What is the hero’s journey? It’s a story about an imperfect hero who goes on an adventure where he or she learns lessons through mistakes and triumphs, wins some sort of victory, and returns home a different person. Joseph Campbell famously wrote more about this concept in his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
A familiar middle grade example of this narrative archetype is the story of Harry Potter. But guess what? Many other books share the hero’s journey structure.
There are typically 12 or 17 steps in the hero’s journey, depending on who you read. Campbell said 17. Basically the steps consist of three main structures: the hero’s departure, an initiation, and the hero’s return.
Within these three general steps are more stages in the journey such as
an unusual birth or early childhood
the call to adventure
the refusal of the call
a mentor figure who gives aid
challenges or trials
a special weapon
facing doubts, fears, temptations
transformation / the fulfillment of the call
mastering two worlds.
Read more about the Hero’s Journey story on Masterclass.com.
In this blog post, get more book examples of the hero’s journey in children’s literature, specifically middle grade fiction for ages 8 – 12. These fiction books can be used to analyze the hero’s journey text structure in elementary and middle school English and homeschool classes.
I’m including realistic fiction books that might not be typical hero’s journey chapter books but can also be viewed through the lens of this trope with journeys that might be internal or otherwise.
Compelling Hero’s Journey Chapter Books for Ages 8 – 12
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
Edward is a china rabbit with a fancy wardrobe who was adored by the girl who owned him..until he gets lost. He experiences loss many times over and can hardly stand the pain. Yet a wise doll encourages Edward to open his heart to love again — and that’s when he finds a miracle and love.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
Four siblings enter a magical world that is under the rule of the oppressive White Witch. Can they help Aslan take Narnia back for good even with the betrayal of Edmund? This wonderful fantasy shows kids who make a big difference.
Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
If your child hasn’t learned about Nordic mythology, this will be a great intro! To end the long winter, Odd must journey to find Asgard, a city under siege from the Frost Giants. It’s a wonderful, nail-biting adventure.
Wink by Rob Harrell
A funny, standout cancer story based on the author’s own life… When Ross is diagnosed with a rare kind of tumor, he immediately starts radiation treatment. A goofy, kind-hearted radiation tech gets Ross interested in alternative punk music and in order to impress a girl, Ross asks the tech for guitar lessons. Turns out, the guitar and his new music, help Ross both express his frustrations and find his joy, leading to some surprising results — like a new, unexpected friend.
*contains a few bad words
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
Minli’s grown up with her father’s folktales. Inspired by these and hoping to change their poverty-stricken lifestyle, she leaves her home to find the Old Man on the Moon. She’s soon joined by a flightless red dragon. As they travel, Minli meets both people and mythical creatures who share their stories. On her hero’s journey, she’ll learn more about herself, the meaning of family, friendship, and what makes a person truly wealthy.
The Green Ember by S.D. Smith
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly
This is the story of three children in medieval France that tackles big issues such as faith, God, prejudice, friendship, and family. The writing, the story, the characters, and the themes (including the hero’s journey) all pack a big punch adding up to a compelling novel that will make you think deeply and leave you changed. (Sensitive readers: there are a few swear words and two scenes with a lot of blood.)
Dragon Slippers trilogy by Jessica Day George
We can’t recommend these books enough! Young and brave Creel wants nothing more than to own her own seamstress shop. In her pursuit of this dream, she befriends a special dragon who, along with magical dragon slippers, changes her life.
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
Hands-down this is one of the best life-changing books you’ll ever read. Narrated by Melody, we learn what it’s like to be trapped in a body with cerebral palsy that doesn’t allow her to speak or take care of herself. No one except her parents thinks that she’s smart. Until one day. She gets a chance to prove it using new technology. But that doesn’t solve all her problems. Her story is heartbreaking, real, and inspiring.
Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola, illustrated by Emily Carroll
Courageous and adventurous Masha knows Baba Yaga from her grandmother’s stories. After her grandmother dies, and her father remarries, Masha decides to become Baba Yaga’s assistant. To pass Baba Yaga’s tests, Masha uses her wits and the stories from her grandmother. She thinks she will fail when she rescues three children from Baba Yaga’s cage but she passes. To sum up, excellent storytelling and illustrations will enthrall readers in this not-your-average fairy tale story.
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor
This book hooked me from the first page, taking me on a coming of age story that was both heartbreaking and filled with hope. Perry is well-loved by his mother and her friends. . . in prison. That’s where Perry has lived since he was born eleven years ago. But in an unexpected and unpleasant turn of events, his best friend’s stepfather, the new District Attorney, forces Perry to leave his prison home. Perry decides to research the inmates’ life stories, hoping that somehow they’ll be helpful in reuniting him with his mother.
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
Roz is a robot alone on an island with only animals. To survive, she figures out how to live in the wild despite the animals seeing her as a monster but that changes when Roz adopts a gosling and makes a nest. It’s a meaningful hero’s journey story of family, love, and community that consistently garners love from readers.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
A Wrinkle in Time is a remarkable, well-written adventure in space that deals with the overarching theme of good vs. evil. Meg, her brother, Charles Wallace, and her friend, Calvin, set off to find her missing scientist father who disappeared while researching tesseracts. They are helped by three wise creatures, tempted by evil, and eventually, find that good does triumph over evil.
Timeless Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic by Armand Baltazar
Diego lives in New Chicago post-Time Collision with three groups, the Steam Timers, the Mid Timers, the Elders, and other groups, who coexist peacefully after a terrible world war. But it’s a fragile peace. When Diego’s dad, the leading engineer for the territories, and his colleague are kidnapped by a splinter group, Diego and his friends set out on a rescue mission where they’re immediately captured by pirates. The action is non-stop, the plot is skillfully crafted, and the characters, both boys and girls, are interesting.
Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo
Granny drags Louisiana out of bed in the middle of the night, insisting that they leave their home to confront the family curse. Not only does Louisiana not want to leave her friends and home, things get even worse when Granny abandons Louisiana at a motel along the way. Forced to fend for herself, Louisiana figures out how to survive miles from home while worrying that the family curse has destined her for an unhappy life. Don’t miss this enthralling, emotionally resonant hero’s journey.
The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer
Fairy tales come alive when Alex and Conner (brother and sister) find themselves in the fairy tale book given to them by their grandmother. Their only way home is to find the ingredients for a Wishing Spell. Finding them will be dangerous, mysterious, and life-changing. Although it’s not mythological, it’s a must-read adventure series of two heroes that will keep readers reading for many months!
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Set in a dystopian society, Jonas is assigned his job as “Receiver of Memory” and he learns just how much his hidden and controlled. Ultimately, he’ll have to decide just what he’ll do with this horrifying information. Not only is this a thought-provoking story, but it will also introduce your readers to dystopian fiction.
Nightmares! by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller, illustrated by Karl Kwasny
After his mom dies, Charlie moves to a purple mansion with a portal to the world of nightmares. Charlie, his little brother, and his friends must learn to face their fears in order for the nightmare world not to have access to the real world.
The Iron Trial (Magisterium) by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Even though Callum tries to fail the entrance trials, he is admitted the school his dad says is evil. But the Magisterium school is not as bad as he expects. Call learns about his elemental powers, he forges bonds of friendship with his teammates and rescues a wolf puppy who is infused with the evil magic of Chaos.
All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson
Growing up, Imogene (aka. Impy) always loved her family’s part in the Renaissance Faire . . . that is, until middle school. Even though she gets her dream to work in the faire as a squire, she also just wants to be like the other girls at her school, too. Her journey is painful and honest as she figures out who she wants to be. It’s narrated as a hero’s journey which, with the faire background and middle school drama, feels perfect. Beyond being a terrific coming of age story, I’m sure this book will interest tween readers in Renaissance festivals themselves.
See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng
Luminous and heartfelt, 11-year-old Alex Petroski’s dream is to launch a rocket into space with his iPod of recordings about life on earth. The story is a transcription of what he records on the iPod — his solo journey to the rocket convention, the interesting people he befriends on the way and there, his trip Las Vegas to find information about his deceased father, and his unique, innocent perspective that tries to make sense of the world.
Podkin One-Ear The Legend Begins by Kieran Larwood
Alternating between a bard’s present moment stories and the story of Podkin, we learn about young Podkin who was a lazy, spoiled prince. When the cruel Gorm who are metal dark magic rabbits arrive at his family’s burrow to kill everyone inside, Podkin escapes with his much braver sister and little brother. No longer able to be spoiled and lazy, Podkin tries his best to be brave and pull his weight, often failing miserably but occasionally succeeding, too. They’re captured more than once and escape both times, once with the loss of his ear. An excellent hero’s journey adventure.
The Seven Tales of Trinket by Shelley Moore Thomas
When her mother dies, Trinket takes a map her missing father left behind and sets off to find him. Her friend, Thomas the Pig Boy, travels with her. Each place on the map gives Trinket a new story to tell and she imagines she could learn to be a storyteller just like her father. Amazing adventures ensue but when Trinket learns the fate of her father in the seventh story, she must make a very hard decision.
Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi
This popular graphic novel series follow two siblings trying to save their mom in an underground world of elves, demons, robots, and talking animals.
Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly
Dog Driven by Terry Lynn Johnson
A story about finding your strength even if it looks like a weakness…McKenna enters a long dog sled race in order to bring awareness to her sister’s degenerative eye disease. Which McKenna can tell she has, too. Her eyesight is worse and worse. She just doesn’t want to tell her parents and be treated differently. During the race, she relies on her lead dog to guide the sled. Another racer, a boy with a blind dog, shows her that his dog is a powerful leader. He quickly notices that’s McKenna can’t see either. The challenges of the race and her new friendship help McKenna realize that just like Zesty the blind dog, she is not disabled and that her differences make her better.
Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen
Angry at the world, 15-year old Cole beats a classmate into a coma and brain damage. To avoid the jail time, Cole agrees to spend a year by himself on an island in Alaska, thinking he’ll escape as soon as possible in a form of Native American justice. But after Cole almost dies, he decides to give the year long process a chance. Throughout the experience, you’ll feel Cole’s pain and anger deeply which makes his healing and transformation that much more intense and powerful. Note: Native American culture is inaccurately portrayed in this story.
The Endling: The Last by Katherine Applegate
The Ruins of Gorlan: Ranger’s Apprentice by John A. Flanagan
Will is apprenticed to become a Ranger, a job he’s unsure about. But as he develops a relationship with his master and learns what being a Ranger is all about (spying for the kingdom,) he comes to embrace his new life. But when an old enemy of the kingdom sends out dangerous beasts to attack Will’s master, Will is instrumental in getting help and killing the creatures. Action, fantasy, adventure, friendship, excellent writing — this book has it all! It’s a must-read that will mesmerize your readers, especially boys who love epic fantasy hero’s journey adventures.
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The best selling children’s book of all time, this is a MUST READ for so many reasons: the brilliant storytelling, a complex and entertaining plot, relatable characters, rich language, essential life lessons about friendship and bravery, and more.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
Greek gods still exist and so do their kids, half-bloods, who have incredible abilities. Unfortunately for these kids, monsters are out to kill them. Percy goes to Camp Half-Blood where he is trained to protect himself… that is until he’s sent on a dangerous quest. Betrayal, adventure, plot twists, and incredible mythological world building make these books kids can’t put down.
House Arrest by K.A. Holt
A tender, heartwarming story that shows a brave boy who feels anger, fear, worry, and love over his challenging situation. Timothy is under house arrest for the next year, living with a brother who needs constant medical care, and feeling so much pain over his big life changes. Part of his year-long punishment is to meet with a probation officer, meet with a therapist, and write in a journal which is the book we’re reading. When his little brother gets assigned an abusive new nurse, Timothy feels like even if he gets thrown in juvie, he must do something drastic to help his brother.
Santiago’s Road Home by Alexandra Diaz
Charlie Hernandez and the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo
The Seventh Most Important Thing: One Kid. One Crime. One Chance to Make Things Right. by Shelley Pearsall
Angry with grief, Arthur throws a brick at Junk Man’s head. The judge sentences Arthur to work for the Junk Man who asks Arthur to collect the items on the list of the Seven Most Important Things. Transformed by the experience, Arthur becomes an advocate for the Junk Man’s art. This is fictional but is inspired by the true story of American folk artist James Hampton whose work is in the Smithsonian. This story resonates emotionally and would make for a great bedtime or class read aloud.
Thrones and Bones: Frostborn by Lou Anders
A boy named Karn who is only good at playing a Norse board game and a girl named Thianna who is a half-human, half-giantess unexpectedly partner with each other in order to survive deadly soldiers, undead warriors, trolls, and a dragon.
Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
Beast Rider by Tony Johnston and Maria Elena Fontanot de Rhoads
Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi
Magic and color are closely linked in Alice’s world even though she has no color in her skin or hair. And her father has been missing for years making her even sadder. She travels with a boy named Oliver to a different magical land in order to find and rescue her Father. But the rules are wildly different and the inhabitants eat people for their magic. Even though Oliver and Alice start their quest at odds, the many challenges join them in a solid friendship. Furthermore is a uniquely creative plot filled with artfully written description.