Spring Break Beckons: Middle-Grade Round Up for Ages 7-14

March 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

I spent the winter reading. A lot. And that’s good news for your readers, especially those eager to squirrel away with a new story (or three) over Spring Break. All of the recommendations below are books published this year (with the exception of a late 2020 release). Some of them I’ve already talked about on Instagram, but there are surprises, too. Some skew younger and some older, so be sure to consult the age ranges for each. There are graphic novels, novels in verse, mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, memoirs, and realistic fiction.

As always, report back and tell me what your kids thought!

by Lisa Fipps
Ages 8-12

Inspired by the cruelty she encountered as a big girl in a fat-shaming society, Lisa Fipps’ authorial debut, Starfish, is one of the most powerful novels in verse I have ever read: its raw, intimate free verse packs a punch on every page, even as it seamlessly weaves together a larger story. It will be eye-opening for some and life saving for others. My daughter loved it as much as I did.

Ellie, who narrates the story, endures horrific bullying, both at school—kids exclaim “Thar she blows” when she walks into the cafeteria—and at home. Her mother controls Ellie’s food, posts weight-loss articles on the fridge, and threatens Ellie with high-risk surgery. Only in her backyard pool, buoyant in the water, does Ellie feel at peace with her body. Only there does she let herself forget the Fat Girls Rules she knows she must follow in order to take up as little space as possible in the world.

What does it mean for a child to move through life defined exclusively by her weight? Ellie is a girl with immense insight, cleverness, humor, and love—and it is heartbreaking to witness her suffering, as much from the shame inflicted by her peers as from a fear her own mother doesn’t love her. But even as the novel delivers on this pain, it is ultimately a story of salvation and helpers. With the support of two girlfriends, her father, a school librarian, her pet dog, and a wonderful therapist, Ellie learns to stand up to her bullies, to see herself as someone worthy of love, demanding of respect, and in possession of valuable gifts.

Root Magic
by Eden Royce
Ages 9-12

In another “own voices” debut, Eden Royce seamlessly weaves African American history into a Southern gothic ghost story set in 1963, just months before JFK’s assassination threatens South Carolina’s shaky strides towards racial equality. Root Magic stars a Gullah-Geechee family, who lives on the marsh and is skilled in a generations-old folk magic called rootwork. I was as riveted by the chilling, suspenseful ghost scenes as by the history of rootwork itself, a practice as shunned as it was respected, even within the African American community, as some sought to align themselves with white culture and others held fast to the lore of their ancestors.

Jez and her twin brother are already uneasy. For one, they’re grieving the loss of their grandmother, who came to live with them after their father went missing, and whose potions and powders were known far and wide for their healing and protective properties. Two, the white sheriff won’t leave their family alone, bent on exposing their “witchcraft” and driving them out of town. When the children’s uncle Doc approaches them with a proposition, they accept: every day, after school, despite how bullied they’ll be for it, they will apprentice in the family business as a way of honoring their late grandmother.

The two children quickly discover that their family’s power extends well beyond charms and elixirs to include dealings with dark, sinister spirits. Can Jez unleash and control the magic inside her to protect herself and her family from evil both natural and supernatural? A powerful, gripping story full of courage, loyalty, and love.

by Gordon Korman
Ages 8-12

For as fast as Gordon Korman turns out middle-grade novels, neither of my kids ever tires of his plot-driven, albeit slightly preposterous, storylines. (Ditto for Stuart Gibbs and Dan Gutman.) His latest, Unplugged, was immediately devoured.

As the son of a tech billionaire (and named for his private jet), Jett Baranov is used to getting what he wants—and getting away with everything. So, he’s equal parts flabbergasted and outraged when his Dad ships him off to the middle of the Arkansas wilderness and has one of his employees check him into Oasis—a.k.a. “hippy-dippy wellness Podunck”—a program big on meditation and veggie burgers and 100% forbidding of technology or outside contact. When his efforts to get thrown out fail, Jett begins, with the help of other guests his age, to see that the unplugged life isn’t all bad (at least, the lizard they rescue is pretty cool). Only, why is one of the counselors—excuse me, “path finders”—acting so strange? Is something shady going on?

As Jett begins to uncover the mystery behind a mansion that neighbors the camp, he must convince the others—and possibly himself—that he’s not just some spoiled rich kid out for number one.

Katie the Catsitter (Graphic Novel)
by Colleen AF Venable & Stephanie Yue
Ages 8-12

A girl-power adventure that sweeps across NYC, straddles middle-school friendships and superheroes, and stars a budding entrepreneur tasked with wrangling 217 cats who may or may not be evil geniuses? Yessssss. When my daughter first got Katie the Catsitter, she read it SIX times through before the day was done. She told me she thinks it may have replaced last year’s Snapdragon as her favorite graphic novel—and that is high praise.

Reading it myself, I was reminded of how well graphic novels work for non-linear thinkers. I was also reminded that graphic novels are rarely the “easy reads” we parents worry they are. Not a visual learner, I constantly find myself squinting at comics to grasp meaning (OK, old lady eyes don’t help). Sometimes I can’t even tell in what order to read the panels! When I ask my kids for help, I’m amazed at how many more details they pick up—and how quickly. Graphic novels are TRAINING our kids to become close readers, to construct stories and piece together worlds from embedded clues.

Katie’s best friends are headed to sleep-away camp for the summer (the woods! the s’mores! the cute boys!), but the only way she can join them is if she earns the money herself. Used to being alone while her single mom works nights, Katie gets herself a job as a cat sitter for a woman in her building who has mysterious gigs in the evenings. The trouble is: these are no ordinary cats. More like lock picking, couch stealing, interior decorating, cyber gaming, martial arts training cats…and they’re about to give Katie a run for her money. Meanwhile, there’s a supervillain afoot in the city, burning down factories despite the efforts of NYC’s highest Yelp-reviewed superhero, Eastern Screech. And Katie just might be the key to solving the mystery and turning her summer around, camp or no camp.

Amari and the Night Brothers
by B.B. Alston
Ages 9-13

Men in Black meets Artemis Fowl meets Hogwarts! If you haven’t been privy to the hype surrounding Amari and the Night Brothers, the first title in a new fantasy series—with a diverse cast, whirlwind pacing, and fantastic world building—consider this your wake-up call. My ten year old devoured it, leaving it outside her bedroom each night so I could catch up. Next, my son couldn’t put it down; and finally, my husband had to get in on the action.

Amari Peters is down on her luck. For one, she just lost her academic scholarship, after standing up to a school bully who referred to her as Charity Case. Furthermore, no one but Amari has any hope that her older brother, missing for six months, is still alive. But when she finds a ticking briefcase in Quinton’s room, whose contents reveal he was working for a secret society connected to the supernatural world, Amari decides she’ll do whatever it takes to track him down, even if it means believing in fairies, giants, flying carpets, and magicians bent on destroying the world. She pledges herself to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs and tries out for the highly prestigious Junior Agent title, competing with legacy kids who’ve had their entire lives to prepare. Can Amari learn to unleash and control her magic? Can she save her brother before it’s too late?

In perhaps no genre more than fantasy have Black protagonists been under-represented. Amari isn’t just a fabulous character, she also personifies Black girl magic—and that in itself should make her mandatory reading.

Ground Zero: A Novel of 9/11
by Alan Gratz
Ages 10-14

Alan Gratz gives new meaning to “page turner,” and he’s at the top of his game with Ground Zero. Nearly 20 years after a terrorist act on the World Trade Center claimed 2,753 lives, I didn’t anticipate how emotionally difficult it would be to read this well-researched work of fiction. It turns out Gratz had the same experience writing it. In a recent interview, he said that for all the pain 9/11 caused, we still do everything we can to avoid talking or thinking about it, fearful of unleashing the terror of that day. He wrote this book so our children could understand why that memory is still so raw—and so they could understand some of the complexities of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. As all his stories attest, he believes children are the fiercest, bravest, kindest of heroes.

The novel is told through two alternating narratives: one in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, and the other on the same day eighteen years later in the mountains of Afghanistan. Brandon is visiting his father at work in the North Tower, when the first plane hits and he is trapped in an elevator with a group of strangers. Unable to get to his father on the 107th floor, Brandon is thrust into a fiery nightmare of escape and survival.

Reshmina knows nothing of 9/11 and the Twin Towers, but she has grown up in the shadow of a war playing out in the caves around her village, and she resents the presence of American soldiers, especially their raids that have claimed civilian lives, including that of her beloved sister. But when she stumbles upon a wounded American solider and he pleads for refuge, Pashtun law forbids her from refusing, even if it means putting her family in grave danger. Reshmina’s courage and resilience matches Brandon’s eighteen years earlier, and a surprise twist at the end brings the book full circle.

The Elephant in the Room
by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Ages 8-12

When she was about two thirds of the way through the book, my daughter said, “It’s strange, Mommy. There isn’t any major action or adventure or mystery in this book, and yet I can’t stop reading it.” That, I told her, is because Holly Goldberg Sloan writes characters beautifully. She writes old characters beautifully. She writes parental relationships beautifully. She writes unexpected friendships beautifully. Most importantly, she writes children beautifully—especially those who carry sadness and yearning in their hearts. The Elephant in the Room wraps you in tenderness and doesn’t let go. (We’re also big fans of Short.)

Sila has spent most of the past year in a suspended state of waiting—ever since her mother traveled to Turkey on what was supposed to be a week-long trip to sort out some immigration paperwork and has not been allowed to return. Sila and her father rattle around their small apartment, eating the same thing every night and hardly speaking. At school, Sila pulls away from friends, focused on returning home as quickly as possible in case her mother should call. Then, one weekend, her mechanic father brings Sila outside their Oregon town to fix a man’s truck and there, behind a large stone wall on a sprawling farm, she meets a grandfatherly man who has won the lottery. Gio may have money, but he’s as lonely as Sila, so when he impulsively rescues a former circus elephant passing through town, he does so in part because elephants are Sila’s favorite animal.

Sila’s connection to this majestic elephant, also separated from her mother, is immediate, and it paves the way for transformations both big and small. The physical exertion of helping on the farm—there is a ginormous amount of elephant poop!—becomes a salve for her lonely heart. But the elephant also unleashes a compassion Sila didn’t know she had, including toward an autistic classmate, whom she invites to join her work at the farm. A moving portrait of family separation, which also touches on themes of neuro-diversity, ecology, and the amazing power of animals to heal.

Allergic: A Graphic Novel
by Megan Wagner Lloyd & Michelle  Mee Nutter
Ages 8-12

This graphic novel is for those of us who love animals, but whose body makes being around them impossible. I say “those of us,” because Allergic would have made me as a kid feel very, very seen. Like Maggie, I had to turn away playdates if there was a dog or cat in the house. (I still get anxious going over to someone’s house where there will be a pet.) Like Maggie, I even felt resentful and jealous of friends who knew I was allergic and went ahead with getting a pet anyway.

Maggie is on the verge of getting her dream puppy—perfect timing, since she’s about to lose her parents’ attention to a new baby—when she discovers she’s allergic. Skin testing at the allergist’s office reveals it’s not just dogs: she’s allergic to anything with fur or feathers. At first, she tries to convince herself she’ll be happy with a reptile or tarantula, but as the reality of her condition settles in—she’s quickly known at her new school as “the reason the class guinea pig had to go”—she’s overwhelmed with loss and anger. “I felt like my body had decided that animals were my enemies. How could my own body be so wrong about me?”

Maggie’s physical and emotional journey, from allergy testing to allergy shots, will be keenly felt by some and eye-opening for others. But perhaps most gratifying is the way this sweet, spunky heroine learns that sometimes we don’t get what we want, but we get exactly what we need.

The Lion of Mars
by Jennifer L. Holm
Ages 8-12

Anyone else’s kids have Mars fever?! They may not be able to pack their bags yet, but they can imagine what it might be like to live on the Red Planet by reading The Lion of Mars, a fun futuristic novel about eleven-year-old Bell, recruited as an infant to be one of a handful of children brought up in the US colony of Mars. Author of previous STEM favorites, like The Fourteenth Goldfish, Jennifer L. Holm has grounded much of her speculation about life on Mars in modern science.

Bell has spent his whole life in the underground lava tunnels of his Mars settlement, occasionally donning an environmental suit for a walk or ride on the dusty surface. His only knowledge of Earth comes through books, digi-reels, and anecdotes from the grown-ups around him, a motley crew of scientists and cooks who traveled to Mars with the understanding that they could never return to Earth. Still, Bell is like most earthlings: he loves his cat, he can’t stand his roommate’s snoring, and he’s crazy for sweets. In typical tween style, he’s also starting to question everything: Why does his best friend no longer want to hang out with him? Why does Commander Sai insist that the Americans aren’t allowed contact with the other Mars settlements?

And then, everything goes wrong. Bell and his friends take out a Rover without permission and veer dangerously close to the French settlement before they crash and end up grounded (Mars style). Bell’s favorite grown-up, Phinneus, who farms the algae they live on, dies. And a mysterious virus descends on the adults. With the children left in charge of day-to-day operations, it becomes clear: they’re going to need help and fast. Bell sets off to test out just how dangerous things are where his settlement ends and the rest of the planet begins.

by Matt Wallace
Ages 8-12

I love a story that nudges kids out of their comfort zone—when was the last time any of us read a story of a sixth grader who finds her passion and people in Indie wrestling?!—and this one is positively infectious. My ten year old tore through it, then gave it to me, and I could immediately see why she loved it. The main character is equal parts feisty and vulnerable. But I’ll let my daughter tell it in her words. Here’s her review of Matt Wallace’s middle-grade debut:

Bump is about a Mexican-American girl named MJ (Maya Jocelyn). Her Dad used to call her MJ after a character in Spider Man. That was before her dad died. MJ’s favorite thing to do is watch wrestling. One day MJ is flying her drone from her window when it scrapes against a wall that divides her yard from her neighbor’s yard. She climbs the wall to get her drone. She has never met any of her neighbors, because when she had to move from her old house to the one she is renting she doesn’t pay attention to the houses around her. While she is in the person’s yard, she sees a tarp over something big. She pulls it off and there in front of her is a real wrestling arena.

Bump is funny, sad, and exciting. It is one of those books where if you start reading it you cannot stop! I did not know a lot about wrestling before I read this book. It has some Spanish in it so I learned more words in Spanish too. MJ stands up to bullies who tease her for watching and learning wrestling, and she also stands up for her new friends. She finds bravery in her and helps keep the wrestling school open when a mean inspector tries to shut it down.”

Take Back the Block
by Chrystal D. Giles
Ages 8-12

Where realistic fiction is concerned, it seems like the trope “coming of age” might be more accurately termed “coming into activism,” with more and more stories emphasizing speaking up in the name of social justice. Amen to that! With themes of systemic racism presented alongside lighthearted plotlines of middle-school friendships and school projects, Chrystal D. Giles’ debut, Take Back the Block (Ages 8-12), invites many similarities with Janae Marks’ hugely popular From the Desk of Zoe Washington from last year. The latter stars a Black girl who finds herself privy to racial bias in the criminal justice system after learning a startling truth about her incarcerated father. The former features a Black boy forced to consider the question, Is gentrification the new segregation?, after his family is threatened with displacement by a real estate developer. In both novels, readers are getting an anti-racist education alongside the protagonists.

By placing us in the shoes of sixth grader Wes Henderson, we see his love and pride for Kensington Oaks, an inner-city neighborhood (“that’s what they call it on the evening news. I guess that means it’s a neighborhood full of Black people. To us it’s a cocoon in the middle of a crowded city […]”). Wes has seen other neighborhoods fall to developers—including that of a good friend, whose family has since struggled to land on their feet—but he has never stopped to think about the historic, racist, or economic implications, until his own family and neighbors are caught in the crossfire.

While the adults around him are arguing and his friends start taking sides, Wes approaches a local non-profit called Save Our City and enlists their help in saving the Oaks. In the process, he discovers that the Oaks has a surprising history of its own. But will that be enough? (And when can he get back to kicking his friends’ butts in NBA 2K?) Wes’ infectious personality, often humorously conveyed in his first-person narration, is enough to hook any reader, but the real satisfaction comes in watching him become the leader he never expected to be.

The Sea in Winter
by Christine Day
Ages 9-13

It’s tremendously exciting to see the children’s publishing world championing more Indigenous voices. Christine Day’s debut title, I Can Make this Promise, landed on my 2019 Gift Guide, and her latest is every bit as lovely. Her writing is thoughtful and accessible—her depiction of tween girls’ inner monologue especially relatable—at the same time that it introduces Native American history and questions of contemporary Native identity.

The Sea in Winter tells the story of Maisie Cannon, a Makah/Piscataway girl struggling in the aftermath of a knee injury that threatens to sideline her dreams of a professional ballet career. What is striking, albeit heart-wrenching, is the disconnect between her inner suffering and the steely face she puts on for family and friends, especially her ballet friends, who text her about their successful auditions and acceptance into competitive summer programs, while she’s sentenced to physical therapy. And yet, cracks are beginning to form: Maisie’s grades are slipping, she’s increasingly snappish around her younger brother, and she eventually stops responding to friends’ texts. It’s not until she joins her family on a midwinter road trip in the Olympic Mountains—a trip she’s determined to use to prove she’s recovered—that it becomes clear just how close to rock bottom she actually is.

An emotional and ultimately hopeful story about reinvention in the face of dashed dreams, the connection between physical and mental healing, and the promise of new beginnings.

by Cynthia Kadohaha
Ages 7-10

This illustrated chapter book skews to the younger end of middle-grade fiction—increasingly tough to find these days—and would make an equally fun family read aloud for a wide range of ages. But fair warning: you may have a hard time eating bacon…ever again.

Eleven-year-old Becca and her brothers are quadruplets, but as much as she loves sharing a bedroom with them, she has always lived in their shadow. Each of them has such definite passions, whereas she excels at…nothing? So, when she spots a sickly piglet on the side of the road—later revealed as having escaped a pork factory—she pours her heart and soul into caring for him: nursing him back to health, teaching him tricks, and even sleeping beside him on the kitchen floor. Only, the trouble with piglets is they don’t stay little. And the bigger and stronger Saucy becomes, the more Becca’s summer break is turned upside down.

Saucy is a funny story with lots of heart, some budding activism, and a very adorable pig.

Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood
by Gary Paulsen
Ages 12-15

One of the most decorated writers of children’s literature, Gary Paulsen likens good storytelling to “dancing around the fire with bloody skins.” His newest book, divided into five parts, is autobiographical and aims to fill in the stories of his childhood not covered by his survivalist novels, like Hatchet and Dogsong. It is always interesting to be taken through someone else’s life, but it is extraordinary when that life is foreign to anything you have ever imagined. Paulsen writes from the gut, and the outcome is as raw as it is tender.

Paulsen has titled his memoir, Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood, and his survival of a childhood bent on destroying him is astonishing. He was raised in the shadows of neglect, abuse, poverty, violence, and war. And yet, if anyone can take that and spin it into something beautiful, even hopeful, it is Paulsen, who manages to hold tight to a childlike curiosity and wonder about the world.

Paulsen credits two things with saving his life. The first is the natural world, to which he is introduced in the 1940s after his alcoholic mother ships him off to an aunt and uncle in the remote woods of Minnesota. More than simply learning to live off the land, his time fishing and canoeing and scavenging for mushrooms launches a lifelong love affair with nature. The second is a librarian he meets years later as a truant teenager, who not only introduces him to literature, but convinces him that his own stories are worth telling.

A Place to Hang the Moon
by Kate Albus
Ages 8-12

I already dedicated an entire blog post to this wonderful historical fiction novel, so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice it to say that A Place to Hang the Moon, a story of three orphans in search of a forever home during The Blitz, reads like the warm hug we all need right now.

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