Gift Guide 2021: Middle-Grade Picks for Ages 7-14

November 30, 2021 § 2 Comments

(A reminder that all the books in my Gift Guide are available for purchase at Old Town Books here in Alexandria, VA, or on their website. Put KIDS21 in the Notes to get free gift wrapping and $5 shipping on orders over $25; one order per address, please. Thank you for supporting this wonderful indie bookstore where I assist with the buying!)

Last week, I recapped my favorite graphic novels of the year. This week, I’m talking about middle-grade reads that are so good, your reader won’t even notice they’re not graphic novels. (Wink wink.)

It has been another incredible year for middle-grade fiction and non-fiction, and while I’ve likely missed a few gems, I am thrilled with the ones I’ve discovered. Of the slew I read, these rose to the top and have great gift appeal. The stories have tremendous heart, raise thoughtful questions, and immerse readers in compelling worlds and rich settings. If you’ve been hanging around here, you’ll recognize a few titles from earlier in the year, but a number of these were just published.

I’m not including sequels here—like the newest title in our beloved Vanderbeekers series, or the third in the wonderful Front Desk series—in case the recipient has not read the earlier titles. And, though it’s increasingly difficult given the direction middle-grade stories are trending, I have stayed away from some of the heaviest reads of the year, including the brilliant The Shape of Thunder.

The list runs from younger to older, so please note the age range for each. My age ranges reflect both the sophistication of the writing and the maturity of the subject matter.

The Last Bear
by Hannah Gold
Ages 7-10

There is perhaps no child more in love with polar bears than my daughter—except for April Wood, the protagonist of The Last Bear, who befriends one, during the six months she and her father spend living in an Arctic outpost. I just finished reading this equally atmospheric and activist story to my daughter—inspired by a real bear—and we raced breathlessly through the second half to see how it would end.

As the daughter of a scientist who studies weather patterns, April knows about melting polar caps. She has also been told there are no migratory polar bears left on Bear Island, owing to the lack of ice. With her father immersed in his work, April spends the bulk of her days unsupervised, traversing the snowy landscape and teaching herself about its flora and fauna. Which is how she discovers the enormous, emaciated polar bear who has been stranded on Bear Island for the past seven years, with no way to get home.

April keeps her relationship with Bear a secret, smuggling food to him and eventually earning his trust to ride on his back. But it eventually dawns on April that, when she returns to her regular life, Bear will once again be fighting for his. What can one girl do against a global crisis that most adults won’t take seriously? Rich in descriptive writing and grounded in science, this is the story of one girl’s profound connection to one of the most amazing—and endangered—animals on our planet.

The Beatryce Prophecy
by Kate DiCamillo; illus. Sophie Blackall
Ages 8-11

“It is written in the Chronicles of Sorrowing that one day there will come a child who will unseat a king. The prophecy states that this child will be a girl. Because of this, the prophecy has long been ignored.” This medieval-esque fable is the full package: intriguing mystery, lyrical prose, exquisite black-and-white illustrations, and luminous design elements that conjure the format of an illuminated manuscript. And did I mention it has the most delightfully obstinate goat?!

Is Beatryce the one of whom the prophecy speaks? When Brother Edik discovers her, ill and curled up in the monastery’s barn against a normally irascible goat named Answelica, she has no name and no memories, barring that of a single seahorse. What she can do is read and write, and this is astonishing, as the novel is set in a time where girls and women are strictly forbidden from literacy. What she can do is commune silently with animals. What she can do is warm her way into people’s hearts and change the course of their lives.

This is a story of haunting dreams and prophetic callings, of found family and banished kings, of the driving power of love and the subversive power of words. Kate DiCamillo’s text balances the direct and the poetic, and Sophie Blackall’s illustrations perfectly straddle tenderness and majesty. BUT DID I MENTION THE GOAT?

The House That Wasn’t There
by Elana K. Arnold
Ages 8-12

In The House That Wasn’t There (my orginal post here), themes of loss, loneliness, forgiveness, and compassion are masterfully woven together with humor, candid dialogue, a touch of magic, and the joy of discovering a kindred spirit where you least expect one (and most need one). Add in teleporting cats, a taxidermied opossum, and a boy protagonist who knits, and my daughter was sold.

Sixth graders Alder and Oak—nicknamed “tree kids” by their school bus driver—live next door to one another in Southern California. Only they can’t stand each other. Alder has lived in his house forever, one of the few memories of his late father a family portrait taken in front of the gigantic walnut tree outside his window. Oak has just unwillingly relocated from San Francisco to the house adjacent to Alder’s, where the first thing her architect mother does is order the removal of the walnut tree to make room for an addition. Glares and misunderstandings between the children (and their mothers) abound.

Amidst awkward bus rides and forced school project pairings, the two are increasingly unable to ignore the coincidences that keep popping up around them. For one, they’ve got these tree names. Two, they adopt cats that turn out to be siblings. And three, they’re the only ones who see a shimmer emanating from the fresh stump of the walnut tree between their houses. It’s only when both of them are caught near the stump in the middle of an electrical storm that things start to get downright strange…and the stirrings of an unexpected and powerful friendship develop.

Frankie & Bug
by Gayle Forman
Ages 8-12

Gayle Forman is known for her bestselling YA novels, but in Frankie & Bug, she turns her attention to the tween audience, and I hope she’ll never stop. I adore this bighearted coming-of-age story (perfect for fans of Kelly Yang’s Front Desk series), with its compelling characters and richly spun setting. Best of all, I love the way it gently nudges at issues of racial and gender identity without ever feeling heavy-handed or compromising an authentic tween voice.

Against a backdrop of ‘80s tabloid murders, boy bands, and the seedy boardwalk of Venice Beach, ten-year-old Beatrice—Bug for short—is trying to survive summer, peeved that her older brother prefers the company of his weight-lifting buddies to hanging with her on the beach. What’s worse is that Bug is stuck with her neighbor’s nephew, twelve-year-old Frankie, who comes for the summer and doesn’t see eye to eye with her at all. Why does he profess to hate swimming so much? And why won’t he answer her questions about his life back in Ohio? About the only thing the two can agree on is a fascination with trying to solve the case of the Midnight Marauder, a serial killer on the loose in Los Angeles.

Bug soon discovers there’s more than one case to crack—and some of these are closer to home. As she begins to unravel her own family’s biracial history, she also learns something about her new friend: though he identifies as a boy, Frankie was born a girl. The summer of 1987 may open Bug’s eyes to some of the complexities and heartbreaks of life, but it also ignites a love that knows no bounds.

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. My daughter loved it as much as I did, and she went on to read it two more times.

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.

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.

A Place to Hang the Moon
by Kate Albus
Ages 8-13

If you’ve had a conversation about books with me in the past year, I’ve probably mentioned A Place to Hang the Moon. It was the salve our family needed last winter, amid freezing rain and the maddening sameness of pandemic life. It has atmospheric writing, squeezable characters, and old-fashioned charm. It’s set in World War II England and concerns the mass evacuation of London’s children to the countryside, which is a theme that has always fascinated me (and my kids). It stars three orphans searching for a forever home, and who doesn’t love that? And did I mention it’s also a kind of fairy tale about the power of stories, with a librarian standing in for the knight in shining armor?

I could go on and on, but I already did here.

An Occasionally Happy Family
by Cliff Burke
Ages 9-13

“It’d been a long time since I’d seen [Dad] like this. I wish it hadn’t required an eight-hour road trip, a bird watcher and his dumb son, a bear attack, a nudist French couple, and his now somewhat-but-not-really ex-girlfriend to make him act more like his old self.”

My husband and I took turns reading An Occasionally Happy Family aloud on a recent road trip. I had heard it was incredibly funny—indeed, it had us in stitches—and I couldn’t resist the idea of syncing our road trip with a literary one. I figured, if we were going to immerse ourselves in some hardcore family togetherness for 72 hours, we might as well learn to laugh at ourselves by watching another family make a total mess of it. There’s nothing like a vacation gone wrong to make for great storytelling.

What I didn’t expect was to find such tenderness behind the humor. Such authenticity in the narrative voice, such punch in the dialogue (the sibling banter is in a class of its own!), such depth in the relationships. The story may be about camping in 101 degrees. It may be about dorky dads and teenage eye rolls. But it’s also about a family who finds their way back to each other after grief drove them apart. (My full post here.)

Amari and the Night Brothers
by B.B. Alston
Ages 8-13

Amari and the Night Brothersthink Men in Black meets Artemis Fowl meets Hogwarts—came out back in January, and if your kiddo has yet to experience this wildly popular series debut, with its diverse cast, whirlwind pacing, and fantastic world building, consider this your wake-up call.

Amari Peters is down on her luck. She just lost her academic scholarship, after standing up to a school bully who referred to her as Charity Case. Furthermore, no one except 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?

Amari isn’t just a fabulous character, she also personifies Black Girl Magic—and that in itself should make her mandatory reading.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy
by Anne Ursu
Ages 9-13

Want to rock their world with wondrous storytelling, imaginative settings, thrilling sorcery…and a down-with-the-patriarchy anthem that feels as urgent as ever? The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is one I wish I could take back to my own tween years, when I first noticed the way outspoken girls were shushed or shut away. Amidst its fantastical, old-world setting, it nudges us to question our own history books, our own status quo. It ignites us to consider, “Who does the story serve?”

Curious, clumsy, impulsive Marya Lupu lives in Illyria, a kingdom once threatened by giants and witches and now haunted by the Dread, wispy tendrils of darkness that emerge from forests and wipe out towns. Only Illyrian boys possess the rare potential to grow into powerful sorcerers, capable of defeating the Dread. Boys like Marya’s brother, who devotes his days to study in hopes of impressing the Sorcerer’s Guild, while Marya tends to the family’s unruly goat and chickens. When scandal descends upon Marya’s home, she is made to believe she’s the cause of it. The next day, a mysterious letter arrives: by King’s decree, Marya must be escorted deep into the mountains to a boarding school for “troubled” girls. A school for girls to master etiquette, rule following, and discretion—or risk madness. But what if these girls stop believing the narrative that they’re troubled and start trusting their own instincts? What if they fight for a place in a world that can’t afford to shut them out?

This is a story of spells, secrets, and suspense. But it’s also a story of stories, of who tells them and how they get passed down. It’s the story of women who won’t be silenced, who have always found ways to preserve the stories essential for their survival, through tapestries and lullabies and whispers in the night. It’s a must read for our daughters—and every bit as important for our sons. And it’s stay-up-all-night good.

Across the Desert
by Dusti Bowling
Ages 9-13

Dusti Bowling has become one of my daughter’s favorite authors (see here); regardless of the story she’s telling, she employs a fast-paced, first-person narration that is packed with spunk and heart (and pitch-perfect tween angst). But Across the Desert is also a masterclass in storytelling. I read it first, which meant I hovered over my daughter while she read it, doing my darndest not to interrupt with “Which part are you on?” every time she turned a page. (Fortunately, she couldn’t put it down, so my misery was short-lived.)

Jolene lives for her afternoons, when she retreats to the public library in downtown Phoenix to tune into the livestream broadcast of another middle schooler, who soars over the Arizona desert in her ultralight plane. “Addie Earhart” is a daredevil—nothing like awkward, anxious, bottled-up Jolene—but in the past year, Jolene and Addie have forged an online friendship that has become a welcome distraction to Addie’s home life, where her single mother battles an opioid addiction that began after a serious car accident. Jolene is also Addie’s only fan, which means she’s the only one watching when Addie’s plane goes down. And the only one who hears the cries for help, before Addie’s reception cuts out.

Jolene is not about to let her friend die in the middle of the desert. But with no adult to believe her, she must make the trip alone, armed with a milk jug of water and a map she’s made herself. Amidst the heat, the dark, and the snakes—and with the wise and wry counsel of a high school girl she meets along the way—Jolene must summon courage she didn’t know she possessed. A courage to save, not just her friend, but herself and her family as well.

by John David Anderson
Ages 8-13

I knew I wanted a science fiction title on this list, but sci fi is squarely my husband’s thing. So, I tasked him with reading a number of 2021 releases, and he picked this as his favorite. Here’s what he has to say about this first title in a coming-of-age duology, starring a boy on a quest to save his kidnapped father—and, possibly, Planet Earth:

(mumbles to himself to get pumped up, “No pressure, Ryan. You’ve only been invited to guest post once before…and now this is for the gift guide – it’s the big show, you can do it.”)

Part Guardians of the Galaxy, part Star Trek: First Contact, and part Star Wars, Stowaway begins with young Leo, whose brother shoves him into the cargo compartment of a pirate starship, in an effort to save him from a slow death on their crippled cruiser, from which their father was just kidnapped. Through Leo’s adventures, we learn how a small town kid ended up living in Space after an alien civilization made contact with Earth and connected its people to interstellar travel and technology beyond their dreams. 

Living with pirates expands Leo’s perspective, and he begins to understand that what he thought he knew about allegiances and the good and bad of galactic warfare may not be as it seems. With undercurrents of checking your biases, questioning progress for the sake of progress, and celebrating your chosen family, Stowaway brings in just enough science and tech to geek out while also connecting with your heart.  

The Last Cuentista
by Donna Barba Higuera
Ages 10-14

Remember when, two seconds ago, I said I didn’t do science fiction? Well, I make an exception when that science fiction is captained by a fiercely courageous girl, is steeped in Latinx folklore, and is ultimately about how storytelling saves humanity. That would be The Last Cuentista. And Donna Barba Higuera’s prose is every bit as exquisite as that cover promises.

Petra Peña wants to be a storyteller—a cuentista—like her abuelita, only life as she knows it is about to come to an abrupt end. A comet is on path to destroy Earth, and Petra and her family are among those chosen to save the human race, by boarding a spaceship, going to sleep in jellied pods, and traveling hundreds of years to colonize another planet. Petra’s pod, however, malfunctions, and she retains consciousness long enough to discover the nefarious plot of a rebel group bent on erasing all memories of Earth and raising a new crop of humans. Like Petra, those who awaken in the future have been downloaded with specific skills to run tests on the prospective new planet. They are also now programmed to obey the Collective at all costs—or suffer termination.

But Petra, remarkably, still has her memories. And she still has her stories, including the myths and folktales she grew up hearing and reading. She hasn’t lost faith that these stories might tap into something universal, something essential, in her fellow humans, which might pave the way for compassion, hope, and resistance.

How to Find What You’re Not Looking For
by Veera Hiranandani
Ages 9-13

Twelve-year-old Ariel Goldberg is coming of age in Connecticut against a backdrop of the Beatles, MLK Jr.’s assassination, and the “Loving vs. Virginia” Supreme Court decision, which ruled that banning interracial marriage was unconstitutional. Add to that an older sister who has just eloped to bohemian NYC; the downturn of her family’s bakery; and a learning disability that makes school feel impossible—and life feels all kinds of overwhelming. In How to Find What You’re Not Looking For, Veera Hiranandani has written a beautiful historical novel—delivered in the second person—that’s brimming with bravery, determination and self-discovery, as one girl steps up to push back against those who love her most.

Ari has never suspected her parents of harboring prejudice. As one of the few Jewish families in town, they are accustomed to being on the receiving end of it. But when their eldest daughter falls in love with someone of a different race, their strict disapproval paves the way for her elopement, and Ari is left brokenhearted at home. How could her sister take off like that—and without saying goodbye? Desperate for resolution, Ari crafts a plan to track her down and force her parents to listen to her.

But how can a girl who has always lived in the shadow of her older sister, who struggles in school and has never had a true friend, find the gumption to use a voice she’s only beginning to realize she has? Enter one very special teacher, who not only identifies Ari’s dysgraphia, but introduces her to poetry, a form of self-expression that comes surprisingly easy and powerfully to her.

by R.J. Palacio
Ages 10-14

As much as I love Wonder (who doesn’t?), I had no idea R.J. Palacio was capable of writing the next Great American Novel. This tour de force, set in 1860 and steeped in ghosts and wild horses and the curiosities of science and art, is at once an epic Western and a soulful coming-of-age story. The storytelling is some of the most striking and elevated I’ve ever encountered in a middle-grade novel (adults will adore this, too). Pony is brilliant and heart expanding and absolutely stunning.

Twelve-year-old Silas Bird, who once watched as his mother’s soul exited her body at his birth, now watches as his father is taken away by three strangers on horseback in the dead of night. Determined to follow his father and free him from an alleged counterfeiting ring in a mountain cave, Silas sets out on the Arabian pony the men left behind. His only companion, besides the wild horse, is a suspendered ghost named Mittenwool, the boy’s only and dearest friend. Silas’ father dismisses Mittenwool as an imaginary friend, but Silas has always been able to see the ghosts stuck between worlds, searching for closure before passing on. (Sweet Mittenwool, I will not forget you anytime soon.)

Silas’ father, apart from introducing Silas to the work of James Joyce, was a tinkerer, particularly around the role of bromine in the budding field of photography; and Palacio has interwoven her narrative with thrifted daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, some of which inspired the marvelous characters in this book. As Silas sets out on his own Ulysses, he must tap into the wonder instilled in him by his father to explore the wilderness and mystery of his own heart. This is a story about the invisible connections that bind us, the sacrifices these connections sometimes demand, and the power of love to push us forward.

Red, White, and Whole
by Rajani LaRocca
Ages 10-14

But I am always halfway,

caught between

the life my parents want

and the one I have to live.

Rajani LaRocca’s novel in verse is achingly beautiful, tearing us down and building us back up again, as it plays with the idea of wholeness. Red, White, and Whole is about an Indian American girl in the 1980s, struggling to reconcile two seemingly distinct identities. At school, where she’s the only Indian American student, Reha relishes fitting in with her eighth-grade classmates, discussing the latest MTV videos and planning what to wear to the upcoming school dance. At home, she transforms into the daughter her mother expects her to be, focusing on her studies and spending time with their Indian community. Reha’s relationship with her mother, Amma, is front and center: on the one hand, Reha adores, even idolizes Amma; on the other hand, she feels suffocated by her. These feelings become only more complicated when Reha discovers her mother is sick with leukemia.

This a story of a particular cultural heritage, but it reverberates with universal truths. The tug during adolescence between family and friends, expectation and assertion. The comforting shape of a mother’s face. The healing power of food made with love, pop music blasted with friends, or the unloading of secrets in a safe space. The impossibility of perfection. It’s a story about the wonders of blood and bone marrow and medicine—and what happens when they aren’t enough. It’s a story about living through our worst nightmare and coming out on the other side

Most of all, it’s about what it means to write our own story, amidst the pull of familial and cultural forces—and without sacrificing the love we have for them.

Amber & Clay
by Laura Amy Schlitz
Ages 10-14

Here’s one for the serious reader in your life. It might be the kid who has long blown through Rick Riordan and whose interest in mythology now extends to everyday life in Ancient Greece. Or, it might be someone seeking a mind-bending reading experience. Amber & Clay is unlike anything I’ve ever read. I cannot fathom how Laura Amy Schlitz managed to create a seamless interdisciplinary experience that boasts history, mythology, archaeology, fantasy, poetry, and philosophy.

At its center, this is a story of two spiritual twins—though, by the time they meet, only one of them is alive. Rhaskos is a Thracian slave in a Greek household, clever and artistic but “common as clay,” worth less than a donkey. Melisto may be precious as amber, but she’s also willful and wild, the spoiled daughter of an aristocrat. She’s scheduled to be tamed by marriage, but only if she can survive a season serving Artemis, goddess of the hunt. In the hands of the gods—and Rhaskos’ long-lost mother—the stories of the two children become increasingly intertwined, racing towards a climactic conclusion.

Told through a combination of prose and verse—in the competing voices of gods and ghosts, mothers and philosophers—this complex novel asks age-old questions about the relationship between individualism and dominant society. Can any of us affect our destiny, or is it already written by the gods? The text is supplemented by sketches of ancient artifacts, which factor into the story in surprising ways. Oh, and it clocks in at 513 pages, so the next time your kid complains of being bored…

Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown
by Steve Sheinkin
Ages 12 and up

My fourteen-year-old just inhaled this riveting work of non-fiction, and I asked him if he’d like to write a review for you all. To which he responded, “Just tell them that it’s a great book if you like reading about stuff blowing up.” (Lest there was any doubt that I am raising critical readers.)

Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown is the latest from the author who wrote the award-winning book, Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, which my husband read to our son years ago. The new title begins at the end of World War Two, after the United States has just shown its hand with the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, and the Soviets are bent on catching up, resulting in a terrifying, neck-to-neck race towards mutually assured destruction.

Written like a spy thriller and packed with science, the book alternates between Americans and Soviets—spies, leaders and scientists—as each gets closer to pulling the trigger. These true, exhaustively-researched accounts culminate in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world’s closest call with a third world war (or complete annihilation—whichever comes first).

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