First Chapter Friday: Middle School Book List

When I reflect on teaching in 2020, there’s one thing that stands out. One thing I did right, one “I’ve always wanted to do that” thing that I actually DID, and one thing that brought me joy every single week. That thing? First Chapter Friday, my friends!

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but First Chapter Friday is the best thing I’ve done in my classroom this year. First Chapter Friday has helped my students fall in love with reading again, created class community through our shared love for storytelling, and exposed students to more books than I could have imagined. It’s helped me get to know my students as readers and tailor my book recs to their unique interests and needs. But most importantly: First Chapter Friday has motivated my students to READ more than they have in a long time. (Click HERE to read about why you should try it, HERE for a helpful Q&A post, and HERE for all my tips and tricks to make it successful).

First Chapter Friday is as simple as it sounds: read the first chapter of a different book every Friday. However, there is one challenge that can make or break the whole thing: the BOOKS! For First Chapter Friday to work, you’ll need to select high-interest titles with intriguing first chapters. While it’s fun perusing your bookshelves and skimming first chapters, it can become a chore when you’re short on time. I recommend creating a running list of titles you want to feature so that you’re never stressed on a Thursday night (or Friday morning). Been there, done that. I want to help you start your 2021 stress-free, so I am giving you the gift of ready-to-read recommendations for First Chapter Friday.

At the end of this school year, I’ll compile a second post with even more book recs. If you’re interested in weekly First Chapter Friday recommendations every Sunday, sign up for my teacher email club HERE. 

To help you jump-start your 2021 First Chapter Friday list, here are all of the titles I featured this past semester! Most of these were absolute hits, but I’ve reflected and rated each title out of 5, according to my students’ reactions. I hope this list helps you and your students fall in love with reading again in 2021:

First Chapter Friday: Middle School Book List
First Chapter Friday: Middle School Book List

Please note that this post contains affiliate links. My students and I appreciate it when you use these links. Any money I earn goes right back into our classroom library!

The Running Dream, Wendelin Van Draanen

Genre: Realistic fiction, sports fiction

When I first launched First Chapter Friday, I didn’t have a plan or a running list of books (yet), so I just happened upon this one. As it turned out, I couldn’t have picked a better book, and my students were captivated from the first line! The Running Dream follows Jessica, a runner whose life is flipped upside down when she loses a leg in a car accident. The first chapter is short, emotional, and dramatic, which makes it perfect for First Chapter Friday. I had many students vying for my one copy of the book, and the first lucky recipient read it before I even had a chance to ask how she liked it! The verdict: She LOVED it!

First Chapter Friday Idea: The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen
First Chapter Friday Idea: The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen

FCF Rating: 5/5 – Fan favorite. Short, accessible, and high-interest!

The Maze Runner, James Dashner

Genre: Dystopian

After getting to know my students as readers at the beginning of the year, I noticed I had a lot of Hunger Games fans. Many students had already devoured the series and some were right in the middle of reading it, so I wanted to feature another dystopian title. I wanted to feature Divergent, but I only had a copy of the second book (of course). I didn’t plan ahead enough to check out one from the library, so I settled on The Maze Runner instead. The first chapter is short, a little confusing, and intriguing because it shows the main character, Thomas, waking up in a completely unknown environment with none of his previous memories.

The first few pages reflect just how disoriented and scared he is, which intrigued some students but bored others. It wasn’t a total flop, but it wasn’t an all-around hit, so I’ll probably skip this one next year. Instead, I’ll probably feature Divergent or another dystopian title.

First Chapter Friday Idea: The Maze Runner, by James Dashner
First Chapter Friday Idea: The Maze Runner, by James Dashner

FCF Rating: 3.5/5 – Intriguing for some, boring for others. This would be a better pick for Book Trailer Tuesday!

Ghost Boys, Jewell Parker Rhodes

Genre: Historical fiction

For this First Chapter Friday, I actually read the page and a half that precedes the first chapter of Ghost Boys. We were short on time but I still wanted to hook my students on the book, and this did the trick. Please know that the first few pages can be difficult to read, because they describe the death of 12-year-old-Jerome, who is shot by police while playing with a toy gun. Nothing is too graphic, but Rhodes does not shy away from tackling the issues of racism, police brutality, and injustice. The book is a timely, relevant, and accessible read for middle schoolers. The first few pages do an excellent job of hooking readers, so it’s worth a spot in your FCF rotation!

First Chapter Friday Idea: Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
First Chapter Friday Idea: Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

FCF Rating: 5/5 – A relevant, important, and high-interest first chapter sure to hook students.

Scythe, Neal Shusterman

Genre: Dystopian

This was the most exciting First Chapter Friday we had all year! I was in the middle of reading the Scythe series and naturally book-talking it to my students. So it only made sense to feature the book as soon as I finished it! I also wanted to make up for the lukewarm First Chapter Friday with The Maze Runner and feature some dystopian students would love. Because I was reading Scythe and talking about it, I created natural anticipation for our First Chapter Friday. I normally keep the titles a surprise until Friday, but I announced this at the beginning of the week, and the hype was real. Because students were so excited, I even showed them the book trailer before the first chapter. That went so well that I launched “Book Trailer Tuesday the following week…more on that in this blog post.

Anyways, it was an absolute hit, and I would highly recommend it! I think a lot of the success has to do with how we hyped it up, so if you feature it, make sure explain the premise of the book first: a future society has conquered death and now uses people called “scythes” to “glean” (kill) others to control the population. That is enough to hook most readers, but the trailer and first chapter will seal the deal.

First Chapter Friday Idea: Scythe, by Neal Shusterman
First Chapter Friday Idea: Scythe, by Neal Shusterman

FCF Rating: 5.5/5 – The best First Chapter Friday yet. Still searching for a book that will live up to this hype…

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

Genre: Novel in verse, memoir

After the first few First Chapter Fridays, I decided to mix it up with a novel in verse and play the first few chapters of Brown Girl Dreaming. There’s nothing better than listening to an author read their own poetry, and Jacqueline Woodson is no exception. Her poetry is beautiful, relevant, and accessible for young readers. It transports readers to her childhood as she navigates growing up during the Civil Rights movement. It’s fascinating to watch Woodson make sense of the world around her and find herself as a young woman and writer, verse by verse.

Because we are in Ohio, my students and I especially appreciated all the Buckeye state references in the beginning of the book. Students enjoyed this First Chapter Friday and said they were interested in the content of the book, but they stayed skeptical of the genre (“poetry books,” in their words). Still, I accomplished my goal of exposing them to the genre and making novels in verse seem just a little more approachable.

First Chapter Friday Idea: Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
First Chapter Friday Idea: Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

FCF Rating: 4.5/5 – Interesting for students, but still need to work on their bias for so-called “poetry books.” We’ll get there!

City of Ghosts, Victoria Schwab

Genre: Fantasy, paranormal fiction

I featured City of Ghosts after a recommendation from a student! It’s hard to say no to a spooky read during October, especially when the student kindly lends you a copy of the book. The opening chapter introduces the main character, Cass, the daughter of paranormal investigators. The twist: Cass can see ghosts, like her ghost-best-friend, Jacob. Admittedly, the first chapter is not very dramatic or exciting, but because it was peer-recommended, it was enough to generate some interest. I probably won’t keep this in the rotation for next year, because some of the following spooky titles were much more intriguing. But I loved featuring a student-suggested book, and students loved the concept, too. After this, I created a Google form for students to submit more recommendations, and I ended up using another student title the next week!

First Chapter Friday Idea: City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab
First Chapter Friday Idea: City of Ghosts, by Victoria Schwab

FCF: 3.5/5 – Not the most interesting first chapter, but student recs are cooler than teacher recs.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Kelly Barnhill

Genre: Fantasy

After featuring a ghost story, I realized I hadn’t featured any traditional fantasy books the entire year! While many of my students love dystopian, I have a handful of fantasy readers, too. So after another student recommendation (and some recs from friends on IG), I decided to feature The Girl Who Drank the Moon. As a fantasy skeptic, I was interested by the back cover blurb and first chapter, so I figured this would hook many students. The first chapter is short and a little confusing, but in an intriguing, creepy way.

It begins with a woman speaking to a child who is asking about the legend of the witch in the woods, a woman who seems to require a yearly sacrifice of a child. Readers only have access to one side of this conversation, which frustrated some students but intrigued others. Ultimately, it left them with lots of questions, and many students asked for “more information.” The second chapter describes the “Day of Sacrifice,” so next year I’ll probably plan to read a little more than the super-short first chapter.

First Chapter Friday Idea: The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill
First Chapter Friday Idea: The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill

FCF Rating: 4.5/5 – Intriguing premise, but the first chapter can be a little confusing. Will read some of the second chapter next year!

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal

We finished out a few weeks of spooky reads with The Graveyard Book, a dark, disturbing, and creepy “classic.” Chapter 1 features a knife, a psychopath, a family, murder, one baby, and a graveyard. It gives off major Poe vibes, which my students and I absolutely loved! I playedambient spooky sounds as students walked into the room, which made this First Chapter Friday even more fun and creepy. We listened to the audiobook, which kept the students on the edge of their seats as they listened to see if the poor baby would be spared by the psychopath. (It is creepy, but not too graphic for middle schoolers…and don’t worry about the baby. He survives!)

First Chapter Friday Idea: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
First Chapter Friday Idea: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

FCF Rating: 5/5 – For a spooky season read, it doesn’t get much better than this!

Out of My Mind, Sharon Draper

Genre: Realistic fiction

This book is one of my favorites, and I distinctly remember reading it as part of a YA lit assignment in college. It’s one of those books that everyone should read. But I didn’t pick it just because I love it. I actually thought of it after learning that many of my students loved the book Fish in A Tree. While I still haven’t read that, the books are often grouped/recommended together, so I figured it would appeal to those students (and more). While Fish in A Tree is about a girl with dyslexia, Out of My Mind is about Melody, a young girl with cerebral palsy who is quite literally trapped in her own body and mind.

The first chapter was a hit, and it was one of those days where I felt guilty for stopping because the students really wanted to keep reading. Next year, I’ll probably make time to read a little more than the first chapter.  It’s that good!

First Chapter Friday Idea: Out of My Mind, by Sharon M. Draper
First Chapter Friday Idea: Out of My Mind, by Sharon M. Draper

FCF Rating: 5/5 – An engaging, high-interest chapter that will leave students wanting more!

Lifeboat 12, Susan Hood

Genre: Novel in verse, historical fiction

I specifically used Lifeboat 12 to “trick” my war/survival-story obsessed readers into being hooked by a novel in verse. Although many were interested in the content of the first novel in verse I featured (Brown Girl Dreaming), they admitted their bias for so-called “poetry books.” This time, I simply read the book without disclosing its genre. And guess what? It worked! This book caught the attention of the vast majority of my students, especially my avid Alan Gratz fans. Students were intrigued by the story, which follows 13-year-old Ken as he is evacuated from Nazi bombings in London. Full disclosure: The first student who borrowed the book returned it because he “didn’t want to read poetry.” But hey, we’re one step closer to actually reading novels in verse!

First Chapter Friday Idea: Lifeboat 12, by Susan Hood
First Chapter Friday Idea: Lifeboat 12, by Susan Hood

FCF Rating 5/5 – Tricked ’em with this novel in verse!

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, Stacey McAnulty

Genre: Realistic fiction

One girl, a lightning strike, and newfound math superpowers = what’s not to love? The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is all about a girl named Lucy, who inexplicably becomes a math genius after being struck by lightning. The first chapter is intriguing and fun, and even if you don’t have time to read the whole first chapter, a few pages are all you need to hook your students. This rec is thanks to my friend Kara over at Riley Reads YA. Check out her review HERE (and make sure you look at her other middle grade book recs, too).

First Chapter Friday Idea: The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, by Stacy McAnulty
First Chapter Friday Idea: The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, by Stacy McAnulty

FCF Rating: 5/5 – Unique & intriguing! Students were interested and had lots of questions!

Unbroken (Young Adult Adaptation), Laura Hillenbrand

Genre: Biography, WWII nonfiction

After we finished A Long Walk to Water as a whole class, I wanted to find a story that would complement it for First Chapter Friday. After looking around my shelves, I decided on Unbroken as soon as I read the first line: “All he could see, in every direction, was water.” It was the perfect contrast to the absence of water in A Long Walk to Water. While former Olympian Louis Zamperini’s story looks a lot different from Salva Duts’, both books are inspiring accounts of survival against all odds.

We actually did this First Chapter Friday during a brief period of online learning, and it worked out well. I played the audio from the preface, which is full of tension and suspense. If you have more time, the first chapter introduces Zamperini and the story a bit more, but the preface is really all you need to intrigue your readers! Bonus: There’s a movie (and it’s incredible), so you can show the trailer to hook students even more!

First Chapter Friday Idea: Unbroken (YA Adaptation), by Laura Hillenbrand
First Chapter Friday Idea: Unbroken (YA Adaptation), by Laura Hillenbrand

FCF Rating: 5/5 – An absolute hit! Almost all of my students reported that they were interested in reading this!

Racing in the Rain: My Life as Dog (Young Reader’s Edition), Garth Stein

Genre: Animal fiction

I ended the semester with something different that I knew my students would love: Racing in the Rain, a story about a dog! Better yet, it’s a book written from the perspective of a dog. This was a major hit, and students were scrambling to get the one copy I had to lend out. I paired this book with my KWL-style graphic organizer (find it HERE), which prompted students to make inferences and generate questions and predictions. Since we had just studied point of view in A Long Walk to Water, this first chapter offered a fascinating glimpse into how a dog’s point of view can affect a story.

First Chapter Friday Idea: Racing in the Rain (Adaptation for Young Readers), by Garth Stei
First Chapter Friday Idea: Racing in the Rain (Adaptation for Young Readers), by Garth Stein

FCF Rating: 5/5 – Students went WILD over this! I immediately purchased more copies at a local used bookstore to keep up with the demand. 🙂


That’s it! Now go add these to your First Chapter Friday list so you can thank yourself later! This post contains 13 recs because we started First Chapter Friday a few weeks into the year and skipped a couple Fridays due to time off, testing, and project presentations. I will round up a second post with the rest of the titles I feature at the end of this school year. In the meantime, stay tuned to my Instagram for First Chapter Friday ideas. If you’re interested in weekly recommendations every Sunday, sign up for my teacher email club HERE. 

Love the idea, but need some help implementing First Chapter Friday in your classroom? Check out the resources & blog posts below:

First Chapter Friday Graphic Organizers

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