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Springtime is a season when many middle schoolers like to stare out of the window and dream of things they can be doing other than sit still and read. Novels are a great way to keep them engaged.

Nonetheless, it is often difficult for teachers to know whether they're working with a middle grade novel (ages 8-12), or a book for young adults (12 and up). Many of the themes and situations are similar for the two age groups. One way to choose is to consider the age of the main character.   Books with a protagonist under 12 are for middle grades. Those with one older than 12 makes them young adult. But the differences are more complicated and nuanced.

A true, classic middle grade novel does not water-down vocabulary or use simple sentence structure.  When children are ready to read such books, they are good readers.

According to Laura Backes of Children's Book Insider:

Middle grade novels are characterized by the type of conflict encountered by the main character. Children in the primary grades are still focused inward, and the conflicts in their books reflect that. While themes range from friendship to school situations to relationships with siblings and peers, characters are learning how they operate within their own world. They are solidifying their own identity, experiencing the physical and psychological changes of puberty, taking on new responsibilities all within the boundaries of their family, friends and neighborhood. Yes, your character needs to grow and change during the course of the book, but these changes are on the inside. Middle grade readers are beginning to learn who they are, what they think. Their books need to mirror their personal experience.
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Here are some great examples of recently published middle grade books that I suggest for your classroom library:

BEHOLDING BEE by Kimberly Newton Fusco
From the author of the ALA Best Book for Young Adults Tending to Grace comes a stunning new novel about finding your voice and your place in the world.

Bee is an orphan who lives with a carnival and sleeps in the back of a tractor trailer. Every day she endures taunts about the birthmark on her face-though her beloved Pauline, the only person who has ever cared for her, tells her it is a precious diamond. When Pauline is sent to work for another carnival, Bee is lost.

Then a scruffy dog shows up, as unwanted as she. Realizing that she must find a home for them both, Bee runs off to a house with gingerbread trim that reminds her of frosting, and is taken in by two mysterious women, Mrs. Swift and Mrs. Potter. They clothe her, though their clothes are strangely out of date. They feed her, though there is nothing in their house to eat. They help her go to school, though they won't enter the building themselves. And, strangely, only Bee seems able to see them.

Whoever these women are, they matter. They matter to Bee. And they are helping Bee realize that she, too, matters to the world-if only she will let herself be a part of it. This tender novel beautifully captures the pain of isolation, the healing power of community, and the strength of the human spirit.

PRECOCIA: The Sixth Circle of Heck by Dale E. Basye; illustrated by Bob Dob
In the latest installment in Dale E. Bayse's irreverent Heck series, Milton and Marlo travel to Precocia-where the smartypants kids go.

Dale E. Basye sends Milton and Marlo to Precocia, the circle reserved for kids who grow up too fast, for their latest hilarious escapade in Heck-a school in the afterlife where bad kids go for all eternity, or until they turn 18, whichever comes first. As in Dante's Inferno, there are nine circles of Heck, based on kids' various vices.

When Bea "Elsa" Bubb, the Principal of Darkness, tells Milton and Marlo Fauster they've gotten too big for their britches, she sends them to Precocia, the circle of Heck for smartypants kids who grow up too fast. There, the children learn adult jobs. William the Kid teaches bill collection. Mozart teaches commercial jingles.

And all the students are forced to act, dress, and talk like little adults. Soon, the Fausters realize that Precocia's vice principals Napoleon and Cleopatra want more than to hasten adulthood-they seem to want to eliminate childhood altogether. Can Milton and Marlo figure out their plan in time to stop it? Filled with Basye's signature clever, irreverant humor, Precocia is sure to satisfy series fans.

Ballpark Mysteries #6: The Wrigley Riddle by David A. Kelly; illustrated by Mark Meyers
Set at Wrigley Field, the sixth book in this early chapter book series once again creates a winning combination of baseball and mysteries.

Cross Ron Roy's A to Z Mystery series with Matt Christopher's sports books and you get the Ballpark Mysteries: fun, puzzling whodunits aimed at the younger brothers and sisters of John Feinstein's fans. Mike and Kate travel to the Chicago Cubs' historic ballpark in their latest caper.

Ivy-covered walls-they're the most famous part of Wrigley Field. Mike and Kate can't wait to get down on the field to see the ivy for themselves. But when they do, they're horrified to discover patches of the ivy have been ripped away! Who would want to sabotage the stadium? Is it someone trying to curse the Cubs? Or is the rumor of a treasure hidden under the ivy tempting greedy fans? As with the previous books in Roy's series, The Wrigley Riddle includes a fun fact page about Chicago's Wrigley Field.

Middle school brings students a whole new set of social and academic challenges. Books such as these are part of the solution.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sun Mar 10, 2013 at 03:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Education Alternatives.

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