You asked for it. Here it is — a wholesome middle grade chapter book list for boys ages 9 – 12 with nice (not rude) main characters. There’s a lot of subjectivity in a list like this. So my criteria (besides excellent writing) is 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
That being said, I did not reread every book I put on this list. IF I got a book wrong, please let me know! Or, if you have a good addition, let me know that as well, please.
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 Chapter Books for Boys
Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant
If you want a new favorite warm-hearted adventure with brave kids, dogs, and a happy ending, you don’t want to miss this captivating and beautiful story. 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 and his new friend, Lotti’s abusive guardians try to kill her rescue dog, the two friends set off on the boat for 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.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
Narrated by a gorilla named Ivan, this 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…
Framed! A T.O.A.S.T. Mystery by James Ponti
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 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.
One-Third Nerd by Gennifer Choldenko, illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans
REALISTIC / NEURODIVERSITY
I love this book & these three unique, kind siblings. Liam’s middle sister, Dakota is a 100% science nerd and has all sorts of schemes which are usually disastrous. Liam’s littlest sister, Izzy, has Down’s Syndrome and is loved by everyone. Liam himself is a responsible, caring big brother in fifth grade. His mom and dad have recently divorced which has been hard. To make matters worse, their grumpy landlord has given them an ultimatum — they’ll have to give away their German Shepherd dog Cupcake unless her peeing problem gets solved. But they don’t have the money for the expensive vet bill. Izzy finally figures out how to solve the Cupcake peeing problem!! Choldenko crafts a beautiful, multi-layered, warm-hearted story that celebrates family, unique personalities as well the richness in having a dog. If you like the Penderwicks or the VanderBeekers, you will love this book, too.
Sauerkraut by Kelly Jones
When HD discovers his German great, great, grandma’s ghost in the basement of his uncle’s house, he wants to help his grandma achieve her goals. (Although seeing a ghost is really weird and it takes him some time to convince his best friend, Eli, that he’s not making it up.) It turns out that his grandma is haunting her pickling crock with one deepest desire –to have her sauerkraut recipe win the coveted Pickle Prize. HD balances helping his grandma with his other summer goals of taking care of his elderly neighbor’s goats, visiting his neighbor at his new home, and building his own computer from scratch. Quirky and wonderful, this is a feel-good, paranormal story with a wonderful sense of community and kindness as well as a fantastic main character who you’d want as your friend.
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
REALISTIC / POVERTY
After having lost their home and living in their van for 3 months, the family is now about to lose their apartment. Although Jackson’s parents don’t tell him this, he knows the signs. 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. It isn’t until Crenshaw shows up and pushes Jackson to speak the truth to his parents that Jackson learns that he’s not facing this alone. Oh, and who is Crenshaw? He’s Jackson’s large, imaginary cat friend from when he was little now returned to help Jackson in his time of need. I felt like it was a God metaphor. I wonder what you’ll think?
Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake
If you like sweet stories of friendship, you won’t want to miss this new story. Prickly Badger’s life and rock studies are the most (and only) important thing 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
Poor Stanley. He’s got the worst luck of anyone — and is now 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. This was one of my students’ favorite books (mine, too)! 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. You’ll love it.
I Survived by Lauren Tarshis
HISTORICAL FICTION / ADVENTURE (series)
Excellent, fast-paced adventures set during significant historical events, these are great for reluctant readers. Your kids will zip through these fascinating adventures. The books always are about a kid trying to survive the historically important, life-changing event.
Cress Watercress by Gregory Maguire, illustrated by David Litchfield
This 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 everything about this book.
Hero Rescue Mission by Jennifer Li Shotz
In this Hero story, Ben’s dad is captured by escaped convicts. Ben and Hero (the dog) set off to find Ben’s dad. Ben’s already injured and Hero’s too emotional to track the scent so they’re going to need help if they’re going to find his dad. Action from the first page to the last. Kids who love adventure and animals will love this book and series.
The Green Ember by S.D. Smith
The writing is excellent, the characters are compelling, and the plotting is exceptional. I totally love this series about siblings (rabbits) 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.
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
This book 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 kindness wins over bullying!
Refugee by Alan Gratz
HISTORICAL / CURRENT EVENTS
Follow 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.
Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt
When his grandfather’s butler arrives to help out 6th grade Carter’s family, Butler immediately becomes a big asset to the family. Butler, a very proper man who has a passion for the game of Cricket, fills a void the family didn’t know they had. He gives Carter purpose, structure, 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. Along this journey, Carter learns to do just what the title commands — pay attention to his life and to who loves him.
Science Comics: Bats Learning to Fly by Falynn Koch
Factual information is embedded within this graphic novel story about a lost little bat who observes a tour group in the desert learning about bats from a tour guide. When the little bat gets hurt, he’s taken to a wild animal hospital where he meets other species of bats. At the hospital, the bats’ lively conversations help the little brown bat learn more about bats — what they eat, how they fly, different species, echolocation, and where they live. SO well done!
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser
REALISTIC (will be a series)
Like The Penderwicks, you’ll fall in love with this quirky, close-knit family. 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.
Lifeboat 12 by Susan Hood
HISTORICAL FICTION (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. Very well-written.
Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
I think you already know about these books but if you don’t, they’re absolutely engaging fantasy adventures that will hook your kids. 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
STEM ADVENTURE / MYSTERY
This 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 finding out about his mother’s mysterious research and untimely death. There’s tons of cool tech, amazing friendships, plot twists, plus an intriguing premise!
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
I’ve read this book so many times, I can’t count — many times with my classes as a read aloud — and every time it’s just as fantastic. (That doesn’t always happen with books.) A Wrinkle in Time is a remarkable, well-written adventure in space that deals with the overarching theme of good vs. evil. Meg and her brother, Charles Wallace, and friend, Calvin, set off to find her scientist father who disappeared while researching tesseracts.
Edge of Extinction The Ark Plan by Laura Martin
ADVENTURE / SCI-FI (series)
Action from the first page! This 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 his enclave is attacked by Noah’s soldiers looking for her, Sky realizes that everything she believed about Noah is wrong and is even more determined to find her father. LOVED it!
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 where they live… in a 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 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. This story will stay with you long after you read the last page.
The Quest for the Truth series by Brock Eastman
SCI-FI / CHRISTIAN (series)
Fast-paced and engaging, this story itself is set in intriguing, a 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.
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.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
SCI-FI/ ADVENTURE (series)
This is a must-read, excellent Newbery winning book about amazing lab rats with intelligence who escape from the lab and form their own community. This was always one of my fifth graders favorite read-alouds.
Saucy by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Marianna Raskin
Looking for a sweet story of animal rescue? Becca is a triplet who doesn’t feel special until she adopts a stray pig. Because he will grow to be 600 lbs, she can only keep him for a while before he’ll go to an animal rescue. Despite his destructive behavior, Becca falls head over heels in love with her crazy pig, Saucy. Unfortunately, he bites her mom and must leave early for his new home, a devastating event for the entire family including grandma. But, Saucy and her brothers find out about a pig factory with deplorable conditions. They rescue even more pigs which helps them with their sadness.
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 will be more books because thankfully there was no cliff hanger.
See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng
Luminous and heartfelt, 11-year-old Alex Petroski’s story will grab your heart and expand it. His 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.
The Ruins of Gorlan: Ranger’s Apprentice book 1 by John A. Flanagan
FANTASY / ADVENTURE (series)
We follow a boy named Will as he’s 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), Will comes to embrace his new life. 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 everything and it’s a favorite series for many boys! ** This book does have the word damn in it.
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