Hitler’s Daughter by Jackie French (HarperCollins, 1999); audiobook read by Caroline Lee (Bolinda, 2014) The framing narrative of this cleverly structured middle grade book sees three rural Aussie kids sharing a story while waiting for their school bus. The tale of Hitler’s daughter raises the disturbing question: should children be held responsible for their parents’ beliefs.
George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl (Jonathan Cape, 1981); audiobook read by Derek Jacobi (Penguin, 2013) Despite this being one of Dahl’s less substantial (yet somehow belaboured) stories, the freewheeling absurdity of George’s concoction and the subsequent karmic comeuppance to his grandma will appeal to middle grade readers. Derek Jacobi narrates with the glee of a mischievous grandparent.
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (Methuen, 1908); audiobook read by Michael Hordern (BBC, 2007) This classic children’s book nowadays seems far-removed in both content and language, its wordy and bucolic idle verging at times on the truly soporific. Then the Toad of Toad Hall comes increasingly to the fore and one can appreciate all the fuss! …
Matilda by Roald Dahl (Jonathan Cape, 1988); audiobook read by Kate Winslet (Puffin, 2013) If Roald Dahl is one of the great middle grade writers, and Matilda one of his greatest books, then Kate Winslet takes us into the greatness stratosphere with her brilliant and definitive reading, making Matilda, Miss Honey and the Trunchbull truly unforgettable.
Horse Pie by Dick King-Smith (Doubleday, 1993); audiobook read by Andrew Sachs (Bolinda, 2014) Dick King-Smith knew his animals and knew how to write for children, crafting a gentle middle grade story of an old donkey whose morals save the day. Andrew Sachs pitches his reading nicely, bringing distinct personality to horses, donkey and humans alike.
The Nimbin by Jenny Wagner (Thomas Nelson, 1978) Australian middle grade story The Nimbin shows that books don’t have to follow elaborate plot arcs or contrive to manufacture character conflicts and resolution. Instead it serenely explores its scenario: Philippa’s beach holiday turns unusual when she adopts a strange little creature.
Galactic Warlord by Douglas Hill (Gollancz, 1979) As an introduction to Hill’s ‘Last Legionary’ series (or to MG/YA SF in general) Galactic Warlord is hard to fault: the main character is austere but morally unambiguous and easy to cheer for; the threat is serious and the story clearly told.
How to Fight a Girl by Thomas Rockwell (Turtleback Books, 1987) Whereas How To Eat Fried Worms flowed as a story, this sequel is little more than a muddled hodgepodge of preteen social issues: fighting amongst friends; family dynamics; the awkwardness of dating. Much of the plot is as confused as its protagonists.
Elephant in the Kitchen by Winsome Smith (Ashton Scholastic, 1980) No one character stands out as owning this story (where the eponymous pachyderm doesn’t participate all that much), but the tale of Cato the shrinking elephant and Sam the absentminded artist remains a fun — and not at all frightening — middle grade adventure.
The Return of the Antelope by Willis Hall (The Bodley Head, 1985) Hall excels in depicting minor characters and incidental detail, yet there remains a largely untapped visual element to this children’s fantasy of Lilliputians who have ill-fatedly retraced Gulliver’s Travels back to England. The book reads like — and is — an adaptation from television.