By now, the kids have gone to the ends of the Internet and had their fill of Netflix. So we asked New England authors to recommend a few middle-grade fiction series (for readers roughly 8 to 12 years old) to keep kids bingeing on books over the long, lonely winter ahead.
No wimps in these titles
Jeff Kinney, creator of the “Wimpy Kid” empire, runs An Unlikely Story Bookstore & Cafe in Plainville, and knows his way around a bookshelf. His recommended series include: “The Legendary Alston Boys” by Lamar Giles; “Max & the Midknights,” the new series from “Big Nate” creator Lincoln Peirce; “The Last Kids on Earth” series by Max Brallier, illustrated by Douglas Holgate; the ”Amulet” series by Kazu Kibuishi; and “The Baby-Sitters Club” graphic novels by Ann M. Martin with various illustrators.
As a kid, Kinney loved “The Xanth” series by Piers Anthony “because it was a perfect mix of comedy and fantasy.” His own kids loved the Big Nate books and Rick Riordan’s hit Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.
Karyn Parsons, who played Will Smith’s cousin Hilary on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” now writes kids books. Her middle-reader novel “How High the Moon,” set in the Jim Crow South, has been recommended to help kids understand the complexities of race relations in America.
The Westport summer resident — whose latest children’s book is “Flying Free: How Bessie Coleman’s Dreams Took Flight” — says she grew up loving Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. Currently on Parsons’s reading list are the Tristan Strong books by Kwame Mbalia: “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky,” from 2019, and its sequel, “Tristan Strong Destroys the World,” released in October. Mbalia’s epic fantasy is set in “a world populated with African American folk heroes and West African gods,” according to the publisher.
Parsons added that her daughter loved Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” series. Her son took to Jason Reynolds’s “Track” series, Kwame Alexander’s much-lauded “Crossover” books — and of course, Jeff Kinney’s hit “Wimpy Kid” series.
“My son — who hated reading — couldn’t get enough of the Wimpy Kid books,” Parsons said. “And the good news is Jeff Kinney keeps churning them out.” Kinney’s 15th installment, “The Deep End,” was released in October. There’s also a Rowley Jefferson spin-off series; “Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Friendly Spooky Stories” releases March 16.
More from the Betsy-Tacy Society
New Hampshire native Joyce Maynard is the author of 18 books, including “Labor Day” and her memoir, “At Home in the World,” about her relationship with J.D. Salinger. Her upcoming novel, “Count the Ways,” releases in May.
“In my family, there was a joke that the only books I read were the ones about Betsy and Tacy and their friend Tib, three girls growing up at the turn of the century in the fictional town of Deep Valley, Minn.,” said Maynard, referring to Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series.
“I am not alone in my affection for this series,” Maynard added. “There exists, to this day, an organization called The Betsy-Tacy Society, where members share their favorite stories and memories of Maud Hart Lovelace books.”
National Book Award finalist and Amherst College writer-in-residence Min Jin Lee also loved the “Betsy-Tacy” series. “Growing up in Queens, New York, as an immigrant child, I found the stories of two girls from turn-of-the century Minnesota fascinating and down-right exotic,” said Lee, who was born in Seoul before moving to the United States in 1976 at age 7.
“Also, I read through anything by Lois Lenski, especially the American Regional series, and was affected by Lenski’s depiction of children’s lives from rural communities,” added Lee. And the “Pachinko” author seconded Parsons’s recommendation of the Track series. “For advanced elementary and middle school readers, I recommend wholeheartedly anything written by the brilliant Jason Reynolds,” Lee said.
Herself the author of “The Treasure Chest” series for middle readers, Providence-based Ann Hood was also a Betsy-Tacy fan as a kid. With her own daughter, now 16, she has “read and re-read The Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall,” Hood said.
Beyond Green Gables
Like Montgomery’s classic “Anne” books — now a Netflix series, “Anne with an E” — Shearer said, “the Emily books were also about an orphan living on Prince Edward Island. Emily wanted to be a writer, and is the perfect heroine for any kids out there who dream of writing books when they grow up.”
Cambridge’s Joanna Rakoff, author of the bestselling memoir “My Salinger Year” was also a Green Gables fan. “I read them so many times, in fact, that scenes — and lines — from those books are still emblazoned in my brain,” she said.
“I also fervently adored Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, about a big Jewish family on the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century,” Rakoff added. “The family in the book bore a remarkable resemblance to my maternal grandmother’s family. The stories … were so identical to my grandmother’s tales that I sometimes got them confused!”
Rakoff and her kids loved Cleary’s Ramona books and Judy Blume’s Fudge series. “Before my older kids could read, I read these series aloud to them, and found them unexpectedly moving, particularly the Ramona books, which so perfectly and tenderly capture the confusion and loneliness — and joy and wonder — of childhood,” she said.
The mystery of a great series
Stephen P. Kiernan, the Charlotte, Vt.-based author of “Universe of Two,” went through a “phase with The Hardy Boys,” the popular mystery series written by various ghostwriters under the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon. “The boys were replaced, however, the instant I encountered Encyclopedia Brown,” Kiernan said of Donald J. Sobol’s popular boy-detective series.
As for Kiernan’s sons, they loved “James Herriot’s series of post-World War II stories by a remote British vet” called “All Creatures Great and Small.” “They’ve easily withstood the test of time,” Kiernan said of the 1970s bestsellers, now the subject of a new PBS series.
It comes as no surprise that award-winning mystery author — and winner of 37 Emmy awards for investigative reporting — Hank Phillippi Ryan loved Sherlock Holmes. “I would try to see if I could figure out the mystery before Sherlock did,” the West Newton resident said of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle classics.
Ryan, who’s latest book is “The First to Lie,” was also a young fan of Julie Campbell Tatham’s Trixie Belden series, Edward Eager’s “Tales of Magic” series, and the late great Lincoln author Jane Langton’s Concord-set Hall Family Chronicles. More recent discoveries include Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Peter Abrahams’s Echo Falls series, and James Ponti’s Framed! series, the last of which she described as “master classes in teaching kids how to solve puzzles and to think analytically.”