Spring Break Reading: New Middle-Grade for Ages 7-14
March 16, 2023 § 1 Comment
Earlier this week, I shared my favorite graphic novels from the first three months of this year. Today, I’m sharing my favorite traditional middle-grade reads. And your kids are in for a treat! (You, too, as some of these make fabulous read-alouds.)
Below, you’ll find a story of brotherly shenanigans that’s part graphic novel, part traditional prose. Next, a spell-binding, boarding school fantasy tailored to younger readers hankering for adventure. Another fantasy with a terrific team of friends, this one about a shop of magical artifacts. There’s a story about cooking your way to found family. A much-anticipated sequel to one of the most beloved middle-grade releases of the past few years. A story about changing friendships against a backdrop of boba tea. A sharp murder mystery with an abundance of big words and a nod to Wednesday Adams. Another mystery that might be the most important book you give your kids this year. A piece of gripping historical fiction about coming of age during the Soviet Ukraine famine. Finally, a hilariously-told story on a topic you wouldn’t think could ever be funny.
As always, links will take you to Old Town Books in Alexandria, VA, where I’m the kids’ buyer (thanks for supporting us!), though I’m very happy for you to support an indie closer to you if you have one you love.
Arranged younger to older.
Link & Hud: Heroes By a Hair
by Jarrett & Jerome Pumphrey
What do you give the kid who thinks they only like graphic novels? You give them Link & Hud: Heroes by a Hair, the first in a new series that intersperses short, traditional chapters with black-and-white comics. It’s what’s increasingly known in the publishing world as a “bridge book,” a story for kids hooked on the visual appeal of graphics, who don’t yet realize they can derive similar excitement from prose—especially prose as funny and fast-moving as this. Inspired by the authors’ own brotherly antics as kids (you might recognize Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey from their award-winning picture books), Link & Hud is the story of two Black boys, Lincoln and Hudson Dupré, who have “what some grown-ups might call ‘active imaginations.’”
The exploits of these active imaginations are delivered to us in comic panels, as the boys deploy invisibility spells to fend off orcs, or descend into a cursed tomb of mummies. Always, there comes a time when the comic abruptly ends, as reality intrudes, often with a disapproving adult, since the boys are prone to leaving a trail of real-life destruction in the wake of their flights of fancy, from toilet paper tents to packing peanut snowstorms. With their demanding work schedules and the unreliability of teen babysitters, the Dupré parents decide to entrust discipline to none other than Ms. Joyce.
What’s so bad about Ms. Joyce? For starters, she’s old. She’s also old school, dispensing time outs in the bathroom, where there’s no hope of toys to pass the time. She’s obsessed with cleaning. And then there’s the issue of the gold tooth. But wait: might Ms. Joyce be up to her own shenanigans? And can Link and Hud catch her in them and get her fired like the babysitters before her? As they hatch their over-the-top plot, they discover that, just as in the best stories, sometimes the bad guys aren’t what they appear.
Legends of Lotus Island: The Guardian Test
by Christina Soontornvat; illus. Kevin Hong
Three-time Newbery Honoree, Christina Soontornvat, has set her sights on drafting an inventive, thrilling, richly-spun fantasy for kids who might not be ready to muddle through 300+ pages of world building. (Can I count myself in that group?) Clocking in at 147 pages, with black-and-white spot illustrations, Legends of Lotus Island: The Guardian Test delivers a boarding school fantasy shimmering with magical animals, high-stakes trials, ancient lore, environmental threats, and unexpected friendships.
Plum’s life changes the instant she learns she has been accepted into the Guardian Academy on Lotus Island, an elite school where tweens discover if they have what it takes to transform into Guardians, shape-shifting creatures tasked with protecting the natural world. Plum dives into her studies—how to talk to animals, how to strengthen her mind-body connection, and how to fight—with gusto. But she can’t shake the nagging feeling that her classmates possess more natural ability than she does. As, one by one, each of her friends transform into amazing, technicolor creatures, Plum’s desperation pushes her to consider just how far she’s willing to go to prove herself.
The best news? Kids will only have to wait until summer for the second title, with two more scheduled to be released next year!
Winston Chu vs. the Whimsies
by Stacey Lee
I’m not a fantasy lover by trade, but I make an exception for great writing—and an even bigger one for great characters. I also have a soft spot for magical shops, dating back to a childhood obsession with an early chapter book series by Ruth Chew (if you know the one I’m talking about, we can be best friends), because the idea that anyone can happen upon magic by walking into the right store is…well, deeply appealing. For all these reasons, I raced through Winston Chu vs. the Whimsies, a debut middle-grade fantasy series from the esteemed YA writer, Stacey Lee, and the latest in Rick Riordan’s imprint. (The whip-smart writing reminded me of another unexpected favorite from last year, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor.)
Winston is skateboarding home from a baking class with friends, when he trips, sending his freshly-baked pie straight at two men attempting to burglarize a storefront with a mysteriously shaped green door. As the men run off, one who calls himself Mr. Ping emerges from the shop and invites Winston and his friends inside, informing Winston that he may take the first object he touches as a thank-you gift. As the friends try and make heads of tails of what they’re seeing—magic or hoax?—Winston accidentally wastes his touch on an old broom and dustpan. It’s only when he gets home and stashes them in the closet that he discovers they’re not what they seem. Cue freakish rain storms, disappearing possessions, floating canoes, mischievous magpies, and…has someone stolen Winston’s little sister and replaced her with a fake?
What makes this modern retelling of a classic Chinese folktale so colorful isn’t just the wild chase Winston and his friends find themselves on to unravel the mystery of Mr. Ping and save Winston’s sister, but their rapport, at once hilarious and tender. I adore good dialogue, and this is some of the finest you’ll find in middle-grade lit.
Lasagna Means I Love You
by Kate O’Shaughnessy
Letters, blog posts, and recipes combine to tell the story of a girl who teachers herself to cook as a way to find her forever family. I gobbled up Kate O’Shaughnessy’s tender, deeply-moving sophomore middle-grade novel, Lasagna Means I Love You, inspired by her grandmother’s heirloom family cookbook, and and I’m confident your tweens will, too. If you’re lucky, you may even reap some of its culinary rewards!
Mo’s beloved grandmother was all the family Mo needed. Now, with Nan’s passing, and her only other known relative unwilling to take her, plucky, big-hearted Mo finds herself at the mercy of the foster care system in New York City. Amidst the stress and uncertainty of new placements, Mo takes refuge in two things: the journal Nan left her, where she processes the drama of her days via letters to her late grandmother, and a newfound curiosity in…cooking! Nan never cooked, so Mo doesn’t know her way around a kitchen, but when she discovers a binder of family recipes belonging to her case officer, she’s intrigued by the stories attached to them. What do recipes mean to the families who make them again and again? Is cooking a kind of glue that holds families together?
Mo embarks on a self-taught course in cooking, at first using the recipes in the binder and then using ones she solicits from friends and strangers. Her quest turns into a blog, then into plans to open a pop-up restaurant. But even as her hobby takes off and opens the door to unexpected relationships, a part of Mo never stops hoping she might uncover some family recipes of her own—along with a long-lost relative willing to adopt her. What she doesn’t realize is that, as with recipe writing, sometimes starting from scratch yields the sweetest results.
On Air With Zoe Washington
by Janae Marks
Speaking of stories that make you salivate…look who’s back! I’m so glad Janae Marks took her time writing the sequel to one of my very favorite middle-grade novels in the last three years—and the best thing to happen to my daughter and her pals in Lockdown—because this new story feels so authentically Zoe. There’s so much to love here, from baking to podcasting, entrepreneurism to social justice, family dynamics to friendship drama…but the biggest draw is the intrepid, compassionate, fiercely determined protagonist, who never takes no for an answer. If your readers love the accessibility of Kelly Yang’s writing, they’ll find similarly likeable characters, fast-moving plots, and inspiring change-making in these books.
On Air With Zoe Washington picks up where From the Desk of Zoe Washington left off, with Zoe’s biological father finally out of prison after his conviction is overturned (thanks to Zoe and The Innocence Project). With summer break in full force and their shared bonds of cooking and music, Zoe and Marcus spend as much time together as possible. While they work side-by-side at a local bakery, the two dream up plans for opening a restaurant together. But, as Zoe quickly discovers, life on the outside has no shortage of challenges for the formerly incarcerated, especially when it comes to credit checks and bank loans. With every door that slams in their faces, Zoe becomes more determined, not only to help Marcus, but to raise awareness about others with similar backgrounds.
As in the first book, Janae Marks deftly balances serious issues with Zoe’s prolific baking (I lost track of how many times I salivated), family gatherings, and general tween angst (read: what to do when your two best friends start crushing on one another). DID I MENTION WE HAVE SIGNED COPIES AT THE SHOP?
It’s Boba Time for Pearl Li!
by Nicole Chen
I’m happy to report that this story lives up to that tweenilicious cover! With crocheting, craft fairs, entrepreneurship, friendship drama, parental pressure, and more boba tea combinations than I thought possible, Nicole Chen’s It’s Boba Teime for Pearl Li is going to hit the sweet spot for lots of tweens. Especially those who love their boba as much as my daughter.
It’s the summer before seventh grade, and Pearl is focused on three things: her two best friends, her boba tea, and her love of crocheting adorable amigurumi dolls in the shape of donuts, robots, and octopi. Even better when all three things combine at Boba Time, the local tea shop. In Pearl’s opinion, Boba Time is the best thing about Sunnyvale, as much for the drinks and the hang-out space as for its owner, Auntie Cha, who helps Pearl connect with her Taiwanese heritage. That’s why, when Pearl learns that Boba Time is in financial trouble, she’s determined to try and save it.
You know the bravado that comes with the tween years? That voice that tells us that we’re capable of more than our parents think, that we’re wise to the ways of the world and unstoppable in our pursuit of justice? Nicole Chen does an excellent job of parading it out here, as Pearl begins selling her amigurumi online, even after her parents tell her she cannot, and the white lies start to snowball. It’s not just about saving Boba Time. Pearl is sure this will finally convince her parents that her crafting isn’t old-fashioned, that it’s a pursuit as worthy of her time as the coding her sister does. But when even Pearl’s besties begin to push back, will Pearl realize she needs the adults in her life more than she thinks?
A delightful story of learning to advocate, safely and effectively, for our passions and the people we love. And the best excuse to try a new flavor of boba—or twenty.
The Swifts: A Dictionary of Scoundrels
by Beth Lincoln; illus. Claire Powell
As soon as I read Beth Lincoln’s introduction to The Swifts: A Dictionary of Scoundrels, I knew I wanted to read this whodunit to my daughter. I suspected a story of British sensibilities, of dry, erudite humor, of eccentric characters and shocking outcomes and a house replete with secret passages, would be a ton of fun to read aloud. I also suspected, if left to her own devices, my daughter would probably gloss over—or, gasp, butcher!—the robust, unusual vocabulary at play on every page, and the English major in me couldn’t have that. After all, one of the benefits to reading aloud is showcasing correct pronunciation!
AND I WAS RIGHT! Every year, there’s a book I credit with getting us through the cold drizzle of Virginia winters. The Swifts offered cleverness and frivolity and chuckles—so many chuckles!—when we needed them most. But it also provided poignant moments of inter-generational and sibling connection, as well as grounds for debating nature vs nurture. It’s probably no coincidence that we read the book following a winter break obsession with Jenna Ortega’s rendition of Wednesday Adams. The book has been likened to “Knives Out by way of Lemony Snicket,” but I’d venture to say the heroine, Shenanigan Swift, with her oddball manners, penchant for mischief, and misplaced confidence has some Wednesday Adams vibes, too.
Let’s talk about the Swifts. Every member of this legacy family is named from a noun in the dictionary, their personalities literally carved in (grave)stone at birth. There’s a treasure called Vile’s Hoard, allegedly hidden in the rambling country house where Shenanigan lives with her Arch-Aunt Schadenfreude, Uncle Maelstrom, and siblings, Felicity and Phenomena. There’s a Family Reunion, where relatives from near and far descend on the house to look for said treasure. And the dead bodies start stacking up almost immediately, as one of the Swifts (or Swift wannabee?) appears to stop at nothing for a chance at this family fortune. Who is determined to suss out the murderer once the adults prove themselves wildly incompetent? Why, Shenanigan and her siblings, of course!
Oooh, and did I mention the pen-and-ink illustrations are delightful, too?
What Happened to Rachel Riley?
by Claire Swinarski
What Happened to Rachel Riley? will be one of the most important books you give your kids this year. And they won’t fight you for it! A mystery told through emails, text chains, podcast interviews, passed notes, and traditional prose? This is gold for today’s readers, reluctant and avid alike. What’s gold for parents? The opportunity for our kids to consider what advocacy looks like in a school setting, what it means to stand up to our close friends and classmates, what it looks like when girls push back against things their gut tells them are not OK—and what happens when they don’t.
Anna Hunt aspires to be an investigative journalist like her idol, the podcaster Mimi Miller. After all, she has always been more of an observer than a participant, more at ease with her nose in a book than making small talk with peers. Perhaps that’s why, as the new kid in eighth grade at East Middle School, she immediately notices there’s something the other kids aren’t telling her. Or even talking about amongst themselves. All she knows is that it has something to do with her classmate, Rachel Riley, once the most popular girl in school—or so her Instagram feed would suggest—and now a seemingly social pariah. When Anna’s eighth grade Social Issues class is assigned a project of their choosing, she seizes the chance to investigate Rachel. Even after the school—and her parents—demand she switch topics, she continues anyway, determined to right a wrong she suspects is out there.
As the clues mount—anonymous notes, a barn fire, stolen hall passes, a website taken down in a hurry—Anna realizes the truth is far bigger than Rachel Riley. This is a #metoo story, but it concerns the kind of behaviors that often fly under the radar: “friendly” butt slaps, snapping bras, a points system for ranking girls’ attractiveness. The kind of behaviors we think we should just ignore or laugh off, for fear of making waves or drawing bad attention. And, in Claire Swinarski’s excellent authorial hands, it’s a story with no easy answers, a story that honors the messy complexity of adolescent friendships and the challenge of knowing yourself, much less claiming your space, in a culture of mixed messages.
The Lost Year
by Katherine Marsh
Mark my words: this is going to be one of the best books of 2023. If Ruta Sepetys is the master of dusting off lost histories for teens, Katherine Marsh does the same for a slightly younger audience, her stories similarly chilling, timely, and gorgeously told. The Lost Year is exceptional. I marveled at the authenticity of its characters; I gasped at its big reveal (just wait…); I cried my eyes out; I learned a ton. I can’t wait to talk to my tween about this book. This would be an incredible choice for book clubs, or reading alongside your child. With today’s generation curious about what’s happening in Ukraine, they may need no coaxing to dive in, for though it’s set ninety years ago, it’s hauntingly familiar.
Inspired by Marsh’s own family history, the book follows a dual timeline, moving between thirteen-year-old Matthew, on Covid lockdown in New Jersey in 2020, and the interconnected stories of three cousins, revealed slowly to Matthew by his great-grandmother, who grew up in Soviet Ukraine in 1932, during a government-induced famine that would claim the lives of nearly four million Ukrainians, nearly half of them children, and became known as the Holodomor (“death by hunger”). At a time when Matthew himself is isolated and resentful, trapped at home caring for his great-grandmother, whom he calls GG, these stories not only foster connection with a woman he has never really known, but they get him out of his head. But there’s a reason GG has never told these stories to anyone: they reveal a dangerous secret. And, once Matthew knows it, he has to decide what to do with the information.
This is a nail-biting story about survival under horrific circumstances, but it’s also a poignant exploration of narrative, of what it means to tell our own stories and the stories of others. It’s about the costs of falling prey to disinformation, about the devastation of betrayal by government and family, about the dangers of labels. Finally, as in Marsh’s previous novel, Nowhere Boy, it’s about the hope and fortitude of young people pushing back against forces seemingly greater than themselves.
Simon Sort of Says
by Erin Bow
A story about a school shooting—wait, come baaaaack! Believe me, I had no intention of reading Simon Sort of Says after I heard it was about a boy dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting. But then it started getting stellar reviews—and I mean, stellar—so I read the first chapter. That turned out to be one of the funniest, most wildly entertaining opening chapters I’ve ever read, with such Gary D. Schmidt vibes that I not only vowed to keep going, but decided to pivot and read the entire book aloud to my kids. As I write this, we are just a few chapters short of the end, and not only have we loved it, even the sobering parts, but it has paved the way for overdue conversations about a topic I normally take pains to avoid thinking, much less talking, about.
Also, this is NOT technically a story about a school shooting (my kids weren’t even the wiser until halfway through). It’s about a kid named Simon who, when the story opens, has just relocated to Grin and Bear It, Nebraska, in February of his seventh-grade year. In addition to being surrounded by emu farms in “a house that we frequently share with dead people”—his mom is the director of the town’s only funeral home—moving to the National Quiet Zone means adjusting to no Internet, cell phones, TV, or radio. (Imagine that, my children!) As we come to discover, this isn’t a hard sell for Simon, who would prefer no one Google his name and discover that, three years earlier, he was the sole survivor of a shooting in a classroom. For now, all we know is that he’s got some funny explanations for his New Kid status and jumps at loud noises.
This is a story of adjusting to a town that would sound made up if it wasn’t actually real. Of goat births and Jesus squirrels, service dogs and hatched plans to fake alien messages through forbidden microwaves. Of a redemptive friendship with an autistic girl named Agate, one of seven siblings named after rocks, who has a dog that occasionally helps himself to a beer from the fridge. Of the kind of parenting I aspire to. And, yes, of the way PTSD can rear its ugly head, especially at unwelcome times, but how we can keep it from defining us and take back control of our own narrative. Did I mention Simon’s first-person narration is as funny as it is poignant? This is one my kids are going to look back on with fondness for a long time to come.
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So many good titles, Melissa, and many are new to me. I’ve already suggested LINK and HUD to my daughter-in-law who tutors a fourth grader. It sounds perfect for him!