Books you read in middle school that your kids must read before it’s too late
There is a spark of time in one’s life before you start questioning, before you become idealistic or cynical, where your senses are open to capturing images, feelings and ideas that will become part of who you are, a time when the world still holds magic around every corner. For me, that time was between the ages of ten and thirteen; a time of romantic notions about the world, overwhelming emotions, and when every book was written just for me, every movie made with me in mind and every song sung for me alone.
The Black Stallion (published 1941) Walter Farley 1941) by Walter Farley
This is probably the book that most shaped my childhood. I may have started this series before I was ten but I continued to read and reread the series all through middle school. It’s an adventure story about how a boy and a horse come together and learn to trust and depend on one another. The Black became my imaginary horse who followed me around, jumping cars and street benches as we drove down Broad Street. For every animal I came across, there was the potential for a special bond just like Alec Ramsay had with his horse. Still one of the greatest books (and movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola!) ever.
The stories of Ray Bradbury (all first published in the 50s and 60s)
Ray Bradbury deserves a blog post all his own. At every age you will discover new meaning. His stories stoked my imagination; I daydreamed of living on another planet safer and more beautiful even than Earth. I dreamed of having access to time travel; convinced I would not abuse it. A few of his stories in particular have stayed with me through the decades. The stories all have a disturbing theme that play on a child’s sensibilities.
- In “The Veldt” Bradbury shows us a family in a possible future where technology renders labor (and parenting) practically needless. The kids hate when their parents show any sign of authority over them and they play, using their virtual world, at getting rid of them. I recall the guilt I felt over my own conflicting emotions toward my mother at times. Scared the bejeebies out of me.
- “The Sound of Thunder” tells the story of a group of hunters who have enough disposable income to travel to the prehistoric past to hunt dinosaurs for sport. One seemingly insignificant change drastically changes the future in a time travel paradox.
- “All Summer in a Day” takes place on the bleak rainy planet of Venus where a class of children awaits their first ever glimpse of the sun. The main character, Margot is a recent immigrant (from Ohio!) because Earth is nearly uninhabitable. Margot thought of nothing but the sun and going back home, one of many things that set her apart from her classmates, with heartbreaking consequences.
All timely themes, aren’t they?
Watership Down (published 1972) by Richard Adams
The story of a group of rabbits that are all distinct in personality and role in their warren. A small group breaks away from the warren, convinced of imminent danger and go on a dangerous journey to make a better life. I was fascinated by the thought that animals could have their own language, their own mythology, and lives mysterious to us. Unforgettable are the cast of characters: Fiver, Hazel and Bigwig, Silver and the terrifying General Woundwort. (Also an excellent animated movie.)
A Wrinkle in Time (published 1973) by Madeleine L’Engle
Even more than the amazing winged centaur on the cover, the fact that the main character is a girl, attracted me to this book. I discovered that parents could be scientists and scientists could be parents—something I had never fathomed (kind of like realizing that your 4th grade teacher actually goes home and has a life away from you). Meg Murry and her friend Calvin go in search of her missing father and discover their neighbor is a supernatural being and that there is a fifth dimension where an evil, disembodied brain tries to makes everyone think the same. I fantasized having that special neighbor, maybe Ms. Schnieder right next door, or Mrs. Carter a few doors down that would turn out to be a Mrs. Whatsit. Her home would be cozy and welcoming and she would turn out to have some powers that would make me special or not care that I wasn’t.
The Chronicles of Narnia (published 1949) by C.S. Lewis
Around every corner I imagined I’d find my own magical world like Narnia. I wanted to explore a new world like Susan and Lucy. I was amazed at the betrayal and forgiveness, not to mention the talking animals. The battle between good and evil appealed to my young sense of integrity and justice. Most magical about Narnia was that time passed much faster there, while in our world, barely any time had gone by at all as an entire life was lived. My one disappointment with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is that, after waiting years and years to taste the Turkish Delight that so tempted Edmund, it was not near as delectable as I had imagined.
Other notable books you may remember:
Bridge to Terabithia (published 1977) by Katherine Paterson
Where the Red Fern Grows (published 1961) by Wilson Rawls
A Cricket in Times Square (published 1960) by George Selden
Indian in the Cupboard (published 1984) by Lynne Reid Banks
Island of the Blue Dolphins (published 1960) by Scott O’Dell
Jacob Have I Loved (published 1980) by Katherine Paterson