2017 Gift Guide (No. 4): Middle-Grade Magnificence
December 7, 2017 § 3 Comments
As promised, here is a roundup of my favorite middle-grade fiction of 2017, a mix of graphic and traditional novels, targeted at tweens or older. Not included are titles I blogged about earlier in the year—gems like The Inquisitor’s Tale, The Wild Robot, and See You in the Cosmos, which would make excellent additions to this list. Also not included are books I haven’t read yet—particularly Amina’s Voice, Nevermoor, The Stars Beneath Our Feet, and Scar Island (by the same author as the riveting Some Kind of Courage)—which would likely be on this list if I had. The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, which I adore, has a sequel out this year which I’m dying to read. And I should also mention that if my son were making this list, he would undoubtedly note that it has been a stand-out year for new installments in his favorite series, including this, this, this, this, and this.
Now, without further ado, let’s sink our teeth into these richly textured and meaty stories, filled with angst and adventure, secrets and self-discovery.
For the Girl Trying to Make Sense of Middle School
If Victoria Jamieson’s new graphic novel, All’s Faire in Middle School (Ages 10-13), and Shannon Hale’s equally fabulous, Real Friends (Ages 10-13), don’t take you straight back to your own days in middle school, then your middle school experience must have looked a lot different than mine (I think I experienced PTSD reading these books). And yet, perhaps things would have been different if I had gotten my hands on stories like these, if I had been introduced to female protagonists who had shown me I was not alone. Jamieson and Hale navigate the awkwardness, pettiness, and—yes—cruelty of middle school girls, at the same time delving into what it means to be on the outside looking in, craving acceptance, even at great expense.
Real Friends, which is actually Hale’s memoir of her own middle school years, addresses the mean-girls culture head on; the questions which arise, about why girls treat one another the way they do, continue through the story’s powerful Afterward. All’s Faire in Middle School (Jamieson’s previous was the Newberry Honor Book, Roller Girl) puts forth an especially clever construct to explore similar themes. Formerly home schooled, eleven-year-old Imogene is fumbling to gain acceptance into the social scene of her new public middle school, while at the same time balancing a close-knit family life revolving around her parents’ unconventional work at the local Renaissance Faire. Trying to be cool, while simultaneously “coming out” as a kid who dresses up in period costumes and holds Knight-in-Training classes on the weekends, comes with monumental challenges. Imogene makes realistic, even devastating, mistakes on the path to ultimately finding a way to stay true to herself. She also reminds us that if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’ll never survive middle school.
For the Geocacher
In The Exact Location of Home (Ages 9-12), Kate Messner does something sneaky. She has readers think they’re merely reading about a boy’s adventures with geocaching, while at the same time gently lifting the stigma of child homelessness. Messner tells us in the book’s front matter that more than two million children in America each year are homeless for a period of time. Most of these kids have to keep on with their life: doing homework, making friends, eating and sleeping in communal shelters, and—oftentimes—going to great lengths to keep their situation secreted.
Twelve-year-old Zig becomes, overnight, one of these kids. His parents are divorced; his dad has gone MIA and stopped paying child support (Zig is convinced he can use geocaching to find him); and his mother’s job waiting tables to support nursing school can’t cover the rent. After exhausting their options, Zig and his mother move into a shelter and share living space with the very likes of people Zig has always looked down upon. Zig is a whip-smart, incredibly earnest boy, whose complicated reactions to his predicament—spanning rage, resentment, and reconciliation—make us feel for him at every turn. His two best friends, both girls, are excellent additions to the story (there’s even a spot of romance), making this an engaging choice for boys and girls alike.
When it feels like middle-grade literature is increasingly pulling subject matter from the young-adult world, it’s refreshing to recommend a read that is light, fun, and promises pure escapism. Even better when that story conjures up mouth-watering descriptions of chocolate. I just finished reading Stephanie Burgis’ The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart (Ages 8-12) to my daughter, and we both agreed that an ornery, impatient, fire-breathing dragon trapped inside a human’s body is an apt metaphor for what it sometimes feels like to be female.
When the story begins, a young dragon named Aventurine runs away from her family’s cave, not content to bide her time indoors for thirty-plus more years until she reaches maturity. Almost immediately, she is lured by the smell of hot, bubbling chocolate, and a mischievous mage magicks her into a human. Without wings, claws, or fire—and unable to convince her family who she is—Aventurine must adapt to civilized life in the nearby town, including landing a job as an apprentice to one of the most talented, if hot-headed, chocolatiers in the area. Proving that feel-good stories need not be (marshmellowy) fluff, The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart beautifully illustrates what it means to follow your passion. It also reassures us that, even in our budding independence, we never completely leave our family behind.
If the dazzling cover doesn’t immediately entice readers, or the fact that Tumble and Blue (Ages 10-14) is by the same author as the esteemed Circus Mirandus, consider this: a deep-South story stoked in legends, curses, and a vengeful alligator. There’s no shortage of bizarre happenings and delicious humor in Cassie Beasley’s coming-of-age story, starring both a boy and girl protagonist; but what may resonate above all with readers is the theme of what it means to live under the weight of a label—and the lengths we’ll go to get out from underneath the weight of how others perceive us.
Soon after Blue Montgomery gets dropped on his grandmother’s doorstop in the aptly-named town of Murky Branch, Georgia (population 339) by his neglectful father, he sets out to challenge what he has always been told: that he is incapable of winning at anything, be it sports or school. His encouragement comes in the unlikely form of Tumble Wilson, a meddlesome girl his same age, who moves in next door. That Tumble suffers from a hero complex—an indefatigable belief that she can save people—is over time revealed as an attempt to over-correct for a painful secret in her past. The spit-fire dialogue between Tumble and Blue is as fun as it is dear; and whether or not we buy into the swamp’s ancient legend, we’re as taken by surprise as our hero and heroine are when they confront their destinies head on.
In Holly Goldberg Sloan’s delightful Short (Ages 9-12), middle-schooler Julia’s witty, astute, and occasionally self-deprecating stream-of-consciousness narration grabs us right out of the gate; we couldn’t find a better companion with whom to spend the next 296 pages. Julia has long been conflicted about her size, which borders on dwarfism. But it also means she is a natural choice for munchkin and flying monkey parts in her community’s summer theater production of The Wizard of Oz, for which her mother signs her up before she can protest.
What begins as a giant exercise in mortification transforms into something else, as Julia is indoctrinated into the self-expressive world of theater, where life is more nuanced than appearances suggest. An especially rich cast of supportive characters—including a charming, if arrogant, director; three professional adult actors, who are themselves dwarfs and fiercely protective of Julia; and an eccentric elderly woman who lives next door to Julia and becomes the unlikeliest of costume designers—makes this a robust read, whose pages remind children that we all deserve to be seen for who we are on the inside.
Thinking back to when I loved nothing more than losing my tween self in a book, Lauren Wolk’s Beyond the Bright Sea (Ages 10-14) would have had me swooning: an orphaned girl named Crow, a remote New England island, and dark intrigue surrounding the girl’s unknown origins. Wolk’s Wolf Hollow was my favorite middle-grade novel of 2016, though admittedly a difficult story to stomach (with the cruelest of bullies). Beyond the Bright Sea is softer and quieter, but no less powerful—and wow, does Wolk know her way around a sentence.
Twelve-year-old Crow was once discovered abandoned on a floating skiff, just hours after her birth. While she adores the reclusive painter who took her in and raised her like his own—and while she appreciates her island life of fresh air, fishing, and combing through wreckage from washed-up ships—she longs to understand the story of her birth. What begin as nagging questions in the back of her mind transform into a burning desire—much like the mysterious fire she spies on “the [nearby] island where no one ever went”—to risk everything she knows, everything safe, for the chance to fit the pieces of herself together. Like the ebb and flow of the tide, Wolk’s writing reveals and strips away, leaving us as breathlessly wanting answers as Crow herself.
Hands down, the best thing I did last month was to read The War That Saved My Life to my ten year old. (I grew impatient waiting for him to pick it up on his own—it has been laying around since I tagged it for my 2015 Gift Guide—so I decided to take matters into my own hands. Lo and behold: the skeptic loved every minute of it—and not just the air raids and rescue missions.) Now, we are halfway through Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s just-published sequel, The War I Finally Won (Ages 10-14), which opens just days after the previous book ends—and is so far every bit as magnificent.
Eleven-year-old Ada has long allowed her deformed foot and her abusive mother to inform the way she sees herself. Now that she has undergone corrective surgery and been officially adopted by the nurturing, if nontraditional, Susan, Ada dares to begin asking what she might want from and do for the world. Of course, life in England is exceedingly fraught, as Hitler’s army presses closer, as air raids become more devastating, and as the list of dead whom Ada knows grows longer. That Ada learns, not just to survive, but to thrive under such stress and sorrow is an inspiring message for our own children, who crave assurance that even in the most trying to times, there is always hope and kindness and community to be found.
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Review copies provided by Dial (All is Faire in Middle School, Tumble and Blue, Short, and The War I Finally Won) and Dutton (Beyond the Bright Sea). Other books published by First Second (Real Friends) and Bloomsbury (The Dragon With a Chocolate Heart). All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!