A must-have fantasy series for middle schools is Cinda Williams Chima's The Warrior Heir (which I reviewed on May 11, 2006), The Wizard Heir (which I liked even better and forgot to review this summer) and The Dragon Heir. I got in big trouble with a student because I had the last book at home when he was dying to read it! This involves swords, magic, and lots of battles, but isn't medieval. Can't keep these books on the shelf.
That said, I was not in the mood for this third one. Something about Madison, the main character, annoyed me, and I was having trouble keeping the characters straight. That's me, though, and the students have not felt that way. Could be I'm in a bad mood because I have to move every fiction book in the library today.
Which might explain why I liked Sheila P. Moses' Joseph. It was unrelentingly depressing, but at least I could say "My life isn't that bad." Every year, students (mainly 7th grade girls in February) want to read about child abuse, drug abuse, etc., and I just don't understand. It makes their lives seem ggod by comparison. Joseph's mother is a crack addict who has lost their home because of her addictions. She has no redeeming qualities, and goes so far as to keep Joseph from moving in with his aunt, who could take proper care of him. His father is serving in Iraq, and his grandfather has recently died, so Joseph feels that there is no one else to take care of his mother if he leaves. Joseph is doing very well for himself despite his circumstances. This will be incredibly popular, and I appreciated the sensitive way in which the story avoided questionable language and situations. My only dislike-- the language is somewhat stilted, in that the characters hardly ever use contractions.