2019 Gift Guide: Middle-Grade Fiction for Ages 8-14
December 15, 2019 § 2 Comments
The category of middle-grade fiction is rapidly broadening. On the one side are novels accessible to 8-12 year olds, while on the other are heavier, more mature stories aimed at the 10-14 crowd. As always, I’ve indicated age ranges after each title. Those with kids on the older end: don’t be in a hurry to move your kids to young-adult fiction. There’s still plenty of richness for the taking here.
The first five novels are new to this bog; the others are ones I’ve reviewed earlier in the year but couldn’t resist repeating, because they have mad gift potential. Or maybe it’s just that I’m madly in love with all of them. 2019: what a year. (And I can’t wait to see you in 2020. This wraps my Gift Guide, and I wish all of you a very Happy Holidays.)
OK, here it is: my favorite middle-grade read of the year. And not just because I read it in the past 24 hours. Ali Benjamin’s The Next Great Paulie Fink (Ages 10-14) is a book which has it all: it’s hilarious; it will make you think; it’s got a motley of lovable, oddball characters; and it’s told in an enticing combination of interviews, emails, texts, and traditional first-person narration. It has an epic soccer game which lasts sixteen chapters. Oh, and it’s rooted in Plato’s allegory of the cave, a 2,400-year-old thought experiment.
Paulie Fink is a legend. He’s an epic prankster. He has disco ball eyes. Some even think he’s a god who came from the stars. And his former classmates are beside themselves when he doesn’t show up at the start of seventh grade. In his place is new student Caitlyn Breen, recently and reluctantly relocated to rural Vermont, where the teeny tiny non-traditional school that is Mitchell defies everything she thought she’d mastered about middle school. (Don’t even get her started on the GOATS.) But no one is interested in where Caitlyn came from. No one wants to imagine life at Mitchell without Paulie, so the seventh graders decide to hold a reality-show-style competition among themselves to “Find the Next Great Paulie Fink”—and they convince Caitlyn to be the judge.
Who was this Paulie Fink, and where did he go? And why is everyone so obsessed with him? These are the questions Caitlyn thinks she’s after as she interviews her classmates and delves into their pasts. Then, as the year goes on, amidst feeding goats, studying the ancient world, and coming to terms with her own regrettable history of bullying another girl, Caitlyn begins to wrestle with some personal questions of her own. What determines the way we see another person? Do we ever get to start over, to clear the slate of our past and become the person or the community we want others to see? How do we take control of our own narratives? Or does that miss the point entirely?
I have a soft spot for spitfire narrators, and protagonist Lyndie B. Hawkins delivers in spades. The second I finished this novel, I thought, “Well, now I’m going to have to read this aloud to my kids.” Because Lyndie’s thoughts, not to mention the conversations she gets into with her friends and family, almost demand to be read aloud.
Set in 1985 Tennessee, Gail Shepherd’s The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins (Ages 10-14) is a coming-of-age story in the shadow of the Vietnam War. Lyndie’s life was going along swimmingly until her father, a Vietnam vet, lost his job, and her mother refused to come out of her bedroom. Now, the family has moved in with Lyndie’s grandparents, where her grandmother, a “fusspot, who drove a hard bargain,” is determined to make a “nice Southern girl” out of Lyndie. Lyndie is having none of it. She skips school to make a pet out of an injured deer. She refuses to unpack the boxes in her “so-called bedroom” (“Clear as day, no child has ever inhabited that room. I don’t see why I have to be the pioneer.”). Worst of all, she begins to realize that everyone around her, from her family to her teachers, is hiding things from her. She’s “bobbing like a cork in an ocean of false-hoods.”
With a school project on family history and an unexpected ally in the “juvenile delinquent” whom her best friend’s family is fostering, Lyndie begins to uncover the painful truths about a war which broke the spirits of a generation. What she does with these truths, whether she chooses to act on them or keep them hidden as her grandmother demands, will test Lyndie’s definitions of family, friendship, and community.
I rarely play the “I need you to read this book” hand with my eldest, but I did for this. Rex Ogle’s searing memoir, Free Lunch (Ages 11-14)—about the first semester of his sixth-grade year as a “free lunch” kid—may be one of the most important books we can put in our middle schoolers’ hands. The writing is as engaging as some of the best realistic fiction out there; what will floor young readers is that it’s all true.
Navigating middle school is hard enough—who to sit with, remembering locker codes, whether to try out for the football team—without shouldering the monumental burdens of poverty, abuse, and constant hunger. Rex recoils under the shame of teachers who sniff his secondhand clothes as he walks by, who make up their mind about him being trouble before he can show off his razor-sharp intellect. He doesn’t dare reveal the real reason he can’t try out for the football team, because his mother prefers Rex clean and cook and care for his toddler brother. Above all, he dreads lunchtime: the moment he must carry his tray to the cashier and inform her that’s he’s in the free lunch program, loudly enough to be heard over the roar of kids, every single day.
Loneliness, resentment, confusion, and anger weave throughout Rex’s story, especially the heart-wrenching scenes at home, with a volatile mother who suffers from a personality disorder and is herself the victim of domestic violence. But what makes this memoir so powerful is the honesty, hope, grace, and even humor which surface again and again in Rex’s telling. His fierce protectiveness towards his little brother. His unflinching desire to see the good in his mother. His open-mindedness when he makes an unlikely new friend at school. Free Lunch blasts open all the poverty narratives and stereotypes our society dishes up, revealing the bare soul of one who lived it all. This book slayed me.
Here’s another character whose middle-school years make most of ours look breezy. Twelve-year-old Ellie has spent most of her life in a wheelchair owing to her cerebral palsy. She has gotten used to not being able to run in gym class or reach the soda fountains at McDonalds, but she’ll never get used to others’ judging her for not being “normal.” When her grandfather’s Alzheimer’s worsens, Ellie and her mom move across the country into her grandparents’ trailer. Ellie has to start mid-year at a new school, one which has never accommodated a student in a wheelchair before and whose population doesn’t always look kindly on “trailer park kids.”
Jamie Sumner’s Roll With It (Ages 8-12), based loosely on her experience with her son who has CP, is an absolute delight from start to finish, owing once again to a feisty female protagonist who isn’t interested in blending into the woodwork. (“It’s just that anybody who sees a girl in a wheelchair thinks she’s going to be sunshine and cuddles. Sorry for having an opinion.”) When she’s not writing fan letters to the likes of Deb Perelman with Smitten Kitchen, she’s experimenting with new baking recipes, determined to win over hearts with perfect scones and snowball cookies. But her professional baking ambitions pale in comparison to the joy she feels at finding, for the first time, true friendship in a non-conforming girl named Coralee. “Normal,” Ellie begins to realize, is highly overrated.
Edie has always known she is half Native American, but it’s something her parents rarely acknowledge, including her Native mother, who was adopted as an infant and raised by a white couple in Seattle. As far as Edie knows, her mother never had any connection to her birth family. Until a box of old letters, unwittingly uncovered by Edie and her friends one afternoon in the attic, reveals a truth about Edie’s ancestry which changes everything.
Part mystery, part exposition of middle-school friendships, and part identity quest, Christine Day’s debut novel, I Can Make this Promise (Ages 8-12), is a fast, accessible read, owing to Edie’s highly relatable first-person narration. Alongside Edie, we learn important, sometimes painful truths about the Pacific Northwest’s Native culture of the past and present. Her story reminds us that the complexities of family are worth uncovering, for only when we understand the entirety of where we came from, can we fully embrace ourselves.
It’s rare that a Must Read for Our Times doubles as wildly entertaining, but welcome to Geoff Rodkey’s We’re Not From Here (Ages 8-13). Imagine what humans would do if Earth suddenly became uninhabitable; if we had to seek out life on a different planet? What if our only option was a planet whose intelligent life—think towering, mosquito-like creatures with a hive mindset—were more distrusting than hospitable towards our humanness? What if our “alien-ness” blinded these creatures from seeing us as anything but a threat?
This is precisely the dilemma faced by Lan, our young non-binary human narrator, whose family is launched to Planet Choom and tasked with convincing the Zhuri to accept what remains of the human population as refugees. Smile! (Even if someone tries to kill you.) Be polite! (Even if you’re insulted.) Ask questions! (With the help of awkward translating headphones.) Eat whatever you’re served! (Even if it’s still moving.) Do whatever it takes to win them over, because the fate of humankind is in your hands.
Lan is fighting an uphill battle. Not only have the Zhuri never laid eyes on a human before, but their powerful propaganda machine has stereotyped humans as violent creatures, whose very nature threatens the professed peacefulness of Planet Choom. It will take unexpected allies, cleverness, and an unfailing sense of humor if Lan is going to convince the inhabitants of Planet Choom that they have more in common with the aliens than they think.
A book which leaves you misty eyed because of its sheer loveliness? YES PLEASE. Inspired by Filipino folklore, Lalani of the Distant Sea (Ages 8-12), 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, including several mythical creatures whom Lalani encounters, both friend and foe. Lalani of the Distant Sea is a 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.
Our entire family fell in love with Gary D. Schmidt’s Pay Attention, Carter Jones (Ages 10-14) back in January when it came out, and I wrote a post about our experience reading it aloud. When an English butler shows up without warning one morning at the door of the Jones’ American house—a “portly” Mary Poppins character, minus the magic but with the umbrella—he is hardly met with a warm welcome, especially from Carter Jones, who is trying to steel himself for the first day of sixth grade. As a narrator, Carter Jones is pure perfection, with his infectious flair for the dramatic, hefty dose of teenage skepticism, and a dry wit matched only by that of this mysterious new butler.
As it turns out, the Jones family needs saving from more than the drudgery of daily life. The family is still raw from the tragic loss of Carter’s young brother, who died from a rare illness a little over a year ago. Carter misses his brother terribly, but he misses his father even more—a deployed Captain in the Army, who announces he is leaving the family for another woman. Coming to terms with the fickleness of death is one thing; coming to terms with the fickleness of human behavior, especially from someone you have always trusted, seems nearly impossible.
And that’s where the jolly old sport of cricket comes in. Bet you didn’t know that playing cricket is the perfect metaphor for keeping the bails up when your entire world seems to be falling apart.
In Jasmine Warga’s lovely novel in verse, Other Words for Home (Ages 10-14), Jude is a Syrian girl, forced during wartime to move to Cincinnati with her pregnant mother, leaving behind her beloved father, brother, seaside home, and a vibrant culture her new surroundings would have her forget. America, Jude realizes, is a country of labels. In Syria, she was just a girl, gossiping about movie stars with her best friend. Here, she is a Middle Eastern girl. A Syrian girl. A Muslim girl. A girl with a hijab. A girl who hails from a place of “violence/ sadness/ war.”
Americans love labels.
They help them know what to expect.
I think labels stop them from
Our window into Jude’s interior world allows us to peel back the layers of these labels. Not just the stereotypes associated with Jude’s cultural heritage, but also of being the “new girl”: the girl with the broken English, the girl living in the shadow of her popular American cousin, the girl with no one to sit with at lunch. Jude refuses to let others define her. Watching Jude break out of her initial shyness and hesitancy to become the same girl she was back home—one who relished the limelight, who believed herself entitled to dreams, who is full of “punch/ liters of it”—is one of the most satisfying reading experiences of the year.
It might be true that Dan Gemeinhart’s The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise (ages 9-13) should come with a warning to stock up on tissues (like maybe two boxes), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give this deeply insightful book to your loved ones.
It might be true that Coyote Sunrise is about a girl who lost her mother and sisters in a car accident five years ago; about a girl who has lived every day since on the go with her bereft hippie father, aimlessly traversing the country in a hollowed-out bus. But that doesn’t mean one tiny happening—being gifted a kitten by a stranger outside a gas station—can’t set into motion a chain of events to empower this girl to stand up to her father and help them both take back some of what they’ve lost.
It might be true that, as Coyote befriends an eccentric cast of fellow travelers, their own stories seem only to confirm her experience that “there is so much sadness in the world.” But that doesn’t mean Coyote believes any less in the transformative power of kindness. Or the beauty of a starlit sky, the perfect BLT sandwich, or the seduction of a Katherine Applegate book. Even, for that matter, in hope. “Hope is a lot like parking lot cigarette butts—always there if you look hard enough,” she delivers with her characteristically wry wisdom. At the end of the day, Coyote Sunrise isn’t about mourning. It’s about healing.
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