2023 Summer Reading Guide: Elementary Readers (Ages 8-12)

May 25, 2023 § Leave a comment

Today’s installment of the Summer Reading Guide features favorite new releases for 8-12 years, mostly traditional novels but concluding with three graphic novels. If you have Emerging Readers, check out last week’s recs here. And if you have Middle School Readers, stay tuned for next week’s recs for 10-15. Some of you may have kiddos that straddle two lists—the more the merrier!—and keep in mind that many of these would make terrific read alouds or audio books as well!

Wait! Before you scroll down, hear me out. Earlier this year, I did a Spring Break Reading Round-Up here and here with other incredible new books. If you missed it, make sure you check out that list in conjunction with the one below. A few of them, like Lasagna Means I Love You, It’s Boba Time for Pearl Li, and Link & Hud are actually set during the summer! You might also want to reference last year’s Summer Reading Guide for this age group (here and here), as many of those picks (ahem, Skandar and the Unicorn Thief) have sequels just out, and others are now in paperback.

If you’ve got a fantasy lover, they’re in for a treat because I’ve got a whopping SIX recommendations below. If you’ve got a kid off to sleepaway camp, I’ve got a book with ALL THE FEELS (be sure to also check out Camp Famous, just out in paperback, which my daughter read and loved at the end of last summer, too late for the 2022 Guide). If you’ve got a reader easily intimidated by long books, the first three recs are for you. If you’ve got a kid only hooked by zany plots, like survival stories or reality TV, I’ve got you covered. Animal lovers? Check. STEM interests? Check.

Alas, there are books I haven’t yet read that may well have made the cut. (Deadlands: Hunted, a new series billed as Wings of Fire meets Jurassic Park, got rave reviews from my co-workers, with the sequel out as soon as this fall!) As I tackle more, I’ll post reviews on Instagram of anything I love, so follow me there for more recommendations.

Finally, if you’re planning to purchase any of these, especially if you’re local, please consider supporting Old Town Books, where I do the kids’ buying. My links will take you there. (We also ship!) And for those who want to meet with me directly, I’ll be holding Office Hours on Sunday, June 4 and Sunday, June 25 from 10am-4pm, so bring your kids, your questions, your slumps, and we’ll have a great time.

Onwards! Maycember is almost over, and I can almost taste all the reading in store for us all!

Elf Dog & Owl Head
by M.T. Anderson; illus. Junyi Wu
Ages 7-12

If you’re combing this list for read-aloud ideas, I heartily recommend this illustrated novel: equal parts thrilling and philosophical, wry and tender, creepy and delightful. Only M.T. Anderson (and maybe Adam Gidwitz and Jonathan Auxier) could spin a backwoods fantasy like Elf Dog & Owl Head, a mash-up of Narnia, Phantom Tollbooth, and traditional folklore, which still manages to feel completely original! Alongside fantastical elements, it raises poignant questions about what it means to be a sibling and a friend, to love a pet, and to seek relief from the despair of loneliness in the intersection of storytelling and the natural world.

Driven stir crazy by the lockdown of a pandemic, Clay escapes into the woods behind his house, where he meets a magical elf dog with a jeweled collar. The animal, he learns, is named Elphinore, an escapee from the Kingdom Under the Mountain. With her by his side, Clay is suddenly able to pass “through the folds between worlds,” where he encounters owl-headed boys, gloomy giants, serpentine monsters, reverse waterfalls, and Midsummer festivals at once glorious and terrifying.

If this were an ordinary fantasy novel, Clay’s adventures through these worlds hiding in plain sight would be the main event. But M.T. Anderson is just as interested in exploring the direct and indirect effect these discoveries have on Clay’s relationship with his siblings and parents, especially when he inadvertently brings some of the magic home with him. And Anderson is just as interested in how Elphinore herself perceives the human world into which she has stumbled—and the love she finds there.

Lolo Weaver Swims Upstream
by Polly Farquhar
Ages 8-12

These next two recommendations are perfect for kids easily intimidated by long books but still looking for powerful, emotionally resonant stories. In Lolo Weaver Swims Upstream, Polly Farquhar layers adventure, ecology, dog love, grief, and a budding friendship story against an unusual summer backdrop—all in under 200 pages! Add to that a feisty, take-no-prisoners protagonist, whose hilarious first-person narration wins us over from page one.

For Lolo, this year’s summer break may go down as the worst in history. For one, she’s stuck in summer school, with a teacher out to get her. For two, her Ohio town, normally thriving with summer tourists and boardwalk food and endless swimming, is quiet and depressed, thanks to a mostly dried-up lake that smells as bad as it looks. Thirdly, Lolo can’t shake her sadness over the recent loss of her grandfather, and it doesn’t help that Hank, the stray dog he loved, won’t stop howling at all hours of the night. The straw that breaks the camel’s back? Lolo’s family decides to relocate Hank across the lake, despite Lolo’s fervent protests that Hank belongs with her.

In that way that kids hyper-focus on one thing in an attempt to regain their equilibrium at large, Lolo becomes obsessed with getting Hank back. Even if it means telling no one about her plan. Even if it means venturing across the swampy lake in a tippy canoe in which she plans to kidnap Hank from his new family. Even if it means battling her summer school classmate, Noah, who turns out to have his own stake in Hank’s future. Even if it means not stopping to consider what’s right for Hank. It’s a sometimes perilous adventure that begins as a rescue mission, ends as something else, and along the way proves that sometimes, when we’re in the throes of grief or disappointment, things aren’t what they seem.

Home Away From Home
by Cynthia Lord
Ages 8-12

I think every Summer Reading Guide should include a book with a Maine setting, don’t you? Certainly, the protagonist of Cynthia Lord’s Home Away From Home would agree. Every year, Mia counts down the days until she visits Grandma in Maine, where the two dip their toes in the freezing ocean, explore the Point for seals and eagles, put together jigsaw puzzles, and sneak chocolate. This summer’s trip, however, is more loaded: Mia’s mom wants her out of the way so can get their house in Ohio ready to sell, including painting over Mia’s turquoise bedroom walls. Mia likes her mom’s boyfriend well enough, but the looming challenge of starting a new life together has her clinging to her beloved traditions in Maine.

Only Maine is suddenly different, too. Rather than savoring one-on-one time with Mia, Grandma seems more interested in pushing Mia to spend time with their new neighbor, a know-it-all boy named Cayman, who turns out to be navigating unpleasant changes of his own. Begrudgingly at first, Mia joins Cayman on walks to the rocky Point, where the two spot an unusual white bird of prey that neither of them recognizes. As Mia races Cayman to research the bird’s origins, she become embroiled in a scheme, spurred by social media, that inadvertently puts the bird in danger and risks the town’s viability as a wildlife refuge. Does Mia dare lean on Cayman to help her stop what she has put into motion?

A heartwarming, highly accessible coming-of-age story that’s perfect for animal lovers and also carries themes of family, friends, second chances, and conservation. (If you weren’t convinced of its animal-loving merits based on the bird of prey alone, I’ll have you know there’s a charming sub-plot involving homing a stray cat.)

The Firefly Summer
by Morgan Matson
Ages 8-12

Treasure hunts, goofy traditions, endless s’mores, haunted cabins, and a summer making memories with cousins you didn’t know you had? SIGN ME UP! Morgan Matson’s debut middle-grade novel, The Firefly Summer so evocatively conjures up the sights, smells, and tastes of Camp Van Camp that you’ll believe you’re there. And, much like our protagonist, you’ll never want to leave.

Ryanna Stuart was just a little kid when her mom died, so she doesn’t remember much about her, and her dad mysteriously avoids talking about her side of the family. But when her dad has to travel out of the country for a movie shoot, he begrudgingly presents Ryanna with a proposition. How would she like to spend the summer with her grandparents at their now defunct camp in the Poconos? She’ll be joined by a (very loud) cast of aunts, uncles, and cousins, gathering for a last hurrah on this generations-old property, before a developer bulldozes it to make room for luxury hotels. Ryanna accepts, hoping a summer spent in a place near and dear to her mother’s heart might yield clues about who she was as a young woman. Even if she doesn’t know these relatives from a hole in the wall.

It’s fair to say that serious, only-child Ryanna gets a whole lot more than she bargains for, including front row seats to a Viking funeral (for a chameleon), a daily tutorial on coffee making, callouses on her feet, enough floatie vs. kayak races to last a lifetime, and an actual treasure map that might save a place that’s quickly becoming one she can’t imagine her life without. Give this to kids heading off to sleepaway camp, or to anyone who loves mysteries, snappy dialogue, and a strong kids-outsmarting-grown-ups vibe.

When Giants Burn
by Beth Vrabel
Ages 8-12

Hatchet meets Hansel & Gretel, as a boy and girl, bonded by their shared outsiderness, must survive on their own after their handmade plane crashes in the middle of a raging forest fire. When Giants Burn is unquestionably unputdownable, but what readers will remember long after the final page are two richly-spun protagonists, who take turns narrating, and whose unique backstories combine to tell a universal story of clinging to what’s good in the midst of a world that’s spinning out of control.

Raised off the grid in the Pacific Northwest by her survivalist parents, Gerty has a secret: she’s building an ultralight airplane, determined to enlist in the Civil Air Patrol for disaster relief like her grandmother did when she was twelve. Surrounded by her building materials, Gerty feels unstoppable, the opposite of her experience in middle school, which her parents are finally permitting her to attend, if only to make a case for rejecting it, and where her classmates regard her as a feral being. All but Hayes, a fellow misfit, whose mom recently returned home from prison bearing no resemblance to the parent he remembers. Gerty takes Hayes into her confidence, and the two strike up a friendship each afternoon after school, while Gerty puts the finishing touches on her plane.

At the heart of this novel lies a scientific truth in the name of Pando, an ancient aspen forest whose 150,000-year-old root system makes it the oldest living organism in the world. As Gerty’s parents threaten to take her away from her new friendship—the only thing that makes sense in her conspiracy-driven world—she is seized by a desire to see nearby Pando in the flesh. This desire only escalates when wildfires begin tearing across the state, moving dangerously close to Pando. With Hayes eager to escape life on the ground, the two set out in the ultralight and quickly put Gerty’s survival skills to test. What they’ll learn, though, is less about the thrill of freedom and more about the value of connection—back home on the ground.

The Greatest Kid in the World
by John David Anderson
Ages 8-12

The Greatest Kid in the World had me laughing so hard that I didn’t register its emotional heft until my heart had grown by three sizes. In Zeke Stahls, John David Anderson has crafted a boy protagonist that feels refreshingly modern, imperfect, vulnerable, and endlessly capable of surprise. Add in plentiful pranks, a reality TV-esque competition, and some of the best sibling banter, and I can’t imagine this is going to be a hard sell for your readers!

When Zeke learns he has been selected as a final contestant in an online competition to crown the World’s Greatest Kid, he’s sure it must be a prank. After all, he’s the master of pranks; just ask his mom, who is frequently called in to meet with the principal. Or his older sister, who just opened her latest fashion magazine to find a slice of American cheese pressed inside. From his pranks to his grades to his complete lack of extracurriculars, Zeke figures he’s as far from an overachieving do-gooder as you can get. About the only person who might consider Zeke the World’s Greatest Kid is his little brother, Nate, who hangs on Zeke’s every word.

Except the contest is neither a prank nor a mistake. And when Zeke learns the prize—$10,000 cash and a Hawaii vacation!—he figures he owes it to his family to try. His mom can barely keep up with the bills on her single-parent income, and maybe a vacation would help them shrug off the cloud of sadness hanging over their house. Suddenly, Zeke is spending his summer break trailed by a camera crew, achieving celebrity status as he tries to out-scheme the competition and win votes from kids around the world. But what starts as a dare of sorts quickly opens a floodgate of questions about what it means to be a celebrity, friend, brother, son, and someone worthy of love and respect.

Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy
by Angie Thomas
Ages 8-12

Fans of B.B. Alston’s Amari are going to fall hard for Nic Blake, the latest quick-witted protagonist to enter the Black fantasy scene. Nic Blake and the Remarkables, set to be a trilogy, is inspired by American history and folklore from the African diaspora. It’s also Angie Thomas’ middle-grade debut, following her critically acclaimed YA novels, including The Hate You Give, and further proof that she is the MASTER of pacing (arguably the biggest factor for success among today’s young readers). Combine that perfect pacing with a high-stakes prophecy, duplicitous haints, troublesome Boo Hags, an adorable pet hellhound, and as much humor as hair-raising, and there’s no reason to stop reading until the end.

Never mind that her best friend in their town of Jackson, Mississippi got a phone for his twelfth birthday, Nic knows she’s got him beat: as the daughter of a Manifestor, she’ll finally get the chance to call upon her Gift so she can take her place in a long line of powerful Remarkables. As proof, she just caught herself a hellhound in a net made from Giants’ hair—all without her Unremarkable neighbors being any the wiser. Then, suddenly, Nic’s dad begins backpedaling on his decision to teach her about her legacy, Nic learns her mom might not be the deserter she thought she was, and a Visionary touches Nic’s shoulder and is terrified by what she sees. Later that day, Nic watches as her dad is taken prisoner by LORE—the Remarkable government—for a crime he swears he didn’t commit.

With the help of her best friend and a twin brother she didn’t know about until moments ago, Nic is thrust on a quest to unravel her family story, harness and control her own power, and track down a magical tool that might be the only way to convince LORE of her father’s innocence.

The Book of Stolen Dreams
by David Farr
Ages 8-12

Have you noticed that much of the best fantasy for kids is born in the UK? There’s a respect that UK authors have for their young readers that allows them to flirt with the weird and the dark in a way that American authors can be nervous to try. Yes, I’m talking about things like Death Eaters. With David Farr’s The Book of Stolen Dreams, I’m also talking about child assassins, relations summoned from the dead, and predatory strangers with penguin hats. How do these authors get away with this? They instill their child protagonists with a strong moral compass that allows them to triumph over depravity in a way that ultimately feels empowering, not frightening. As Farr’s wry narrator speaks to us, “Such is life, my friend. There is no joy without accompanying sorrow. There is no despair so dark that a sliver of light cannot abate it.”

Equal parts mystery and magic, this breathlessly-paced standalone fantasy sets two siblings on the run to protect a magical book, entrusted to them by their librarian father before he is imprisoned. After said book is a tyrannical ruler intent on robbing the land of Krasnia—and, if unchecked, the world—of art, culture, and free speech. The story is inspired by the author’s German-Jewish great-aunt and uncle, who made courageous journeys as unaccompanied minors to escape Nazi Germany, exemplifying what children are capable of when stakes are high.

As Rachel and Robert, both separately and together, begin to piece together the mystery of the book—especially its missing last page which, if reunited with the book in the wrong hands, would provide the fatal blow—they encounter an eccentric cast of characters. Some are trustworthy, others are not. But the biggest threat to carrying out their father’s wishes might be their own grief, which they must move through in order to reach the clarity of the other side.

The Kingdom Over the Sea
by Zohra Nabi
Ages 8-12

This fantasy (also out of the UK, wink wink) shrouds you in magic and mysticism from the start, much like the faded blue shawl with its star-like gold embroidery that our protagonist wraps around her to feel close to her mother. Zohra Nabi’s debut novel, The Kingdom Over the Sea—please let us get a sequel!—transports us to a lavish world of sorceresses, alchemists, jinn, and flying carpets, where twelve-year-old Yara searches for answers to who she is and where she comes from.

“My own Yara, if you are reading this, then something terrible has happened, and you are on your own. To return to the city of Zehaira, you must read out the words on the back of this letter…” So begins the strange instructions that Yara discovers upon her mother’s death. Yara’s childhood in England has been entirely ordinary with one exception: her mother would never give a definitive answer about where she was running from when she arrived in England, twelve years earlier, a newborn in her arms. Her mother’s ancestral tongue is not one that any neighbor has ever recognized. At last, Yara might have a chance to uncover her mother’s secret, assuming she can suspend her disbelief in magic and entertain the possibility of journeying to a place not on any map.

What Yara finds in Zehaira defies logic, but it also offers beauty beyond her wildest dreams. Can Yara convince the sorceresses—an outlawed population with secrets of their own—to let her stay, as her mother requested? Can she persuade them to offer her training on the ancient magic they practice? Just as she is beginning to see a future for herself, can Yara risk everything to save this wondrous place and its people from the plotting of the Sultan’s power-hungry alchemists, who would rid the world of magic once and for all?

by Pari Thomson
Ages 8-12

Planting a seed is an act of hope.[…] It means you have faith in the future. Think of that hope, and don’t let go.

I’ve just finished telling you about three fantastic fantasies I read this spring. I wasn’t going to push my luck and try another. But then I received a copy of Greenwild, the first title in an eco-fantasy trilogy by an Iranian English editor-turned-author—part The Secret Garden, part A Wrinkle in Time—and it stole my heart. Yes, it’s a magic-school fantasy, a somewhat tired trope these days, but its world building is lush, evocative, and, in short, incredible. I’ve never yearned to step inside a book the way I wish I could emulate our protagonist, Daisy Thistledown, who steps through a tiny door in London’s Kew Gardens and unexpectedly crosses over from the Grayside (our world) to the Greenwild, a place of winding treehouses, iridescent parakeets, and magical plants beyond our wildest imagination.

Daisy—Iranian English like her creator—has been on the move for most of her life, trailing her famed news reporter of a mother, whose obsession with chasing down stories was born in the wake of her husband’s death, while Daisy was still a toddler. Daisy adores her eccentric mother, even if parts of her are elusive, like the way plants seem to bloom almost effortlessly in her presence. But when, after temporarily enrolling Daisy in a London boarding school, Ma goes missing in the Amazon rainforest and is presumed dead, Daisy vows to run away and get answers. Her efforts, along with a glass dandelion orb gifted from Ma, lead her to Mallowmarsh, a settlement in the Greenwild and a place populated by powerful Botanists proficient in green magic and bent on protecting the natural world at all costs. It’s also a place that holds shocking secrets about Daisy’s own family history.

Taken in by Mallowmarsh’s commander, Artemis, and her doting housekeeper, Tuffy, Daisy learns that her mother is one of many Botanists kidnapped in the Amazon at the hands of an eco-terrorist group that calls themselves the Grim Reapers. Before Daisy stands a chance of going after Ma and the others, she must learn plant magic alongside Mallowmarsh’s other tweens—including a bully with the nickname Poison Ivy—who quickly become scrappy, loyal accomplices to Daisy’s daring ideas. But, as Daisy quickly learns, nothing and no one are quite what they seem in a world where vines can strangle just as easily as they can pour tea, even if it’s a world that’s beginning to feel like home.

Shakti: A Graphic Novel
by SJ Sindu; illus. Nabi H. Ali
Ages 8-12

How about a graphic novel to round out this fantasy collection? If you like your fantasies fierce and feminist, then Shakti is for you, a story of a twelve-year-old Indian American girl who must learn the power of her ancestral magic if she wants to save her family and town. Make no mistake: despite its overlay of cultural fantasy and interludes of Indian folklore, the graphic novel is rich with contemporary tween bait, including discussions of popularity, parental pressure, LGBTQ+ rep, the stress of (un)shaved legs, and even manga. It also boasts gorgeous art!

Shakti has moved more times than she can count, but with a baby brother on the way, she hopes her two moms—one a microbiologist, the other a programmer and witch—will crown Amherst, Massachusetts her forever home, so she can finally put down roots. Already she’s on track with a BFF named Xi, who introduces Shakti to pizza with mayo and shares her ambition to be a comics artist. But trouble emerges in the form of HEK, a trio of girls who are ruthlessly mean to Shakti. Oddly, the teachers and administrators never notice this cruel behavior, even when it happens right under their noses, leaving Shakti alone to battle her escalating powerlessness.

Back to Shakti’s mom, who practices a rare form of Durga magic, channeled through the goddess of strength, Durga Ma, whose painting sits beside an incense bowl in their house. Her mom refuses to teach Shakti this magic until she’s more “mature,” but Shakti opts to take matters into her own hands after coming across HEK performing their own kind of magic in the woods. Instead of calling upon Durga Ma, Shakti accidentally conjures her dangerous twin, Kali Ma, who transforms HEK into monsters and curses the entire town. As more and more people begin to fall ill, including Shakti’s pregnant mom, will she be able to harness her own strength, confess her mistakes, and find empathy in her enemies to save those she loves?

Grace Needs Space: A Graphic Novel
by Benjamin A. Wilgus & Rii Abrego
Ages 8-12

While we’re on graphic novels, here’s a recommendation for speculative sci-fi that’s perfect for your STEM kids. Not sure if you’ve gotten the memo, but Earth is on track to becoming non-viable, and we’re going to need to pivot to space colonies—think moons and planets—if we’re to survive. You taking notes? Grace Needs Space can help. Still, as the title’s double entendre reminds us, you can live in space, but you’ll still have parents who underestimate you and drive you up the (low gravity) wall.

Grace has two engineer moms. She has always thought of Evelyn, her mom that’s around all the time, as the boring mom, and Kendra, her mom who traverses outerspace in a freighter for a living, as the fun one. So, she’s thrilled to get the chance to join Kendra aboard her ship, the Sadie Goat, in an expedition to Titan, now the second-most populous moon owing to its plentiful water ice and hydro-carbon lakes. But as fun as the engine burn is, Grace finds herself increasingly bored, told not to touch anything and excluded from the technical work Grace knows she’d find fascinating. Curiosity without supervision can be a dangerous combination, and when Grace lands on Titan, she finds herself in a mess of trouble.

It’s fascinating to glimpse what it would be like to live aboard a space ship or on another moon or planet, but the real payoff here are the thoughtful, charged, and realistic dynamics between Grace and her moms. As Grace tests limits and learns to effectively advocate for her own needs, she also begins to see her parents as the flawed, vulnerable, but loving humans they are.

Parachute Kids: A Graphic Novel
by Betty C. Tang
Ages 9-12

I challenge any graphic novel skeptic to read Betty C. Tang’s Parachute Kids and tell me graphic novels can’t take their readers on an emotional journey as robust and memorable as traditional novels can. In addition to its exceptional storytelling, this is some of the best character writing I’ve encountered in middle-grade literature! Inspired by the author’s own childhood as a “parachute kid,” the novel tells the story of three Taiwanese siblings, living in California while their parents work and save money back in Taiwan with the intent to join their children as soon as they can. For months, the three go to school, do homework, eat dinner, go to sleep—ALL WITHOUT AN ADULT IN THE HOUSE, all while trying to evade detection by authorities, all while understanding very little English, and all while trying not to drive one another insane. I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to hug three book characters more.

Feng-Li has been nothing but excited for her first trip to America, especially Disneyland! But after an action-packed vacation, her parents spring unwelcome news on her and her older brother and sister. Her parents will be returning to Taiwan alone. The three siblings must fend for themselves with only the benevolent but sporadic oversight of a neighbor family. That means learning to cook, budget, and speak English, all while navigating new schools, new American names, and new friendships. With Feng-Li’s brother and sister no longer able to be in the same room without resorting to bickering, it falls to Feng-Li to keep the peace.

The sibling relationships are at the heart of this gripping story, and their dialogue will feel at once hilarious and relatable to anyone who knows what it is to take out stress on the ones we love. The children’s parents call and write frequently, but their timetables keep shifting, and the uncertainty and loneliness with which the children are living begins to take a toll, resulting in questionable, even dangerous decisions. Witnessing the way the three siblings find their way back to one another with the support and love they desperately need is nothing short of extraordinary.

Have you enjoyed this post? Make sure you don’t miss others! Enter your email on the right hand side of my homepage, and you’ll receive a new post in your inbox 2-4 times a month. Plus, follow me on Instagram (@thebookmommy), where I’m active most days, posting reviews and updates on what my kids are reading, or Facebook (What To Read To Your Kids) and Twitter (@thebookmommy).

All opinions are my own. Links support the beautiful Old Town Books, where I am the children’s buyer (and yes, we ship!).

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