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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

The Best of the Underrated Middle School Books

In the world of children’s literature we are creatures with short memories.  The new and shiny is always far more preferable to the old and worn.  I’ve been in the children’s book reviewing game for roundabout eight years now and I’ve fallen in love with a fair amount of titles.  But time goes on and I end up forgetting so many of them.  Fortunately, I long ago had the idea of creating this handy dandy wiki of all the books I’ve reviewed.  It’s been invaluable to me over the years, reminding me of the books I loved when they first came out.

Recently I was talking with somebody about recommended but too little loved titles and the subject of D.M. Cornish’s absolutely jaw-dropping Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy came up.  I was singing its praises like crazy and it occurred to me that there are loads of titles I just don’t sing the praises of enough.  To simplify matters, I decided to make a list of recommended books for the middle schoolers of the world.  These are books that, as far as I’m concerned, deserve a lot more attention.  Some you will have heard of.  Many will be new to you.  All of them are memorable and amazing by turns.  These are the books I’ll never get out of my head . . . . in a good way!

The Winged Girl of Knossos by Erick Berry

So I’m kind of cheating right off the bat.  Anyone who reads me may be aware that The Winged Girl of Knossos is my dream Bring It Back In Print title.  A Newbery Honor winner of 1934, it doesn’t feel the least bit dated.  And don’t be fooled by the lame cover.  In this book you have a girl who hanglides, goes deep sea diving, and frickin’ does gymnastics off of the backs of live, angry bulls.  Did I mention she also lives in Ancient Greece?  Put a new jacket on it and watch in amazement as kids read it again.  Just sayin’.

Dragon Castle by Joseph Bruchac

Okay. You know what this really reminds me of?  I have no idea why, but something about the tone and feel of this book feels like Frozen to me.  It’s something to do with the humor and the characters, I think.  When this was released I wasn’t exactly rushing to pick it up.  But when I finally did and read it cover to cover I was shocked by how thorough and truly enjoyable it was.  And look what they did to it!  Generic name, generic title, etc.  The only indication that there might be something awesome beneath this cover is the fact that the author is Joseph Bruchac.  If you want to shock a kid by giving them a book they love in spite of its packaging, this is the one to hand over.

Wabi by Joseph Bruchac


Two Bruchacs in a row?  Well, he’s worth it.  And this book was just the most awesome thing.  A love story and a kind of superhero tale all at once, I loved how Bruchac mixed together myth and just awesome epic storytelling.  Seriously, hand this to the kid that’s into DC/Marvel/superhero movies.  It’s not as big a change of pace as you might think.

Monster Blood Tattoo by D.M. Cornish

There is no justice in the world.  If there was then every single one of you would know this three book series.  You’d be able list ably the characters and to say the names of every person on this book jacket.  An Australian series, Cornish created what might well be the most original series I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.  This is a world entirely unlike any other and my sole regret in life is that there are only three books thus far.

The Vengekeep Prophecies by Brian Farrey

Most of the books I’m mentioning today came out a while ago but this one was released as recently as 2012.  That said, you may have missed it and that would be a true shame.  Funny fantasy is hard to do.  And funny epic fantasy?  Almost impossible.  The only word I can use to really describe this series is charming.  It’s utterly the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen.  And a thrill as well.

The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge


If you read only one book on this list today, read this one.  I had a hard time not listing every last single Hardinge book on this list.  To be fair, I limited myself to just one title.  This is a book I think about constantly.  It’s the kind of book I wish I had the talent to write.  It’s the best middle school novel I’ve ever read or will ever hope to read.  And I wish to high heaven someone in America would start importing Hardinge’s titles again.  I miss them.

Thresholds by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

So weird to me that with this gorgeous cover and the crazy writing inside that this book isn’t better remembered.  It’s basically the movie Alien, but if the Alien in question were a good guy instead of a bad guy.  Intrigued yet?

Departure Time by Truus Matti

This is probably the only translation on this list.  What I loved about the book most was probably the fact that it took the notion of an unreliable narrator to a logical extreme.  This read like Sophie’s World but for kids.

The Boneshaker by Kate Milford

This August you’ll have a chance to read Kate’s latest novel The Green Glass House (and read it you will, but more on that later).  Before you do, go back and read this book.  I like my creepy titles nice and psychological.  Milford provided with this amazingly, incredibly twisted, scary, delightful tale.  Honestly, you’ve never read ANYTHING like this before.  Not even Ray Bradbury.

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri



When this came out I went a little crazy over it.  It wasn’t just the fact that it was Greg Neri writing it (though that certainly didn’t hurt matters any).  It was also the great storyline, characters, and original premise.  I think it actually made it into paperback, which was a relief.

Larklight by Philip Reeve


You know I have a weakness for humor with my genre fiction.  Well funny science fiction isn’t exactly common these days.  Full credit them to this crazy cool series.  I loved each book Reeve wrote, but it’s hard to top the first one.  Hand this to budding Firefly fans.

The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski


Before Marie started getting all those loads of starred reviews for YA novels like The Winner’s Curse, she was a middle grade fantasy author.  You know how nine times out of ten the Steampunk genre doesn’t work with middle grade?  Meet the one time it does.  Memorable characters, talking mechanical spiders, a prince so evil he could make Joffrey on Game of Thrones blanch, this book series had it all.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz


Every time I look at it I remember that though it should have won a Newbery, somehow this book by Schlitz did not.  Yet it’s amazing.  The only book I would honestly call a companion in spirit to The Secret Garden.  Utterly, thoroughly, entirely, amazing.

A Boy and a Bear in a Boat by Dave Shelton

The weirdest book on this list (and THAT is saying something). I think in my review I called it Waiting for Godot for kids.  I stand by that and I stand by this book.  Every librarian I know who read it said the same thing about it too.  “It’s so weird . . . but I kind of loved it.”  Yup.

Dreamdark: Blackbringer by Laini Taylor (ill. Jim DiBartolo)

Speaking of YA authors who wrote middle grade before they broke big, Laini Taylor is remembered for many things but not for her first series.  Yet the fairies of Dreamdark were amazing in their construction.  You can’t read this book and not understand that Laini was special and amazing.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi (ill. Yuko Shimizu)


It’s an animated series in Japan.  A book with a woman so kickbutt that you’re aware that if she were a man there’d be a whole slew of movies about her already.  When folks ask for something fast paced and filled with action/adventure, nothing beats this book.  Absolutely nothing.

Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson

I love his latest book Boys of Blur.  Sure I do.  But no one can deny that it was Leepike Ridge that showed us all what the man was capable of.  Should have gotten more attention.  Maybe someday it will.

So spill.  Your forgotten favorites.  Go.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Great list! I helped shortlist Dragon Castle, Cabinet of Wonders, and Silksinger (sequel to Blackbringer) for the Cybils, and still feel much love for them!

  2. Tom Angleberger says

    Nice list. You’ve sold me on a couple I missed…

    For me the most criminally underrated book of recent times is The Friendship Doll.
    Deserved to become a classic!

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      You know I would have included your own Qwikpick book, Tom. Except there they go and reprint it! Genius!

  3. Okay, then, if we’re talking underrated I nominate FREAKS by Kieran Larwood. Reading it to my fifth graders now and they cannot get enough of it :: hides it under piles of papers on my desk so they cannot steal it and read ahead ::.

  4. Some good picks — I’m an even bigger fan of Frances Hardinge’s Well Witched, which influenced me when I wrote Deadwood. I also nominate Anne Nesbett’s Cabinet of Earths and Merrie Haskell’s Princess Curse.

  5. Oh. Thanks so much for this list. I see some favorites and some titles I hadn’t heard of. So I’m off to order some through my local bookstore!

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      I just hope they’re still in print! I didn’t check ’em when I wrote this up.

  6. Betsy- your continued support of my titles continues to amaze me. But I am happy to say that Ghetto Cowboy gets tons of love. I am still touring constantly on this book, even after 3 years. These are schools and libraries from Nebraska to Texas, NJ to California, who will buy 600 to 3000 copies per visit. I’ll often stay a whole week to hit all the schools that are requesting to see me. I get lots of emails from kids about how this book is about them, ‘this is me, this is my life’. There are many self-proclaimed Ghetto Cowboys out there. They are the silent majority as I say. Most people don’t know about them and they don’t get the high profile coverage. But they are out there. And they are reading! I love this list that you’ve put together. But I’ll bet there are hardcore readers for all these books too. I’m proud to be in their company!

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Absolutely. And your book is in paperback as well, yes? I’m hopefully not implying that no one is reading any of these book. Rather, that I’d still like them to get more high profile attention. I want these books on summer reading lists and mentioned in regular book round-ups (which, you would probably point out, Ghetto Cowboy often is). It’s not that the books are invisible. I just want more attention for them. MORE MORE MORE!!! And for that matter I want their authors to be producing more too. And get big time advances for their writing. That’s something we can all agree on.

      • Absolutely. More is good. GC is in paperback and made at least 12 state reading lists. I met a good number of librarians at SLJ Day who said it was on their summer lists. As far as more books, I have the 2 coming out and 2 more going to market in the next couple weeks! I’m trying to keep up. 🙂

  7. Thank you! Just ordered a few of them for the e-reader, so most, at least, are in print. I do love Leepike Ridge, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, and Larklight and, of course, anything by Hardinge. Looking forward to reading the others on this list! Oh, and I second the vote for Cabinet of Earths (and its sequel). Great book.

  8. ChrisinNY says

    I loved Vengekeep Prophecy and really liked Dreamdark too. Never found others who read them so it is nice to hope they will get a bit more attention. Am going to track down the Cornish series as I think I’d like that too.

  9. Some BIG family favorites on this list! We all loved WABI (and I got it on the Norton Award list that year, as I was on that jury), plus I wrote fan mail to Joseph Bruchac (he wrote a very kind response). My kids have read and re-read MORIBITO and its sequel and wish all the books would be translated into English. My son Theo *loved* THE VENGEKEEP PROPHECIES and its sequel and is eagerly awaiting the third book.

    I third the vote for CABINET OF EARTHS. Luminous and wonderful.

  10. I can’t wait to have at these. Dreamdark was supposed to be a series I think. Will we ever see more? I wish. Kickass fairies rule.

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      There were at least two of them. Someday they’ll reprint them since Laini’s made such a big name for herself.

  11. Great List, and it sent me to my stack of to-be-read books in the office and Yes–found a couple there waiting! Thank you.

  12. I Love A Drowned Maiden’s Hair. And I would add The Year Money Grew On Trees, a perfect read-aloud which also has all that great math in it!

  13. Glad to see Monster Blood Tattoo, Larklight, and A Drowned Maiden’s Hair on this list.

  14. Love, love this list, thank you. I would really appreciate one on easy readers. Oh, and funniest kids books (I used the search term “funniest” on your blog last week and found some great titles).

  15. Bernadette Mount says

    The Vengekeep Prophecies made the Texas Lone Star reading list for 2014-2015 so it should at least get some reading in Texas. Ghetto Cowboy was one of last year’s Bluebonnet Award nominees so I was surprised to see it on your list. But, I guess sometimes it depends on where you live as to whether you get exposed to some titles.

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Yep, it’s not showing up on our reading lists yet. I want it to be a household name. I’m ambitious like that.

  16. Delia Sherman’s The Changeling. A wonderful and fabulous New York City fantasy, featuring Central Park in a lead role. So much fun. I never figured out why it didn’t take off, and it should.

  17. Oh Betsy hon, this post takes me back! It was definitely your review of Leepike Ridge that made me read it, and oh my gracious how great is that book? And Monster Blood Tattoo (I don’t care what they call it now, “Monster Blood Tattoo” is how I get kids to read that trilogy) I call ‘the most fully realized world since Middle Earth’. And and and!
    Newly skating under the radar – The Expeditioners by S.S. Taylor. Second book is out now and I don’t know why the first didn’t get more attention. My Milo LOVED it.

  18. I saw this headline and immediately thought of Anne Nesbet’s CABINET OF EARTHS! and was so delighted to see all the love for it in the comments. Predictably, I haven’t read most of these and am thrilled you’re taking the time to highlight the less trumpeted. Thank you! Off to read Frances Hardinge…

  19. Some books just stay with you. The Lost Conspiracy will pop into my mind at the oddest times – when I’m making the beds, for heavens sake. And I have read Larklight and its sequel a number of times. Some of the other titles are books that I remember seeing but never reading. So, it’s time to head back to the library and hope no one has removed them since I retired.

  20. Thanks for these excellent books to add to my teetering summer reading pile. I’ve been a fan of Greg Neri for some time and am thrilled he has more books coming out soon.

  21. Moribito!

  22. Thanks for the list — now I MUST find The Winged Girl of Knossos, it sounds fantastic! Can we mount a campaign to have it republished? Are there any publishers you are in contact with that it would help to send additional requests to? NYRB would seem a natural choice; are they considering it?


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