There’s a line Meg Ryan says in You’ve Got Mail that warms my heart every time. She plays a bookstore owner (can I run a bookstore when I’m retired someday?) and says, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”
Nothing rings truer to me than this line. Obviously books from early childhood always stay with you no matter how old you are, but even more important to me are the books I chose to read from about fourth through eighth grade. At this point, you’re developing your taste in books and figuring out what you like, and if you’re anything like me, the books from this period are the ones you reread constantly.
Looking back at some of my favorite books from middle school and a little earlier, I see the different ways each piece influenced me, whether that was in my own fiction writing or in the kind of books I now gravitate to as an adult. I’m not very prone to rereading nowadays, but even if it’s just skimming, these books are always treats to revisit.
1) Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee
I discovered this book in my elementary school library in fourth or fifth grade. When all of the other kids clamored over the I Spy picture books, I was by the chapter books, essentially going back and forth between checking out a new Baby-Sitters Club book and Millicent Men on our class’s weekly visits. I reread this about two years ago and was so pleased that I still loved it just as much as I had back then. Think of it as having the style of a Princess Diaries book, but being more kindhearted and less snarky. I’ve talked about Millicent Min before (here, here, and here), but I think I kept returning to her story because I saw a lot of myself in her. As Millicent learns, sometimes all you need is one really great friend, and it’s totally okay to be different from everybody else in an unique way.
2) Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
My copy of this book came from a Scholastic book catalog a year or two after the 2003 movie came out, so it actually had a film cover and I thought it was a novelization of the movie (I mean, the Mary-Kate and Ashley movie novels were my jam in fourth grade. Are movie novelizations still a thing?). The book is actually a memoir written by two of the 12 Gilbreth children and covers their family life up until the death of their father, a prominent engineer, in 1924 (so, definitely not similar to the movie in any aspects). When I discovered this wasn’t the story I knew, little baby me was instantly turned off and didn’t touch the book for a year or so. I was probably in sixth grade when I finally read the whole book, and loved the old-fashioned nature of it. It’s like a more grounded version of Meet Me in St. Louis that is still very heartwarming and interesting. It’s probably not for everybody, but I suppose the world it explores is very similar to the era in the Anne of Green Gables books, which explains why I love it!
3) Anne Frank and Me, by Cherie Bennett and Jeff Gottesfeld
Want a hint at why I didn’t have friends in middle school? In sixth grade, we had a field trip with a long enough drive that we traveled on a coach bus. Being the nerd I was, I packed two or three books to read on the bus while everyone else had their Game Boys and Tamagotchis and whatever else kids in the mid 2000s had before smartphones were a thing. I had recently gotten Anne Frank and Me through a Scholastic order, and started and finished it over the course of the two bus rides. I was so stunned and heartbroken over the ending that I have a very vivid memory of staring at the cover for a moment and then just being silent for the rest of the ride home, taking it all in. Can you tell I was my bus buddy’s pity pick? This was probably one of my earliest exposures to the Holocaust, and kicked off my fascination with reading fiction about it.
4) Anything by Judy Blume
What says middle school more than a good old Judy Blume book? In terms of which books I reread the most back then, it’s probably a close contest between these and the Princess Diaries series. The Fudge books were constant delights – in fourth grade, we had an assignment to write a Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing story from another character’s perspective, and since I had also read Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great, I wrote a journal entry from Sheila’s perspective. I really only noticed now that our homework was basically to write fan fiction right before it hit a peak online. When I was older, I gravitated more towards Blubber, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and my personal favorite, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. It was a bit of an odd experience reading Blume’s adult novel, In the Unlikely Event – it wasn’t bad, but wasn’t funny, comforting, and wise in the way that Blume’s middle grade books are. Going back to Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, maybe it has something to do with all of Blume’s books being things we mostly read in that incredibly influential, impressionable time.
5) The Young Royals series, by Carolyn Meyer
So Goodreads counts three other books in this series, but to me, this series is and always will be the four books known as The Tudor Women, about Queen Mary, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Queen Elizabeth I. The picture above is the same box set I got as a gift when I was around 12 or 13. I describe these books as middle-grade versions of Phillipa Gregory’s novels – less explicit and a little simplified, so they’re really perfect for a preteen audience. I love how these books are about two of Henry VIII’s wives and his two daughters before they become leaders, focusing on their childhoods or young adulthood instead. This series began my love affair with the Tudor era – I still credit them as inspiration for memorizing the order of Henry VIII’s wives!
What about you? What books did you read as a preteen that you find influential to who are you are today?