesota with all that they owned, until finally settling in De Smet, Dakota Territory. The family loved the open spaces of the prairie. They moved around quite a bit, and though it wasn’t an easy life, it gave Laura a rich trove of memories and experiences to draw upon when she began writing.

Wilder (1967–1967) wrote these vivid tales — nine in the Little House series — that immediately appealed to readers of all ages. The books were an immediate critical and popular success, winning numerous awards and making their way into readers’ hearts with their message of endurance, simple living, and love of family.

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The Rescuers by Margery Sharp (1959)

The rescuers by Margery Sharp

The Rescuers by British author Margery Sharp launched a series of books starring Miss Bianca, a socialite mouse who assisted animals as well as humans in perilous situations, and fellow mice Bernard and Nils. These well-received children’s novels have had legions of grown-up fans as well, and all told added up to nine books.

Disney adapted the stories to two animated films, The Rescuers (1977) and The Rescuers Down Under (1990). Margery Sharp’s classic tale of pluck, luck, and derring-do is amply and beautifully illustrated by the great Garth Williams.

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I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1948)

I capture the castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is the story of Rose and Cassandra Mortmain, two sisters who are part of an eccentric family living in genteel poverty in a crumbling castle in the 1930s. At the time of its publication, Smith was an established playwright, and would later become even better known for the children’s classic, The 101 Dalmatians (1956). 

This coming-of-age novel has been beloved by young adults ever since it was published in 1948. Critics were kind as well, as in the words of this original 1948 review:

“Finding out what happens makes rewarding reading. This is a captivating — an enchanting story, bit it is also shrewd commentary on life and art and the complexity of the human heart.”

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A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)

A Wrinkle in Time (cover) by Madeleine L'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was almost never published. L’Engle reflected, “You can’t name a major publisher who didn’t reject it.” It took just that one publisher to take the chance, and the rest is literary history. It has not only won some of the most prestigious publishing awards, it’s also one of the most frequently banned books of all time.

Best of all, with A Wrinkle in Time, L’Engle become one of the pioneers not only opened a path for more complex children’s literature (think: Harry Potter). Once the book came out, it was widely praised.

 

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Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh is set in Manhattan’s upper east side, stars 11-year-old Harriet M. Welsch, who wants to be a famous writer when she grows up. To prepare, she keeps a notebook in which she records details of the world around her in minute detail.

Her observations of the people in her life are funny, poignant, and sometimes cruel. When her sixth-grade classmates find and read the contents of her notebook, Harriet’s world turns upside down.

When the book was first published, critical reaction was quite positive. Harriet is relatable and though quite flawed, she’s also evidently lovable and memorable. 

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The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle (1965)

The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle

The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle is a tense, well-plotted story of suspense which, while having much to say about basic values and human loyalties, moves to an extraordinary and satisfying conclusion. Young Adam Eddington, a brilliant student specializing in marine biology, secures a summer job as assistant to the world-famous Dr. O’Keefe, who’s laboratory is situated on Gaea, a small island off the coast of Portugal.

Before the plane takes off from Kennedy International Airport, Adam makes the acquaintance of Caroline Cutter, an attractive girl whose father has business interests in Portugal.

Caroline is going to Lisbon, too, but on another airline. Caroline warns Adam inn a hurried and unclear manner against a certain Canon Tallis who, along with a 12-year-old redheaded child, is to be a passenger on Adam’s flight.

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A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich
by Alice Childress (1975)

A Hero Ain't Nothing

A contemporary classic by Alice Childress, this book was adapted to a film of the same name. Her concern about reaching young people led to her writing this books. This searing novel about a young heroin addict was highly praised as a “surprisingly exciting” use of the author’s “considerable dramatic talents to expose a segment of society seldom spoken of above a whisper” in the New York Times.  

Feminist literary critic Susan Koppelman Cornillon (Images of Women in Fiction) said that Hero “revolutionized writing for young adults by introducing the nitty-gritty realities of urban life.” The American Library Association named Hero best Young Adult Book of 1975 and it was made into a feature film starring Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson in 1977. 

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Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (1975)

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt is a remarkable novel about mortality and immortality that rewards young and adult readers alike. Originally intended for middle grade children, it’s a gracefully written story that has resonated with readers of all ages. It explores the idea of eternal life, and its flip side, mortality. 

When 10-year-old Winnie Foster inadvertently comes upon the Tuck family, she learns that they became immortal when they drank from a spring on her family’s property. 

They tell Winnie how they’ve watched life go by for decades, while they themselves never grow older. Winnie must decide if she’ll keep the Tucks’ secret, and whether she wants to join them on their immortal path.

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