You asked for it, so here it is — a list of wholesome middle grade books for boys ages 9 – 12 with main characters of character and substance. There’s a lot of subjectivity in a list like this. So, my criteria (besides excellent writing) are the following:
- books with main characters you’d want your kids to be friends with
- books with main characters who are kind, helpful, and/or determined
- books with characters who are respectful towards adults and siblings
- no romance
- no swearing
Don’t forget that there are so many amazing books with characters who start out troubled yet find their inner peace through life’s struggles. Witnessing this arc of growth is life-changing as a reader. People grow in ways we can always predict. Books like Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen, The Seventh Most Important Thing: One Kid. One Crime. One Chance to Make Things Right. by Shelley Pearsall, and Ghost by Jason Reynolds come to mind.
But back to this list … the books below can appeal to both boys and girls. You’ll know your own child at what appeals to them. However, I’ve made a separate list specifically for girls here. If you want wholesome easy chapter books with no potty humor or sass, I have a list here.
Wholesome Middle Grade Books for Boys
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is narrated by a gorilla named Ivan. His true story will immediately grab your heart. Ivan is kept in a cage in a run-down mall for 27 years without seeing another gorilla, only the stray dog, Bob, who sleeps with him, Stella the Elephant, and Ruby, a newly purchased baby elephant. Before she dies, Stella begs Ivan to find Ruby a home with other elephants. Ivan reluctantly agrees, but it won’t be easy…
Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant is a historical fiction warm-hearted adventure with brave kids, dogs, and a happy ending. The war has made Ben an orphan –again. All that he has left are his dog and his dad’s boat, the Sparrowhawk. When a policeman gets suspicious of Ben’s living situation, he and his new friend set off on the boat to France to find Ben’s missing older brother. The boat isn’t meant for a channel crossing, but the two kids are determined to make it work…but it won’t be easy. Nor will it be easy to find Ben’s missing brother in a country decimated by war.
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate starts when Jackson’s family is about to lose their apartment. Although Jackson’s parents don’t tell him this, he knows the signs because it’s not the first time. He knows why they’re having a yard sale. He knows it’s not his dad’s fault for having MS, but he’s mad and worried and alone. Then, Crenshaw shows up and pushes Jackson to talk to his parents. Who is Crenshaw? He’s Jackson’s large, imaginary cat friend from when he was little returned to help Jackson in his time of need. I felt like it was a God metaphor. I wonder what you’ll think?
Framed! A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery by James Ponti is captivating from the first page, 12- year old Florian Bates uses his brilliant, observing brain to implement T.O.A.S.T. (the Theory of All Small Things) to notice things that others have missed. Including the FBI when there’s an art heist at the museum where his mother works at. The FBI hires him to help unravel a mysterious art heist, which he does with the help of his best friend, Margaret. Fast-paced and interesting.
If you like sweet stories of friendship, you won’t want to miss Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake. Prickly Badger’s life and rock studies are the most (and only) important things in his life. Unexpectedly, he’s rudely interrupted by a new roommate, the helpful, philosophical, and curious chicken-loving Skunk. Badger wants Skunk to leave, but he’s surprised when he enjoys Sunk’s cooking and company. Then after a spray incident and cruel comments he regrets, Badger fixes his mistake the two friends find that they’re better off together.
Holes by Louis Sachar is about Stanley’s life of bad luck. He’s sent to a youth detention camp in the desert where he has to dig holes all day long. All because of his no-good, pig-stealing great-great-grandfather. You’ll love the crazy adventures as Stanley and his new friend figure out what’s happening at this supposed detention camp and escape with only onions to eat. And yes, even that has to do with Stanley’s pig-stealing grandfather. This was one of my students’ favorite books (mine, too)!
Cress Watercress by Gregory Maguire, illustrated by David Litchfield, is a stunningly beautiful story about family, community, grief, and stories. Cress and her family leave their cozy burrow after the death of her father. They move to the Broken Arms oak tree ruled by a cranky Owl with a noisy neighbor squirrel family. Cress helps her mom collect moths to pay their rent, leaving her mom time to work and to help gather ingredients for her sickly brother’s special tea. In a beautiful character arc, Cress navigates her new environment, the natural world, and the stories around her, all of which help her understand her inner world, especially how grief waxes and wanes like the moon’s cycles. Filled with immensely lovable characters, a gentle storyline of adventure and discovery, and lavish illustrations, I adore this book.
The Green Ember by S.D. Smith is an excellent fantasy series with compelling characters and an exciting plot. I totally love this series about siblings (rabbits) who are on the run from an evil that destroyed their home. They’ll meet new friends with whom they will find a safe home and new life. Until they’re betrayed and the enemy finds them again. If you like books with friendship, loyalty, adventure, and danger, this series is perfect for you.
Refugee by Alan Gratz follows three distinct, alternating stories to experience being displaced from your country, on the run, and in danger. First is a young Jewish boy who escapes from Nazi Germany on a ship to Cuba, only to be turned away from the Cuban port and sent back to Europe. Next is a Cuban girl in the 1990s who, with her family and neighbors, flees in a homemade raft to the United States at great peril. Finally, is a Syrian boy whose home is bombed in a country at war. He and his family travel a great distance to find a country that will allow them shelter. Gatz skillfully connects all three stories with a satisfying, realistic conclusion.
You’ll fall in love with this quirky, close-knit family in The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser. The Vanderbeekers’ landlord wants them out by the end of December, but the Vanderbeeker kids are determined to change his mind, even though he hates noise, kids, and their family. But it’s almost Christmas and their efforts are only making things worse. What will they do? Charming and heart-warming.
In Beneath the Swirling Sky (The Restorationists) by Carolyn Leiloglou, 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.
Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood is a well-written historical fiction middle grade book based on a true story. Thinking Hitler will invade England next, Ken’s family sends him to safety in Canada. But Ken’s ship doesn’t make it. It’s torpedoed and sunk only days into the journey. Written in verse, this is a moving account of bravery and survival as Ken, several other kids, a priest, the ship’s only woman, and members of the crew spend weeks adrift at sea in an ill-stocked lifeboat. You’ll read about their swollen feet, dehydration, and starvation as well as the stories and songs that helped keep the kids distracted and hopeful. Ultimately, you’ll be left with a sense of amazement at the resiliency of the human spirit.
Wonder by R. J. Palacio is both “a meditation on kindness” and not judging people by how they look on the outside. “I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks.” Wonder helps us see compassion, empathy, and acceptance from a variety of character’s points of view. Auggie, a boy with a facial difference, starts public school for the first time in 5th grade. His experience, though often difficult, shows his inner strength. And that kindness wins over bullying!
When his grandfather’s butler arrives to help out Carter’s family in Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt, Butler immediately becomes a big asset to the family. Butler is a very proper man with a passion for the game of Cricket. He gives Carter purpose, structure, and belonging. “Make good decisions and remember who you are,” he often reminds Carter and Carter’s sisters. This wisdom resonates as Carter tries to understand why his dad abandoned their family. Butler helps Carter see that his dad’s actions are his dad’s responsibility, not Carter’s. Through this time of introspection, Butler teaches Carter the game of cricket, even starting a cricket team at Carter’s school, transforming not just Carter’s life but the school community’s as well.
Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis is an absolutely engaging fantasy adventure series that will hook your kids on books. Start with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, a story about four siblings who enter a magical world where they must help defeat the evil queen.
Explorer Academy: The Nebula Secret by Trudi Trueit is National Geographic’s first fictional book series with full-color illustrations that hits the spot with an exciting mix of science, technology, adventure, and mystery. Newly accepted into the prestigious Explorer Academy for Science and Exploration, Cruz realizes that someone is trying to kill him, someone who doesn’t want him to find out about his mother’s mysterious research and untimely death. There’s tons of cool tech, amazing friendships, plot twists, plus an intriguing premise!
Edge of Extinction The Ark Plan by Laura Martin is an awesome story about a dangerous world where cloned dinosaurs have taken over. Now Sky and her fellow humans live below ground in safety with Noah as their supreme ruler. Sky discovers that her missing (maybe traitor?) father left her a secret note with cryptic instructions on how to be found. She decides to leave the underground city in order to find her dad. Barely outside a day, she and her friend Shawn are rescued from hungry dinosaurs by a boy who lives in a treetop enclave. When Noah’s soldiers attack his enclave, Sky realizes that everything she believes about Noah is wrong.
In Once In a Blue Moon by Sharon G. Flake, James Henry hasn’t left the house in months. His twin sister Hattie encourages him to start small so they can be ready for their upcoming blue moon 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 LOVE The Quest for the Truth series by Brock Eastman, a fast-paced and engaging Christian sci-fi series set in an intriguing, futuristic world. Four siblings’ archeologist parents are kidnapped by forces trying to find artifacts that will lead them to eternal life. The kids pursue both the artifacts and their missing parents across different planets where they discover a hidden civilization of blue-colored people, escape a dangerous laboratory with predatory creatures including dinosaurs, learn a friend is really a foe, and get captured by pirates.
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor 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 where they live in a prison 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 the prison. Not only that, the DA tries to stall Perry’s mother’s parole hearing. Perry discovers the stories behind the inmates’ lives, hoping that they’ll be helpful in reuniting him with his mother.
See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng is luminous and heartfelt about 11-year-old Alex Petroski, whose 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. Readers will notice Alex is super naive yet so sweet; this is a good one to read in a book club or with a parent because there’s so much to discuss.
I adore Things in the Basement by Ben Hatke — it’s a beautifully drawn graphic novel and 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 which 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 is about 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.
The Supervillain’s Guide to Being a Fat Kid by Matt Wallace is an outstanding, surprisingly philosophical, poignant story about bullies, growing in confidence, and the complexities of human beings set in a world with superheroes and supervillains. Matt doesn’t think he can survive three more years of middle school bullying, so he writes supervillain Master Plan who is also a “gentleman of size” to ask for his help. Surprisingly, Master Plan emails back with helpful advice. What will Max do to cause his bully’s downfall — and is Master Plan actually looking out for Max or for himself? This is a VERY thought-provoking, warm-hearted story that will appeal to all readers.
Not an Easy Win by Chrystal B. Giles draws you into Lawrence’s life 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. 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. 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.
Eddie Red Undercover Mystery in Mayan Mexico by Marcia Wells
Eddie, his best friend Jonah, and his parents are on vacation in Mexico. When Eddie’s dad becomes the primary suspect in a theft of a stolen Mayan mask, so Eddie and Jonah decide to solve the mystery themselves. Only they don’t speak Spanish all that well, and there’s more to this mystery than just a stolen mask. You’ll love the Spanish words throughout, the well-paced action, and the characters.
In the dystopian world of The Fog Diver by Joel Ross, the world is covered by a deadly “fog” that kills humans, so now people live only on the highest mountain peaks. Our heroes, a band of scavenging orphans, are trying to find something in the world below that they can sell in order to travel to another city where they can treat the cloud sickness of their beloved mother figure. I loved the suspense, the fascinating world, the characters, and the happily ever after. I couldn’t tell from the ending if there would be more books because, thankfully, there was no cliffhanger.
In Legend of the Dream Giants by Dustin Hansen, gorgeous, sensory writing fills the pages of this beautifully crafted story about a young, naive giant named Berg who is searching for his place in the world. He doesn’t want to be like the monstrous Ünhold giant from the human stories so he trades pretty rocks for the food he steals, thinking that it a fair trade proving he’s not a monster. The mayor convinces Berg to become a prisoner with sly manipulations that Berg doesn’t understand. Berg’s friend Anya tries to help Berg see the truth, and Ünhold tries to help Berg, too, but Berg believes the mayor’s lies until the truth becomes tragically apparent. This is a story about trust, hope, belonging, friendship, and truth.
Incredible writing about one boy’s fight to stay in a prestigious private school, Omar Rising by Aisha Saeed is a superb middle grade book of determination, resiliency, and community set in Pakistan. Omar gets a scholarship to attend a prestigious Pakistani boarding school, a step toward fulfilling his dream of becoming an astronomer and buying his mom a house. But, his hopes are dashed when he’s told that scholarship students must work, must get A+ grades, and can’t do sports or clubs. Despite his efforts, his grades aren’t enough, and he gets kicked out. But that’s not the end of the story. He shares his story with his classmates, and he gets support from them and the headmaster — which helps him get readmitted.
In the graphic novel, Your Pal Fred by Michael Rex, Fred is a former kids’ toy robot who brings kindness (and STICKERS!) to a war-filled dystopian world– and you will love his genuine good nature and hopeful attitude amid war, injustice, and chaos. When Fred discovers that two warlords are capturing innocent people to fight as soldiers for them, Fred knows what he has to do–ask the two bad guys to try peace. He irritates and surprises everyone he meets with his cheerfulness and positive attitude, even when he’s caught and “tortured” with drumming, which, of course, he loves. Will Fred succeed in his seemingly impossible mission?
Always Clementine by Carlie Sorosiak is a heartfelt story of friendship, adventure, and care for animals that will appeal to many ages and interests. Our narrator, Clementine, is a genius lab rat who is freed by a lab tech and hidden in the mailbox of a former chess champion. Clementine narrates everything that happens in letters to her friend Rosie, a chimpanzee who is still trapped in the lab. She’s found by the chess champion’s grandson, and he and his grandfather vow to keep her safe, which is tricky because the lab is hunting her down.
Farther Than the Moon by Lindsay Lackey is middle-grade gem is filled with wisdom, heartfelt writing, and relatable and interesting characters. 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.
In How to Stay Invisible by Maggie C. Rudd, Raymond’s neglectful parents abandon him completely, so he takes his dog Rosie and camps 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. The truth comes out when another boy discovers his campsite, and a snake bite almost kills him. I loved this powerful story of grit, survival, and longing for family.
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