Summer Reading to Save Us: Massive Middle-Grade Roundup
May 21, 2020 § 1 Comment
I have a confession. As our summer plans are being ripped away from us—slowly, painfully, like the stickiest of band-aids—I am secretly stockpiling books and puzzles. It’s compulsive. Possibly certifiable. But I can’t help it. In some tiny, naively optimistic part of my brain, I believe if we have stockpiles of books and puzzles, we won’t wake every morning and cry over missed swim meets and sleepaway camps and beach vacations. Even if it’s sweltering. Even if we can’t leave the house. Oh, who am I kidding? We’ll still cry. But at least we’ll have books and puzzles.
It seems I might not be alone. I ran a survey yesterday on Instagram and 85% of you voted for my gargantuan list of favorite new middle-grade books to come out now, as opposed to after Memorial Day. So maybe you’re getting ready, too. And it is a gargantuan list. (A reminder that I recently covered new graphic novels here, as well as three chapter books which we read aloud but could easily be read independently.) Some skew younger and some much older, so I’ve listed age ranges below each title. Here’s the thing: I read a ton over the past six months, and these are what made the cut. There were others I expected to like or wanted to like, but they just didn’t feel like anything I could give a kid and say, with confidence, You’re going to love this. You’re going to forget, for a few minutes, that the world is all kinds of suckiness right now.
But here’s the other thing. I’m not going anywhere, and I’m still reading. Like crazy. So keep tuning in. (You can always track what the kids and I are reading in real time on Instagram.) Summer is coming, and we’ll get through it together. With a little help from the books (and puzzles).
(You can click on the book covers to order. Links are Amazon affiliate, though please shop local if you can!)
This tribute to librarians and banned books—a story told through emails, memos, and news articles—is PUNtastic! When Rita B. Danjerous (get it? read to be dangerous?) comes to Appletown, Illinois as school librarian, she ruffles a few feathers with her “green dot collection” of highly-prized books on sensitive topics, which children can borrow without checking them out. Before long, students of Appleton Elementary are reading well past their bedtimes, leaving Ivana Beprawpa (say that out loud), the newly-appointed school board president, to question whether this “loosey goosey” approach to literacy might be “interfering with sleep and the town’s wholesome image.” What are these books the kids won’t put down? Any why are boys suddenly interested in sewing and girls wearing fishnet stockings?
On the heels of their last series, Three-Ring Rascals (a former favorite in our house), the Kline team again delivers an outrageous, highly entertaining villain in Ivana Beprawpa. Ivana is determined to push out Rita B. Danjerous, as much for her questionable morality as for the fact that Ivana’s own hoity-toity clothing store is threatened by children who sew their own clothes and flagrantly disregard school uniform policy. To that, Rita responds: “I suppose I’m drawn to characters who worry less about making rules and more about making a difference in the world.”
Clever puns, hilarious antics, and whip-smart writing aside, Don’t Check Out This Book! is also a testament to the salvation of reading. Some days, books help us start a revolution; other days, they simply help us get out of bed. Stories soothe, inspire, and shape us; they answer the questions we’re afraid to ask out loud; and they might require you to bring a flashlight to bed.
Meet my favorite kid lit character of the year! With candor, humor, and the occasional homespun “Batpig” comic, seventh-grader Ross Maloy takes on cancer, bullies, and the electric guitar. I cannot sing the praises of Rob Harrell’s Wink enough. Put this book in the hands of every middle schooler you know. (My third and sixth graders both loved it, and if you don’t believe me, you can hear it from my daughter here.)
The novel is inspired by the author’s own battle with the same rare eye cancer as his protagonist, including surgery, facial scarring, daily radiation, goopy eyes, and permanent vision loss. Make no mistake: this is heart-wrenching stuff. But the beauty of Wink lies in the warmth and wit which consistently surrounds Ross, countering the ugliness: his dad; the radiation tech (who teaches Ross to play the guitar); a fellow cancer fighter he meets during treatment; his best friend Abby; and the most unlikely band mate he could imagine. At the center of it all is Ross’ intimate, self-effacing, unforgettable first-person narration, guaranteed to have us pulling for him at every turn. Like Wonder’s Auggie, Ross is a protagonist who will take up space in many readers’ hearts for a long time to come.
What does it mean to be yourself in a world that’s, to quote e.e. Cummings, “doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else?” Simply observe each character in Birdie and Me and you’ll have a range of answers.
At the center of this debut novel lies Jack, a girl with a penchant for jotting things down, and Birdie, her younger brother, with a penchant for sequins and sparkles. (OK, I lied. Meet my other favorite kid lit character of the year.) When the two lose their mother, they’re yanked from Portland, Oregon and dropped in rural Northern California, staying first with one childless uncle and then another, trying to reconcile who they thought they were against the hangups and narrow mindedness of their new neighbors.
This story has it all: two unforgettable protagonists you’ll be routing for all the way; a bounty of hilarious one liners (most delivered by Birdie himself); the classic curmudgeon-turned-loving authority figure; childish scheming gone predictably wrong and unexpectedly right; and a cast of supporting characters with memorable eccentricities (including a taxidermied bearded dragon named Marlboro). Above all, it’s a story which reminds us that children, if allowed to follow their hearts, are infinitely more than all the labels and boxes wielded on them by their (even well-meaning) adults.
Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead has a way of writing about nothing and everything at the same time, her stories rich in quiet emotional truths. I especially appreciate her latest novel’s depiction of anxiety, something most of our children are intimately familiar with these days. Bea’s anxiety isn’t debilitating, nor is it overtly identified. Still, it touches much of her daily life. It’s evident in the “list of things that will not change,” which she started documenting after her parents announced their divorce. It’s present in the way she worries about how her father’s upcoming wedding will affect her mother. It’s the reason why her anger sometimes erupts out of her, causing her to lash out at classmates and teachers. And it’s what keeps her from considering different perspectives, including what her soon-to-be sister might be feeling.
When Bea discovers her father’s almost husband has a daughter who will occasionally be living with them after the wedding, she thinks only of how she has always wanted a sister. Surely, she and Sonia will be the kind of sisters to stay up sharing secrets late into the night! But when Sonia arrives from California, homesick without her mother, she is nothing like the outgoing, effusive sister Bea has conjured up in her mind. Wanting something so badly doesn’t mean you can will it into existence, but when you’re reminded every day of living in a world beyond your control, it’s awfully tempting to try.
Loving adults fill the pages of this story about a girl doing her best (aren’t we all) to ride the waves of life’s uncertainty.
Me: “Bud, I think you would like this book.”
Him: “Mom, I really don’t need your recommendations right now.”
Me: “Stuart Gibbs calls it a “must-rea—“
Him: “Let me see that.”
And 48 hours later, he was finished. (In case you were wondering why publishers put blurbs from beloved authors on the covers of their books. Thanks, Stuart Gibbs, who coincidentally also has a new novel out in a favorite series.)
James Ponti’s City Spies has everything kids are looking for right now in this quarantine time of hyper un-focus: a fast-moving plot, sudden twists, the lure of globe trotting, and a top secret organization of five orphaned kids tasked with saving the world. Bonus points for a racially diverse cast.
Since finishing the latest from one of my very favorite middle-grade novelists, I’ve been trying to find words to describe why Lauren Wolk’s writing brings me to my knees. Somehow she finds a way to crack open life in the quietest of ways, leaving us brutally exposed and warmly cocooned in the same moment. Her intimacy with the natural world draws us towards something primal, something we’ve been only dimly aware of but suddenly feels essential. Essential. That might be the best word for Wolk’s writing.
Set during the Great Depression, years into Ellie’s family leaving town to make a self-sufficient life in the wild mountains of Maine, Echo Mountain is a story of healing. Ellie wonders about her own—sometimes taught, sometimes innate—ability to heal others with nothing more than what nature provides. To bring back a stillborn puppy. To heal a deadly leg wound inflicted by a fisher cat. But she wonders if any of this will matter if she can’t heal her father from the coma he fell into after a tree fell on him.
Familial love, sacrifice, independence, curiosity, isolation, loss, and acceptance frame Ellie’s coming-of-age story, starring a cast of characters as unforgettable as the wild setting against which they move.
“It has always been our young who are our champions of justice. Who stand at the vanguard of change.”
I wasn’t alive when four college students were gunned down by the National Guard on the Kent State campus while protesting the Vietnam War. I knew the lives lost at Kent State were later credited with hastening the removal of US troops from a war we were losing (and arguably shouldn’t have entered in the first place). But I never imagined what it must have felt like to be turning eighteen in 1970; to live in fear of the draft; to have your trust betrayed by the very institutions sworn to protect you; to have your innocence thrown back in your face. To watch your classmates be slaughtered for exercising their First Amendment Right.
In just 118 meticulously-researched pages, Kent State immerses us in the events of May 4, 1970, imagining a kind of poetic conversation among nameless ghost voices of those who witnessed the deaths of Allison, Jeff, Sandy, and Bill. In charged, escalating debate—all the more fiery given the free-verse format—we hear not only from outraged and heartbroken classmates and friends, but also from members of the community who supported the mayor’s decision to call in Ohio’s National Guard, including members of the Guard themselves. So vividly do the sounds and smells, chaos and fear, feelings and images come to life, we can scarcely pry ourselves away.
Kent State isn’t just a history lesson. It’s a call to action: a plea to today’s youth to stand up to injustice, to stay vigilant, and to have the difficult conversations.
“Mommy, can I record myself reading this funny part? I want to save it to show my own kids someday, so I can convince them to read this book.” When my daughter started Kate Messner’s Chirp, she told me she was having trouble getting into it. I encouraged her to hang in there, because I suspected that once the mystery kicked into high gear, she’d be hooked. Sure enough: halfway in, I could not have pried this book from her fingers.
I didn’t tell her I had an ulterior motive. Amidst the engaging mystery (someone is trying to sabotage the cricket business Mia’s grandmother runs), a STEM summer camp, and crickets-are-the-new-superfood trivia, is a #MeToo story. When the book begins, Mia’s family is relocating to Vermont to be closer to her grandmother; and yet, we sense that Mia’s decision to end her gymnastics training is about more than just the move. With the help of a new friend and the support of her family, Mia eventually finds the words to talk about what happened back in Boston between her and her coach.
Messner has seamlessly woven a sensitive and important issue into an otherwise fun and suspenseful story. The incident with Mia’s former coach is by no means the focus of the novel, nor is it (thankfully) especially terrible. What happens to Mia falls in that grey zone, in the place where our gut is often the only thing we can rely on to warn us. I want my daughter to think about the nuances of time spent with adults. I want her to be aware that, even if “nothing happened,” the emotional fallout of any violation can endure for weeks, months, even years. In these times, finding our voice and confiding in a safe adult is how we return to ourselves and the life we want.
I inhaled this debut middle-grade novel like a breath of fresh air, and I have a hunch many tweens will do the same (I’m looking at you, daughter of mine). The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane is brimming with heart, gumption, music, and a two-legged rescue dog. It stars a girl who collects sounds. It’s a touching story about creating the family you wish you had. And it’s an entertaining road trip to boot. (Literary road trips get me every time. This one puts me in mind of last year’s Coyote Sunrise which, if your kids haven’t read, get on that.)
Eleven-year-old Maybelle thinks if she can find a way to get to Nashville, she’ll be able to win the heart of the father she has never met. All she has to do is stand on stage and sing for him and the other contest judges. That and keep the whole thing a secret from her mother, who is conveniently away on a business trip, leaving Maybelle in the care of a widow who owns the mobile home next to hers…and to whom Maybelle has barely spoken two words since she and her mom moved there a few months ago.
As it turns out, Maybelle isn’t the only one keeping secrets. Mrs. Boggs has a lonely heart, too, one eager for adventure. And when Maybelle’s arch nemesis, Tommy O’Brien, turns up as a stowaway on the road trip, things get even more interesting. The question is, can Maybelle swallow her stage fright and go through with her plan? And if so, what if she doesn’t get the father she so desperately wants?
What if, instead of fixating on being “happy,” we strove to become the “truest” version of ourselves? It felt serendipitous to read Stand Up, Yumi Chung! at the same time as Glennon Doyle’s wildly popular adult memoir, Untamed, because they resound with many of the same themes: the dangers of letting others define you; the importance of honesty (including with ourselves); learning to listen to our inner voice; and the ways we can reconcile our competing desires.
Jessica Kim’s endearing and entertaining new novel stars a protagonist whose hopes and dreams feel irreconcilable against the expectations of her Korean immigrant parents. “Only in America they have this kind of nonsense. Pay money to tell jokes.” Vocalized by Yumi’s father, who prides himself on serving the best Korean BBQ in town, this belief is precisely why Yumi finds herself embroiled in a snowball of lies: while her parents think she’s studying to ace the SSATs so she can qualify for a scholarship on the path to becoming a doctor or lawyer, she’s actually sneaking into a comedy camp under a stolen identity, determined to pursue her passion for telling jokes on stage. Yumi loves her parents, she knows they’ve sacrificed a lot for her, and she never intended to lie to them. But before she knows it, she’s in over her head. Instead of living the life she dreams, she feels increasingly confused about what she wants. Sometimes, we spend so much time fighting against something, we forget what we’re fighting for.
How Yumi finds her way back to being the daughter, friend, and student she wants to be makes this one of the most satisfying reads of the year. Bonus that we’re privy to lots of stand-up comedy along the way.
With her spunk, impulsiveness, and Portland hometown, Ryan Hart, narrator of this promising new illustrated series, invites many parallels to Ramona Quimby. (And the literary world always, always needs more Ramonas.) The most obvious and refreshing difference is that this new character, whose name means “king,” is black. Through Ryan, we are privy to bits of African-American culture, including hair care (what do you do when your hair can’t get wet and you’re invited to a swimming party?) and the church experience.
Much like Ramona, Ryan struggles with trying to live up to her name—to be the kind leader her parents expect her to be—even as things rarely go the way she wants. For starters, with her father out of work, her family has to downsize into a much smaller house. Now, instead of being given free reign to experiment with cooking recipes, Ryan has to help her mother find coupons for groceries. What’s worse, her best friend has a new best friend who won’t let Ryan forget it; Ryan freezes when she gets up in church to make a speech; and there might be a ghost in her new bedroom. But perhaps most perplexing is her older brother, protectively sweet one minute and obnoxiously bossy the next. What’s a sis to do when her brother gets under her skin? Cue the hot sauce.
Technically this was a 2019 release, only that fact that it’s set among the swampy kudzu leaves of summer (where we used to spend our summers, pre-COVID) renders it more than appropriate for today’s round-up.
The story is one only Laurel Snyder can write: as seductive as it is unsettling. Since the loss of her younger brother the previous summer, Leah has all but shut down. She stumbles through the school year, her once friends now strangers, and plans to spend summer break in front of the TV. But then she meets the mysterious Jasper, a girl who lives in the woods, a girl with secrets of her own.
Not only does My Jasper June never talk down to its reader, it’s a poignant testament to the complex, mature thoughts and actions of which tweens are capable, especially when their adults stop showing up for them in vital ways. It’s a story of trying to heal from tremendous loss and heartbreak, but a story which also makes us feel all kinds of hope, all kinds of possibility, in the presence of true friendship. I’ve been fortunate to have summer friendships like this—friendships which reach down into your soul and reflect back the beauty and courage and truth that’s there. It might be the closest thing to magic in this world.
Lest you think I’ve neglected the fantasy lovers, let me tell you about the book I read to my kids over winter break, while most of you were reading about magical elves and delightful woodland creatures. It’s a dystopian story about six-foot cockroaches. (See, it’s like we knew what was coming.) Only it was so much fun, we’re still grieving the loss of dear, noble Maximillian (words I never thought I’d type about a cockroach with human properties).
Maximillian Fly, by the author of the Septimus Heap books, is a delightfully strange and thrilling ride, replete with some of the most intricate world building you’ll find in children’s fiction; enough misunderstandings and mis-identities to stir intrigue around every corner; and nail-biting action guaranteed to elicit “just one more chapter!” At times, Maximillian talks directly to us, “young Wingless watcher,” lending a confessional tone to his complex, fraught, but ultimately hopeful story.
Maximillian is a human-turned-roach, feared and loathed by the Wingless ones, the very race to whom he used to belong. Never wishing to align himself with the terrorizing Night Roaches, Maximilian keeps mainly to his house, watching over the precious china collection his controlling human mother has tasked him with protecting. But when Trouble shows up in the form of two Wingless children, on the run from a malicious government attempting to encapsulate the city from the supposedly deadly Contagion of the outside world, Maximillian feels compelled to shelter and help them. Before he understands the magnitude of what he has done, he is thrust into an adventure which will not only determine the fate of the city of Hope, but will expose secrets about his own mysterious past.
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Books published by Algonquin, Dial Books for Young Readers (Penguin), Kathy Dawon Books (Penguin), Wendy Lamb Books (Random House), Simon & Schuster, Dutton Children’s Books (Penguin), Scholastic Press, Bloomsbury, Alfred A. Knopf (Random House), Kokila (Penguin), Bloomsbury, Walden Pond Press, and Katherine Tegen Books, respectively. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links, although I prefer we all shop local when we can, especially now!