Books for Strong Girls in Middle School

shelved under Young Adult & Teen

I could have called this list “Books to Help Strong Girls Stay Strong.” In their book Meeting at the Crossroads, Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan identify this age — the years between childhood and adolescence — as a sort of critical fork in the road of a girl's passage into womanhood. Throughout their observations of many girls and women, Brown and Gilligan identify a tendency, during this time, for girls “to lose their vitality, their resilience, their immunity to depression, their sense of themselves, and their character.”

No longer children, nor yet adults, pre-adolescent girls struggle with the necessary and important work of self-discovery and expression. Guiding them across this threshold requires open communication and loving support. The books on this list can help us to begin and frame conversations about issues girls might be facing, such as popularity, peer pressure, shifting friendships, and interpersonal conflict.

Readers of many ages and backgrounds will enjoy and relate to these books. I have recommended some of these titles to advanced 5th grade readers. I also know, from personal experience, the pleasure of reading these books as an adult.


A Wrinkle in Time

by Madeleine L'Engle

People who are extraordinary, by definition, don't fit in. The main character of this book, Meg Murray, is an extraordinarily intelligent and thoughtful person who struggles with real issues such as making friends. When her father, a brilliant scientist, needs help, Meg learns that the very qualities that make it hard for her to relate to her peers also make her the one person who can come to his aid. Meg is such a well-written, real character, and the story so exciting, this book might just turn a young reader on to fantasy or sci-fi books in general. Note that this is the first in a quintet of related books — A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time follow, though only the first three books are about Meg.


The Secret Language of Girls

by Frances O'Roark Dowell

Kate and Marilyn live two houses away from each other, and have been best friends since nursery school. The girls confide in each other on every matter and practically live as sisters. When they start middle school, however, they find themselves not seeing eye to eye as they always had. Dowell has a gift for writing realistic situations and feelings. The characters are multi-faceted and sympathetic — even the bossy girl who moves in on their street has a glimmer of redemption. The book raises important questions about friendships. Just because you've been friends with someone for a long time, does that mean you have to keep on being friends? How do you stay friends if your interests and values shift? Can friendships change to accommodate new circumstances and people? Readers will want to read The Kind of Friends We Used to Be to find out what happens to Marilyn and Kate.



by Cynthia Lord

Little brothers might be lovable, but they can also be a real liability when it comes to social situations. That's even more true in Catherine's case. Her brother David is autistic and has a real knack for humiliating her at the most important moments. Catherine's feelings toward David are a jumble of deep love, responsibility, and embarrassment. There are many times that she wishes she could make her brother go away so that she could be a normal kid with normal friendships, instead of always being worried that he is going to do something horrifying, like hug someone inappropriate. When Catherine meets Jason at her brother's clinic, she has to weigh her desire to be normal against the desire to be true to herself and those she cares about. This is an engaging read, and might also be a good choice for a sophisticated upper-elementary reader.


Esperanza Rising

by Pam Munoz Ryan

For the first 13 years of her life, Esperanza led the carefree existence of a wealthy landowner's daughter — beautiful clothes, servants, extravagant parties. When bandits kill her father, Esperanza and her mother must leave their native Mexico. They find a new home among agricultural workers in Northern California. Esperanza struggles to accept her new life. The challenges she faces force her to tap reserves of strength that surprise everyone, especially herself.


Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists

by Jeannine Atkins, illustrated by Paula Conner

Do you know a girl who would rather stare into a tidal pool for hours than go to ballet class? Girls who appreciate animals and the natural world will surely enjoy this book, which chronicles the lives of six famous and influential female scientists. However, the message underlying these stories of determined and capable women has less to do with becoming a scientist and more to do with following one's dreams, no matter the challenges.


Gutsy Girls: Young Women Who Dare

by Michele Schuerger, Tina Schwager, edited by Elizabeth Verdick

Sometimes, we need a little help imagining ourselves into our dream lives. This book provides that help, inspiring readers with twenty-five short profiles of women who live life to the hilt. These women follow their passions and cultivate lives that differ in the details (from skydiving to circus performer to sailor) but share a sense of fulfillment and authenticity. The second half of the book gives advice and motivation for how girls can ready their bodies and minds to be “gutsy” themselves.


The Golden Compass

by Philip Pullman

Like A Wrinkle in Time, this book is a fantasy about a quirky girl, Lyra, who must summon her courage and resourcefulness when she sets out to save her best friend who has been kidnapped by a mysterious evil. As Lyra learns more about the dangers she is facing, she realizes that the plot is much, much larger than she originally thought, and that her fate is at the center of it all. The story is suspenseful and exciting, with Lyra leading a group of “heroes,” including gypsies, the King of the polar bears, witches, and a hot-air balloon pilot. The book ends on a cliff-hanger, and readers will most likely want to read the next book in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife. In my opinion, the 2nd and 3rd books in the trilogy, while interesting, are less exciting as Pullman's writing becomes more and more mired in religious overtones.

This book also appears on The 10 Most "Challenged" Books of 2007



by Jerry Spinelli

This realistic fiction novel is told from the point of view of a 16-year old boy named Leo, but the focus is on Stargirl, a new student at Leo's high school. Like many high schools, Mica Area High School is a place where the students value popularity and fitting in. Appearing “normal” is important. Not to Stargirl, who shocks the student body with her non-conformist spirit. She does what she wants, wears what she wants, says what she wants, instead of suppressing herself in order to fit the mold. Like Leo, we find ourselves falling in love with Stargirl's exuberance and zest for life. Readers will empathize with the difficulty of Leo's position — should he remain loyal to Stargirl even though it might cast him as a social outcast? Regardless of what he chooses, Leo is forever changed for having known Stargirl, and so are we.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith

How did I miss this one when I was a kid? A friend recommended it to me for this list, so I picked up a copy myself and could not put it down. Francie Nolan is one of the most authentic and poignantly-written characters that I have ever read. Born to children of immigrants around the turn of the century, Francie lives in the tenements of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is aware of her poverty, which sets her apart even from the other poor children living in her neighborhood, but the awareness doesn't prevent her from finding joy in many small things – in observing the eccentricities of her neighbors, in buying penny candy, and, especially, in borrowing books from the library. As Francie gets older, her imagination and inner strength help her to thrive, despite her family's continued struggles.