Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Top 10 Middle-Grade Novels of all Time

The Challenge: to pick, choose, classify, pigeonhole, endorse, and/or isolate the top ten middle-grade chapter books of all time. Oh, Sophie I feel your pain.

That’s right folks Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 is at it again. After holding us enraptured last year as she, with the help of her readers, tallied up the 100 picture books of all time, she is now asking us to pick our top 10 middle-grade books, in order to create a top 100 list. No sweat you say? That’s what I thought. I immediately scampered over to Goodreads and created a top-middle-grade-fiction bookshelf and before I knew it there were 25 titles lined up on the shelf, each one smugly daring me to send it to the discard pile. I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anyone so I let the shelf simmer for a bit - asked other readers their favorites – looked about my library – checked the Newbery listings from the beginning of time – rifled through the best of lists on Goodreads and . . . the list just got bigger. Dagnabit!

This morning I sat down with the intention of doing a rough draft of the books that were absolute must-haves on the list, supposing that there would be a few slots left over for a bit of debate. Alas once the Must-have list was finished it counted up to 12. Double-dagnabit!! At least I could see, (through my tear-glazed vision), who would be left behind. In an excruciating slash I also had to cut Laura Ingalls and Grandma Dowdel. I hope they will forgive me, and may God have mercy on my soul.

This list turned out to be very personal. I have an emotional attachment to nearly every one of these books. I was not a big non-Nancy Drew children’s lit reader when I was an actual child. A few of the books that were around when I was the age of the intended audience, I didn’t find until I was of a more advance age. A couple of the titles were discovered when my children were small enough for me to hold captive and read to every night. There is only one book on the list because I know it will be in the top three once the dust has settled. About half of the choices are part of a greater series and since Betsy is not, rightly-so, allowing us to nominate an entire series I had to filter out my top choice in the series, which was brutal. My original list had a fair amount of newer titles, When You Reach Me, Savvy, The Penderwicks, and for what I’m guessing is a subliminal need to allow a bit of fermentation, they didn’t drop onto the must-have list. I wouldn’t be surprised if in ten years one or all of these titles shove some of the others aside.

Here goes from bottom to top:

#10- The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton: this is the most personal choice of all. Hinton’s melodramatic story of high school social-economic gang warfare is here for no other reason than it was my favorite book when I was a middle-grade reader. I remember exactly where I was standing as I was walking home from school, when I first saw it in the Scholastic book order. I’m pretty sure it was the first book I chose for myself without my mother’s influence. I knew nothing about it other than it looked exciting and . . . dangerous. I’m not sure what it was in my 5th grade existence that needed the spice of danger, but that’s what I was drawn to. Once I got the prize in my little hands I proceeded to read it countless times though early adolescence. I was pretty convinced that one day I would meet Soda Pop and we would live happily, if a bit dangerously ever after. I know it is technically considered YA but it stays for my 10-year-self!

#9 – Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White: This is here because I know it will be in the top three once all is counted up and recognized, also I do adore this story of friendship and farm smells. This is the first chapter book I remember my mother reading to me. I still own that copy. Regardless if a child has never seen a porcine anything outside the meat department of the local grocery store, they will immediately identify with Fern’s desire to rescue Wilber and put doll clothes on him. As a rule I am not drawn to, indeed actively shun, talking animal books but when it comes to geese with speech impediments I’m putty-utty in the masterful E. B. Whites hands.

#8 – Holes by Louis Sachar: Another one of my tiles that will be scratching and clawing for the #1 spot on the final list. It is widely considered the best Newbery of all time, simply because it is a perfect book!

#7 – Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli: I read this several times to my, now-grown, boys and for years when asked what their favorite book was Maniac was their unhesitant answer. Since I’ve been working in Elementary schools, I’ve noticed that it is a popular choice as a classroom read. I’ve never heard a single kid who despised this story of orphaned super-heroic cleverness, athleticism, and poignant longing to find family. Spinelli’s prose is as rhythmic and swift as his character’s gait as it moves us breathlessly through the pages of the story.

#6 – The Watsons go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis: Not only does this book have a mightily important year in its title (the March on Washington, Kennedy assignation, the year yours truly entered the world), but the Watson’s are one of my favorite families in literature. In fact once upon a time I called into a local NPR show, which was hosting the author, just to say that I would really like the Watsons to move in next door to me, and did he know if they were looking? The radio station had some questions for their screeners after that lapse of judgment, I am sure. This was another read-aloud to my young ones, and as I read it to my then innocent little boys I mentally took parenting notes on how to handle idiotic teenage shenanigans. Of course it also begins with one of the funniest opening scenes of narcissistic comeuppance. While deicing the car in the sub-zero Michigan winter, big brother Byron gets attached to the family vehicle by the lips, when he kisses his irresistible reflection in the side-view mirror.

#5 – The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner: This wasn’t going to be on the list at first glance, as I was placing it on the YA side of things. Although the Eugenides series is my current obsessive series, the one I fear I may die before I get to the end, I realize that it is much too subtle and complex for the average middle-grade reader. Thus I wasn’t going to put it on my list, but then I took Betsy’s advice and checked what Powell’s had to say on the subject of its reading level and as you can plainly see it is firmly placed in the middle-grade section. I’m choosing The King of Attolia over The Thief as it is my favorite of the three I’ve been able to get at thus far. (I really think those you with ARCs of #4 are just plain cruel to flaunt your riches on Goodreads in front of us peasants) Outside of Grandma Dowdel there is no other character I love more than Eugenides. I actually believe they would be very good friends. Can you imagine the high jinks the two of them could pull off? Mischievous teenagers and conniving attendants should be put on notice at once.

#4 – Ramona the Pest by Beverly Clearly: There is no other character that I identify more with than Ramona. Notice that I didn’t use the past tense of the verb? As a child I fully understood every motivation that Ramona had for the trouble she managed to find herself in, whether it was getting stuck in the mud because it was too irresistible to one sporting new boots, to being fascinated by the fancy girl’s ringlets to the point of covert tugging. Beverly Clearly is an absolute genius when it comes to capturing what it means to be a kid. She completely understands their fears, joys, anxieties, and passions. It took Ramona 50 years to go from being a casual mention as Beezus’s odd little sister in Henry Huggins to reach 4th grade in Ramona’s World. I figure I still have a few years before I need to outgrow my Ramona stage. For readers of this blog you may remember my romp through Ramonaland this past summer.

#3 – The High King by Lloyd Alexander: I guess it’s a given that someone who named one of her sons Taran would have at least one of Chronicles of Prydain on her list. This series was my first exposure to Fantasy and I found it as an adult. Believe it or not I managed to get through childhood without exposure to Middle Earth or Narnia. I was utterly enchanted with the experience of moving through an epic adventure with a troop of loveable companions. Although I would never suggest reading just one of the 5 books in the series, let alone the final book, I am choosing The High King for the list as it is everything a middle-grade novel should be. There is despair, treachery, daring-do, romance, intrigue, an epic moment of nick-of-time realization all tied up in an enormously satisfying ending. Truth be told Taran Wanderer is my personal favorite of the five, but it doesn’t come close to standing alone where I think The High King might stand a chance, though it would be a shame to miss out on the beginning of the tale.

#2 – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling: Choosing the first book is a strategic choice to offset vote splitting. There are certainly others in the series that may excite me more (Order of the Phoenix comes to mind) but I can’t fathom getting to any of the other books without first facing off with the original Harry. I would like to say I was the first person I knew personally to read this book, which is a very braggy thing to say, but it also means that I had to wait through 6 release dates. I’m horribly jealous of my little students who are plowing through the series for the first time and don’t need wait any longer than it takes to run over to the shelf to start the next book. Early on when the release dates were staggered between the UK and the rest of the world, we were living close enough to Canada to get a limey copy of The Chamber of Secrets. Well that was quite a bit about me, me, me and not a bit about the book but then what is there to say really. Harry made the entire world sit up and take notice of Fantasy fiction and Children’s literature at large, what more important phenomena could there be in a list about top Middle-grade fiction. Not to mention that it is quite an excellent yarn in every way.

#1 – Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery: If my childhood self was Ramona, Anne is who I wanted to be. If at some point I don’t get to put on a dress with puffed sleeves and run down the White Way of Delight to the Lake of Shinning Waters, my life will be a pale shadow of what it should be. After reading this for the first time at the age of 12 or 13 I re-read and re-read the passage where Gilbert finds Anne stranded under the bridge. So much romance for my little twitterpated heart! Although the rest of the series can’t compare to the first I have read them all through several times. I am enchanted by the Victorian delicacy of the language, particularly when Anne is pregnant. What “secret smiles” and “small hopes for the future” can covey in reference to biology.

For good or ill that is my list. With deepest apologies to my favorite ADD duo Clementine and Joey Pigza, Schmidt’s Holling Hoodhood, the fair Kate, and the Fitzgerald brothers. If only counting to 10 could have included you.

Now readers, if indeed you do exist, what are your picks and shouldn’t you scoot over to Fuse#8 and make your voice heard.


  1. Fabulous books--everyone! I remember reading the Watsons when I was in elementary school. It was practically new then! Thanks for this and for all you do for readers in our school district. ~Bonnie Flint

  2. Your list includes a few titles I've never read. I like how you've highlighted books that should appeal to both girls and boys. Although, I must say that Laura Ingalls would make my list, somehow, someway.

  3. There are some all time favorites for me on this list!

  4. You are very brave! I don't think I could do this. ;) Found you via the Comment Challenge!

  5. I started looking at this with my older kids in the library today and its interesting that they want to include the entire series instead of just one book. I thought it was interesting and shows the popularity of series with this age.

  6. A great list, it really contrasts with what often appears on similar list here in the UK. Except Harry Potter of course, he is everywhere.

    I haven't read many on your list, but Holes is a dead cert, just loved it.

  7. Richard: I would love to see the British curve, I'm guess Roald Dahl would be big.

    Bill: I know what you mean by kids and series. My students are incensed when try to soften the blow that Percy Jackson is not likely to show up on the Newbery list.

    As someone who is passionate about helping kids find success in reading I am forever grateful to all the series writer out there.

  8. I would have thought of The Outsiders as a YA novel, not middle grade... but I like all your choices.

  9. This is a great list! I'll be picking up Holes and Maniac McKee to read to my kids. If they beat out Laura Ingalls WIlder - they gotta be good!

  10. A delectable list of great books, but I must protest that five of your ten are YA, not MG. To class books like The Outsiders as middle grade contaminates them for teens, so hands off, and please go play in your own backyard.

  11. Island of the Blue Dolphins. Where the Red Fern Grows. Number the Stars. The Golden Compass. Hatchet. Wonder. When You Reach Me. Walk Two Moons. Tuck Everlasting. A Single Shard. Elijah of Buxton. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I agree with you on Holes and the first Harry Potter. Those would be on my list too.

  12. The Outsiders is ghastly and outdated. At least a couple of these books belong in elementary not middle school. Let's not dumb down middle school anymore please. Other books are okay.