2022 Gift Guide: The Middle-Grade Books (Ages 7-14)
November 22, 2022 § Leave a comment
Ask me what installment of the Gift Guide is my favorite to write, and the answer will always be the middle-grade one. These are the stories that have my heart, the same types of books that once made a reader out of me. As an adult, even if it wasn’t my job to do so, I’d still read them, because they’re that good. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to try some of the titles below as family read alouds, or simply read them before or after your children finish them (which, by the way, your kids will love you for).
Whereas “middle-grade books” used to mean stories exclusively targeted at ages 8-12, today’s category is increasingly broadening to encompass young teens as well. The result is a kind of Venn diagram of stories. There are stories intended for kids in the middle years of elementary school, which tend to be lighter and faster paced. And then there are heavier, more nuanced stories written for readers who are entering or already tackling the middle-school years. In today’s post, you’ll find plentiful recommendations in both these younger and older middle-grade categories, and they’re presented here in ascending order.
Regardless of where on the spectrum these stories fall, they are exceptional examples of storytelling, with rich language, complex characters, and original twists and turns. For as much as they entertain us, they also make us think about the world around us in new and interesting ways.
2022 has been another banner year for middle-grade books—so much so that the titles below were all published in the second half of the year, many in just the last few weeks. In other words, this is not a “best of 2022” list, because if it was, it would include A Duet for Home, The Last Mapmaker, The Marvellers, Those Kids From Fawn Creek, Zachary Ying and the Last Emperor, Cress Watercress, and Jennifer Chan is Not Alone—all of which were featured in my Summer Reading Guide earlier this year.
Finally, don’t forget that I already covered graphic novels for these ages in a separate post! As always, links support my work at Old Town Books, where I am the kids’ buyer, and I thank you kindly for supporting our independent bookstore.
And now, without further ado…
For the Cuddler
by Katherine Applegate; illus. Charles Santoso
Katherine Applegate, Newbery Medalist for The One and Only Ivan, has once again penned an animal story of bravery and resilience that tugs at our heartstrings. To say Odder delivers on those insanely adorable puppy eyes in Charles Santoso’s cover art might be the best endorsement I can give!
Written in free verse and inspired by the real work of an otter rehabilitation program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the novel stars a slightly anthropomorphized otter, named Odder by her mother for her daredevil underwater acrobatics and insatiable curiosity (“something about the way/ the little pup never settled,/ something about the way/ her eyes were always/ full of questions”). One day, after swimming a little too far from home, Odder suffers a near-fatal injury from a great white shark who mistakes her for a sea lion. Odder is no stranger to the warm hands from the Monterey Bay Aquarium that appear just in time—they have nursed her back to health once before—but the seriousness of this injury means she must live out the rest of her days in captivity. But what of her broken heart?
Within the lyrical verse, Applegate effortlessly incorporates factual information about otters. Did you know they have the warmest fur on earth? Or that they use kelp to hold themselves in place while they sleep? But it’s when Odder is tasked with becoming a surrogate mother to other rescue pups that we experience the magnitude of otters’ capacity for play, affection, and healing.
For the Escape Artist
by Carlie Sorosiak
She’s a mouse! She’s a genius! And she’s penning some seriously funny escapades! Told as a collection of letters, Always, Clementine is pure delight, the story of a mouse fighting for her own chance at love and family, as well as for the freedom of lab animals everywhere.
The scientists in the lab know Clementine as their most prized specimen, a mouse whose altered DNA has endowed her with unmatched intelligence. From advanced mathematical calculations to communicating through spelled-out words, there’s little Clementine can’t do, though she prizes her friendship with a lab chimpanzee named Rosie above all. So, when a lab technician secretly frees Clementine, dropping her in the mailbox of a kindly, Mister Rogers-type man who is caring for his grandson for the summer, Clementine initially thinks only of getting back to Rosie. She keeps the chimp appraised of her every move with letters drafted in her mind.
But as she experiences the kindness of Pop and Gus and tastes the freedom of life outside the lab, another plan forms in Clementine’s mind. What if she could do something to show the world that the animals in the lab are destined for something greater? The answer lies in a very high-stakes game of chess.
For the S.T.E.A.M. Kid
A Rover’s Story
by Jasmine Warga
One of the cleverest stories of the year will be an easy sell for anyone who identifies as a STEM kid, but the real magic of this story is that it will also capture the hearts of those who don’t think of themselves as science-y. It’s as artistic as it is technical, as much about the wonder of being alive as it is about the thrill of space travel, as much about collaboration and connection as it is about “beeps and boops.” It’s as funny as it is profound. And, with its short chapters and emphasis on dialogue, it makes as spectacular a read aloud as it does an independent read for someone struggling to get into non-illustrated chapter books.
A Rover’s Story is a first-person account of a Mars rover named Resilience—Res, for short—who was inspired by the real Mars rovers, Opportunity and Perseverance. Res’s appearance, technology, and abilities are rooted in science, but he diverges from his real-life counterparts in one critical way: as Res spends time with the NASA engineers building him, he develops humanlike feelings. By the time he arrives on Mars—his only companions an eager drone helicopter named Fly and a bossy orbiting satellite named Guardian—Res is beginning to ask questions well beyond the scope of his official mission, which is to look for fossilized evidence of water and locate another rover that went offline in a dust storm.
What does it mean to call a place home? How do we express love? What motivates us? Where does hope come from? These are just some of the things Res ponders with earnestness and pluck, as he navigates the rough terrain and temperature fluctuations of Mars, searching for a discovery important enough to warrant a return trip home to his humans. But perhaps his greatest discovery is that even in the most remote corners of the universe, none of us are ever truly alone. Not when we have music, memory, story, and the sheer beauty of the physical world.
For the Best Friend
Operation Final Notice
by Matthew Landis
Want proof of how much I adore this story? I’ve decided to make it our family read aloud in December, even though I almost never choose one I’ve already read. (Too many books to get through and not enough time!). How can I resist sharing this contemporary “Gift of the Magi” story, set in the weeks leading up to Christmas, which boasts heartwarming community vibes and some of the funniest first-person narration of the year?!
In short, fast-paced chapters alternating between the perspectives of Ronny and Jo, Operation Final Notice is about two best friends, each with a big problem. When Ronny’s family moved into low-income housing, he knew times were tight, but it’s not until he stumbles upon a bill marked “Final Notice” that he realizes just how bad things have gotten since his dad’s injury. Now, Ronny has until January 4 to come up with $878 to keep his family’s only car from getting repossessed. Jo, his best friend, is also feeling the pressure of a January deadline, when she’ll have to play her cello in front of a group of judges as part of an audition for a prestigious music academy she desperately wants to attend. The trouble is, Jo has crippling stage fright, and no one except Ronny understands how bad her anxiety is.
As the countdown to the holidays escalates, an opportunity falls into the friends’ laps. At first, getting paid to play music and entertain senior citizens seems like a means to an end, but it quickly becomes a venue to laughs, risks, self-discovery, and the type of kindness with ripple effects.
For the Change Maker
by Varsha Bajaj
Urgent first-person narration takes us into the poorest corners of Mumbai, where a young girl takes a risky stand against the dangerous thieves starving her community of water. That such an important, eye-opening story is delivered through fast-paced, highly accessible writing will hopefully lead to many kids reading Varsha Bajaj’s Thirst.
To get water for drinking and cooking, Minni and her neighbors have to queue up for hours at a communal tap, even while the high-rises on the other side of town, including the one where Minni’s mother works as a maid, have water streaming out of every faucet. And yet, with the support of her brother and parents, Minni has been able to focus on acing her school tests so she can grow up to get a good job. But when her brother has to go away and her mother takes ill, leaving Minni to cook for her father and clean for the rich family across the city, Minni discovers it’s possible to feel like you’re drowning even in the absence of water. To make matters worse, she witnesses a nefarious plot by the water mafia—knowledge that puts her in terrible danger. But what can one small girl do to stand up against injustice, both for herself and her community? It turns out a lot.
The struggles Minni faces are mighty, but her humor, feistiness, ambition, and warm devotion to her family and friends come through in every word of her story.
For the Thespian
by Natalie Lloyd
“Here’s what’s going to happen, kiddo: As you get older, your world will get bigger. And bigger. And you’ll realize, there’s way more that you can do than you can’t do. It just takes time for us to see it. Birds are born with wings. The rest of us have to find our wings as we go. And you will, Olive Miracle. You’ll find them, and you’ll fly.”
I’ve always loved how Natalie Lloyd sees the world. A world where eccentricity is celebrated, dreams are dared to be lived, and heroines rock heart-shaped sunglasses. A world where the tiniest bit of magic isn’t just possible—it’s essential.
In Hummingbird, Olive Miracle’s brittle bone disease means she’s wheelchair-bound, but don’t you dare pity her for her rhinestone-studded wheels. She’s got big plans, beginning with transitioning from home school to middle school, landing her first BFF, starring on the stage, and finding the mythical hummingbird that pervades her tiny Southern town’s folklore because it can allegedly grant any wish. Despite her forthcoming, funny-as-all-get-out narration, Olive won’t tell us what she intends to wish for, but we have a suspicion. Even those who profess tough exteriors are raw on the inside, and Olive craves the chance to fit in.
But as the mystery of the hummingbird’s whereabouts continue to evade her, we’re reminded that the journey is often sweeter than the destination. Olive’s first days at school are nothing like she hoped—why does everyone insist on treating her like she’s fragile?!—but as Olive settles in, she finds two classmates, themselves racing to find the hummingbird, who might offer some miracles of their own. With a little help from Emily Dickinson, stage wings, and a few falling feathers.
For the Secret Keeper
The Midnight Children
by Dan Gemeinhart
This, right here, is why I read middle grade; it’s why I love putting it in the hands of young people; and it’s why I passionately endorse reading it aloud. Dan Gemeinhart, previously beloved for The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, has once again gifted us a dramatic piece of storytelling that cuts straight to the heart. A story of friendship and found family, of small-town bullies and big-time secrets, The Midnight Children has all the feels of a timeless classic. For those looking for their next family read, its gorgeous language and sharp, witty dialogue would positively shine when read aloud.
In the fictional town of Slaughterhouse—named for the meat processing plant where most of the men go to work, including the father of our protagonist, Ravani Foster—a truck arrives in the middle of the night and deposits seven mysterious children on the doorstep of the unoccupied house across the street from where Ravani lies awake in bed, unable to sleep for his loneliness. Over the next few days, Ravani becomes increasingly intrigued by these shadowy children, until one of them—a girl named Virginia, direct and gutsy in all the ways Ravani is not—speaks to him and forever alters the course of his life. But who is Virginia running from, and can Ravani convince her to stay and be the friend he needs?
At once a thriller, a riotous ensemble of quirky characters, and a fairy tale of one boy seeking to understand his soul and what it wants to be. “‘The thing about this world is that there’s all kinds of people in it, and there’s nothing you can do about that,’ she said through a crusty mouthful. ‘The only thing to do is to decide what kind *you* are, and then be it. Don’t worry about anyone else.’”
For the Fairy Tale Enthusiast
by Margi Preus; illus. Armando Veve
I’m thanking the fates that I happened to pick up Margi Preus’ Windswept mere days before publishing this installment of the Gift Guide, because how would my 2022 list ever be complete without a slightly dystopian fantasy of unlikely heroes, snow squalls, silver leaves, dark forests, magical tablecloths, faerie mischief, gnarly trolls, fortuitous riddles, forbidden books, the relationship between greed and the natural world, and an overriding message about the power of stories to shape destinies! Inspired primarily by the Norwegian fairy tale, “The Three Princesses in the Mountain Blue,” but with fractured elements from 21 other Western fairy tales, Windswept is a dreamy, suspenseful, and timely story that raises questions about our own responsibility to the Earth. It would also read aloud beautifully.
Tag is growing up in a world where “Youngers” are not allowed Outside, and she knows why all too well, having watched her three older sisters be swept away by the Wind seven years earlier. All attempts to find the stolen children have failed, and the Powers That Be are determined to keep Youngers content in their isolation by banning all evidence of the Other Times, including storybooks that might ignite curiosity and imagination. But when a mysterious invitation is slipped through a knothole in the boards covering the old French doors in Tag’s house, Tag hatches a dangerous plan to escape her confines and set off for the elusive mountains where the Windswept are allegedly being held.
Joined by a ragtag band of other runaways, with only a book of forbidden fairy tales as their guide, Tag must decide where to go and who to trust, even as everything about the Outside is new to her. As if the language wasn’t enchanting enough on its own, we’re also treated to an ornate map in the endpapers and beautiful spot illustrations throughout.
For the Animal Ally
by C.C. Harrington
(Signed copies here while supplies last!) Told in the alternating perspectives of a girl with a stutter and a snow leopard with a target on his back, C.C. Harrington’s stunning historical debut, Wildoak, will take your breath away, interweaving themes of conservation, advocacy, self-love, and the power of the natural world to heal. Anyone who has ever felt themselves on the receiving end of a hostile world (and that’s all of us, at some point) will find heaps of courage in these pages.
“Be gentle with yourself. It is hard to be human.” These are the words our heroine, Maggie Stephens, hears when she enters Wildoak Forest for the first time, and they’re precisely what her heart craves. Sent to live with a grandfather she barely knows in the English countryside, after her severe stutter threatens to get her institutionalized, Maggie desperately seeks answers to why word sounds stick in her throat and prevent her from being heard. Is it possible to love the parts of yourself that are so different?
Equally hungry for answers to life’s mysteries is a snow leopard, abandoned in the same forest after a gift to a wealthy Londoner goes wrong. Rumphus is part domesticated and part wild, a dangerous combination in a forest scheduled to be torn down by a developer. Maggie has always felt a special kinship with animals—her stutter all but disappears in their presence—but can she find her voice to advocate for the leopard’s survival and her own freedom from judgment before time runs out for both of them?
For the “Stranger Things” Fan
The Stars Did Wander Darkling
by Colin Meloy
(Signed copies here while supplies last!) Colin Meloy’s The Stars Did Wander Darkling has all the hallmarks of classic 80s horror: free-range parenting, kids on bikes, creepy sounds in the woods, sleepy towns where nothing ever happens until, and the only grown-up with a clue is the guy who owns the video rental shop. Combine that with atmospheric writing, unputdownable pacing, sharp dialogue, and four authentic young friends, and you’ve got a winner. Is it all kinds of creepy? Yup. Did I love it? YOU BET.
Archie Coomes, horror movie aficionado, is looking forward to summer break, especially its traditional kick off: a multi-night campout in the woods on the outskirts of his seaside Oregon town with his three best pals (no adults allowed, but all manner of scary stories welcome). But even before they get there, odd things begin happening in town. Pennies appear on doormats (then disappear), a man in a brown suit from a different era looms stalker-like outside Archie’s house at night, and his friend has a terrifying vision that seizes his body. Could all this be related to the ancient cave his dad’s construction company has just unearthed beneath a decrepit old mansion? By the time the first night of the campout rolls around and the kids hear the chop of an ax coming from somewhere nearby…well, that’s where I needed the lights on.
A perfect blend of cinematic suspense, macabre, the supernatural, and proof that sometimes kids have to take matters into their own hands when no one believes they’re living inside the plot of a horror movie!
For the Identity Seeker
by Celia C. Pérez
Perfect for those who enjoy character-driven realistic fiction with plenty of spice thrown in—here, in the form of Mexican wrestling—Tumble is the story of Addie Ramírez, who goes in search of her biological father and discovers he is a legendary luchador living one town over in New Mexico. If your kids know nothing going in about lucha libre—a mash-up of wrestling and mythology that boasts artistry, excitement, and history—they’re in for a treat!
Authenticity is one of the hardest things for writers of middle-grade fiction to nail. Too often, protagonists end up sounding younger than their age or like miniature adults. Celia C. Pérez, Newbery Medalist for The First Rule of Punk, has always gotten that tween voice right. She isn’t afraid to have her characters be blunt, naïve, and profound—even all in the same breath. Consequently, the dialogue in Tumble—between Addie and her school pals, between Addie and her newfound wrestling family—is as dynamic to read as the characters themselves.
Perez also nails the complexity of tweens’ inner lives, often fiercely guarded around loved ones for fear of rejection and shame. Learning the identity of her biological father has been a dream of Addie’s since forever, but with that answer comes new questions. Why has her mother kept them apart? What is Addie seeking from this man? How can she measure his larger-than-life figure against the humbler one of her stepfather, who runs a diner and is the only father figure Addie has ever known? And what does it mean to throw down the weight of a family legacy? These questions might not be relatable to every tween reader, but how Addie struggles with them, including what and when she chooses to share with the adults in her life, will feel refreshingly authentic.
For the Fantasy Lover
Black Bird, Blue Road
by Sofiya Pasternack
“She’d jab the Angel of Death in every single one of its eyeballs if that meant keeping Pesah safe.” Presenting my (and my daughter’s!) favorite historical fantasy of the year! It’s also my front-runner for next year’s Newbery Medal, and the best excuse to enjoy some baklava. A gripping, deeply felt story in its own right—part adventure, part coming-of-age, part profound musing on mortality—it’s even more powerful because it’s by a Jewish author, features Jewish characters, and draws from Jewish mythology and tradition. At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, let’s make sure our kids are reading Jewish stories that aren’t just about the Holocaust. And this gorgeously-penned story about a girl who faces down the Angel of Death to save her brother should go straight to the top of the list.
Set in Khazaria, a medieval empire of the Eurasian steppes, Sofiya Pasternack’s Black Bird, Blue Road chronicles the harrowing journey of twins. Pesah dreams of someday being a doctor, but his leprosy keeps him wheelchair bound, his lesions more severe by the day. Ziva, his twin sister and primary caretaker, would do anything to save him, so when Pesah has a vision of meeting the Angel of Death on Rosh Hashanah, Ziva knows there’s no time to lose. Convinced her parents have already given him up for dead, Ziva takes the horses and flees home with her brother in tow. Their destination: the fabled city of Luz, whose inhabitants are granted eternal life. Their guide: a half-demon boy, who owes Ziva a debt after she accidentally saves his life. Their obstacles: starvation, fever, thieves, gray wolves, a ticking clock, and the Angel of Death himself, who stalks their wagon as it makes its way across the barren steppes.
Spearheaded by one of the most fiercely resilient heroines I’ve ever encountered, this is a story about love that runs so deep, it emboldens us even in desperation. But it’s also about the way this love, coupled with a strong sense of justice, can blind us, can keep us from asking important questions of ourselves and others. How do we ascribe goodness? What constitutes trust? What does eternal life mean? Is “not dying” the same thing as living?
For the Thrill Seeker
by Alan Gratz
No writer puts you in the center of the action like Alan Gratz. My daughter devours his books; my son finds them too intense. I’m somewhere in the middle: I can’t tear myself away, but I have to keep reminding myself to take deep breaths. Always, though, Gratz does more than tell a gripping story. He empowers his young readers by showing them examples of tremendous courage, compassion, and conviction in the face of the unimaginable. And, in the case of Two Degrees—the title a nod to our current climate crisis—his message is urgent.
Fire, ice, and flood feature in three concurrent narratives. Akira navigates an unprecedented California wildfire, which ignites while she’s on horseback with her father, extending to the tops of the “unburnable” ancient redwoods. In their snowy home on the Canadian tundra, Owen and his pal, George, face down a starving polar bear, who attacks after being stranded due to melting ice caps. Finally, in Miami, Natalie tries to weather a hurricane—one that turns out to be the prophesied “big one”—along with other neighbors who can’t afford to evacuate; but when floodwaters take down the back wall of her house, she is plunged straight into the raging storm. While the specific scenarios are themselves fictional, the plights of the characters are pulled from real experiences, and the trending science suggests that without human intervention, these events may not be fictional for long.
How the three narratives converge at the end will be immensely satisfying and empowering to readers. Throughout the stories, Gratz weaves in clear scientific explanations of climate change, alongside examples of advocacy (how do you stand up to a parent who denies climate change?) and socioeconomic considerations (why are the poorest communities the last to receive emergency help?). A fast-paced, important read, though extra discretion should be applied for anyone who has lived through similar events—most recently, Hurricane Ian.
For the History Buff
The Bluest Sky
by Christina Diaz Gonzalez
Suspenseful, illuminating, and starring an unforgettable boy protagonist, Christina Diaz Gonzalez’s The Bluest Sky is historical fiction at its finest. Inspired by the thousands of Cubans who came to the United States during the Mariel boatlift, including Gonzalez’s own relatives, the story highlights a boy whose family makes the decision to risk everything to escape living under a repressive government.
It’s the summer of 1980, and Héctor feels like he’s being split into two. On the one hand, he adores his Cuban home, working hard at school to prepare for the national Math Olympiad and fishing for yellowtail with his best friend, Teo. On the other hand, he feels the increasing strain of living in a place where vocally opposing the government can get you stoned, where his own father has long been exiled to the US as a gusano (worm) for expressing anti-revolutionary sentiments.
When Héctor’s mom seizes a narrow window to secure a boat to the US, Héctor initially fights the decision. But when tragedy destroys his best reason for staying, he begins to realize just how precarious their life in Cuba has become. Even as Héctor’s flight as a refugee is harrowing and heartbreaking, it reveals hopeful truths about family, friendship, and community. Characters surprise us, help comes from where we least expect it, and love shines brightest in darkest moments.
For the (De)Coder
Unbreakable: The Spies Who Cracked the Nazis’ Secret Code
by Rebecca E. F. Barone
Last year’s Gift Guide boasted a non-fiction middle grade book, Steve Sheinkin’s Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown, and many of you reported back to me that it was a huge hit (my own son and husband loved it, too). So, I was delighted to come across Rebecca E. F. Barone’s Unbreakable: The Spies Who Cracked the Nazis’ Secret Code, another true spy story that reads like a historical thriller—all the more riveting because it actually happened.
Unbreakable unravels the story of one of the most high-stakes wartime codebreaking efforts in history—and a major factor in turning the tide of World War Two. Germany’s powerful Enigma machine, which emerged on the scene as the Germans prepared to wage war across Europe, ensured that every Nazi plan, attack, and troop movement relayed over radio was encrypted to avoid enemy detection. The Enigma may have been the size and shape of an ordinary typewriter, but it was like nothing the world had ever seen, designed to “maul coherent messages into incomprehensible clumps of letters.” Adding another layer of complexity, the Enigma’s settings changed daily, even hourly, and the machine on the receiving end had to match this configuration completely for the message to emerge. The wiring of the rotors alone had 403,291,461,126, 605,635,584,000,000 possible settings! Imagine trying to hack that.
But that’s exactly what a team of Allied codebreakers, spies, and navy fighters learned to do, across many years and against the backdrop of advancing armies and U-Boat attacks. Suspenseful writing is augmented with historical photos, first-person quotes, and ample back matter to tell a truly astonishing story.
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