2020 Gift Guide: Middle-Grade Fiction for Ages 8-14, Part One

November 12, 2020 § 1 Comment

As evidenced by the massive stack I’m bringing to you today and tomorrow, 2020 delivered some fantastic middle-grade fiction, including a number of novels by debut authors your kids won’t forget anytime soon. (It delivered non-fiction as well, as evidenced by my earlier endorsement of the astounding All Thirteen.)

One could make a case that storytelling has never been more essential. The stories below will take children far beyond the four walls of their home. They will entertain and inspire, while also eliciting empathy for those with different lived experiences. They will comfort, nurture, even heal. They’re the hope our children need to go forth into a brighter 2021.

A few of the novels I blogged about earlier in the year but mention again because I live in fear that you might miss them. The rest are new to these pages. (Remember, you won’t find any 2020 graphic novels here, because they got their own post.)

Below are the first ten. The second ten will follow tomorrow. I’ve taken particular care in noting the suggested age range below each title. Some of these skew younger, others older. I hope I’ve found something for every tween and young teen in your life.

The Brave
by James Bird
Ages 10-14

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when I finished reading The Brave to my kids, an extraordinary “own voices” debut novel. It’s hard to fathom a more memorable character in contemporary middle-grade fiction. We love Collin for his insights about human behavior and his humor in recounting them; we respect him for the enormous brain-based challenge he is working through; we blush for him when he falls in love with the fiery girl next door; and we cheer alongside him for redefining bravery to include himself.

After being kicked out of another school for bully retaliation, Collin is sent by his father to live with his mother, an Ojibwe woman he has never met. Collin brings to Minnesota a host of stereotypes about Native culture, along with a unique compulsion that drives him, not only to count every letter spoken to him, but to speak that tallied number at the beginning of any reply. It’s a condition that has brought judgment, ridicule, and shame from his father, his classmates, and himself.

What Collin never expects to find on the reservation is a family and culture at once fascinating, loving, and accepting. Add to that the enigma of a neighbor girl who sleeps in a treehouse, matches wits with Collin, and is fighting her own epic battle with her body. Plus an ancient Ojibwe test that can only be passed if Collin confronts his inner wolf. The result is a cognitively and culturally rich story of transformation, at times profoundly moving and laugh-out-loud funny.

Three Keys
by Kelly Yang
Ages 9-13

My kids are huge fans of Front Desk, inspired by Kelly Yang’s own childhood behind the front desk of her parents’ Southern California motel; and Three Keys is every bit as engaging and essential as its award-winning predecessor. Through the voice of its insightful, feisty, determined first-generation protagonist, both stories shed light on the struggles and discrimination faced by immigrants in our country. Mia Tang epitomizes the idea that you’re never too young to make a difference in the world. As Three Keys demonstrates, her friends are pretty awesome, too!

After helping her family buy the motel, Mia is anticipating a smoother year. But Proposition 187 looms, and not only is Mia’s best friend, Lupe, an undocumented immigrant, whose education and health care is threatened by the upcoming election, but anti-immigrant rhetoric swarms around Mia and the motel. Still, now that Mia has discovered her writer’s voice, she isn’t afraid to use it, especially when it means standing up for her best friend and the lives of the hardworking immigrants she knows.

Fighting Words
by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Ages 10-13

Hear me shouting from the rooftops: Fighting Words isn’t just an incredible piece of writing; its message will save lives. Many of you will recognize Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s name from her award-winning novel, The War That Saved My Life, so you’ll agree she tells one heck of a story. She also has an acute awareness of what her young reader can handle. Fighting Words tackles the uncomfortable subject of sexual trauma, but it does so in the most delicate way. Bradley has said this is the book she was put on Earth to write—and not just because she herself is a survivor of childhood abuse. According to the CDC and U.S. Dept of Justice, one in four girls and one in six boys will be abused by the time they’re eighteen.

What happens to ten-year-old Della and her teenage sister before the story begins, before they’re taken in by a caring foster woman, is devastating. But the story that follows isn’t about that devastation. It’s about empowerment. It’s a story about a love between sisters that is life sustaining. It’s a story about therapy and healing and daring to dream again. It’s about finding your voice, as much for standing up to authority as for calling out a classmate on the playground (even when he’s doing something seemingly playful, like snapping your bra strap). It’s Della’s story, delivered in her words, and she is the best of middle-grade protagonists: unpolished and wise, vulnerable and tough as nails. And did I mention funny as snow? (You can’t help but be charmed by a narrator who replaces her cusses with “snow.”) Della is the heart of this story, and I hope every kid gets to meet her.

A Wish in the Dark
by Christina Soontornvat
Ages 10-14

In A Wish in the Dark, Christina Soontornvat’s prose sings and shimmers, seductively drawing you into her Thai-inspired fantasy world, where light and dark play off one another on every page. (If her name sounds familiar, it’s because she also authored my non-fiction pick, All Thirteen.) The novel is a creative retelling of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s story about an inmate on the run against the backdrop of a working-class revolution. It’s a beautiful, magical, thrilling story, which resides in the space between the “haves” and the “have nots” and exposes that division for what it can be: arbitrary and toxic.

By hiding in a trash can of rotting durian rinds, an orphan named Pong escapes from a reform center, where he has been imprisoned since birth for a petty crime his mother committed. The monks, on whose shores he washes up clean, can only harbor him for so long. In a city that runs on magical orbs of light created by a power-hungry Governor, Pong is thrust into a life on the run—specifically, from the Law Commissioner’s daughter, Nok, an acclaimed spire fighter bent on proving her worthiness to her father by catching Pong and returning him to jail. Pong and Nok’s dance is as spiritual as it is physical, challenging the rigid black-and-white thinking of their vastly different upbringings and guiding them towards recognizing that clarity, forgiveness, and compassion often reside in shades of grey.

Millionaires for the Month
by Stacy McAnulty
Ages 8-12

Stacy McAnulty’s The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is a favorite of both my kids, so I was right to suspect her latest, Millionaires for the Month, would also be a hit. (Like its predecessor, there’s math and a rescue dog.) What would you do if you were given five million dollars to spend in a month? Sounds like a dream, right? Maybe not.

Felix and Benji have little interest in being field trip partners, much less friends, but their lives are intricately intertwined after a trip to the Natural History Museum in New York City, where they find and return the wallet of a tech billionaire. In return for their good deed, the wallet owner issues them a challenge: if in the next month they can spend $5,368,709.12—the cost of a penny doubled every day for thirty days—they’ll each get ten million dollars of their own to invest for their futures. But here’s the kicker: with the five million, they can only buy things for themselves; all purchases will be reclaimed at the month’s end; and they can’t tell anyone the terms, including their parents, who only know they’ve been gifted a huge sum of money.

At first, endless shopping sprees, bypassing lines at Disney, stays in luxurious suites, and their own personal chauffeur are a blast. But it turns out spending that much money is immensely time consuming and stressful. The money also drives wedges into their relationships, especially as Felix’s family descends into poverty and can’t understand why he won’t help them. A roller coaster of a ride that’s also a thought-provoking meditation on wealth, privilege, and the value of a penny.

When You Trap a Tiger
by Tae Keller
Ages 8-12

Seamlessly weaving together family, loss, and Korean folklore, When You Trap a Tiger is magical realism at its best. Along with her mother and teenage sister, Lily moves to Washington state to spend a few weeks with her sick grandmother. Moments before she arrives, she catches sight of a mysterious tiger, straight out of the Korean folktales her Halmoni told her when she was little. As the only one who can see or talk to the giant cat, Lily figures she’s either losing her mind or being given a clue into Halmoni’s past, a chance to set things right for her grandmother to move from one world to the next.

The characters in this novel are gorgeously wrought, from the larger-than-life grandmother, to the new friend Lily makes at the library (his boldness contrasts Lily’s shyness), to the sly tiger himself. This is a story about storytelling itself, about when to listen and when to speak up. It’s about saying goodbye to someone you love, while welcoming the surprising and beautiful ways that grief transforms us.

Efrén Divided
by Ernesto Cisneros
Ages 9-13

In Efrén Divided, another touching debut novel, we get a first-person account of the fear, shame, and far-reaching devastation surrounding deportation. Seventh-grader Efrén Nava may be American-born, but his parents are undocumented. He can handle his unfurnished one-room apartment—sharing a mattress with his brother and sister and doing homework in an empty bathtub—so long as he has his parents. His Amá is his personal Superwoman (or “Soperwoman,” named for the favorite Mexican dish she cooks for her family). But Efrén returns home one day to discovers Amá has been deported across the Mexican border. With his Apá forced to take on extra work to raise funds for a “coyote” to return Amá to America, it falls to Efrén to cook and care for his younger siblings, all while trying to navigate the academic and social pitfalls of middle school.

Talk about wanting to reach through a book’s pages to hug its main character! But Efrén never asks for pity. Even as his grades slip, Efrén is reluctant to share his predicament with his teachers or his best friend, fearful of making his family a bigger target. With only his wits to guide him, Efrén throws himself into his new caretaker role, managing to keep his sense of humor even as his siblings melt down over botched meals and incomplete answers. Efrén discovers in himself the same resourcefulness he admires in his parents, and he also begins to understand why his home—even when it appears to turn its back on his family—is worth fighting for.

96 Miles
by J.L. Esplin
Ages 9-12

“Dad always said if things get desperate, it’s okay to drink the water in the toilet bowl.” How about that for an opener? The Lockwood brothers have been trained by their survivalist father in self-reliance in their remote Nevada home, and their basement is stockpiled with enough water tanks, food packets, and generators to last for months. So, when a massive power outage shuts down the entire West Coast while their father is out of town and can’t get home, the boys aren’t overly concerned. That is, until two weeks in, when they’re robbed at gunpoint and their entire basement is ransacked.

To survive, John and Stew have exactly three days of supplies to cover 96 miles on foot across the desert to a friend’s ranch. But State Route 318, “the actual loneliest road in America,” is not just physically oppressive; it offers little protection from other desperate travelers. Fortunately, the first travelers they meet, another pair of siblings, turn out to be unexpected allies, even if it means John and Stew have to share their precious supplies. Oh, and did I mention Stew is diabetic? 96 Miles is a harrowing tale, but one that asks important questions, not only about how far we’re willing to go to survive, but about how we care for others during our most desperate hours.

Closer to Nowhere
by Ellen Hopkins
Ages 10-14

In Closer to Nowhere, Ellen Hopkins delivers a novel in verse—told in the alternating voices of two cousins living under the same roof—that cracks open the myth that families are what they seem from the outside. Hannah, previously an only child, thinks she has the perfect nuclear family: not only do her parents never miss her dance and gymnastics competitions, they support her Olympics ambitions. But then Cal, her same-aged cousin, moves in, having lost his mother to cancer and his father to prison, and suddenly, Hannah’s domestic life implodes. Cal is an odd, volatile kid prone to pranking Hannah and running away. To make matters worse, Cal’s presence seems to be driving a wedge into her parents’ marriage.

Or, at least, that’s how Hannah sees it. Every few pages, it’s Cal’s turn to narrate, and the picture becomes increasingly complex. A survivor of abuse, addiction, and homelessness, Cal is desperate for a stable home life, only it’s hard to trust people like Hannah, who think the world revolves around them and aren’t quite as kind as their school popularity suggests.

A poignant, genuine story of two cousins who find their way to one another when the family they thought they had falters. We come to care a whole heck of a lot for both protagonists, as we discover alongside them that sometimes our greatest opportunities for growth and compassion are born in the very cracks that shake us.

Tornado Brain
by Cat Patrick
Ages 10-13

Frankie is a neurodivergent thirteen year old, consumed with trying to piece together the clues surrounding the disappearance of her former best friend from their beach town. The pacing of Tornado Brain left my kids and me breathless: we were completely sucked into the mystery of what happened to Frankie’s friend, an event which shuts down the local school and elicits police attention.

Frankie’s first-person narration provides a rare opportunity to experience the world through the lens of someone whose brain processes things more impulsively and less linearly than most. (Her exact diagnosis is ADHD, Asperger’s, and Sensory Processing Disorder.) It’s Frankie’s unique brain that puts her in the best position to help her friend, to see what others cannot; and yet, at times, she resents her volatility, inattention, and social awkwardness, particularly when she compares herself to her popular, neurotypical twin.

The relationship between Frankie and her twin, Tess, is one of the most genuine, carefully wrought sisterly relationships I’ve ever come across in middle-grade fiction. As devastating as this story can be, a powerful undercurrent of hope and healing emerges in the way these sisters harbor one another over the shared tragedy of their friend.

Look for Part Two, with ten more books, coming tomorrow!

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