10 Life Lessons Found in the Pages of Middle-Grade Fiction by Melissa Roske

When writing for children, Madonna said it best: Papa, don’t preach. That means: no heavy-handed moralizing or high-horsey finger wagging. Kids get bossed around enough as it is, so why subject them to further instruction when they’re reading for pleasure? That’s not playing fair.

At the same time, finding inspiration in a great book can enhance a child’s reading experience significantly. It’s the icing on the cake; the cherry on the sundae. So, without further ado, 10 life lessons found in the pages of middle-grade fiction, new classics and old favorites alike:


harriet the spy

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

“Life is a struggle and a good spy gets in there and fights.” (p. 132).

When Ole Golly expresses this sentiment to her charge during an emotional goodbye outside the Welsch family home, it’s clear to the reader – and to Harriet, who tries to be brave in the aftermath of her beloved nanny’s departure – that spies aren’t the only ones who are expected to fight the good fight in moments of adversity and sorrow. Precocious, notebook-carrying 11-year-olds are, too. For a comprehensive Harriet the Spy lesson plan from Scholastic, click here.


Are you there God It's Me Margaret

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

“If Mohammed doesn’t come to the mountain – the mountain comes to Mohammed.” (p. 139)

Call it grandmother’s intuition, or maybe it’s ESP, but Margaret’s grandma, Sylvia Simon, always knows what Margaret needs most – whether it’s taking off her boots at Lincoln Center so her feet won’t sweat, or knitting sweaters “Made Expressly for You by Grandma.” In this scene, Sylvia shows up unannounced to do battle with Margaret’s agenda-pushing grandparents from Ohio. Blume never says so explicitly, but the takeaway in clear: When the going gets tough, you can always count on the ones you love. Especially Grandma.


the crossover

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

“Basketball Rule #5: When you stop playing your game you’ve already lost.” (p. 93)

Yes, this is a book about two brothers who live, sleep, and breathe basketball. But Alexander isn’t just talking about hoops in this scene. He’s reminding Josh Bell not to give up, even if the situation – i.e., his twin J.B.’s all-consuming crush on a girl from school – seems hopeless. For the reader, it’s an important reminder to keep aiming for the basket, even if the hoop is 10 feet above the ground and it’s doubtful you’ll make it in. View an educator’s guide produced by Houghton Mifflin.


raymie nightingale

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

“The trick is to keep moving. Never stop moving.” (p. 67).

These words are uttered by Isabelle, a cranky, wheelchair-bound resident of the Golden Glen Nursing Home, to Raymie Clarke, the book’s 10-year-old protagonist. Raymie has come to the nursing home to perform a good deed; in this case, reading to the elderly, in order to qualify as a contestant in the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition. Although Isabelle is instructing Raymie to push her wheelchair faster – past Alice Nebbley, who is wailing inconsolably – the reader knows this comment has little to do with speed. It’s an indirect word of encouragement to Raymie, and a reminder to the reader, that inaction gets you nowhere. The secret is to move. View a Raymie Nightingale activity kit provided by Candlewick Press.



Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin

“The thing about fire… it’s not the flames that kill you. It’s the smoke.” (p. 230)

In this scene, a fire has broken out in 11-year-old Thyme Owens’ New York apartment building, and she’s worried that Sylvie, her neighbor’s bird, won’t be able to escape. The subtext, however, is that it’s the more insidious things in life that can trip you up. Keep your wits about you, or pay a heavy price.


charlotte's web

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

“The world is a wonderful place when you’re young.” (pp 17-18)

The fast-talking goose says these words to Wilbur, shortly after he comes to Zuckerman’s farm. The statement seems to be a sunny commentary on youth, but there is a deeper, more nuanced meaning. The goose is telling Wilbur to stop and smell the roses; to go anywhere he likes: to “root up the sod” and “dig up the radishes…. Eat grass! Look for corn! Look for oats! Run all over! Skip and dance, jump and prance!” You only live once, the goose seems to be saying. Don’t squander your days. Get out there and celebrate! View a Charlotte’s Web teacher’s guide produced by Scholastic.



Wonder by R.J. Palacio

“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” (p. 48)

Mr. Browne, Auggie’s fifth-grade English teacher at Beecher Prep, shares monthly precepts with his class – i.e., sayings that “help guide us when making decisions about really important things.” This precept, shared on Auggie’s first day in a mainstream school, seems particularly apt, considering that kindness – displayed in the classroom, and beyond – is a dominant theme in Palacio’s bestselling book. In fact, Choose Kind is more than a catchphrase; it’s turned into a movement, with its own hashtag, in schools and communities nationwide. Random House provides a Wonder-ful discussion and educator guide.


paper wishes

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

“… a man should walk barefoot on the bare earth every day.”  (p. 2

In the opening scene of Sepahban’s historical novel about a Japanese-American family sent to a government interment camp during World War II, 10-year-old Manami is having a conversation with her grandfather, who reminds her that there is a time and place to wear shoes – but the beach isn’t one of them. He’s also conveying the message, even if it’s indirectly, that communing with nature is essential to one’s well-being – not simply something to do on a lazy afternoon.


one and only ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

“Hunger, like food, comes in many shapes and colors.” (p. 133)

Ivan, the shopping-mall gorilla, was well tended in his glass-walled domain. He ate lettuce leaves with Thousand Island dressing, and caramel apples, and popcorn with butter. But at night, lying in alone in his Pooh pajamas, he felt hungry for the touch of a friend; for the “easy safety of my nearby troop, foraging through the shadows.” The hidden message? The pain from abject loneliness can’t be satisfied with food. View a discussion guide from HarperCollins.


when you reach me

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

“Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean. It’s like how turning on a light makes you realize how dark the room had gotten.” (P. 144)

In this scene, Miranda realizes that she could have been nicer to her classmate, Alice Evans. Miranda hadn’t been terrible to Alice; she just hadn’t “lifted a finger to help her.” This passage illuminates an obvious truth: That sometimes, even when you don’t think you need to, it’s good to turn on the proverbial light. View downloadable resources from Random House.


Melissa Roske is a New York-based writer of middle-grade fiction. Her debut novel, KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN, will be published by Charlesbridge on May 2, 2017.  Find her on her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.