Great Gifts for Middle Grade Readers: Books Between, Episode 12

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Great Gifts for Middle Grade Readers

Episode Transcript:

December is here and for many, December brings holidays that involve gift-giving. So if you have a child between the ages of about 8 and 12 on your list this year, I have some bookish ideas for you.

My first suggestion is, whenever possible, ask the child what they’d like that would be book related. And gift cards to local bookstores are always perfect as well so they can pick something they will love themselves. A friend of mine follows the philosophy of limiting holiday gifts to four categories: Want, Need, Wear, and Read. He gives each of his children a piece of paper divided into four sections and they list some items they want, some things they really need, some ideas of what they’d like to wear, and a list of things they want to read. Want, Need, Wear, Read. I really like that idea of giving children a focus, and of course the emphasis it places on reading.

But – if you’re not sure what books they’d like or you want to surprise them, here are four suggestions for you.

#1 – Try a biography that is connected to their hobbies or interests

For example, if they like art, you could get them the Who Was Frida Kahlo? biography. (I haven’t read that one myself, but if my daughter sneak reading it under her blankets with a flashlight is any recommendation for you – it seems pretty good!) If they are into sports, a really great collection of real-life stories is Rising Above: How 11 Athletes Overcame Challenges in Their Youth to Become Stars. If you have a young dancer if your life, definitely get them the new Misty Copeland biography called Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. That one is brand new and out December 6th. For the science-loving tweens and teens on your list, Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science is awesome! Who can resist a book with “gruesome” in the title?

#2 – Build on a book they already like

For example, you could get a Diary of a Wimpy Kid calendar or one of the many fantastic Harry Potter coloring books. My girls loved those when we were listening to the audio books. You can also get their favorite book as a charm to put on a bracelet or necklace. (I’ll link to that Etsy shop in the show notes.) Another idea is to get them the audio version of a favorite book so they can experience the performance of that story. And hey – maybe even get them their own Audible account.

#3 – Pair a book with another gift so you build on the excitement

What I mean by that is if you give your nephew a LEGO kit, also get him the bold and colorful book 365 Things to Do with LEGO Bricks. If you get your daughter a science kit, include a biography of Marie Curie as some inspiration. You might pair an apron and set of cookie cutters with Cooking Class: 57 Fun Recipes Kids Will Love to Make (and Eat!). If you are getting your child a telescope, maybe add a copy of The Everything Kids’ Astronomy Book. A hot gift for my 9 year old lately are those fashion kits where she can make her own headbands and bracelets – you know, the stuff that leaves beads scattered all over your house! But – a great book to pair with a present like that is The Fashion Book by DK Publishing, and we also got a sofa delivery last week to get comfortable and read it. It connects historical trends with modern fashion – it’s pretty cool. That’s one of those books that I want to buy for my kids so I can read it, too.

#4 – Get them a Mail Order Mystery

Now – I want to say upfront that I have no connection to this company. They are not paying me. I simply saw their ad online, got it for my girls as something fun to do over the summer, and it was great. Every week for about six weeks, my daughters got personalized wax-sealed letters describing the mystery they had to solve, artifacts connected to the story, riddles, and a code to crack that my whole family was working on together. It was so much fun – for all of us! The final package included a book that tied everything together. And if you have more than one child – no worries – they can share it and work together and the company will include all their names on the personalized items. So here’s how it works. You go to and pick one of three mystery options. The first two are Treasure Hunt (which is a pirate adventure) and The Enchanted Slumber (which is the mystery we did and it was fairy tale themed). The new mystery, which was revealed in their newsletter last week is called Spies, Lies, and Serious Badguys and will feature a secret safe disguised as a book, a personalized secret agent ID card, invisible ink pen, and so much other cool stuff. So after you’ve decided which of those three mysteries you want, you pick who it’s for, and then you get to decide when it will start. Also – if you are sometimes a last-minute shopper, this is a perfect quick gift. You just sign up online, print out a cool looking certificate to tuck in a card or roll up into a cool scroll, and BAM – awesome gift. It’s really tailor made for kids between 8 and 12.

I hope you’ve gotten some fresh ideas for any middle grade reader on your list this year. And I would love to get your ideas and share them with everyone else! You can tag me on Twitter or Instagram or email me at and I’ll share your ideas, too!

Three Books Featuring Brave Girls

In this part of the show, I share with you three books centered around a theme and discuss three things to love about each book. This week I’m featuring three books with courageous female leads: Finding Perfect, Sticks & Stones, and Rain Reign.

Finding Perfect
by Elly Schwartz
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The first book this week is one that I have been wanting to share with you since  – jeesh, I think June! Finding Perfect is by debut author Elly Schwartz. And actually, I should clarify that – this is Schwartz’s first published novel but not the first she’s written. This novel doesn’t read like a first effort – it’s crafted like a novelist at the top of their game. Okay – I could keep gushing, but you probably want to know what the book is about. So a quick summary. Finding Perfect is about 12-year-old Molly Nathans who is always striving toward perfect. Perfectly sharpened pencils, perfectly crisp white paper, perfectly aligned glass figurines, and a perfectly safe and together family. And that last wish for family perfection is the one that seems to set her on a downward path when her Mom moves out and Molly spirals into her OCD.  So here are three things to love about Finding Perfect:

  1. The Poetry  – Molly is a poet and one element of her story is how she participates in her middle school’s Poetry Slam Contest. She gets past the first round with an incredible poem that starts with the word “Sorry.” And as Molly’s compulsions toward organization and neatness start to take over her life and she feels herself unraveling – her writing starts to reflect that. It’s so powerful. Here’s a line from one of her poems:

“As time slips, it’s hard to hide

 To keep my crazy tucked inside.”

  1. Molly’s friends Hannah and Bridgett. Hannah is her best friend, cheering Molly on and waiting for her when Molly spends hours rearranging her room instead of meeting up like she promised. And Bridgette, who often says the wrong thing and is obsessed with obituaries. But – oh, when Molly finds out WHY Bridgette collects obituaries, she realizes that every person has something hidden. The thing is though that Hannah and Bridgette do NOT like each other.  And this book really captures that difficult dynamic when you have friends anchored to the same person and they have to find a way to get along.
  2. Finding Perfect fills an incredibly important niche in middle grade fiction. A book that tackles anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder from the point of view of a kid. I love that this book is written in first person and we get to experience Molly’s challenges and dilemmas. She wants to be a good friend and go help Hannah with her bracelet business plan. But… she is compelled to straighten up her bedroom first – which starts to take longer and longer and longer until finally Molly does the brave thing and admits to herself that it’s a problem. I am not sure if the statistics really bear this out, but it does seem to me that I have more and more students every year who are trying to overcome some level of either anxiety or compulsion. This book would be perfect in their hands – and for anyone else who could use a look into another child’s experience to help them understand each other better.

Finding Perfect reminded me a bit of Raymie Nightingale and I have to give a shout out to the cover design. It is simply perfect – and has the BEST spine design I have ever seen.

Sticks and Stones
by Abby Cooper
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Book number two this week is Sticks & Stones by Abby Cooper – another debut author who seems like she’s been around forever. This is the story of middle schooler, Elyse, who has this very unusual condition where the words that people say about her appear on her skin. It’s called, well, I can’t pronounce it – and honestly I don’t think Elyse can either. But it’s shortened, mercifully, to CAV. Now, I will say at first that the rational, scientific side of my brain had a hard time suspending disbelief about verbalized words getting etched into skin. BUT. Once I could shush that side, I just fell in love with this story and with Elyse. So, the main character has this condition, she’s starting middle school, her friendships are shifting (like they do in middle school), and with the encouragement from an anonymous person writing her mysterious notes, Elyse decides to be brave and go for this elite position in her school called Explorer Leader.

And in the midst of all this, her disorder takes a turn and it’s not just others’ words that are etched into her skin, but her own thoughts about herself start to appear on her arms and legs. How powerfully symbolic is that?

So, if you’re not sold already, here are three more reasons to love Sticks & Stones:

  1. Elyse’s notes to herself. Every month as part of an English assignment, she writes a letter to her future self in her journal. In her first September note, she jots down four goals. Which are:
  1. Stop thinking about the folded paper until I can finally open it after class.
  2. Stop obsessing over Liam, because he is done liking me.
  3. Instead, obsess over boys like Nice Andy who do seem to like me.
  4. Stop thinking about the folded blue paper until it’s time to open it!

In each letter, Elyse reflects on how things are going and lists some new goals. I really loved how those letters anchored the story.

  1. The boy she calls “Nice Andy”. Because – there is a point in the book where he could have been not-so-nice. Now – I’m going to give a small spoiler here, which I try not to do – but this one isn’t so major. But, if you’d rather not hear it, just pause and fast forward about a minute. Okay? Alright, so – Elyse ends up dating Nice Andy for awhile. And he IS wonderful, but she realizes she just doesn’t feel THAT way about him. And I simply LOVED how he handles things when she tells him that she would rather be good friends. He says, “Oh! Okay, don’t worry about it.”  That could have gone very differently. I think kids could use a model of a graceful and respectful breakup, so thumbs up for that scene!
  2. I really love how Sticks & Stones embodies this idea that having a bigger purpose in your life and striving for something important can break you out of self-doubt and worrying so much about yourself. For Elyse, it’s her goal of becoming Explorer Leader that starts to get her out of her own head a bit. And ironically, by getting busy and NOT thinking so much of what others are saying about her, she becomes more confident. In one of the later mystery notes that Elyse receives is this advice:

“Remember, someone is always going to have something bad to say. But can you remember the good you’ve done? The good you ARE?”

I think that message is so important for middle grade readers who are sometimes focused so much on other people liking them. I remember those years myself – they were rough.

Sticks & Stones is about friendship, and boys, and learning what actions to take to be more comfortable with yourself. This book would be particularly powerful for middle grade girls.

Rain Reign
by Ann M. Martin
Square Fish

Our final featured book this week is Ann M. Martin’s Rain Reign. For the last two years, I don’t think there’s been a month that’s gone by where I haven’t been conferencing with a student who has been reading this book or reading it out loud to my daughters. One of the joys of being a teacher is getting to dip back into those favorite books. So, Rain Reign is a story told by 5th grader Rose Howard, who loves routines, collecting homonyms, and prime numbers. She lives with her dad, who is not the best care-taker for her. And she lives with her dog, who she calls Rain. And, in her own words says “My official diagnosis is high-functioning autism, which some people call Asperger’s syndrome”. One night, after a hurricane has caused flooding and destruction, Rose’s father lets Rain outside and now she’s missing. Because of that, Rose has to be brave, break out of her routine, and try to find her dog. And that’s just the beginning of her bravery. Alright, so – here are three fantastic things about Rain Reign.

  1. Rose’s straightforward storytelling. It’s astonishing how well we get into Rose’s head. For example, in the first chapter she says: “This is how you tell a story: First you introduce the main character. I’m writing this story about me, so I am the main character.”  And later on she says,

“ Some of the things I get teased about are following the rules and always talking about homonyms. Mrs. Leibler is my aide and she sits with me in Mrs. Kushel’s room. She sits in an adult-size chair next to my fifth-grade-size chair and rests her hand on my arm when I blurt something out in the middle of math. Or, if I whap myself in the head and start to cry, she’ll say, ‘Rose, do you need to step into the hall for a moment?’”

I think most people who have spent any kind of time in a school will find that scene very familiar. Having it told from the point of view of the child with autism is so important.

  1. Rose’s Uncle.  While Rose is very unlikely in who she ended up with as a father, she lucked out with her Uncle Weldon. It’s hard to believe that the two of them are brothers. Rose’s dad is impatient, an alcoholic, neglectful, and… worse. Thank goodness Rose has her Uncle who picks her up from school, patiently answers her many repetitive questions, and helps her deal with her dad.
  2. How much kids simply love this book.  In fact, I decided that since I just happen to have two of those kids on hand right here in our house, I’d invite them to tell you what they liked about Rain Reign.

Q & A

Our third and final segment this week is Question & Answer time.


Today’s question is from Sarah in Arlington, Texas.( And Hey Sarah – thanks for listening!) She asks, “My kids don’t seem like they’re paying attention when I read aloud. How can keep them more interested?”


First of all, I hear ya! Between my own kids and “kids” at school – I feel like I am always assessing their attention and interest. So I have a few thoughts, and hopefully you, listening, might chime in as well.

  • First, I’m wondering – did your kids get to pick out the book? If they have some say, that can help. At home, I usually book talk a few that I think would be winners and then let them decide. I do understand that with more than one child, that choosing process can be tricky. We’ve certainly had some drama and high stakes negotiations about that at my house.
  • A second thought – give them something to do with their hands while they’re listening. I have adult friends who just can’t sit still for that long. So try giving them some paper and crayons or play-doh. Maybe tinkering with LEGOs or doing a jigsaw puzzle.
  • And finally – there is the possibility that they might be paying more attention than you think. I had this epiphany last year when I was reading aloud Matilda to my girls. And one of my daughters was driving me nuts because she was bouncing all over the bed, the book is shaking, she’s twisting around in the blankets – I could not get her to settle down. And I am getting annoyed – this is supposed to be our calm, mother-daughter time bonding over classic children’s literature. NO. So after a few nights of me getting mad, I thought, “Okay – I’m just going to ignore it and she’ll stop. Right?” So I continue to read, but I’ve got one eye on her the entire time. And then suddenly it hit me – she was acting out what was happening in the book. She was SO involved in the book that she was physically experiencing it.

SO I know sometimes that we have this idealized image in our mind of our loving children nestled in our lap, taking in every word of what we’re reading, but – truthfully that doesn’t always happen that way. The main thing is to not give up on that daily read aloud time.

Thank You

Alright, that’s it for the Q&A section this week. If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or an idea about a topic we should cover, I really would love to hear from you. You can email me at or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get a full transcript of this show and all of our previous episodes at And when you are there, take some time to read a great post about Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts by Mel Schuit. And, if you are liking the show, I’d love it if you helped others find us by sharing on social media or leaving a rating on iTunes or Stitcher.

Thanks and see you in two weeks!  Bye!

About the Author

Corrina Allen

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Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York. She hosts Books Between, a bi-weekly podcast to help teachers, librarians, and parents connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love. You can connect with Corrina on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.

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