Fall is Looking Good: Middle-Grade Round Up
November 7, 2019 § Leave a comment
Of the dozens of middle-grade books I’ve read so far this fall (and I see no reason to stop anytime soon), here are the ones that have risen to the top. All except one I’ve featured on Instagram in recent weeks, but it seemed like a good time to round them up here. Publishers often save their best titles for fall, and this fall is proving pretty spectacular. May your children take advantage of the dwindling daylight to curl up with one of these gems. Perhaps they’ll find their people. Perhaps they’ll re-frame what it means to be an American. Perhaps they’ll even get closer to answering the question on the back of Jason Reynolds’ newest contribution to the tween psyche: How you gon’ change the world?
(Oh, and should you need something for yourself or your older teen, you’ll just have to get on the ‘gram to see this review. It’s only my favorite read of the fall.)
A lot can happen on the walk home from school. Alliances are formed and tested. Resolutions are made and broken. Scars are shaped, rumors are started, detours are taken. Only one thing is predictable: people’s lives are rarely as straightforward as they appear.
My son had the fortune of hearing Jason Reynolds read from his new book of interwoven short stories, Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks (Ages 10-14), a finalist for the National Book Award. He came home to announce, not only was he going to read Look Both Ways, but he was going to read everything by Jason Reynolds. No surprise here. Reynolds writes straight to the core of what it means to be a tween, especially one staring down this great big messy thing called life. At once warmly conspiratorial and wickedly funny, he tells it how it is.
The best part about reading Look Both Ways is that we don’t just witness the heavy stuff, like how it feels to watch someone you know get beat up, or to discover your parent isn’t as indestructible as you thought. Nah, Reynolds wants kids to know he sees all the things, so he devotes equal time to boogers and body spray and how to ask out a girl. Like its vibrant neighborhood, Look Both Ways reminds us that, while each of us is more complicated than our appearance suggests, we’re a lot more alike than we realize. (Published by Atheneum Books.)
Inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Hena Khan delivers a novel every bit as warmhearted. More to the Story (Ages 10-14) stars a contemporary American Muslim family living outside Atlanta. Like her literary predecessor Jo March, Jameela Mirza is an aspiring writer, with an eye on the coveted editor-in-chief position of her school’s newspaper. Like Jo, she dearly misses her father, who has taken a six-month position overseas to make ends meet. And like Jo, the drama of middle school life pales when her younger sister falls seriously ill.
This is sisterly love at its best: the squabbles, the inside jokes, the physical affection, the loaded glances, the comfort of being loved no matter what. It’s also an immensely relatable coming-of-age story, with a heroine who is continually re-framing ambition, success, friendship, family, and what it means to be an American. After all, there’s usually more to the story. (Published by Simon & Schuster.)
“We, the Ostentation of Others and Outsiders, swear to seek truth and justice, demonstrate kindness, and create community.” Such is the oath created by four fabulously quirky girls, who come together one summer to form a club in a tree house surrounded by peacocks. They know nothing about one another (and initially aren’t sure they want to). After all, what flock consists of an aspiring journalist, nerdy bird expert, homeschooled baking goddess, and goth crystal-wielder? The best kind, as it turns out. The kind to ruffle some long-overdue feathers in Sabel Palms, Florida.
Strange Birds: A Guide to Ruffling Feathers (Ages 9-12), by Celia C. Pérez, starts off a tad slow, as we learn the backstories of the four girls. But once the girls begin to interact, bringing with them diverse perspectives from their racial, socioeconomic, and familial differences, it’s pure magic. Pérez writes some of the most realistic and entertaining middle-grade dialogue around: direct, insightful, funny, and endearingly awkward. With undercurrents of social justice and inclusivity, this story celebrates a sisterhood earned, not won, and reminds us that we are stronger together. (Published by Kokila, imprint of Penguin Random House.)
When your daughter’s birthday coincides with the release of one of the most anticipated graphic novels of the fall, which also happens to be in her favorite genre (realistic fiction), which also happens to be by one of her favorite authors…well, your gift to her is a no-brainer. Fortunately, Jen Wang’s Stargazing (Ages 9-13) has lived up to the hype. Not only has my daughter now read it over a dozen times (arguably, even more than this other prized fall release), but I actually found myself moved to tears when I finally had a chance to read it.
Despite living in the same Chinese-American community, Christine and Moon couldn’t be more different: the former is studious and restrained, the latter impulsive and eclectic. Still, the girls find their way into a friendship as exciting as it is unexpected (helped in no small part by a shared love of K-pop). The power of Stargazing isn’t in the cliché that opposites attract—it’s what the girls do with this friendship, particularly when it is inevitably tested. Wang reminds us that, even in the wake of mistakes, the best friendships are worth rebuilding. (Published by First Second.)
If you were halfway through middle school and given an opportunity to start hanging out with a group of cool high schoolers, including a cute flirtatious boy, would you do it? Of course you would. Would it make you feel “hot chocolatey warm” for awhile? Might you start turning your back on the friends you’ve had forever? Might you start lying to your parents? Might you start diving down deeper and deeper until you’re not sure how to find your way up for air? But of course.
Laurie Morrison’s Up for Air (Ages 11-14), a pitch-perfect novel for those on the older side of middle school, stars a rising eighth grader, whose learning challenges consistently put her at the bottom of her class but whose talents in the water turn heads. As summer swim team kicks off, the coach asks Annabelle to swim up with the high school team, launching her into a social landscape both unnerving and tantalizing. It doesn’t take long before she’s in over her head.
I knew I’d enjoy this novel, because summer swim team is my kids’ favorite eight weeks of the year, much like it is for Annabelle. But I wasn’t expecting to feel like I was reliving all the ruminating that comes with navigating an increasingly complex social landscape as a teen. Because oooooh boy, does Morrison nail that. Up for Air is a valuable and relatable read for those kids who want to play up (and read up) but who aren’t necessarily ready for the emotional maturity asked of that. A beautiful example of one girl who finds her way back to her parents, her friends, and herself. (Published by Amulet, imprint of Abrams.)
A book which leaves you misty eyed because of its sheer loveliness? YES PLEASE. Inspired by Filipino folklore, Lalani of the Distant Sea (Ages 9-12), by Erin Entrada Kelly, spins a magical fable about a twelve-year-old girl who journeys towards the impossible to alter the fate of herself and her people.
Lalani Sarita is fatherless, her mother is dying, her home cowers in the shadow of a vengeful mountain, and she’ll never be allowed an education under the village’s tyrannical, male-centric rule. She has heard the legends of an island where riches and fortune are ripe for the taking. But no sailor has ever returned alive. No girl has even attempted a journey across the Veiled Sea…well, except one, and she still haunts it.
This may be Lalani’s journey, but layered inside are the stories of others as well, including several mythical creatures whom Lalani encounters, both friend and foe. Fans of Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon will find equally satisfying riches here, albeit with a bit more gore (perhaps a touch of Handmaid’s Tale?). Lalani of the Distant Sea is a middle-grade masterpiece about the stories that shape us: the ones we’ve been telling ourselves since forever, the ones we’ve let others spin for us, and the ones we now get to author ourselves. (Published by Greenwillow Books.)
I only had to start and abandon four others before I found my favorite new spooky read of the fall (when your standards are Adam Gidwitz and Jonathan Auxier, it’s hard to find scary stories that live up). The fast-paced, deliciously hair-raising Watch Hollow (Ages 9-13), by Gregory Funaro, calls to mind John Bellairs’ classics, which I devoured as a kid. Indeed, this one even has a clock in its walls.
The Tinker Family has fallen on hard times. Lucy and her older brother are mourning the loss of their mother to cancer, while their father faces impending bankruptcy of their family business, Tinker’s Clock Shop, whose backroom serves as tight sleeping quarters for all three. When the mysterious Mr. Quigley shows up, jingling a sack of gold and promising riches, if only Mr. Tinker can fix the enormous clock in an old, dilapidated mansion located in the (haunted) woods of Watch Hollow…well, it seems like an offer too good to pass up. The family moves into Blackford House for a summer they’ll never forget—indeed, one which they almost don’t live through.
What follows is as much a tale of ghosts, tree monsters, evil crows, and wooden animals coming to life, as it is of two children desperate to hold their family together as they confront their own struggles of growing up. A haunting tale, Watch Hollow is nevertheless balanced with heart and hope. (Published by HarperCollins.)
This fascinating and factual graphic novel hails from the author-illustrator Booklist has called “comics’ premiere chronicler of historical catastrophes.” Don Brown’s Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918 (Ages 10-14) takes us inside the influenza epidemic that wiped out one third of the planet, including 650,000 Americans. In a single year. (Flu shot, anyone?)
In true Don Brown style, science, history, and art blend seamlessly to pull us into the trenches of 1918. We learn that the name Spanish Flu was more propaganda than truth, especially given that the outbreak may have started in an army training camp in Kansas. We follow the illogical spread of the virus across our country and the globe and its devastating impact on economies, communities, and the war effort. We learn the crazy concoctions people cooked up to ward off the illness and the everyday citizens who stepped in to help. We see what happens when graves can’t be dug fast enough. We explore the implications for modern science, including the development of the flu vaccine. Throughout it all, we feel the pain and anguish on the faces of those affected. And we can’t look away. (Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)
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Some of these books were graciously shared with me by the publishers. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are above, although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!