Are you looking for great upper middle grade books for your 11-15 year olds? Having a hard time? Kids ages 11-15 are at that in-between age. While 11 year olds may still be content with most middle grade, and some 15 year olds are happy to read YA books, a strong collection of quality upper middle grade books will fit the bill for the entire age range I’ve created a list of 50 upper middle grade books that are good choices for both your older tweens and your younger teens.
(Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links.)
First a few details, because you may be wondering…
What is “Upper Middle Grade?”
Middle grade books are generally described as being for ages 8-12, but not all middle grade is created equal! For example, there is a huge difference between Ramona Quimby, Age 8 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, both are considered middle grade. But most 12 year olds are not that interested in reading Ramona, as wonderful as she is.
So how do you figure out which middle grade books to give your older tweens and younger teens who are not interested in reading about the antics of 8 year olds?
Enter the “upper middle grade” designation.
Upper middle grade books are great choices for kids ages 10 and up. The have more mature themes, older protagonists and more complex syntax than traditional middle grade.
I used the following criteria for the books on this list :
- A protagonist of at least 12 years of age (not all books fit this criteria)
- The book must have particularly captured my reading attention as an adult. It’s true I read many books and only recommend books I like, but they don’t all appeal to me as something I would read if I wasn’t making book lists for you all. (I don’t personally want to read Stick Dog, for example, but I think it is a fun book for kids to read.)
- Mature subject matter (but not YA “mature”) and themes that provoke philosophical thought.
- High level of vocabulary and syntax, with a sophisticated use of language.
50 Upper Middle Grade Books
I wanted to include a variety of genres. Below you will find books organized into the following categories:
- Historical fiction
- Contemporary fiction
- Fantasy & Sci-fi
Need a printable list? You’ll find one at the bottom of the post!
Contemporary fiction for ages 11-15
Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds. This unique book is told in ten stories. After the school bell rings, kids head out back to their neighborhood and although there are connections between them the stories each stands on its own. The cast of characters is incredibly diverse, and readers will love the humor and spirit of each tale. A must read.
The Crossover. Kwame Alexander’s wonderful verse novel about twin brothers is touching, relatable and extraordinarily engaging. Josh narrates his story of coming to terms with his brother’s new girlfriend, sibling rivalry, the pressure and joy of playing ball and his relationship with his father.
Redwood and Ponytail by K.A. Holt. Seventh graders, Tam and Kate, two seemingly very different people strike up a friendship. Written in verse, Tam and Kate’s alternating first person narratives describe their growing relationship in all its awkward shyness and joy. Punctuating the narrative are the observations of Alex, Alyx and Alexx, who act as a sort of Greek chorus. This is a great choice for kids who like unique literary forms.
Beast Rider by Tony Johnston & María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads. This is was a captivating and harrowing tale of 12 year old Manuel’s journey on “the beast” from his home in a Mexican village to the United States. Migrants refer to the northbound train as “the beast” and Manuel’s journey is anything but easy and safe. He encounters violence, set-backs as well as helpful and compassionate persons. When he finally makes it across the border and reunites with his older brother he tries to settle into a new way of life, but it is difficult and he must decide where he wants his home to be.
Mayday by Karen Harrington. Coming home from his uncle’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Wayne and his single mother are in a terrible plane crash. Both survive, but Wayne sustains an injury that leaves him unable to speak for several months. During that time his former drill-sergeant grandfather moves into with them. Suddenly Wayne’s world is turned upside down. His girlfriend only stays with him out of pity, his grandfather is ill but won’t talk about it, and he is searching in vain for the American flag from his uncle’s coffin that was lost during the crash. But Wayne meets a new friend who helps him through it all and he comes to understand his own rather sorry excuse for a father a bit better.
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman. Viji and her sister Rukku run away from their abusive father and land on the streets of Chennai, in India. The two girls make friends with a pair of boys when they take shelter under a bridge. Together with a stray dog, the foursome survive by sorting through trash, making and selling beaded jewelry, and the kindness of a few adults. Although their life is clearly dangerous and tenuous, the four enjoy the freedom of sorts they have and gain confidence as they learn new skills. When Rukku falls ill, Viji seeks out help and the children find hope for a different kind of future. Venkatraman’s masterful storytelling takes readers on a journey your kids won’t soon forget.
The Red Pencil by Andrea David Pinkney contains some tough subject matter, but it is a marvelous book. 12 year old Amira lives in the Darfur region of Sudan on her family’s farm. It is 2003, just as war is breaking out in the area. She loves her family and dreams of going to school. When the Janjaweed arrive in her village, the survivors make the long walk to the refugee camp, where conditions are hard. Amira receives the gift of a red pencil and yellow notepad which becomes a catalyst of sorts, both for her spirit and for her mind. The most difficult scene in the book is when the Janjaweed terrorize the village and Amira sees the death of her father. The ending of the book leaves a lot of questions unanswered but curious and thoughtful children will want to learn more.
I, Q series by Roland Smith is another spy series about a teenage spy that has captivated my older son. While on a music tour with his new, blended family, 13 year old Quest is sucked into a world full of suspicions, bumbling agents, and secret identities. Quest uses his magician and tech skills to find out the truth and foil evil plots.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Woodson describes her memories of growing up in South Carolina, and later in Brooklyn, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. The narrative is funny and poignant as Woodson figures out what makes her special and discovers her love words. See all those medals on the cover? This book totally earned every one of them.
Girl of the Southern Sea by Michelle Kadarusman. In Indonesia, fourteen year old Nita wants to continue her education so she can become a writer but her family lacks the funds. Nita is determined, however. When her father falls ill, Nita takes over the food cart where he sells banana fritters to support the family. Her father, however, can’t stop spending money on alcohol so Nita must assert her independence and make choices that separate herself from her father. All the while, Nita uses her talents to imagine up stories about Dewi Kadits, a Javanese princess in traditional folklore. This was a wonderful book that will take readers to a part of the world they don’t frequently have the opportunity to visit in literature.
For kids who like historical fiction, there are tons of upper middle grade books in this genre. But not to worry, many of these read like contemporary stories, so even if your kids think they don’t want to read about the past, they won’t be able to put these titles down!
Dodger Boy by Sarah Ellis. I loved this short novel! In 1970s Vancouver 13-year-old Charlotte is learning how navigate the life of a teenager. Her family are Quakers and practice non-violence so it is only natural for them to help out Tom Ed, a young Texan escaping the Vietnam War draft. I love the conversations Tom Ed and Charlotte have about everything from politics, civil rights, women’s lib and civil disobedience. Meanwhile, Charlotte is working on an important speech that she has to give when her best friend becomes unavailable. This is an excellent book and as you can imagine, is a conversation starter.
Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan. This masterful novel is told in several parts that cross historical and cultural boundaries. The thread that binds the narratives together is a magical harmonica. Music is such an integral part of the story and so I also recommend the audiobook format which is absolutely stellar.
Refugee by Alan Gratz. This moving book tells three stories. Josef is a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany; Isabel and her family are attempting to escape Castro’s Cuba in 1994; and in 2015 Mahmoud’s family flees war-torn Syria. The alternating narration draws parallels between all three journeys with an ending that brings the three stories together.
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani. I could not put this book down! Nisha and her twin brother are half-Muslim, half-Hindu siblings living with their father in India just before the time of Partition. When the word comes that their town is to become part of the new Pakistan state, Nisha, her brother, her Hindu father and grandmother must make the harrowing and dangerous journey to the Indian border. Each chapter is an entry in Nisha’s diary as she leaves her comfortable life behind and struggles with her own questions of identity.
The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. 14 year old Joan escapes her abusive father and gets a job as a maid in a Jewish household in early 20th century Baltimore. Schlitz tells the story through Joan’s diary. Joan dreams of all that she can become if she can get away from farm life and work hard cooking and cleaning. She immerses herself in doing excellent work for her employers but her determined, naive, and optimistic nature sometimes gets her into difficulty. Nevertheless, she befriends the daughter, falls in love with the son, and is educated by the father, as she explores religion, feminism, art, wealth and a myriad of other profound and mundane topics. Joan’s voice is amusing, intelligent and entertaining.
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. Chains is a fascinating view of slavery in New York, where books about slavery are most often set in the South. During the American Revolution a 13 year old slave belonging to a ruthless Loyalist family, Isabel, yearns for freedom. She meets Curzon who encourages her to spy for the Rebels.
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson. In 1918, 16 year old Hattie, an orphan, travels to Iowa, determined to make her recently deceased uncle’s homestead in Montana her own. But, she must tame the land in a year in order to keep it as her own. The narration is coupled with short articles that Hattie writes to a newspaper about her experiences and letters she writes to her friend Charlie, who is at war in France. Hattie’s life is hard and she relies on her neighbors to help her out, but there are also fellow homesteaders who are not so supportive. This is a fantastic book and a good choice for advanced readers.
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. This is the companion book to The Wednesday Wars, another marvelous book that I could easily have put on this list. Doug Swieteck’s family has moved from NYC to a small town so his father can find work. His brother has returned, wounded and with PTSD. Doug becomes fascinated with a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America on display at the local library, and the illustrations punctuate the book’s chapters. After getting a job as a delivery boy at a deli owned by the family of a classmate, Doug meets other residents and gradually opens his minds to the possibilities that life in this town might not be so bad after all. A stunningly emotional and heartfelt book.
The Paper Cowboy by Kristen Levine. Tommy is the class bully. His difficult family life causes him to act out and when his sister is seriously injured while doing a chore that Tommy was supposed to do himself, things turn inside out. Tommy starts a paper route and becomes suspicious that one of his neighbors might be a communist. He makes the poor decision to frame the deli owner for communist activities. The effects of his actions are severe and Tommy must come to understand the consequences of acting without knowledge of the truth.
The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford. Lucy and Max are trying to put an end to the War of 1812 by assembling a mysterious and ancient engine. While on a ship, The Left-Handed Fate, the ship is captured by the Americans and put under the command of a 12 year old, Oliver who must wrestle with the moral decision of becoming a traitor or putting the lives of others in jeopardy. Full of high adventure, treacherous journeys and suspenseful action.
Cast Off: The Strange Adventures of Petra de Winter and Bram Broen by Eve Yohalem. In 17th Century Holland, Petra runs away from her abusive father and accidentally ends up as a stowaway on a merchant vessel headed towards the Dutch Indies. A mulatto boy, Bram, helps her to disguise herself as a boy and Petra uses her healing knowledge to help the ship’s surgeon. She gains the trust of the crew but when they discover she is a girl at the same time a mutiny takes hold, both she and Bram find themselves in grave danger. This is an extremely suspenseful novel with vivid descriptions of life on a 17th century ship.
Like a River: A Civil War Novel by Kathy Cannon Wiechman. Two lives intersect during the American Civil War. When his older brother suffers a terrible accident, 15 year old Leander runs away to join the army. He ends up in a Southern hospital where he befriends a soldier named Paul, who is caring for his father. Paul, however, turns out to be a girl, Polly. When Polly’s father dies she joins the army, still in disguise and ends up in Andersonville prison where another soldier takes care of her so that her secret stays safe. At the end of the war she is sent home on the infamous Sultana steamboat, and narrowly escapes its destruction. Author Kathy Cannon Wiechman does not gloss over the harsh reality of war time life and prison. The first half of the book is told from Leander’s point of view. The second half belongs to Polly.
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus is an adventure story, inspired by historical events. In 1841, 14 year old Manjiro and 3 other men are stranded on an island off Japan during a fishing trip. Eventually they are rescued by an American whaling vessel but instead of returning to Japan, Manjiro travels with the Captain, attends school in America – dealing with the prejudice that comes with being an outsider – and heads to California during the gold rush. At the time, Japan was cut off from the world, and no one was allowed back into the country after leaving, but Manjiro risks his life to return.
Lawrence Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles is a 10 book series which tells the story of the Young family over many generations and two centuries. Dragon’s Gate is set in 1867. Otter has always been in awe of his father and uncle who work for the railroad companies across the sea. When he gets there himself, however, working conditions, the bitter cold, racism and his uncle’s behavior serve to disillusion him. You don’t need to read the series in order to enjoy them and Yep is a skilled author. Your kids won’t want to put the book down.
Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis. This is a really fun graphic novel inspired by the life and times of Elizabeth I. Margaret, an orphan lives on an island in a convent. But her world is upended when the banished Queen Eleanor comes to the island and she learns the truth about her own identity. This is a fun, fast-paced story which still manages to convey a lot of detail about medieval life. Queen of the Sea is the first graphic novel in a planned series.
Grenade by Alan Gratz. Hideki lives on Okinawa and in 1945, he is conscripted into the Japanese army. Just landed on the same island is Ray, an American soldier about to experience his first battle. Told in alternating points of view, this is a harrowing tale of two young men’s foray into war, and the effect it has on individuals. Riveting.
The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis is a powerful story that takes place in Canada, post Civil War. Two boys, Red, a grandson of Irish immigrants and Benji, the son of former slaves become friends. A lot of important themes are addressed in this compelling story. Racism, PTSD, the Irish potato famine, poverty all play a part, but so do deep family relationships and friendships. A great title for any upper middle grade book collection.
Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus. If your upper middle grade reader enjoys historical fiction, give them any book by Margi Preus! In this tale, based on the real life experiences of a Norwegian teen, 14 year old Espen becomes a valuable member of the Norwegian resistance during the Nazi occupation. Over the course of a few years he must navigate the day to day life of a teen in Norway with the stress of figuring out who to trust, as well as the stirrings of first love. Very suspenseful!
The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim. In medieval China, Li Jing has a hard life. Her poor family sells her off to a family who intends to marry her to their toddler-son and she goes off to live with her new in-laws who turn out to be cruel and treat her as a slave. When she refuses to submit to them, they sell her off to a house for courtesans but she escapes and goes on a journey to find refuge. Li Jing is a fiercely strong girl character who increasingly gains confidence in herself and takes control of her own destiny.
West of the Moon by Margi Preus. More than anything, Astri wants to join her father in America but her aunt sells her to Svaalberd, a foul, stinking goat farmer who treats her cruelly. Astri manages to escape from Svallberd, grabs her sister from her aunt and uncle before they are able to sell her, too. The sisters, with a strange girl Astri has met in Svaalberd’s barn, run towards the coast in hopes of catching a boat to America but they are pursued by Svallberd. The writing is an intriguing mix of history and folklore.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Are your teens or tweens fans of Tolkein or Star Trek? Then these are the upper middle grade books for them!
Ambassador (series) by William Alexander. A purple blob arrives to tell Gabriel Fuentes is is to be Earth’s ambassador to the galaxy. Gabe accepts the post but then he finds out Earth — and he — are in trouble. Gabe’s home life gets complicated when his undocumented immigrant parents discover they may be deported. Gabe must balance family difficulties with his galactic troubles. Very suspenseful! And your kids will be eager to read the second book, Nomad, to learn how it all gets resolved.
Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection ed. by Matt Dembicki. Are your kids familiar with the role of the trickster in folktales? Tricksters appear in cultures around the world and this collection of 24 trickster tales told by Native storytellers is intriguing and fun. The graphic novel/comic format is great for reluctant and voracious readers alike.
Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier. When I read the opening scene in which Nan crawls up a flue and gets caught in a chimney I almost had an attack of claustrophobia, the description was so detailed and engrossing! Nan Sparrow, a chimney sweep is saved by a golem made of ash. A golem is a magical figure in Jewish folklore, and Nan’s rescuer becomes her companion. This is such an interesting and superbly written book; and with the themes of child labor, anti-semitism, and class structures your kids will find much to think about.
Books of Bayern by Shannon Hale. I adore this fantasy series. The four novels start with a retelling of the fairy tale, The Goose Girl, but then expand into much more than that. Each book focuses on a different protagonist tied to the country of Bayern who has a special power they must learn how to control and use effectively.
Inkheart (trilogy) by Cornelia Funke. I adore the metafictional aspect of this book. There’s something so wonderful about characters escaping the confines of their stories. Meggie’s father’s read aloud skills are so magical is actually able to read characters out of the books! Unfortunately an evil character he has read out of a book is on a mission to bring him down and Meggie’s father has accidentally read his wife into a book. Spellbinding.
The Flight of the Swans by Sarah McGuire. I read a lot of middle grade books and even when I love them, I don’t usually have a problem putting them down and walking away for a bit, but I could not do that with The Flight of the Swans! I was captivated by this retelling of the Grimm fairy tale, “Six Swans.” Princess Ryn’s new stepmother has bewitched the King and when she threatens to kill Ryn’s six brothers, Ryn bargains for their lives by agreeing to stay silent for six years. The evil queen then turns the brothers into swans and Ryn sets out on a six year quest to save them.
The Shadow Cipher (series) by Laura Ruby. In this elaborate story, three friends band together in New York City to solve a cipher that connects their apartment building to a centuries-old mystery of how the city was conceived. This is a hefty, compelling book with stellar writing, and complex, well-rounded characters.
The Mark of the Thief (series) by Jennifer A. Nielsen. This incredibly thrilling trilogy is packed full of action and twists behind every corn. Nic and his sister are slaves in mines just outside of Ancient Rome. When Nic discovers an ancient bulla that once belonged to Julius Caesar, the bulla infuses him with a power. He becomes both a target and a pawn in a political conspiracy. This is a excellent selection for kids who like mythology.
The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sand (series). There is some dark subject matter in this book but it is so suspenseful! Christopher, an orphaned apprentice in 17th century London must solve a complex puzzle surrounding the murders of apothecaries. Despite the seriousness of the plot, the well-drawn characters provide some humor.
Time Traveling with a Hamster by Ross Welford. In this, one of the few children’s books with a British Indian protagonist, Al Chaudhury gets a letter and a hamster from his deceased father. The letter tells him to find his father’s time travel machine and go back in time to avert a disaster. A fun and suspenseful read, great for any fan of time-travel adventure books.
The False Prince (trilogy) by Jennifer A. Nielsen. I love to put this title on book lists. I devoured this series as it was being published. Each year I eagerly awaited the publication date of each new installment in the trilogy. The Kingdom of Farthenwood is in turmoil and a nobleman is determined to pass off an unknown orphan as the missing prince. He brings three boys to train at his estate, promising that the one who best completes the test will have a new life as the ruler of Farthenwood. As a reader, I was constantly on my toes as to the outcome and a surprise twist will leave kids eager to read the next two books.
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly. Multiple narrators describe the adventures of several children and their (potentially) holy dog. This book is an amazing mix of morality tale and puzzling mystery. Jeanne with her psychic visions, Willian, a biracial Muslim monk with superhuman skills, and Jacob, a Jewish fleeing his destroyed village who has healing powers come together for an adventure that enriches their lives, as well as the lives of the readers.
The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials Trilogy) by Phillip Pullman. Two kids, Lyra and Will, cross parallel universes in a world where their souls (for lack of a better word) exist outside of their bodies as animal companions. The plot is complex and is heavily involved with philosophy and theology.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi. Set in 1832, this Newbery Honor book tells the absolutely riveting story of Charlotte, who sets out on a sea voyage from England to Rhode Island. Instead of being chaperoned by other families on the journey, she unexpectedly finds herself alone with the crew and becomes entangled in a nail-biting and dangerous adventure.
A Wizard of Earthsea. (1968) Award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin will be familiar to fans of children’s fantasy literature. This is the first book in her Earthsea series and introduces us to the young man, Ged, who discovers that he is full of magic. This one is great for fans of Tolkein.
The Storm Runner (series) by J.C. Cervantes. Rick Riordan Presents is a new publishers imprint that publishes fantasies based on multicultural mythology written by authors other than Riordan. In The Storm Runner, Mayan mythology is front and center. Thirteen year old Zane learns that the volcano in his New Mexico backyard is a actually a prison for a Mayan god. When Brooks, a mysterious shape-shifting girl shows up to help Zane fulfill his destiny, the adventure begins.
Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson. In the 1990s, the war in Kosovo upends the life of 12 year old Meli Llesh and her family, who are ethnic Albanians. The war comes literally to their front door and the Llesh family flee the Serbian forces, walking all the way to a NATO refugee camp in Macedonia. At the camp, the family awaits news that they will be permitted to immigrate to America. This is a fantastic book, and will provide insight into events in recent history. Just to note: there are a lot of references to ethnic violence, and some references to violence against women.
Frogkisser! by Garth Nix. This is a great book for fantasy fans who want an advanced fairy tale read by don’t get want the story lines bogged down in romance. Princess Anya must go on a quest to find the ingredients to a Transmorgification Reversal Lip Balm as well as escape the devious plans of her stepfather, Duke Rikard. Her talking dog, Ardent, accompanies her on her adventure, which is full of twists, turns, curious and fascinating characters and lots of laughs. It is not a retelling of any one specific fairy tale, but the book includes references to many familiar stories.
This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews. Ben and his friends have made a pact that this year, after the lanterns at the Autumn festival are set adrift in the river, they will follow the lanterns to see where they go. They want to find out if the legend which says they turn into stars is true. However, the kids drop out of the pact one by one until only Ben and Nathaniel are left. They forge on, however, and what they discover and encounter is truly magical. My brain doesn’t adjust well to reading the graphic novel format, but even I was whisked away on this fantastical adventure.
Want more upper middle grade books? Find some on the following lists: