Are you ready for my favorite best middle grade books of 2023? After reading over two hundred books, I’ve chosen my top middle grade picks from this year in the genres of fantasy, historical fiction, animal adventure, realistic fiction, mystery, adventure, and paranormal for ages 9 to 12.
Using my background as a lifelong reader, an elementary teacher with an M.A. in Education, a mom of two, and a book reviewer for over 15 years, I evaluate middle grade books on the following criteria:
- Interesting story
- Good pacing (that makes me want to keep reading)
- Excellent writing
- Middle-grade age-appropriate
- Kid appeal
- New or fresh approach to a theme or topic
Comment and let me know which middle grade books you loved this year!
Best Middle Grade Books of 2023
Things in the Basement by Ben Hatke
FANTASY / GRAPHIC NOVEL
I adore this beautifully drawn and narrated adventure set in the world of…the basement! When Milo’s baby sister loses her special pink knit sock, he searches for it in the basement. The basement leads Milo to another basement, and then another basement, and to a whole labyrinth of basement worlds. He befriends a friendly skull named Chuckles, an eyeball creature named Weepie, and a ghost named Belle. Milo uses the sock’s yarn, help from his ghost friend, and his problem-solving skills to rescue his friends from the Gobbler and return home with the pink sock. This is a fantastical, magical journey of friendship, kindness, and secret worlds!
Travis Daventhorpe by Wes Molebash
FANTASY / GRAPHIC NOVEL
Travis is a science-loving kid with an intelligent robot named Travbot who flies. After pulling a sword from a stone, Travis learns that he’s the prophesied hero who will defeat the evil Nol Invictus. Add in a black-hand birthmark, portals between the worlds, video-game-like character profiles, terrible swordsmanship, and intelligent dialogue, and you have a super-compelling, totally hilarious story.
Three Tasks for a Dragon by Eoin Colfer, illustrated by P.J. Lynch
In a short middle grade novel that feels like high fantasy, our hero, Prince Lir, is tricked by his stepmom and stepbrother, a dark sorcerer, to forfeit his kingdom and embark on a quest to rescue a girl supposedly kidnapped by a dragon. Prince Lir uses his wits to avoid death by solving the dragon’s problems, like cave mold and a broken wing…and he stays alive. When the dragon fails to kill Prince Lir, the evil stepbrother arrives to do it himself. But the girl, Cethlenn, calls the wolfhounds to herself, and they save Lir just before the stepbrother dies, cursing Lir and the dragon and freezing Cethleen. Wonderfully complex language, vivid imagery, and lovely world-building, this book transports readers into a magical world of good versus evil. Will our heroes get a happy ending?
Misfit Mansion by Kay Davault July
review written by my daughter Jemma Taylor
FANTASY / GRAPHIC NOVEL
MISFIT MANSION is a heartwarming story about what it means to be family, even if you’re not related by blood. The “horrors” who live at the titular mansion have been told that it’s too dangerous to venture outside into the human world. But a young creature named Iris wants to give humans another chance. If you’re looking for a book about found family, learning from prejudice, and friendship, I cannot recommend MISFIT MANSION enough.
Once There Was by Kiyash Monsef
One of the best books of 2023, the layered storytelling, plot twists, and surprises made it impossible to put down. After Marjan’s father dies, she’s alone and the owner of her dad’s veterinary practice, even though she’s only a sophomore in high school. When she’s asked to help a sick gryffin, she’s shocked to discover her father’s secret job as a mythical creature vet. She tries to unravel the lies and secrets in her father’s life, including if he was murdered, but the world of magical creatures is confusing and filled with trickery. Woven within the narrative story are her father’s Iranian folktales about mythical creatures, starting with “Once was, once wasn’t.” I loved the surprising ending, too.
Skyriders by Polly Holyoke
Kie is a courier for the kingdom, riding on her skyrider, a small but fast winged horse. Her Uncle taught her the old ways of fighting the chimerae. Fearing a full chimarae invasion, her uncle sends Kie to the capital to convince the leaders to use the old ways of fighting. But she’s dismissed by the leaders who insist on their new ways — which will eventually get them killed. Meanwhile, Kie learns she can mindspeak to all skyrider steeds which helps when she and her friends (including the prince and princess) must save the city themselves. Readers will love this exciting story with an interesting plot and a brave but reluctant heroine. (I couldn’t put it down!)
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Realistic Middle Grade
The Probability of Everything by Sarah Everett
(For this book review, I’m not going to tell you too much about the story– because it would spoil your reading experience.) Kemi adores her close-knit family, her African American artist mom, her baby sister, a baby sibling on the way, and most of all, her beloved Nigerian dad. When an asteroid threatens everyone on Earth with imminent death, Kemi and her family leave for her cousins’ house, where she starts a time capsule. The exceptional storytelling is emotional (I cried SO MUCH) and important with themes of family, racism, and values. A must-read, must-experience-for-yourself-kind-of book.
The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn by Sally J. Pla
Maudie is an autistic girl staying with her father for the summer, but a California fire forces them from their cabin. She and her dad head south to where her dad grew up. A friend sets them up in an old camper at a campground near the beach. While her dad looks for work, Maudie works up her courage to ask an older surfer woman for lessons. She spends the summer worrying about her big secret and learning to surf, hoping to win the beginning surfer competition at the end of the summer. Maudie makes a new friend who is friendly and neurodiverse like her. All of these things help her consider that she is more than what her mom and her abusive stepdad think of her. This is a moving coming of age story of a girl who learns to thrive instead of survive.
Not an Easy Win by Chrystal B. Giles
The strong first-person voice draws you into Lawrence’s life, starting right after he’s been beaten up by a group of bullies, blamed for the fighting, and kicked out of the mostly-white school. His mom doesn’t care, and his granny doesn’t believe him. In fact, his Granny tells him he can’t stick around the house. An older neighbor takes Lawrence to his work at the local rec center where Lawrence helps him, does online school, and learns how to play chess. Playing chess requires focus and control, not just in the game but with his emotions, too–even when a kid at the rec center steals his stuff. Through the wisdom of his neighbor and learning to focus on chess, Lawrence finds purpose and inner fortitude that leads to his success in life and in chess. The writing is engaging; I couldn’t put this book down.
Something Like Home by Andrea Beatriz Arango
REALISTIC / VERSE / FOSTER CARE
In this emotional novel in verse, Laura’s parents are in drug rehab, and she’s in foster care with an aunt she doesn’t know. She longs to go home to her parents. When she sees an abused puppy in a cage for free, she takes it home and names it Sparrow. She’s not permitted to visit her parents, but when she learns that the rehab clinic accepts therapy dogs, she starts training Sparrow. Her friend at school has sickle cell and is hospitalized, so she sneaks her dog to cheer him up. Then, her parents leave rehab early, and things seem worse than ever. This moving story is about family and healing and includes a nonbinary therapist and a mention of girls dating.
Hidden Truths by Elly Swartz
On a camping trip, the camper catches fire, confining Dani to a wheelchair with months of PT appointments ahead. She’s angry that she won’t get to play on the boys’ baseball team. Her best friend Eric worries that the fire is his fault if he forgot to turn off the stove. When he confesses to Dani his worries, it ruins their friendship. Dani’s new friend calls Eric a loser and bullies him on social media while Eric tries to fix things. I loved this unique plot of relatable friendship woes! This is a memorable story of friendship, growing up, and forgiveness.
Dust by Dusti Bowling
REALISTIC / FOOD ALLERGIES
Avalyn, a spelling bee fanatic, lives in dry Arizona, which is supposed to be better for her asthma–until Adam moves to town, bringing pain and throat-clogging, asthma-attack-inducing dust storms. She wonders if her superpower is sensing energy– like Adam’s negative energy. As she investigates and observes Adam, she and her friends continue to be relentlessly bullied at school. She is also struggling with the challenges that come with food and environmental allergies. This story deftly addresses abuse, bullying, asthma, and allergies. The end pages also have discussion questions which will be helpful for book clubs.
No Place Like Home by James Bird
REALISTIC / HOMELESSNESS / OJIBWE
Beautiful character development, vivid details, and a strong narrative voice draw you into this story about homelessness, Ojibwe culture, growing up, family, and the love of a dog. Based on James’ childhood, Opin is a sweet, hopeful boy who lives with his mom and his older brother in their car, traveling from city to city. He adores his mother, but he’s scared of his angry, violent older brother, who comes and goes as he pleases. When Opin finds a hurt dog, the love of a dog fills a friend void for Opin–until his brother takes the dog away. Despite the challenges of Opin’s life, beauty and joy are threaded throughout this compelling story that is one of the best of 2023.
*Sensitive readers, there are a few swear words.
Finally Seen by Kelly Yang
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS of 2023, this middle-grade novel explores the complexities of human beings, the importance of books as mirrors and doors, the challenges of immigration, the realities of racism, and book banning. Lina’s lived with her Lao Lao for the last five years, but she moves to join her dad, mom, and little sister in LA when her beloved Lao Lao moves to a nursing home. She’s surprised that her family is struggling financially, she feels embarrassed when she speaks English (so she stops speaking,) and she feels hurt when a classmate writes mean things about her on the bathroom wall. Even still, Lina’s bright spots are a kind ESL teacher, the graphic novels she reads, and her new friends, Finn and Carla.
Saving H’Non Chang and the Elephant by Trang Nguyen and Jeet Zdung
EPISTOLARY GRAPHIC NOVEL / ANIMAL RESCUE
Written like a graphic novel combined with a scrapbook, this true story is both heartbreaking and heartwarming with a beautiful emotional arc. In first-person narration, Chang describes working at a wildlife rescue center in Vietnam and meeting an abused older elephant named H’Non. She and her boss save him from maltreatment and search for a kind trainer to work with H’Non. As you cheer Chang along, you’ll learn about Vietnam, elephants, and animal rescue work. The illustrations are detailed, gorgeous, and memorable. You won’t want to miss this exceptional middle grade graphic novel with four starred reviews. It belongs in every school library!
Farther Than the Moon by Lindsay Lackey
REALISTIC / SPACE / CEREBRAL PALSY
Houston wants to find a way for his brother Robbie to go to space even though there’s never been an astronaut with CP. Houston leaves Robbie behind for space camp where he meets his astronaut grandfather for the first time –and is rejected. After a week of fighting with his fellow crewmates, Houston gets surprising advice from the person he least expects–about taking responsibility for his actions and putting the crew first. This story will help you see someone as MORE than their disability and make you think bigger about inclusivity for all the Earth’s crew. This middle-grade gem is filled with wisdom, heartfelt writing, and relatable and interesting characters. It’s hands down one of the best middle grade books I’ve read this year with MUCH NEEDED representation.
How to Stay Invisible by Maggie C. Rudd
Raymond’s neglectful parents abandon him completely, so he takes his dog Rosie, and they camp in the woods behind his middle school. He survives on his own, foraging in dumpsters and fishing for food while attending school. When a playful coyote hurts Rosie, he meets an old man who helps them both — which is especially significant because it’s over the Christmas break when he can’t get dumpster food from school. Raymond doesn’t want to tell anyone, including the old man or his two friends at school, what he’s surviving, but the truth comes out when another boy discovers his campsite, and a snake bite almost kills him. HOW TO STAY INVISIBLE is a powerful story of grit, survival, and longing for family. I couldn’t put it down.
Match Point by Maddie Gallegos
review written by my daughter Jemma Tayor
REALISTIC (GRAPHIC NOVEL)
Match Point by Maddie Gallegos is one of my favorite books I’ve read in the past year, with a cute style, wholesome story, and a message about the importance of communication. They also integrate ASL into the book in a really natural and interesting way for the graphic novel medium. Rosie’s dad wants her to become the racquetball champion, but she hates the sport. When she meets Blair, a cool girl her age who plays as well, she finally starts to learn how to have fun with the game again.
Rare Birds by Jeff Miller
REALISTIC / SAD
Graham’s mom moves them to Florida to wait for a heart transplant. When his mom gets approved, Graham stays with his mom’s friend and his angry son. Fortunately, at the hospital, he befriends a girl named Lou. When he finds his mom’s rare bird journal, Lou helps him search for the last bird on the list–the Snail Kite. But because there’s prize money for finding the bird, bully kids not only thwart them but endanger them–stranding Lou and Graham in a swamp with a giant alligator and no cell service. The friends’ search is filled with challenges, which they face with bravery and determination, including the truth about Lou. I loved the two-page chapter lengths and the emotional story of friendship and family that will make you cry.
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Mystery Middle Grade
Night Raven: The Moonwind Mysteries written by Johan Rundberg, translated by A.A. Prime
An excellent, page-turning mystery set in 1880s Sweden about an orphan girl named Mika whose survival skills include an eye for detail, connections, and deductions! After an abandoned baby is dropped into her arms in the middle of the night, a police detective recruits her to assist him in identifying a dead body and then investigating a prison cell — all in pursuit of a copycat serial killer. But Mika realizes it’s not a copycat. In a dangerous game of cat and mouse, she and the detective need to avoid the corrupt prison officials and the serial killer. This observant heroine is my favorite kind — resourceful, aspirational, and interesting. I can’t wait for more books in the series. (Sensitive readers: Includes the word cr*p.)
Beneath the Swirling Sky (The Restorationists) written by Carolyn Leiloglou, illustrated by Vivienne To
Sent to his great-uncle’s house for the summer, Vincent learns his family’s big secret when his little sister Lili wanders INTO a painting–and doesn’t come out! His cousin Georgia leads him through paintings, corridors, and museums to find Lili while explaining their family’s talent –traveling into artwork to protect the art from nefarious travelers. They track Lili but are captured, too. Fast-paced and exciting with unique world-building, this art-filled, faith-implied, illustrated adventure will captivate readers from cover to cover.
Paranormal Middle Grade
Brick Dust and Bones by M.R. Forunet
Marius Grey is a 12-year-old Cajun Cemetery Boy and student. But he’s also working nights as a monster hunter to earn mystic coins for a really important spell that will bring his mother back to life…and time is running out. In desperation, Marius decides to hunt one of the most dangerous monsters in the swamp, a rougarou, even though his only friend, a monstrous mermaid, doesn’t want Marius to risk his life. The story is compelling and entertaining, with a heroic main character who loves his mom more than anything. You won’t be able to put this one down!
Zombie Season #1 by Justin Weinberger
This zombie story zips along with intrigue, adventure, and humor. Narrated from the perspective of three kids from the same town: one who is out after the DUSK ALERT searching for her missing dad, the other who is trying to atone for her failed zombie experiment and the last one whose parents force him to flee. When their stories converge, it’s after one meets a sentient zombie and one sees a mutated gigantic zombie who seems unstoppable. The hoard is growing and attacking with planning– and it’s not looking good for humans.
Bite Risk by S.J. Wells
One of the MOST EXCITING first chapters I’ve ever read!! We’re dropped into a city where the children cage the adults and teens who turn into “Rippers,” carrying tranq guns just in case one of them escapes. Ansel “Sel” and his best friend Elena usually play cards these long babysitting nights with an old man who is one of the only adults who doesn’t turn into a Ripper. He helps them piece together the clues about a sinister plot, murder, and entrapment. I loved the non-stop action and exciting plot.
Historical Fiction Middle Grade of 2023
Once In a Blue Moon by Sharon G. Flake
HISTORICAL FICTION / VERSE
James Henry hasn’t left the house in months. His twin sister Hattie encourages him to start small so they can be ready for the upcoming blue moon and a visit to the Lighthouse. When James Henry eventually ventures outside to go to the lighthouse, their trip is fraught with dangers, including mean neighbor kids and racist men. Surprisingly, the perils draw James Henry farther and farther out of his shell, especially when his sister needs him, and we learn what happened that traumatized him. This lovingly written verse novel set in the historical South is a masterpiece of forgiveness, healing, and family bonds. I loved everything about this middle grade novel!
Sky Full of Song by Susan Lynn Meyer
Shoshana, her mom, and her siblings flee Jewish persecution in Ukraine in 1905 for North Dakota to a mud house on the plains with her father and brother. But being Jewish isn’t always accepted, even in this new country. And Shoshana wants to fit in so much that she agrees to participate in the Christmas activities. Ultimately, Shoshana learns (with a little help from her sister Libke) to be proud of being Jewish, even when others don’t accept her. Stunning writing with a loveable main character makes this favorite middle grade book of 2023.
Animal Adventure Middle Grade
Scurry by Mac Smith
ANIMAL ADVENTURE / GRAPHIC NOVEL
I love the art in this graphic novel about a post-apocalyptic time with no humans and only animals. The house mice are scrounging to survive from what the humans left, but there isn’t enough food for their community. When our hero Wix leaves to scout more food, he discovers the rat’s betrayal, dangerous predators, including hawks and crows, and a strange beaver kingdom. It’s an epic animal adventure of danger, bravery, and exploration!
One and Only Ruby by Katherine Applegate
Even though her aunties are excited, Ruby is dreading Tuskday because she associates tusks with the pain of hunters. She tells her uncles (Bob and Ivan) about her life before, her life in Africa when she was happy and loved until hunters slaughtered her herd. After that, Ruby was rescued and cared for by a kind man, then captured again by greedy black-market animal traders and sent to the zoo in the mall, where they met. Also, Ruby shares that she misses her beloved auntie Stella. Ruby’s new aunties help her honor Stella, and it helps Ruby realize that Stella was with her all along…and that she IS ready for the Tuskday growing up ceremony. One of the best middle grade books of 2023– and a beautiful addition to the series.
Adventure Middle Grade
The Wildes: The Amazon by Roland Smith
Set in the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest, two siblings are with their conservationist scientist mom, who is reintroducing Golden lion tamarins (GLTs) into the wild. But, when their mom doesn’t return to base camp, the kids discover that she’s been kidnapped. The siblings, their bumbling tutor, and an indigenous (Kayapo) man follow the kidnappers’ trail to the mining area…and start investigating the mining camp under the pretense of tourists whose dad is sick. Great writing, excellent plotting, and a fascinating story, plus lots of information about the Amazon and endangered animals make this a standout middle grade book recommendation for 2023!