The best upper middle-grade books? What even are upper middle-grade books, you ask? Simply put, these are books that:
- Handle more sensitive issues than the typical middle-grade book. Middle-grade books where the MC deals with issues like eating disorders, serious mental illness, a serious crush or first boyfriend, sexual harassment, colorism, drug misuse, abuse — you get the gist. Things you wouldn’t feel quite ready to hand to your 9-year old.
- Typically feature main characters aged 12 and up.
- Are targeted to readers between ages 11-14, maybe the occasional 10-year old.
Often, upper middle-grade books are those loved by adults who do not typically read middle-grade. They’re also perfect for kids in their early teens who do not feel quite ready for the content in most young adult novels. You can learn more about upper middle-grade books by watching this Middle Ground Book Fest panel.
For this list, I’ve chosen books that I’ve either read and judged to be Upper Middle-Grade, books promoted by their authors as Upper MG or books marked as such by trusted readers.
Click on the book’s cover to head over to the book’s Amazon page.
Disclaimer: I use affiliate links for Amazon and will make a cent or two if you buy using these links. It’s a great way to support a blog(ger) you love.
Published: August 14, 2018
Jamila Phillips and Tai Johnson have been inseparable since they were toddlers, having grown up across the street from each other in Pirates Cove, a low-income housing project. As summer comes to an end, Tai can’t wait for Mila to return from spending a month with her aunt in the suburbs. But both girls are grappling with secrets, and when Mila returns she’s more focused on her upcoming dance auditions than hanging out with Tai.
Published: August 27, 2019
Deontae “Simp” Wright has big plans for his future. Plans that involve basketball, his best friend, Rollie, and making enough money to get his mom and four younger brothers out of the Cove, their low-income housing project.
Long term, this means the NBA. Short term, it means being a dough boy—getting paid to play lookout and eventually moving up the rungs of the neighborhood drug operation with Rollie as his partner.
Roland “Rollie” Matthews used to love playing basketball. He loved the rhythm of the game, how he came up with his best drumbeats after running up and down the court. But playing with the elite team comes with extra, illegal responsibilities, and Rollie isn’t sure he’s down for that life. The new talented-and-gifted program, where Rollie has a chance to audition for a real-life go-go band, seems like the perfect excuse to stop being a dough boy. But how can he abandon his best friend?
Paula Chase explores universal themes of friendship and budding romance, while also exploring complex issues that affect many young teens. Full of basketball, friendship, and daily life in a housing project, this universal story is perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds’s Track series, Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ghost Boys, and Chris Crutcher.
Related: An Interview with Paula Chase, Author of DOUGH BOYS
Before the Ever After
Published: September 1, 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?
Junior Lifeguards: The Test
Published: July 26th 2016
Join the girls of the Junior Lifeguards as they continue their summery adventures in Cape Cod, where ice cream, lip gloss, and sand-between-your-toes combine with crushes and life skills for fun beachfront escapades!
Dive right into tryouts with Jenna, Piper, Selena, and Ziggy– four diverse girls entering their first season as lifeguards-in-training on Cape Cod’s iconic Atlantic coast. Romance and rivalries abound in this beachside town, where swanky seasonal homeowners and hard-working locals clash and unite in age-old patterns. In this first book of the Junior Lifeguards series, the girls are vying for spots on the summer squad, with ocean legend Bud Slater hand-picking a team of winners. Will they or won’t they make the cut?
Crashing in Love
Published: October 12, 2021
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. Determined to find the driver responsible, Peyton divides her time between searching her small town for clues and visiting the comatose (and cute!) boy in the hospital. When he wakes up, will he prove to be her destiny? Or does life have a few more surprises in store? With abundant warmth and gentle humor, Jennifer Richard Jacobson offers a novel about searching for perfect answers—and finding that reality is both messier and far more intriguing than anything you can dream up.
All of Me
Published: June 11, 2019
Ari has body-image issues. After a move across the country, his parents work selling and promoting his mother’s paintings and sculptures. Ari’s bohemian mother needs space to create, and his father is gone for long stretches of time on “sales” trips.
Meanwhile, Ari makes new friends: Pick, the gamer; the artsy Jorge, and the troubled Lisa. He is also relentlessly bullied because he’s overweight, but he can’t tell his parents―they’re simply not around enough to listen.
After an upsetting incident, Ari’s mom suggests he go on a diet, and she gives him a book to help. But the book―and the diet―can’t fix everything. As Ari faces the demise of his parents’ marriage, he also feels himself changing, both emotionally and physically. Here is a much-needed story about accepting the imperfect in oneself and in life.
Related: Best Middle-Grade Novels in Verse
Nikki on the Line
Published: March 5, 2019
Thirteen-year-old Nikki Doyle’s dreams of becoming a basketball great feel within reach when she’s selected to play on an elite-level club team. But in a league with taller, stronger, and faster girls, Nikki suddenly isn’t the best point guard. In fact, she’s no longer a point guard at all, which leaves her struggling to figure out who she is and how she fits in.
The stress piles on as Nikki’s best friend spends more and more time with another girl on the team, and when her science teacher assigns a family tree project that will be impossible to complete unless Nikki reveals her most embarrassing secret. As if that’s not enough to deal with, to cover the costs of her new team, Nikki has agreed to take care of her annoying younger brother after school to save money on childcare.
As the stakes rise on the basketball court, at school, and at home, Nikki’s confidence plummets. Can she learn to compete at this new, higher level? And how hard is she willing to work to find out?
Keeping It Real
Published: October 19, 2021
Marigold Johnson can’t wait to attend a special program at her family’s business, Flexx Unlimited, for teens who love fashion. But Mari quickly realizes that she’s out of place compared to the three other trainees—and one girl, Kara, seems to hate her on sight.
As tension builds and the stakes at the program get higher, Mari uncovers exactly why Kara’s been so spiteful. She also discovers some hard truths about herself and her family.
Saint Ivy: Kind at All Costs
Published: May 18, 2021
Thirteen-year-old Ivy Campbell has always been a good kid: She supports her soccer-star brother, bakes with her nana, and puts her friends’ needs before her own. So of course, Ivy is 100 percent supportive when her mom decides to be a gestational surrogate, carrying and giving birth to her friends’ baby. But when Ivy finds out the surrogacy treatment worked and her mom is pregnant—and has been for weeks—she’s shocked that she’s jealous and worried about what others will think. And most of all, she’s ashamed that she isn’t reacting to this news in the right way. The Ivy way. Ivy is determined to prove to herself that she’s just as unselfish as she’s always believed, and she gets the chance to do that when she receives an anonymous email from someone who needs her help. But the more Ivy dives into helping this anonymous person, the further she gets from the people she loves—and from the person who she wants to be.
Published: April 14, 2020
THE PRETTIEST: It’s the last thing Eve Hoffmann expected to be, the only thing Sophie Kane wants to be, and something Nessa Flores-Brady knows she’ll never be . . . until a list appears online, ranking the top fifty prettiest girls in the eighth grade.
Eve is disgusted by the way her body is suddenly being objectified by everyone around her.
Sophie is sick of the bullying she’s endured after being relegated to number two.
And Nessa is tired of everyone else trying to tell her who she is.
It’s time for a takedown. As the three girls band together, they begin to stand up not just for themselves, but for one another, too.
Related: 43 Best Middle-Grade Books About Friendship
Published: February 19, 2019
Before she had an eating disorder, twelve-year-old Riley was many things: an aspiring artist, a runner, a sister, and a friend.
But now, from inside the inpatient treatment center where she’s receiving treatment for anorexia, it’s easy to forget all of that. Especially since under the influence of her eating disorder, Riley alienated her friends, abandoned her art, turned running into something harmful, and destroyed her family’s trust.
If Riley wants her life back, she has to recover. Part of her wants to get better. As she goes to therapy, makes friends in the hospital, and starts to draw again, things begin to look up.
But when her roommate starts to break the rules, triggering Riley’s old behaviors and blackmailing her into silence, Riley realizes that recovery will be even harder than she thought. She starts to think that even if she does “recover,” there’s no way she’ll stay recovered once she leaves the hospital and is faced with her dieting mom, the school bully, and her gymnastics-star sister.
All You Knead Is Love
Published: March 30, 2021
Twelve-year-old Alba doesn’t want to live with her estranged grandmother in Barcelona. But her mother needs her to be far, far away from their home in New York City. Because this is the year that her mother is going to leave Alba’s abusive father. Hopefully. If she’s strong enough to finally, finally do it. Alba is surprised to find that she loves Barcelona, forming a close relationship with her grandmother, meeting a supportive father figure, and making new friends. Most of all, she discovers a passion and talent for bread baking. When her beloved bakery is threatened with closure, Alba is determined to find a way to save it–and at the same time, she may just come up with a plan to make their family whole again.
Published: September 15, 2020
Best friends Rasheeda and Monique are both good girls. For Sheeda, that means keeping her friends close and following her deeply religious and strict aunt’s every rule. For Mo, that means not making waves in the prestigious and mostly White ballet intensive she’s been accepted to.
But what happens when Sheeda catches the eye of Mo’s older brother, and the invisible racial barriers to Mo’s success as a ballerina turn out to be not so invisible? What happens when you discover that being yourself isn’t good enough? How do you fight back?
Up for Air
Published: May 7, 2019
Thirteen-year-old Annabelle struggles in school, no matter how hard she tries. But as soon as she dives into the pool, she’s unstoppable. She’s the fastest girl on the middle school swim team, and when she’s asked to join the high school team over the summer, everything changes. Suddenly, she’s got new friends, and a high school boy starts treating her like she’s somebody special—and Annabelle thinks she’ll finally stand out in a good way. She’ll do anything to fit in and help the team make it to the Labor Day Invitational, even if it means blowing off her old friends. But after a prank goes wrong, Annabelle is abandoned by the older boy and can’t swim. Who is she without the one thing she’s good at? Heartwarming and relatable, Up for Air is a story about where we find our self-worth.
Related: Middle-Grade Sports Books
Big Apple Diaries
Published: August 17, 2021
It’s the year 2000 in New York City. For 12-year old Alyssa, this means splitting time between her Puerto Rican dad’s apartment in Manhattan and her white mom’s new place in Queens, navigating the trials and tribulations of middle school, and an epic crush on a new classmate. The only way to make sense of it all is to capture the highs and lows in doodles and hilarious comics in a diary.
Then life abruptly changes on September 11, 2001. After the Twin Towers fall and so many lives are lost, worries about gossip and boys feel distant and insignificant. Alyssa must find a new sense of self and purpose amidst all of the chaos, and find the strength to move forward with hope.
The Prophet Calls
Published: November 6, 2018
Gentry Forrester feels lucky to live among God’s chosen people in the Prophet’s compound, but when music is outlawed, Gentry and her older brother, Tanner, sneak out of the community. When they return, all bets are off as the Prophet exercises his control.
Born into a polygamous community in the foothills of New Mexico, Gentry Forrester feels lucky to live among God’s chosen, apart from the outside world and its “evils.”
On her thirteenth birthday, Gentry receives a new violin from her father and, more than anything, she wants to play at the Santa Fe Music Festival with her brother, Tanner. But then the Prophet calls from prison and announces he has outlawed music in their community and now forbids women to leave.
Determined to play, Gentry and Tanner sneak out. But once they return, the Prophet exercises control from prison, and it has devastating consequences for Gentry and her family. Soon, everything Gentry has known is turned upside down. She begins to question the Prophet’s teachings and his revelations, especially when his latest orders put Gentry’s family in danger. Can Gentry find a way to protect herself and her family from the Prophet and escape the only life she’s ever known?
Related: Best Books for Ninth Graders
Published: March 26, 2019
Clea can’t control her thoughts. She knows she has to do her homework . . . but she gets distracted. She knows she can’t just say whatever thought comes into her head . . . but sometimes she can’t help herself. She know she needs to focus . . . but how can she do that when the people around her are always chewing gum loudly or making other annoying noises?
It’s starting to be a problem–not just in school, but when Clea’s playing chess or just hanging out with her best friend. Other kids are starting to notice. When Clea fails one too many tests, her parents take her to be tested, and she finds out that she has ADHD, which means her attention is all over the place instead of where it needs to be.
Clea knows life can’t continue the way it’s been going. She’s just not sure how you can fix a problem that’s all in your head. But that’s what she’s going to have to do, to find a way to focus.
Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai
When Jenna gets dumped over winter break, it confirms what she learned from her parents’ messy divorce: Relationships are risky and only lead to disappointment. So even though she still has to see her ex-boyfriend Elliott at newspaper club, Jenna is going to be totally heartless this semester — no boys, just books.
But keeping her cool isn’t always easy. Jenna’s chief competition for a big journalism scholarship is none other than Elliott. Her best friend Keiko always seems busy with her own boyfriend. And cute-but-incredibly-annoying Rin Watanabe keeps stealing her booth at the diner she’s been hiding at every day after school. Rin is every bit as stubborn and detached as Jenna. And the more Jenna gets to know him, the more intriguing a mystery he seems. Soon Jenna is starting to realize that being a loner is kind of, well, lonely. And letting people in might just be a risk worth taking.
Related: Debbi Michiko Florence on Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai
Genesis Begins Again
Published: January 15, 2019
There are ninety-six things Genesis hates about herself. She knows the exact number because she keeps a list. Like #95: Because her skin is so dark, people call her charcoal and eggplant—even her own family. And #61: Because her family is always being put out of their house, belongings laid out on the sidewalk for the world to see. When your dad is a gambling addict and loses the rent money every month, eviction is a regular occurrence.
What’s not so regular is that this time they all don’t have a place to crash, so Genesis and her mom have to stay with her grandma. It’s not that Genesis doesn’t like her grandma, but she and Mom always fight—Grandma haranguing Mom to leave Dad, that she should have gone back to school, that if she’d married a lighter skinned man none of this would be happening, and on and on and on. But things aren’t all bad. Genesis actually likes her new school; she’s made a couple friends, her choir teacher says she has real talent, and she even encourages Genesis to join the talent show.
But how can Genesis believe anything her teacher says when her dad tells her the exact opposite? How can she stand up in front of all those people with her dark, dark skin knowing even her own family thinks lesser of her because of it? Why, why, why won’t the lemon or yogurt or fancy creams lighten her skin like they’re supposed to? And when Genesis reaches #100 on the list of things she hates about herself, will she continue on, or can she find the strength to begin again?
Related: Q & A with Alicia D. Williams, Author of Genesis Begins Again
Beverly, Right Here
Published: September 24, 2019
Beverly put her foot down on the gas. They went faster still.
This was what Beverly wanted — what she always wanted. To get away. To get away as fast as she could. To stay away.
Beverly Tapinski has run away from home plenty of times, but that was when she was just a kid. By now, she figures, it’s not running away. It’s leaving. Determined to make it on her own, Beverly finds a job and a place to live and tries to forget about her dog, Buddy, now buried underneath the orange trees back home; her friend Raymie, whom she left without a word; and her mom, Rhonda, who has never cared about anyone but herself. Beverly doesn’t want to depend on anyone, and she definitely doesn’t want anyone to depend on her. But despite her best efforts, she can’t help forming connections with the people around her — and gradually, she learns to see herself through their eyes. In a touching, funny, and fearless conclusion to her sequence of novels about the beloved Three Rancheros, #1 New York Times best-selling author Kate DiCamillo tells the story of a character who will break your heart and put it back together again.
Violets Are Blue
Published: October 12, 2021
Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.
So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.
Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up.
After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?
Well, That Was Awkward
Published: February 28, 2017
Gracie has never felt like this before. One day, she suddenly can’t breathe, can’t walk, can’t anything—and the reason is standing right there in front of her, all tall and weirdly good-looking: A.J.
But it turns out A.J. likes not Gracie but Gracie’s beautiful best friend, Sienna. Obviously Gracie is happy for Sienna. Super happy! She helps Sienna compose the best texts, responding to A.J.’s surprisingly funny and appealing texts, just as if she were Sienna. Because Gracie is fine. Always! She’s had lots of practice being the sidekick, second-best.
It’s all good. Well, almost all. She’s trying.
Published: September 9, 2014
For fans of Jennifer Holm (Penny from Heaven, Turtle in Paradise), a heartfelt and unforgettable middle-grade novel about an irresistible girl and her family, tragic change, and the healing power of love and friendship. In 1972 home is a cozy nest on Cape Cod for eleven-year-old Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein, her older sister, Rachel; her psychiatrist father; and her dancer mother. But then Chirp’s mom develops symptoms of a serious disease, and everything changes.
Chirp finds comfort in watching her beloved wild birds. She also finds a true friend in Joey, the mysterious boy who lives across the street. Together they create their own private world and come up with the perfect plan: Escape. Adventure. Discovery.
Published: September 28, 2021
Collin is always prepared for something to go wrong. Ever since he lost his mom in a car accident, he’s been journaling about how to overcome things like avalanches, riptides, or even a bad case of halitosis. Meanwhile, Collin’s father grows more distant by the day, and has started hoarding things throughout their house. Determined to hide his home life from his friends, Collin navigates middle school alongside the hilarious and clueless Liam, and Georgia, who Collin may have feelings for. Can Collin learn to be vulnerable around those he loves, even when he can’t control every possible scenario?
Keep It Together, Keiko Carter
Published: May 5, 2020
Seventh grade is supposed to be a game changer. And Keiko thinks she’s got it covered, especially with Audrey and Jenna by her side to shop for a new look, pick out a prime lunch spot, and even hit up that cute new bubble tea place after school. Her trio is ready to tackle life as they always have… together.
But when Audrey decides they need boyfriends before Fall Ball, it looks like things may be changing in all the wrong ways. Jenna is sick of caving in to Audrey’s demands, and soon Keiko’s besties are barely talking, leaving her caught in the middle. While she’s been dreaming about triple-dates, first kisses, and a boy she really shouldn’t have a crush on, the friendship she’s always thought was rock-solid is beginning to crumble.
Keiko feels pulled in two directions. Should she try to help her friends — even if it means losing one of them — or follow her heart? When it comes to flirting, friendships, and fallouts, how is Keiko supposed to keep it all together.
A Kind of Paradise
Published: April 30, 2019
Thirteen-year-old Jamie Bunn made a mistake at the end of the school year. A big one. And every kid in her middle school knows all about it. Now she has to spend her summer vacation volunteering at the local library—as punishment. What a waste of a summer!
Or so she thinks.
A Kind of Paradise is an unforgettable story about the power of community, the power of the library, and the power of forgiveness.
Each of Us a Universe
Published: February 1, 2022
Ever since the day when everything changed, Cal Scott’s answer has been to run―run from her mother who’s fighting cancer, run from her father whom she can’t forgive, and run from classmates who’ve never seemed to “get” her anyway. The only thing Cal runs toward is nearby Mt. Meteorite, named for the magical meteorite some say crashed there fifty years ago. Cal spends her afternoons plotting to summit the mountain, so she can find the magic she believes will make the impossible possible and heal her mother. But no one has successfully reached its peak―no one who’s lived to tell about it, anyway.
Then Cal meets Rosine Kanambe, a girl who’s faced more impossibles than anyone should have to. Rosine has her own secret plan for the mountain and its magic, and convinces Cal they can summit its peak if they work together. As the girls climb high and dig deep to face the mountain’s challenges, Cal learns from Rosine what real courage looks like, and begins to wonder if the magic she’s been looking for is really the kind she needs.
Summer at Meadow Wood
Published: May 19, 2020
Vic Brown did not want to go to camp this summer.
Even though it’s nice being back with her friends at Meadow Wood, Vic still can’t forget about the secret reason her mom wanted her and her brother out of the house—or how much her family is going to change. When her home life is blowing up, it can be hard to focus on campfires and canoeing.
But there is something about summer and surprises that go together like blueberry pancakes and maple syrup. And soon, Vic starts to feel like—just maybe—a summer at Meadow Wood was exactly what she needed.
Maybe He Just Likes You
Published: October 1, 2019
For seventh-grader Mila, it starts with some boys giving her an unwanted hug on the school blacktop. A few days later, at recess, one of the boys (and fellow trumpet player) Callum tells Mila it’s his birthday, and asks her for a “birthday hug.” He’s just being friendly, isn’t he? And how can she say no? But Callum’s hug lasts a few seconds too long, and feels…weird. According to her friend, Zara, Mila is being immature and overreacting. Doesn’t she know what flirting looks like?
But the boys don’t leave Mila alone. On the bus. In the halls. During band practice—the one place Mila could always escape.
It doesn’t feel like flirting—so what is it? Thanks to a chance meeting, Mila begins to find solace in a new place: karate class. Slowly, with the help of a fellow classmate, Mila learns how to stand her ground and how to respect others—and herself.
Gabe in the After
Published: June 28, 2022
Two years after a global pandemic, twenty survivors (most of them children) have relocated from their coastal Maine island full of sad memories to a mansion on a small, neighboring island where they have school and farm chores. When Gabe and his dog, Mud, find Relle Douglas alone in the woods on the mainland, they take the strange new girl across the channel to live with them.
Relle changes the island with her hopeful attitude. She tells big stories and makes plans for activities like talent shows. Despite a growing crush, Gabe doesn’t quite understand the point of it all; why have a talent show at the end of the world? But when tragedy strikes, Gabe sets out on a dangerous journey to try and find other survivors where the world might be normal. Like Before.
A Good Kind of Trouble
Published: March 12, 2019
Twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)
But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?
Shay’s sister, Hana, is involved in Black Lives Matter, but Shay doesn’t think that’s for her. After experiencing a powerful protest, though, Shay decides some rules are worth breaking. She starts wearing an armband to school in support of the Black Lives movement. Soon everyone is taking sides. And she is given an ultimatum.
Shay is scared to do the wrong thing (and even more scared to do the right thing), but if she doesn’t face her fear, she’ll be forever tripping over the next hurdle. Now that’s trouble, for real.
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise
Published: January 8, 2019
That’s how long Coyote and her dad, Rodeo, have lived on the road in an old school bus, criss-crossing the nation.
It’s also how long ago Coyote lost her mom and two sisters in a car crash.
Coyote hasn’t been home in all that time, but when she learns that the park in her old neighborhood is being demolished―the very same park where she, her mom, and her sisters buried a treasured memory box―she devises an elaborate plan to get her dad to drive 3,600 miles back to Washington state in four days…without him realizing it.
Along the way, they’ll pick up a strange crew of misfit travelers. Lester has a lady love to meet. Salvador and his mom are looking to start over. Val needs a safe place to be herself. And then there’s Gladys…
Over the course of thousands of miles, Coyote will learn that going home can sometimes be the hardest journey of all…but that with friends by her side, she just might be able to turn her “once upon a time” into a “happily ever after.”
Related: 16 Books About Road Trips
Coming Up Short
Published: June 21, 2022
Bea’s parents think she can accomplish absolutely anything—and she’s determined to prove them right. But at the end of seventh grade, on the same day she makes a gutsy play to send her softball team to the league championships and Xander, the boy she likes, makes it clear that he likes her too, a scandal shakes up her world. Bea’s dad made a big mistake, taking money that belonged to a client. He’s now suspended from practicing law, and another lawyer spread the news online. To make matters worse, that other lawyer is Xander’s dad.
Bea doesn’t want to be angry with her dad, especially since he feels terrible and is trying to make things right. But she can’t face the looks of pity from all her friends, and then she starts missing throws in softball because she’s stuck in her own head. The thing she was best at seems to be slipping out of her fingers along with her formerly happy family. She’s not sure what’s going to be harder—learning to throw again, or forgiving her dad. How can she be the best version of herself when everything she loves is falling apart?
The Line Tender
Published: April 16, 2019
Wherever the sharks led, Lucy Everhart’s marine-biologist mother was sure to follow. In fact, she was on a boat far off the coast of Massachusetts, collecting shark data when she died suddenly. Lucy was seven. Since then Lucy and her father have kept their heads above water–thanks in large part to a few close friends and neighbors. But June of her twelfth summer brings more than the end of school and a heat wave to sleepy Rockport. On one steamy day, the tide brings a great white–and then another tragedy, cutting short a friendship everyone insists was “meaningful” but no one can tell Lucy what it all meant. To survive the fresh wave of grief, Lucy must grab the line that connects her depressed father, a stubborn fisherman, and a curious old widower to her mother’s unfinished research on the Great White’s return to Cape Cod. If Lucy can find a way to help this unlikely quartet follow the sharks her mother loved, she’ll finally be able to look beyond what she’s lost and toward what’s left to be discovered.
We Dream of Space
Published: May 5, 2020
Cash, Fitch, and Bird Thomas are three siblings in seventh grade together in Park, Delaware. In 1986, as the country waits expectantly for the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, they each struggle with their own personal anxieties.
Cash, who loves basketball but has a newly broken wrist, is in danger of failing seventh grade for the second time. Fitch spends every afternoon playing Major Havoc at the arcade on Main and wrestles with an explosive temper that he doesn’t understand. And Bird, his twelve-year-old twin, dreams of being NASA’s first female shuttle commander, but feels like she’s disappearing.
The Thomas children exist in their own orbits, circling a tense and unpredictable household, with little in common except an enthusiastic science teacher named Ms. Salonga. As the launch of the Challenger approaches, Ms. Salonga gives her students a project—they are separated into spacecraft crews and must create and complete a mission. When the fated day finally arrives, it changes all of their lives and brings them together in unexpected ways.
Told in three alternating points of view, We Dream of Space is an unforgettable and thematically rich novel for middle grade readers.
Published: April 12, 2022
Punk rock-loving JJ Pankowski can’t seem to fit in at his new school in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as one of the only white kids. Pie Velez, a math and history geek by day and graffiti artist by night is eager to follow in his idol, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s, footsteps. The boys stumble into an unlikely friendship, swapping notes on their love of music and art, which sees them through a difficult semester at school and at home. But a run-in with the cops threatens to unravel it all.
Published: March 28, 2017
Rachel Brooks is excited for the new school year. She’s finally earned a place as a forward on her soccer team. Her best friends make everything fun. And she really likes Tate, and she’s pretty sure he likes her back. After one last appointment with her scoliosis doctor, this will be her best year yet.
Then the doctor delivers some terrible news: The sideways curve in Rachel’s spine has gotten worse, and she needs to wear a back brace 23 hours a day. The brace wraps her in hard plastic from shoulder blades to hips. It changes how her clothes fit, how she kicks a ball, and how everyone sees her — even her friends and Tate. But as Rachel confronts all the challenges the brace presents, the biggest change of all may lie in how she sees herself.
The Thing About Jellyfish
Published: September 22, 2015
After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy must have been a rare jellyfish sting–things don’t just happen for no reason. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory–even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy’s achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe…and the potential for love and hope right next door.
Red, White, and Whole
Published: February 2, 2021
Reha feels torn between two worlds: school, where she’s the only Indian American student, and home, with her family’s traditions and holidays. But Reha’s parents don’t understand why she’s conflicted—they only notice when Reha doesn’t meet their strict expectations. Reha feels disconnected from her mother, or Amma, although their names are linked—Reha means “star” and Punam means “moon”—but they are a universe apart.
Then Reha finds out that her Amma is sick. Really sick.
Reha, who dreams of becoming a doctor even though she can’t stomach the sight of blood, is determined to make her Amma well again. She’ll be the perfect daughter, if it means saving her Amma’s life.
Related: Rajani LaRocca on Red, White and Whole, Family and the 80’s
The Night Diary
Published: March 6, 2018
It’s 1947, and India, newly independent of British rule, has been separated into two countries: Pakistan and India. The divide has created much tension between Hindus and Muslims, and hundreds of thousands are killed crossing borders.
Half-Muslim, half-Hindu twelve-year-old Nisha doesn’t know where she belongs, or what her country is anymore. When Papa decides it’s too dangerous to stay in what is now Pakistan, Nisha and her family become refugees and embark first by train but later on foot to reach her new home. The journey is long, difficult, and dangerous, and after losing her mother as a baby, Nisha can’t imagine losing her homeland, too. But even if her country has been ripped apart, Nisha still believes in the possibility of putting herself back together.
Related: 8 Books Like… The Night Diary
The Truth As Told by Mason Buttle
Published: January 23, 2018
Mason Buttle is the biggest, sweatiest kid in his grade, and everyone knows he can barely read or write. Mason’s learning disabilities are compounded by grief. Fifteen months ago, Mason’s best friend, Benny Kilmartin, turned up dead in the Buttle family’s orchard.
An investigation drags on, and Mason, honest as the day is long, can’t understand why Lieutenant Baird won’t believe the story Mason has told about that day.
Both Mason and his new friend, tiny Calvin Chumsky, are relentlessly bullied by the other boys in their neighborhood, so they create an underground haven for themselves. When Calvin goes missing, Mason finds himself in trouble again. He’s desperate to figure out what happened to Calvin and, eventually, Benny.
But will anyone believe him?
Reckless, Glorious Girl
Published: February 23, 2021
Beatrice Miller may have a granny’s name (her granny’s, to be more specific), but she adores her Mamaw and her mom, who give her every bit of wisdom and love they have. But the summer before seventh grade, Bea wants more than she has, aches for what she can’t have, and wonders what the future will bring.
Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes
Published: February 28, 2017
Annabelle has a secret . . . a secret so big she won’t allow friends within five miles of her home. Her mom collects things. Their house is overflowing with stuff. It gives Annabelle’s sister nightmares, her brother spends as much time as he can at friends’ houses, and her dad buries himself in his work.
So when a stack of newspapers falls on Annabelle’s sister, it sparks a catastrophic fight between their parents–one that might tear them all apart–and Annabelle starts to think that things at home finally need to change.
Is it possible for her to clean up the family’s mess? Or are they really, truly broken?
Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel
Published: March 28, 2017
Stevie’s world changes drastically when her parents are tragically killed and she is forced to live with her estranged grandfather at his run-down motel. After failed attempts to connect with her grandfather, Stevie befriends the colorful motel tenants and neighbors. Together, they decide to bring some color and life to the motel by planting a flower garden, against Stevie’s grandfather’s wishes. It will take Stevie’s departure before her grandfather realizes just how needed she is by everyone.
The School for Whatnots
Published: March 1, 2022
That’s what the note says that Max finds under his keyboard.
He knows that his best friend, Josie, wrote it. He’d know her handwriting anywhere. But why she wrote it—and what it means—remains a mystery.
Ever since they met in kindergarten, Max and Josie has been inseparable. Until the summer after fifth grade, when Josie disappears, leaving only a note, and whispering something about “whatnot rules.”
But why would Max ever think that Josie wasn’t real? And what are whatnots?
As Max sets to uncover what happened to Josie—and what she is or isn’t—little does he know that she’s fighting to find him again, too. But there are forces trying to keep Max and Josie from every seeing each other again. Because Josie wasn’t supposed to be real.
Forget Me Not
Published: March 14, 2017
Astronomy-loving Calliope June has Tourette syndrome, so she sometimes makes faces or noises that she doesn’t mean to make. When she and her mother move yet again, she tries to hide her TS. But it isn’t long before the kids at her new school realize she’s different. Only Calliope’s neighbor, who is also the popular student body president, sees her as she truly is―an interesting person and a good friend. But is he brave enough to take their friendship public?
As Calliope navigates school, she must also face her mother’s new relationship and the fact that they might be moving―again―just as she starts to make friends and finally accept her differences.
Partially in verse and partially in prose with two intertwined points of view, Ellie Terry’s affecting debut will speak to a wide audience about being true to oneself.
Related: Middle Grade Books About Dementia
The Ethan I Was Before
Published: January 24, 2017
Ethan had been many things. He was always ready for adventure and always willing to accept a dare, especially from his best friend, Kacey. But that was before. Before the accident that took Kacey from him. Before his family moved from Boston to the small town of Palm Knot, Georgia.
Palm Knot may be tiny, but it’s the home of possibility and second chances. It’s also home to Coralee, a girl with a big personality and even bigger stories. Coralee may be just the friend Ethan needs, except Ethan isn’t the only one with secrets. Coralee’s are catching up with her, and what she’s hiding might be putting both their lives at risk.
Published: March 1, 2022
This should be an exciting time for Caprice. She has been offered a place at the school of her dreams, where she’s just had a fantastic summer. But this great opportunity coincides with a lot of internal doubt and the disturbing news that her long-estranged grandmother has fallen ill and may be near death. As Caprice tries to figure out her future, she is pulled back toward her past, and the abuse she endured from her uncle when she was little — an abuse she’s never told anyone about.
With extreme sensitivity and honesty for middle-grade readers, Coe Booth has written a painful but ultimately healing novel about finding support from your parents and friends, articulating your truth, and choosing your own path.
Published: April 14, 2020
Anything his friends can do, Stephen should be able to do too, right? So when they dare each other to sneak into an abandoned building, he doesn’t think it’s his lane, but he goes. Here’s the thing, though: Can he do everything his friends can? Lately, he’s not so sure. As a mixed kid, he feels like he’s living in two worlds with different rules–and he’s been noticing that strangers treat him differently than his white friends . . .
So what’ll he do? Hold on tight as Stephen swerves in and out of lanes to find out which are his–and who should be with him.
Published: September 4, 2018
Tight: Lately Bryan’s been feeling it in all kinds of ways. He knows what’s tight for him in a good way–reading comics, drawing superheroes, and hanging out with no drama. But drama’s hard to escape where he’s from, and that gets him wound up tight.
And now Bryan’s new friend Mike is challenging him to have fun in ways that are crazy risky. At first, it’s a rush following Mike, hopping turnstiles, subway surfing, and getting into all kinds of trouble. But Bryan never feels right acting wrong. So which way will he go when he understands that drama is so not his style? Fortunately his favorite comic heroes shed light on his dilemma, reminding him that he has power–the power to choose his friends and to stand up for what he believes is right . . .
A Song Called Home
Published: February 22, 2022
Lou and her family don’t have much, but for Lou it’s enough. Mom. Her sister, Casey. Their apartment in the city. Her best friend, Beth. It would be better if Dad could stop drinking and be there for her and Casey, and if they didn’t have to worry about money all the time. But Lou doesn’t need better—she only needs enough.
What’s enough for Lou, however, is not enough for Mom. Steve, Mom’s boyfriend, isn’t a bad guy, he’s just…not what Lou is used to. And now, he and Mom are getting married, and that means moving. Packing up life as they’ve known it and storing it in Steve’s garage. Lou will be separated from everything in her small but predictable life, farther from Dad than ever.
Their last night in the city, Lou receives a mysterious birthday gift: A guitar, left for her by their front door. There’s nothing saying who left it, but it must be from Dad. And as she leaves the only place she’s ever known, she starts to believe that if she can learn how to play it, maybe she can bring a piece of him, and of her old life, home.
Efrén Nava’s Amá is his Superwoman—or Soperwoman, named after the delicious Mexican sopes his mother often prepares. Both Amá and Apá work hard all day to provide for the family, making sure Efrén and his younger siblings Max and Mía feel safe and loved.
But Efrén worries about his parents; although he’s American-born, his parents are undocumented. His worst nightmare comes true one day when Amá doesn’t return from work and is deported across the border to Tijuana, México.
Now more than ever, Efrén must channel his inner Soperboy to help take care of and try to reunite his family.
Related: 2020 Debuts You May Have Missed
The Only Black Girls in Town
Published: March 10, 2020
Beach-loving surfer Alberta has been the only black girl in town for years. Alberta’s best friend, Laramie, is the closest thing she has to a sister, but there are some things even Laramie can’t understand. When the bed and breakfast across the street finds new owners, Alberta is ecstatic to learn the family is black-and they have a 12-year-old daughter just like her.
Alberta is positive she and the new girl, Edie, will be fast friends. But while Alberta loves being a California girl, Edie misses her native Brooklyn and finds it hard to adapt to small-town living.
When the girls discover a box of old journals in Edie’s attic, they team up to figure out exactly who’s behind them and why they got left behind. Soon they discover shocking and painful secrets of the past and learn that nothing is quite what it seems.
Published: March 30, 2021
Olivia is on the road trip of her dreams, with her trusty camera and her big sister Ruth by her side. Three years ago, before their family moved from California to Tennessee, Olivia and Ruth buried a time capsule on their favorite beach. Now, they’re taking an RV back across the country to uncover the memories they left behind. But Ruth’s depression has been getting worse, so Olivia has created a plan to help her remember how life used to be: a makeshift scavenger hunt across the country, like pirates hunting for treasure, taking pictures and making memories along the way.
All she wants is to take the picture that makes her sister smile. But what if things can never go back to how they used to be? What if they never find the treasure they’re seeking? Through all the questions, loving her sister, not changing her, is all Olivia can do―and maybe it’s enough.
Published: April 7, 2020
Mary Murphy feels like she’s drowning. Her violent father is home from prison, and the social worker is suspicious of her new bruises. An aunt she’s never met keeps calling. And if she can’t get a good grade on her science project, she’ll fail her favorite class.
But Mary doesn’t want to be a victim anymore. She has a plan: build a real submarine, like the model she’s been making with Kip Dwyer, the secretly sweet class clown. Gaining courage from her heroine, Joan of Arc, Mary vows to pilot a sub across the Chesapeake Bay, risking her life in a modern crusade to save herself.
Related: 45 Best Middle-Grade Books Under 250 Pages
There they are: 55 of the best upper middle-grade books to read! This is obviously not an exhaustive list. If you’d like more books, especially fantasy (which is not my strong point), check out this crowd-sourced list. I hope you find at least one book that’s just perfect for you.
Do you enjoy upper middle-grade books? Which of the books on this list did you read and enjoy? Which books would you add? I’d love to hear.
I adore upper middle grade or mature middle grade books! I think my fav that I always recommend for this age group is Refugee by Alan Gratz. Amal Unbound is also a great selection. So many wonderful reads!
Afoma Umesi says
I’ve been meaning to read AMAL UNBOUND! Great recs, Carol 🙂
Thank you for the wonderful list!
Is there a specific age range for the main characters of an upper-MG book? A lot seem to be in the 12-15 range, but I’ve often seen the book Hattie Big Sky on lists of books recommended for advanced MG readers. But then in the past I’ve sometimes seen agents and editors say that they believe a 16yr old protagonist firmly makes a book YA.
Recently I’ve read that YA itself is starting to skew older, so is that allowing MG to become more flexible with 15 and 16 year old main characters? I say all this as I’m writing my own book which I feel has more of a Middle Grade feel, but its protagonists are 16yrs old. I’d be really interested on your opinions on protagonist ages.
Afoma Umesi says
Hi Godivan, thank you for reading! I would say upper middle grade is 12-14 years old. 15 is also often YA, but what they call “young YA” — think Renee Watson and Paula Chase’s YA books.
Amy Bryan says
Thank you for curating this list! When the pandemic first hit, I actually wrote and self-published a book for my daughter because we were stuck in this odd middle ground. She’s an avid reader with an advanced vocabulary, but not exactly ready for the themes that come with a lot of the YA books out there. I’ll be sure to share this list with her!