40+ Character-Building Books for Middle Schoolers

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1. Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

Sweep is a historical fantasy novel that feels like Charles Dickens meets fairy tale. It is a beautifully written story that has a bit of something for everyone. Eleven-year-old Nan Sparrow works as a chimney climber, a thankless and deadly job.

After being stuck in a chimney fire, Nan is saved by a mysterious creature. This creature turns out to be a golem, who she names Charlie. Nan and Charlie take refuge in an abandoned mansion and grow their lives together in this poignant story. Grab the novel guide here.

2. Wonder by RJ Palacio

Auggie Pullman was born with a facial deformity that has prevented him from attending traditional public school. In fifth grade, Auggie walks into Beecher Prep for the first time. This wonderful story sparks great discussions on kindness and friendship.

3. Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff

Hollis, a 12-year-old foster girl is finally sent to a home she wants to stay in. Josie, the artist that lives there, is growing old and is losing more of her memory each day. If Social Services knew about this, they’d take Hollis away from Josie. While Hollis wants nothing more than to stay with Josie forever, she moves between dreaming of their future together and her past. Read along as Hollis discovers the importance of friendship and sympathy in this poignant story.

4. Allies by Alan Gratz

Allies tells the story of D-Day from multiple perspectives including a medic, paratrooper, member of the French resistance, and soldier. It really focuses on the importance of teamwork and courage. Grab the novel guide here.

5. Wonder by RJ Palacio

Auggie Pullman was born with a facial deformity that has prevented him from attending traditional public school. In fifth grade, Auggie walks into Beecher Prep for the first time. This wonderful story sparks great discussions on kindness and friendship.

6. Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

Louisiana’s life is turned upside down when the “day of reckoning” arrives. Having to leave so many people starts to make her feel she was only destined for goodbyes. This book is heartbreaking at some points but reminds us of the true beauty of life and the tenderness that can exist in the relationships around us. Grab the novel guide here.

7. Wish by Barbara O’Conner

Charlie Reese has been wishing since fourth grade and while there have been moments where she felt that her wish may come true, when she is sent to the mountains in North Carolina with a new family, she loses hope. One day, she meets a stay dog named Wishbone, her hope is renewed, but does she really want her wish to come true? This story of unexpected friendship and realizations is sure to touch any who read it.  

8. The Green Ember by S.D. Smith

Heather and Picket are rabbits who have lived ordinary lives until unexpected events bring them deep into a new world of kingdoms and tyrants. How will they navigate this new world and stick to who they truly are through all of these sudden differences?

9. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

I really need to give this one a reread, since it’s been years since I’ve read it! But this magical fantasy story is one of seven that involves the magical world of Narnia. While playing hide and seek in 1940s London, Lucy stumbles inside a magical wardrobe and discovers the land of Narnia. In it, she and her three siblings must defeat the White Witch who has cast an evil spell over Narnia.

10. Holes by Louis Sachar

Stanley Yelnats’ family is under a curse, which probably explains why he is wrongly sent to a detention camp, Camp Green Lake. The boys at Camp Green Lake must dig a hole each day, but why? This adventure-filled story has a rich plot and rich characters for voracious readers and reluctant readers alike. Plus, there’s a great Disney movie to go with it.

11. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

During the Holocaust, the tiny nation of Denmark was known for rescuing 99% of its Jewish population by helping them find safety in Sweden. This is the story of one family’s rescue, through the eyes of Annemarie and her Jewish friend Helen. It’s an inspiring story about faith, hope, and courage. Grab the novel guide here.

12. I Am David by Anne Holm

12-year-old David has spent the majority of his life in a concentration camp and knows nothing of the outside world. When given the chance to escape, he seizes it – on a mysterious mission to Denmark. He has only a compass, a map he can barely read, and the distant memories of a friend to guide him on his journey. I Am David is poignant, memorable, thought-provoking, and the best children’s novel I have ever read. Grab the novel guide here.

13. A House of Tailors by Patricia Reilly Giff

No one hates sewing more than Dina Kirk! Dina moves from her home in Germany to Brooklyn, where she wants to start her life fresh. Unfortunately, she finds herself back to sewing. I love this coming of age story, written from Dina’s perspective. It offers lessons on making the most of decisions, even if you don’t want to.

14. The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman

Despite practically growing up in the sewer, Jemmy has a pretty nice life, and he’s happy where he is. However, when he is kidnapped to be the prince’s whipping boy, his life is about to be changed. The prince, known as Prince Brat, decides to run away with his whipping boy, and so their adventures begin! This Newbery winner offers several lessons packed in an adventure-filled story.

15. The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

I read every The Boxcar Children book my library had to offer. In this first book, four orphans live in an abandoned boxcar and form a life for themselves. I loved this book’s focus on resourcefulness and teamwork.

16. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

In this thirteen book series, the Baudelaire children are quite unlucky. After losing their parents in a fire, the orphans are shuffled from home to home trying to avoid the evil Count Olaf who wants to steal their enormous fortune.

This series is quirky. VERY quirky. But the Baudelaire children have great character and integrity even when faced with well, a series of unfortunate events. The Netflix TV show is loyal to the book series.

17. Projekt 1065 by Alan Gratz

13-year-old Michael is undercover in the Hitler Youth for the secret plans of projekt 1065. This story is unrealistic but action-packed and obviously meant to appeal to middle school boys especially. I love Alan Gratz’s books and this one especially has excellent thought-provoking points of sacrifice and integrity. Grab the novel guide here.

18. The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

12-year-old Deza Malone has a great family and is the smartest girl in her class. Her life is going well until the Depression drives her father away in search of work. After not hearing from him for several weeks, Deza, her mother, and her brother set out on a journey to find him. This novel tackles tough subjects like prejudice, racism, and poverty well and I’d highly recommend it for grades 5+. Grab the novel guide here.

19. Island on Bird Street by Uri Orlev

During World War II, an eleven-year-old Jewish boy is left alone in the Warsaw Ghetto, waiting for his father’s return. There are several lessons of courage and resourcefulness during a difficult time. The movie is rated PG-13 and is Dove family approved. (It’s one of the mildest Holocaust movies I’ve seen and is recommended for ages 12+.) 

20. The Giver by Lois Lowry

Twelve-year-old Jonas lives in a perfect world of sameness. There is no pain, no differences, no suffering, but also no music, color, joy, or love. When Jonas is selected as the role of the Receiver of Memory, he begins to learn the dark secrets of his community.

The Giver tackles some tough subjects and leaves the reader with plenty to think about. It includes themes of curiosity, bravery, unselfishness, compassion, and integrity.

21. Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz

In this true story, we follow along the journey of a teenager who survives ten different concentration camps and two death marches. It’s a gripping, amazing story that will leave your heart aching during several parts. Jack had a sense of humanity that I found incredible, which really sets this apart from other Holocaust stories. There are themes of humanity, gratitude, perseverance, courage, integrity, and so much more.

22. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhai Lai

After the fall of Saigon, Ha and her family must flee. Their new lives are waiting for them in America, but leaving home and reaching new land is yet another challenge. Follow along as Thanhhai weaves her personal experiences into Ha’s story in this story told in free-verse poetry.

23. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

When Mary is sent to live at her uncle’s home after becoming an orphan, she finds the mansion he lives in to be just as odd and mysterious as her uncle. One day, she finds a door that leads to a secret garden, but is unable to enter it. She sets off to find a way in, with her mind set on bringing the garden back to life. 

24. Loser by Jerry Spinelli

Zinkoff is different, but he doesn’t always realize it. Many of the other kids think his differences are undesirable, but after a winter night and unexpected events, Zinkoff proves that his differences are valuable. 

25. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

A mouse. A princess. Soup. Thread. This is a beautifully woven tale about a brave little mouse where the characters’ lives intersect masterfully. This was one of my favorites in elementary school.

26. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier

Peter Nimble is a blind 10 year-old orphan who happens to be the greatest thief who ever lived. One day, he steals a bag with pairs of magical eyes inside that transport him to different worlds. This is one of the most well-written, unforgettable, and creative stories I’ve read. It masterfully weaves in themes of ingenuity, friendship, and courage. 

27. The Riverboat Adventures Series by Lois Walfrid Johnson

Libby Norstad is a spoiled 12-year-old girl growing up with her wealthy aunt. However, her father, who is the captain of the boat Christina, wants to spend more time with her. Libby soon runs into the mysterious cabin boy Caleb, and the two soon get off on the wrong foot. She wants to get the better of him, but her search leads her tangled in the Underground Railroad and helping a young fugitive and his family escape.

28. Esperanza Rising by Pam Ryan

Esperanza thought she’d always live a privileged life on her family’s ranch in Mexico. She’d always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home filled with servants, and Mama, Papa, and Abuelita to care for her. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California and settle in a Mexican farm labor camp. Esperanza isn’t ready for the hard work, financial struggles brought on by the Great Depression, or lack of acceptance she now faces. 


29. Child of the Dream by Sharon Robinson

Sharon writes about her experiences during the 1960s as segregation began and racial tension increased. Read as she describes what it was like to be African-American in her neighborhood and to see all she did throughout this historical period. 

30. Gifted Hands: YA Edition by Ben Carson

Ben Carson, a world-renowned neurosurgeon, has saved thousands of lives and impacted our society in so many different ways. He was taught, from a young age, to believe in himself, to never give up. Read along as his story is told in a way that the lesson of perseverance is clear to any young reader.

31. The Boys on the Boat (Young Readers Adaption) by Daniel James Brown

Nine ordinary working-class boys show what true determination means when they defeat one of the most elite team of rowers in the 1936 Olympics. This tale is both inspirational and historical as the men went on to challenge the German boat rowing for Adolf Hitler at one point. 

32. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline shares her own experience as an African American growing up in the 1960s in this collection of powerful poems. Her perspective on the Civil Rights movement and the way even children were affected by the remnants of Jim Crow throughout this work is something everyone should read. 

33. Soul Surfer by Bethany Hamilton

When she was just a young teenager, surfer Bethany Hamilton was attacked by a shark. The shark bit her entire left arm off, but that didn’t stop Bethany from pursuing her love and passion for surfing. This story of perseverance and determination is truly inspiring. 

34. I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

After standing up for the right to be educated, Malala Yousafzai was shot point-blank and not expected to survive. Once she did, she became an international symbol of peace for all those standing up for what they believe in. Her story is sure to touch those who dive into it and provide space to think about your own beliefs. 

35. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

When William’s small village in Malawi was struck by an awful drought, his family was affected firsthand, losing all their crops. As he reads through science books, William discovers his own solution to his people’s problem, going on to construct a windmill all on his own. This memoir shows how true care and determination can become a powerful combination, especially in moments of desperation.

36. The Sound of Silence by Myron Uhlberg

Myron Uhlberg grew up hearing to two deaf parents throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Growing up, Myron had to balance being hearing in a silent home and taking on the role of translator for his parents. When his brother was diagnosed with epilepsy, he found himself acting as his brother’s caretaker.

This book was fascinating on so many levels and offers a great perspective on dealing with difficult situations.

37. Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges

In 1960, Ruby Bridges was one of the four African American first graders selected to integrate into previously all-white schools. Out of the four, Ruby was the only one sent on her own. The movie Ruby Bridges can be watched on Disney Plus – Ruby’s story is filled with courage, hope, and forgiveness in the midst of a hateful time. Grab the novel guide here.

38. Unbroken: Young Adult Edition by Laura Hillenbrand

Louie Zamperini began his life as a juvenile delinquent. With the help of his brother, he became a runner and soon found himself in the 1936 Nazi Olympics. When World War II breaks out, he survives on a raft for almost 50 days before he is captured as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. It is an incredible story of survival, resilience, redemption, and forgiveness.

39. Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland

As the first African-American principal dancer in an American Ballet, Misty Copeland broke down many barriers, but with all sorts of obstacles and hardships along the way. In this middle school adaptation of her memoir, determination takes center stage and serves as an influence to many.

40. Hidden Figures: The Young Readers’ Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is the story of the four African-American female mathematicians at NASA who contributed to some of the greatest moments in NASA history. Their perseverance, courage, and grit offer lessons for everyone. This young readers’ edition brings their lives to the reader’s attention in a captivating way. 

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