10 Musical Middle Grade Novels to Rock Readers’ Worlds by Lisa Jenn Bigelow
My middle grade years were immersed in music. I sang in the choir. I learned to play piano. I discovered my parents’ record collection, Top 40 radio, and cassingles. There was joy in lifting my voice, coaxing chords from the keys. There was comfort in hearing pop singers magically echo my deepest feelings. If life is a journey of self-discovery, the middle grades are when we press the pedal to the metal. I found myself in music, over and over.
Music is powerful. It inspires. It empowers. It connects. I wanted to capture this power in my middle grade novel Drum Roll, Please. As it begins, Melly, a shy 13-year-old drummer, is on her way to rock band camp. Over the next two weeks, she’ll repeatedly have the rug pulled out from under her, but her passion for music will help her through. It’s that strong.
Here are ten more great middle grade novels about the power of music.
I Am Drums, by Mike Grosso
We often gloss over it, but music costs money. When Sam’s school music program goes under, and her parents can’t afford to buy her a drum kit of her own, she must ask herself: how far will she go to get one? Anyone who’s wanted something so badly it hurts will relate to irrepressible Sam. This novel tackles economic and familial stress with a light touch.
Blackbird Fly, by Erin Entrada Kelly
Kelly draws on her own life in this story of Apple, a first-generation Filipino American girl struggling with racism and bullying at her mostly White school. She takes comfort in her dream of someday buying a guitar and learning to play the Beatles, her deceased father’s favorite band. The tidy resolution may strain belief, but Apple surely deserves her happy ending.
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, by Rita Williams-Garcia
Family again provides inspiration—and tension—in this story of an aspiring blues harpist. Clayton is furious when his mother sells his beloved grandfather’s guitars. With only his subway pass and his harmonica, he sets off in search of Cool Papa’s Bluesmen one last time. This poetic novel brings together the great African American musical traditions of blues and hip-hop.
Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan
The harmonica also serves as focal point in this novel touching on the Holocaust, Mexican migrant labor, the internment of Japanese Americans, and what passed for children’s welfare in the early 20th century. Ryan’s expert hands weave together these seemingly discrete threads into a moving masterpiece. The audiobook is enhanced by musical performances.
Amina’s Voice, by Hena Khan
Amina loves music, but stage fright and her conservative uncle’s disapproval hamper her performance. As she practices for a Quran recitation competition, she not only grows more confident but also discovers the natural musicality of religious chants and prayers. This sensitive story provides insight into different cultural attitudes toward music.
The Sweetest Sound, by Sherri Winston
Shyness and spirituality again come together in this homey story. Cadence, who has the voice of an angel, has promised God she’ll stop hiding her light under a bushel and join her best friends in the church youth choir. To her surprise, one of those friends isn’t pleased, wanting the spotlight for herself. Readers will relate to Cadence’s struggle to be true to herself.
Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear, by Lensey Namioka
Being born into a musical family can feel like a curse if you’re tone-deaf. How can Yingtao convince his parents, who expect him to complete the family string quartet, his true talent lies in baseball? First published in 1992, this fish-out-of-water (in more ways than one) story is as fresh as ever and snaps with dry humor. It is still available in paperback.
The First Rule of Punk, by Celia C. Pérez
When her “Super Mexican” mother drags her across the country, away from her father, what better way for Malú to rebel than by forming a punk band? Before long, however, she discovers her heritage and punk sensibility are compatible after all—and maybe her mom understands her better than she thought. Spunky Malú is easy to root for in this fast-paced novel.
Better Nate Than Ever, by Tim Federle
In contrast, a cross-country journey is just what Nate, who dreams of Broadway stardom, craves. When auditions for E.T.: The Musical are posted, he hops a bus to New York. There, he discovers a wider world than he ever imagined, not just full of song and dance, but of men who hold hands with each other. Nate’s spiritual homecoming is funny, sweet, and satisfying.
All Summer Long, by Hope Larson
Bina’s first summer without her best friend, Austin, proves to be an emotional roller coaster. The one constant is her love of music, as she discovers vinyl, goes to her first rock show, and steadily practices electric guitar. Tweens will identify with the growing pains associated with shifting friendships and family relationships in this breezy graphic novel.
Lisa Jenn Bigelow is a Chicago-area youth services librarian and the author of the middle grade novel Drum Roll, Please (Harper, 2018). Her young adult novel Starting from Here (Skyscape, 2012) was named a Rainbow List Top 10 book by the American Library Association.
I almost forgot. Tao others I would add to this list are Guitar Notes by Mary Amato and No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman.
Guitar Notes is so, so good.