2020 Gift Guide: Middle-Grade Fiction for Ages 8-14, Part Two
November 13, 2020 § 2 Comments
Today, I’m back with my other ten 2020 favorites for the middle-grade audience. As with part one, I’ve taken care to hit a range of interests, styles, and reading levels, while never sacrificing beautiful writing or complex character development (my motto remains: childhood’s too short for mediocre books).
This year’s middle-grade list was compiled with the intimate involvement of my daughter (10) and son (13). While you can always count on my having read any book I review on this blog, nearly every one of the books in today’s and yesterday’s post was also read and loved by one or both my kids. While we’re in that glorious window of sharing books, I’m milking it.
Another friendly reminder that you won’t find graphic novels here, because they got their own post earlier. And if the twenty titles between today and yesterday aren’t enough, check out 2019’s Middle-Grade Gift Guide post, filled with other treasures (many of which are now out in paperback), or my Summer Reading Round Up from earlier this year. And, of course, as soon as I publish this, the fates guarantee I’ll read something I wish I’d included here, so keep your eyes peeled on Instagram, where I’m regularly posting middle-grade updates.
The Blackbird Girls
by Anne Blankman
“She thought having a best friend was like being given a new set of lungs when you had been gasping for air.” A beautiful, captivating story about the redemptive power of friendship, The Blackbird Girls is set in the aftermath of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Valentina and Oksana are two girls whose fathers worked at the power plant and who have been raised as enemies, owing to the fact that Valentina is a Jew and Oksana is not. In the hasty evacuation of their rural town, amidst a government cover-up and their own fears of radiation poisoning, the girls are thrust together and forced into refuge in Leningrad under the protection of Valentina’s grandmother, a stranger to both of them.
Valentina’s Jewish heritage means she has always had to live in the shadows, but it’s Oksana who has been living with the most dangerous secret of all. When the two come to live with Valentina’s grandmother, herself a woman with a secreted past, they must attempt the impossible and learn to trust one another. What follows is an unexpected friendship that paves the way for healing physical and emotional wounds, at the same time that it promotes cross-cultural understanding and compassion.
by Rob Harrell
With candor, humor, and the occasional homespun “Batpig” comic, seventh-grader Ross Maloy takes on cancer, bullies, and the electric guitar. (If you don’t believe my rave recommendation, you can read my daughter’s here.) Wink is inspired by the author’s own battle with the same rare eye cancer diagnosis as his protagonist, including the surgery, facial scarring, daily radiation, goopy eyes, and permanent vision loss that follows.
Make no mistake: this is heart-wrenching stuff. But the beauty of Wink lies in the warmth and wit that consistently surrounds Ross. It lies in his dad, who empowers Ross with the respect he shows him; in the radiation tech, who teaches Ross to play the guitar; in a fellow cancer fighter he meets during treatment; in his best friend Abby, a firecracker who keeps him laughing; and in 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 readers’ hearts for a long time to come.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington
by Janae Marks
I wrote an entire blog post on it, but I’ll say it again: From the Desk of Zoe Washington doesn’t just offer awareness about the bias in our criminal justice system—the story features a Black character (Zoe’s father) serving time for a crime he may not have committed—but it offers hope for a more just world. It’s a story about a girl who asks hard questions, who isn’t content to accept things as they are, and who makes some “good trouble” of her own when the adults in her life fail to step up. Of course, none of these messages would be nearly as effective if the story itself wasn’t fan-freakin-tastic.
Until she intercepts a letter from him on her twelfth birthday, Zoe has never had communication with her biological father, Marcus, who was convicted of murder shortly before Zoe was born. But Zoe soon learns that Marcus professes to be innocent of the crime for which he serves…and claims he had an alibi to prove it. As she begins to look into Marcus’ case, enlisting her best friend to help her track down Marcus’ supposed alibi, Zoe begins to question what it means to create waves in the world. Zoe may be ambitious—her baking skills make her a top contender for Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge!—but she would never have considered herself rebellious. Until now. Sometimes you have to make noise when you know in your heart that you’re on the right side of history.
We Dream of Space
by Erin Entrada Kelly
We Dream of Space leaves it all on the page. Equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful, the novel is told from the alternating perspectives of three siblings, who might share the same house but could not feel more isolated. Erin Entrada Kelly is a master at setting. For starters, there’s the 1980s backdrop, specifically the days leading up to the launch of the Challenger, and Kelly hits all the pop culture, food favorites, and sports references. But there are equally fleshed-out secondary settings—an arcade, a school, a kitchen table—all of which mirror the various external and internal struggles of the characters.
Kelly’s also a whiz with metaphor, and the Challenger Mission is a poignant fit for the story she tells. A story about kids yearning to escape domestic discord. A story about kids yearning to escape other people’s definitions of them. Yearning to escape false friendships. But what happens when you pin your hopes and dreams to a machine? What happens when you choose machines over people? What happens when you withdraw so far into your own head—which may as well be as far away as the stars—that you no longer heed the call of your loved ones in the room next door? Families are their own complicated galaxies, as vast, blinding, and rich with possibility as the dazzling, distant stars above.
Brave Like That
by Lindsey Stoddard
“I wish this story would never end!” exclaimed my daughter towards the end of Brave Like That. Lindsey Stoddard writes some of the most accessible middle-grade fiction. Her pacing is perfect, and her characters are immensely relatable. Her stories speak to the emotional truths of growing up: navigating rage, disappointment, shame, and worry, while connecting with your truest self. They are stories of the heart. Plus, what child hasn’t fantasized about living in a firehouse?
When Cyrus was a baby, left on the steps of the Northfield Firehouse, he was adopted by Brooks, a firefighter who also holds the touchdown record for their Minnesota town. Cyrus has grown up playing football, but the stakes are higher now that he’s in middle school, and he is beginning to question how much of his playing stems from a love for the sport versus a fear of letting down his father. What Cyrus really loves—apart from his dad and grandma—is a stray dog he names Parker, who shows up at the firehouse one day and is escorted to the local shelter. Cyrus begins blowing off football practice to visit Parker and the other rescues, finding himself quickly enmeshed in a web of lies which culminate in an actual blaze of fire. Can Parker stand up to the larger-than-life heroes in his life and articulate a definition of bravery that feels true to him?
The Girl and the Ghost
by Hanna Alkaf
I love a spooky story that’s gorgeously told, exotically set, and perched in that alluring place between darkness and light. The Girl and the Ghost is a contemporary fairy tale about a lonely girl who inherits a pelesit from her late grandmother who allegedly dabbled in dark magic. At first, Suraya is delighted by her new companion, whom she names Pink and who morphs into a grasshopper small enough to fit inside Suraya’s pocket. Pink offers a respite from the relentless bullying Suraya faces at school for her tattered clothes and fantastical drawings. He showers her with warmth and praise she has never received from her emotionally distant mother.
But on the day Suraya makes friends with Jing, a human girl who’s quick to speak her mind and steadfast in her enthusiasm for all things Star Wars, Suraya’s relationship with Pink charges. Suddenly, Suraya doesn’t need him as she once did. As jealousy begins to consume the pelesit, he unleashes a chain of eerie, destructive events. As lovely as it is chilling, this is a story of back alleys and cemeteries; of delectable Malaysian foods; and of one girl learning what it means to live boldly and one ghost learning what it means to love.
Before the Ever After
by Jacqueline Woodson
Before the Ever After, Jacqueline Woodson’s latest novel in verse, will break a heart or twelve, but to avoid it for that reason is to miss some of the most gorgeous language written for middle-grade audiences. It is to miss out on a relationship between a father and son that is so rich, so palpable, so bursting with joy, that it reminds us to treasure the love in our own lives. It is to miss out on a friendship among boys that is everything friendship should be, and a connection to music that is equally redemptive.
Set in the late 1990s, ZJ’s father is a football legend, a Super Bowl MVP linebacker, until he begins to suffer the memory loss, mood swings, and aggression of what medical science later terms CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes who have suffered repeated blows to the head. ZJ stands by, helpless, as he watches his father deteriorate. He craves the fleeting moments of lucidity and connection and fears the unpredictable explosions. But ZJ also learns something about heroism off the football field, about the kind of heroism born in kindness, in showing up and holding bleeding hearts. Most importantly, he begins to see himself as someone who can persevere, even in the absence of a traditional “happily ever after.”
by Lauren Wolk
Lauren Wolk finds a way to crack open life in the quietest of ways, leaving us brutally exposed and warmly cocooned at the same time. 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.
Everything Sad is Untrue (a true story)
by Daniel Nayeri
“[…] as a kid, you’re looking out and seeing all this with a near constant spike of adrenaline—always a second from a panic—because you understand you can’t do much. You’re a little ball of soft meat with no shell or escape skills or battle strategies. You’re a milk drinker with milk teeth that fall out and you bleed.”
In his recount of attending middle school in Oklahoma as an Iranian immigrant in the 1990s, Daniel Nayeri’s writing is nothing short of extraordinary: poignant, wise, and witty. It’s also non-linear, woven together like the intricate tapestries of the Middle East. Khosrou, whom everyone calls Daniel and he’s given up trying to correct them, stands before his classmates and tries to tell his story. Only no one believes him. How can a poor, dark-skinned boy, who eats smelly lunches and comes from a part of the world his classmates know only for its proximity to the Gulf War, be special? How can he have grown up in luxury, surrounded by jewel-encrusted carpets, the scent of Jasmine, and pastries so perfect they make people weep? Why would his mother give that up for a refugee camp in Italy and an abusive stepfather in America?
As Daniel talks, legend and lore infiltrate his past until it’s impossible to tell where memory stops and imagination begins. But buried in his fascinating narratives and rich metaphors are the very truths Daniel seeks: truths about family, hope, and the things that bind us. Daniel bleeds his heart for us in a way only the young can.
American as Paneer Pie
by Supriya Kelkar
This one’s in honor of you, Kamala Harris! As the only Indian-American girl in her small Michigan town, Lekha Divekar goes to great length to hide her Indian heritage outside her home, be it bringing lunch to school (PBJs everyday!) or hanging out with the swim team (keeping the round birthmark on her forehead covered so no one mistakes it for a bindi). Then, at home, she strives to be the “good Desi daughter,” relishing the batata bhaji her father makes, practicing her Bollywood moves, and never missing a prayer during Diwali. But when another Desi girl moves in across the street, Lekha finds it increasingly hard to maintain two distinct identities, especially when Avantika has no problem touting her Indian background and standing up to those who tease her at school. How can Avantika feel so sure of herself, especially when a politicized climate consistently calls out those with brown skin and “foreign” names? And how dare she assume Lekha wants the same attention?
Even though Lekha has long been on the receiving end of daily microaggressions—teachers not bothering to pronounce her name correctly and classmates mocking the smell of her hair oil—she doesn’t recognize them as part of a larger current of hate until she walks outside one morning and discovers a lawn sign reading, “Go Back To Your Country.” Finally realizing that she’s going to be judged by her race whether she likes it or not, Lekha begins the journey—albeit awkwardly at first—towards claiming agency, towards ensuring the narrative she presents to the outside world matches who she is on the inside. Rich with delicious insights into Indian culture, American as Paneer Pie is an authentic exploration of identity, friendship, and self-advocacy.
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Melissa, thank you for sharing your enthusiastic passion for MG stories. Once again, you’ve created an amazing list of MG books, which are certain to entice kids of all interests. Both lists will be a huge help to anyone looking for gift ideas for 10-14 year olds!
Thank you, Susan! So sorry I missed your nice comment the first time around. I know you and I had a lot of similar favorites this year! A fabulous year for MG fiction.