I’ve seen this question a lot. I think the age range is right there where a young person can start to read solid genre fiction outside of the “kiddie” hold of children’s fiction. There are some children’s books that work for this, obviously, but in general the genre can be a bit too juvenile for a middle-school aged young person.
That isn’t to mock children’s books whatsoever. I have great respect for authors of all age groups, but in this particular age range I’ve found that young people don’t respond well to books with younger themes.
As far as speculative fiction goes, there’s a number of books that could be recommended comfortably to younger readers in order to stoke their imagination and encourage them to read more. So here’s a list I composed of books I’d recommend to middle-school aged young people. I’ll include my recommendation, the genre, and the reason for my recommendation.
Interstellar Pig by William Sleator. Science fiction. My first exposure to science fiction, as I previously mentioned. It’s the story of a young man who goes on vacation when he meets strange kids who share a board game with him. In the game, you have to keep a “Piggy”on your planet in order to prevent the world from being destroyed. The board game seems to simulate reality, and I think most young readers would love this one. It’s fun, imaginative, and has a few twists and turns to it to keep it interesting.
Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert Heinlein. Science fiction. One of the more adventurous stories by Heinlein and one of his “juveniles”, the stories he intended for young readers. I previously reviewed Heinlein’s Space Cadet, another of his juveniles, though I wouldn’t put it on this list. A young man named Kip is kidnapped by an alien. From there, the story takes off to become a bizarre exploration of humanity. It’s worth a read and young readers should love it.
House of Stairs by William Sleator. Science fiction. If you can’t tell by now I love Sleator. He wrote mainly for this age range, which is why his work continues to show up on this list. House of Stairs follows a group of kids who find themselves in a strange room with stairs. It’s seemingly calculated to test them in various ways, and there’s more to it then it seems.
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Fantasy. Probably Tolkien’s most approachable book. It’s quirky in weird ways and definately dated, but it’s the forefather of a lot of fantasy stories. It’s worth picking up.
Singularity by William Sleator. Science fiction. A story about twin brothers who discover a small singularity in their uncle’s shed. There’s water and food, and apparently someone is able to stay in the shed while time slows outside the shed. This is widely considered Sleator’s best work.
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Fantasy. This should be obvious enough. Rowling is a great writer, and as the characters age up so do the subjects they deal with. It’s imaginative and younger readers will love it.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Fantasy. This one is probably most suited for kids, but the witty wordplay is probably appreciated more by preteens. Alice follows a rabbit and ends up in a strange world. It’s mostly nonsense literature, but I think it’s probably still fantasy.
The Giver by Lois Lowry. Science fiction. I read this book at the appropriate age. I loved it. It’s a dystopian novel about a future society that engineers their citizens to conform to set standards. It’s a great way to introduce philosophy to young people.
Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice. Horror. Obviously this one contains blood and some disturbing elements. It’s a great vampire story. I recall my sister loving it when she was a young teen, and I suspect many other young readers will find Rice’s story compelling. If you want to wait to suggest it until high school, that would make sense in this case.
Conan the Conqueror by Robert E. Howard. Heroic fantasy. It will contain violence, but if you think your young person can handle it, this book is solid. It follows an older King Conan who leaves and journeys back to retake his kingdom.
Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein. Science fiction. Another of Heinlein’s juveniles. A slave boy is bought by a beggar and given a job. It’s based in a space-faring society and clearly one of Heinlein’s best juveniles.
Jirel of Joiry by C. L Moore. Sword and sorcery. There is some violence in these stories. These stories are sometimes collected as “Black God’s Kiss”, the name of the most popular of the stories in the collection. Jirel is a french swordswoman who rules over a medieval state. She’s arrogant, brash, angry, and by far one of the most interesting characters on this list. Young readers should find her stories interesting, but I’m tempted to say that teenagers would appreciate the work more.
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. Fantasy. I wrote a review of this one. I didn’t think it particularly showcased Gaiman’s skill, but it’s still some great work. If you can find videos of Gaiman reading it to an audience, I’d recommend looking those up. It’s appropriate for younger readers who’d like to know about this mythology. It does contain some violence, of course, but an early teen should be able to handle that.
Dracula by Bram Stoker. Horror. I hesitate to list this one since it’s a bit unwieldy for modern readers. However, I enjoyed it when I was young and I’m sure young people today would like it as well. It’s gloomy, dark, and mysterious. If you’ve never read it, the book is unique in how it tells its story.
Maybe you’ll like some of my posts on writing:
Or maybe a couple of my reviews: