Some of my favorite times as a parent have been spent reading books to my children at bedtime. My oldest is starting middle school this year and even though I don’t read to her much anymore, I still lie in bed with her at night and we talk about her day. For some reason, I find out more about her day and what’s going on in her life during this time than any other conversation.  We’ll talk about friends, growing up, problems at school and pretty much anything else that’s on her mind. I treasure these times and I hope we do this until she leaves for college.

We also like to talk about books. I try to read some of the same books she does and we discuss them. Since she’s starting middle school this year I wanted to find some books that dealt with social issues. Books that may give her a different perspective on the world and enhance her critical thinking skills.

I had to opportunity to read all of these (plus a few more) and I think these are great books to teach and entertain.


Loser by Jerry Spinelli

You are going to love Donald Zinkoff. The kid loves life and has an enthusiasm for even the most mundane things. He stands up and salutes his teachers at school, he thinks being a mailman is the greatest job ever, and he wants to be best friends with a boy that makes earwax candles. It’s impossible not to like Donald Zinkoff when you’re reading this book. But he’s getting older, and kids are starting to notice that Zinkoff isn’t like everyone else. His writing is atrocious, he’s hopeless at sports, his grades are mediocre; but it’s his performance at field day that earns him the nickname “loser.” But it’s the way Zinkoff reacts that is so touching. He stays the same. He’s horrible at sports, but still tries with the same enthusiasm. Kids are unkind to him, but he’s still as personable and friendly as ever. Donald Zinkoff has a heart of gold and the coordination of toddler.

I like this book so much because Zinkoff does not allow others’ opinions to define him. He never changes. He stays the same sweet, funny and quirky kid throughout the book. I have a daughter that marches to the beat of her own sequined, showtune-singing drummer, so I hope this book resonates with her.


Parallel Journeys by Eleanor Ayer

These are the true stories of a high-ranking member of the Hitler Youth and Jewish mother that survived Auschwitz. It’s the same period of history told from two polar opposite perspectives. This book tells enough about the horrors of the Holocaust without terrifying a young reader. I’ve read several fiction and non-fiction books about this period in time and this is the first one I’ve read that had a perspective from a Nazi, and it was fascinating.

Alfons Heck rose to the highest ranks in the Hitler Youth in his early teen years. You will read about the propaganda machine of the Nazi regime and how they essentially brainwashed very young children into being Hitler fanatics. Children were required to join the Hitler Youth at 10. This is not to excuse any atrocities committed, but it does give a glimpse into one German child’s mind during World War II.

Another chapter tells of a Jewish butcher that is taken from his shop and thrown in a wagon bound for a death camp. The butcher’s wife pleads with her onlooking German neighbors to do something. The butcher’s wife has known these families for years, has lived beside them, and considered some friends. No one helps.

This is an opportunity to discuss: questioning authority, having a healthy skepticism of what you hear on the radio, see on television or read on the internet, and doing the right thing. Even if no one else is.


The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

This is a touching story of friendship, bravery, and courage that tells the story of Marlee Nisbett and her friendship with Liz. These two twelve-year-old girls form a fast friendship, but when it’s discovered that Liz is black and attending a white school, it looks like their friendship is over. However, the two girls courageously (and a bit naively) decide to continue their friendship in segregated Little Rock. Marlee begins the story too shy to speak, but with Liz’s encouragement, she slowly begins to find her voice. As the story progresses, Marlee gives her mother the courage to speak out against the injustices done in the name of segregation. The girls and their families face discrimination, death threats and violence.

This piece of historical fiction takes place the year after Little Rock’s Central High School was integrated, when all Little Rock high schools were shut down. There are many landmarks discussed in the book that your children will probably recognize. This is well-written.

Note: This story discusses some aspects of puberty. The n-word is also used in the book.




Wonder by RJ Palacio

I had high expectations for this book; it exceeded them. This is a story of kindness, friendship and acceptance that makes you see the world a little differently; even this forty-year-old mama. I expected the story about the trials of a young boy with severe facial abnormalities, but it’s so much more. I love that this book switches the first-person point of view from the main character, August Pullman, to that of his sister and some of their friends. The book offers insight into not only what it was like being August Pullman, but what it was like being friends with August Pullman.

All kids will go to school with an Auggie Pullman; there will always be someone that doesn’t fit in, that needs a little more kindness than necessary. As a mom, what I want for my children in school (besides a great education) is for them to show kindness to others, and for others to show kindness to them. It’s that simple. This book inspires.

Note: I watched the movie two days after finishing the book. The movie is fine, but it doesn’t compare to the book. If your kids have seen the movie and you don’t think they need to read the book, respectfully, I believe you’re mistaken.


Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine

This beautifully written piece of historical fiction takes place after the Cultural Revolution in China and during the last years of power of Chairman Mao, in the early 1970s. The book is based on the author’s experiences growing up in China and to be honest, I was not familiar with this period of history. This story is told from the point-of-view of a 10 year-old girl living with her upper class parents in China. Circumstances for her family deteriorate dramatically during the last years of Chairman Mao’s rule. This is a story of hardship, courage and endurance and can lead to powerful discussions.This book has information about the author and discussion questions at the back.

Note: Suicide is discussed in this book.

Blubber by Judy Blume

As a mom, this book was hard to read. It’s set in a fifth grade classroom where a group of students mercilessly torment and bully an overweight girl, Linda Fischer, whom they’ve nicknamed Blubber after she gave an oral report to the class about whales. The story is told from the point of view of fifth-grader Jill Brenner, but the leader of the clique is Wendy. The girls in the book are afraid to cross Wendy and so they follow along with whatever awful thing Wendy can think to do to Linda. Finally, Jill has had enough of Wendy’s control over their classmates and stands up to Wendy. The next day Jill is the target of Wendy’s bullying and sees what Linda had been experiencing.

This is a great book to talk with your child about bullying and about speaking up if they witness someone being bullied.

Note: The mom in this book does smoke. Also, the not nice word for a female dog is used by Jill Brennon and is directed toward one of the other characters. I’m still going to give it to my daughter to read, but I like to know these things ahead of time.


Wringer by Jerry Spinelli

Palmer does everything he can to fit in with “the gang.” He pretends to be someone he is not. He is pressured into doing things that make him uncomfortable. He wants more than anything to fit in, but he just doesn’t. There is an annual festival in his hometown that concludes with a competition where pigeons are shot for sport. At the age of ten, young boys are expected to have a role in this annual tradition; they are supposed to be the wringers. Palmer dreads turning ten.

Peer pressure is the driving force for Palmer; peer pressure and the desire to fit in make Palmer behave like someone else, until he realizes that he doesn’t want to fit in anymore. This is such great book for middle schoolers.

I hope I’ve given you some ideas if you have a middle schooler home with you this summer.

Books matter. Your kids should read good ones.

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