Common Themes/Aspects in Middle Grade Fantasy – Book Recommendations

One of my very favorite classes I took in college was my children’s literature studies. Granted it was about environmentalism in children’s lit, but it was still really interesting. When we first started the class we went over common aspects and themes of children’s literature and middle grade novels.

The most common of these themes being:

  • Friendship
  • Self-discovery/growing-up
  • Courage/Overcoming obstacles as the underdog

I read a ton of middle grade and young adult novels. I think these themes are the meat and potatoes to young adult literature too. Along with young love and heartache, of course.

Among themes in middle grade/children’s lit are:

  • A group of trusty friends, usually 3 to a group
  • Magical powers or magic like talking animals
  • Good vs. Evil villians
  • Going to school

What got me thinking about all of this again was a new fantasy book I started reading called The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann.I started picking up on the common themes because as I was reading I was like “Wow! This is just like Harry Potter! And Charlie Bone! Etc…”

I thought I would make a condensed list of my favorite middle grade novels with these common themes and aspects. A “If you like these, you should read ______” list, if you will.

I’ll start with my current read, The Unwanteds. This book is about a group of kids who unfortunately cast out of their society due to their creativity. Is anyone thinking Divergent yet? After, they are cast out they are feeling like well…outcasts and like they are not worthy. Soon they find out they are destined for something, or a place, much more spectacular than Quill. This magical place of fine arts is Artime, where all the outcast kiddos learn to harness their creativity and are guided by half animal/people creatures to discover who they are. They must keep this place a secret so that the Quillitary does not find them out. All the while, Alex (main character) and his circle of friends (Lani, Meghan, and Samheed) are deciding if they want to stay there as they train and hone their new creative abilities and learn magic in case of a war with Quill. Alex, is almost desperate to go back to Quill to try and sneak in his twin brother, Aaron, a Wanted to Artime. He is also struggling with the fact that all of his friends have been accepted into the Magical Warrior Training and he hasn’t even though his teacher always praises his work and he completes it all on time.

Next up, my favorite, Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling.

I don’t think I even need to give a synopsis of this one. If you haven’t read Harry Potter and you claim to be a reader, then you need to climb out from under the rock from whence you came and hop on the bandwagon now. The Harry Potter fan club is always accepting new members! Est. 1997.

But of course in Harry Potter there’s, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, the triple threat. And from book number one, The Sorcerers Stone to The Deathly Hallows, the trio is growing into their own and falling in love and overcoming He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and the Death Eaters. Harry is also learning a lot about his mother and father and discovering if that has an effect on who he is. In the last book, Harry ultimately faces death for the good of everyone else around him. He is constantly rescuing other people and sacrificing himself. (Ginny, Cedric, Buckbeak, Sirius, etc.) He becomes the boy who lived under the stairs on Privot Drive, to The Boy Who Lived. But he wouldn’t have made it anywhere without his bestfriends Ron and Hermione.

Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo

After reflecting on Harry Potter, I thought of Charlie Bone. I read some of the Harry Potter books and Charlie Bone simultaneously. Back then, I thought Charlie Bone was a rip off of Harry Potter but the more I read the books the more I appreciated it’s unique story. Like Harry, Charlie doesn’t really know where he comes from. He has an idea but it turns out there’s a lot he doesn’t know once he starts at Bloor’s Academy. He basically finds his immediate family’s history and his distant family’s history and learns why he has special abilities with drawings. Magical school like Hogwarts that also focuses on the arts, because hey! Magic and art go hand and hand right? There, Charlie makes some friends. He gains more friends as the books go on but the ones that stand out to me are Emma Tolly, Olivia Vertigo, Fidelio Gunn, Tancred, and Lysander. While this is all going on there are people out for Charlie and his family. Specifically, the Bloor’s are kind bad and Asa isn’t a sugar and spice character either. Charlie must live at the Bloor’s school to learn about his past in order to look towards his future.

Those are my two favorite of my children’s fantasy lit collection. But The Iron Trial: Magisterium novel by author’s Cassandra Clare and Holly Black would also fall into this category. I read this one around the same time I read The Balance Keepers by Lindsay Cummings so I sometimes get the character names mixed up.

In The Iron Trial, Callum and his father have been trying to suppress his powers his whole life because Call is destined to be a dangerous wizard one day. Even when he tries his hardest to suck, they still see the power within him. Once he comes of age he must go to The Iron Trials to see if he will be accepted into wizarding school. There he meets his friends Aaron and Tamara. They are the underdog team at the school and have to try harder to prove themselves worthy. At the Magisterium he learns who to be friends with and who to stay away from. And then everything turns for the worse and the unexpected happens. Can he stay friends with Aaron, who may actual be the wizard the Magisterium has been waiting for? And will Tamara decide to be her own person and not follow in her sisters footsteps?

The Balance Keepers: The Fires of Calderon

I was really excited when this one came out. I had just read Lindsay Cummings The Murder Complex, and loved it!

One day, Albert Flynn follows a map into the woods while he’s away for the summer visiting his dad. He goes down a windy tunnel underground and finds the Realms at the Core. There he learns that he is a Balance Keeper. Wizards who hold the peace above and below the world. For initiation, the newbies must dive into a lake to find their Tile. Their tile specifies what ability they will have. However, Albert has a mysterious tile that no one will explain to him. He spends his time in the Core trying to figure out who and what he is, along with his friends Leroy and Birdie. Together they must band together to be the best Balance Keepers team so that they can be sent to Calderon to help settle the unrest there. Will they be able to protect Calderon, The Core, and New York City, which is experience some crazy mountain ash atmosphere because of the imbalance in Calderon? Or will they fail and lose everyone they love?

See the similarities? They’re all great for kids, well anyone really, who loves adventure and fantasy. I’m planning on keeping all of these in my classroom library. These “coming of age” novels will be great for my 7th graders! And all middle schoolers need books with a friendship theme. That’s when it’s hardest for them to remember to be true to themselves and to make GOOD friends and not just try to be in with the “in” crowd.

After writing all these, I had a mental forehead slap as I though of Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan, but I would but that more on a mythological spectrum, rather than magical/wizarding. There definitely is magic in the Percy Jackson books, like his magical ball point pen but I would say those are more divine than scientific. In my opinion! But Percy Jackson has the group of friends aspect and going to school/camp, along with the above themes represented in these books. Maybe it was just my guilty conscious, because I love Percy so much…

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