Middle grade books can be a bit of mixed bag. Sometimes, the books are truly exceptional with masters of their art at the helm and a true vision for where they’d like their story to go. Sometimes… not so much.
What makes the subject even trickier is that so often it’s not us doing the judging… it’s our wide-eyed children, anxious to pick up a book because of a cool cover or a gripping tagline. Maybe the book your son or daughter grabbed is a great one that will expand their horizons. But just as with adult books, younger novels can leave much to be desired.
I wanted to highlight a number of new middle grade novels that really floored me recently. Each of these books surprised me in unique ways and are great reads for kids AND adults! And a book that encourages a read-aloud is a great book by my standards!
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
Okay, maybe it’s not going to beat Charlotte’s Web in a death match any time soon. But if the third and fourth graders I’ve met had their say, it would be unanimously voted President in the next election.
Despite these high accolades, what I discovered in her new novel truly surpassed my expectation. With memories of homelessness fresh on his heels, Jackson conjures up his skateboarding, jelly bean-eating large feline imaginary friend for company. The only problem is that Jackson is far too old for an imaginary friend…like fifth grade too old! Still, Crenshaw sticks around as Jackson’s loving but struggling family seems to helplessly fall back into the arms of poverty. Applegate’s theme is not a surprise; it was her deft handling of these themes that left me a puddle of tears.
Applegate is a great writer, but what makes her stand apart from so many other middle grade authors is her willingness to dive into the complexities of her challenging characters. Jackson does not lead an easy life, but in the unease, Applegate creates magic.
This book stayed with me long after I closed the pages. I wanted to know these characters for real, and I CERTAINLY wanted my very own Crenshaw. A beautiful story about friendship, weirdness, creativity, your-messed-up-family-is-actually-awesome, and living below the poverty line. This reminded me of Patricia McLachlan when she is at her very best.
Masterminds by Gordon Korman
This book is a great match for many different types of readers. Korman is already an all-around awesome writer. His foray into soft science fiction does nothing to disturb his well-deserved reputation.
Eli has lived in Serenity, New Mexico his entire life, a town where everything is so perfect that concepts like discontent and murder just plain don’t exist. And for Eli, Serenity has always been a pretty idyllic place to live… until he starts to realize that he can’t exactly leave.
Told through a number of different narrators who team up with Eli in his mysterious quest, the book reads at lightning speed. It’s about as exciting as it is readable. And we have it on good authority that this is the first in a brand new series. We’ve already had avid young readers in here asking when the second book is set to come out!
It’s a great match for readers of Chris Grabenstein, Percy Jackson, and, yes, even other Gordon Korman! Sometimes, Middle Grade boys can be the hardest to find reading matches for, so I love to have this book as my go-to recommendation!
Nightbird by Alice Hoffman
If you know me, then you know I LOVED this book. It’s the type of book that makes you wish you could jump back in time and press this book into the hands of your eleven-year-old self, mumbling only, “Trust me. Read this.”
Set in a small town, Twig has always stayed pretty solo. She lives with her distant mother who, though the most beautiful woman in the town and probably the best baker for miles, isn’t exactly a best friend. But when two sisters move in next door, Twig senses that the tides might be turning. The only problem is that Twig has a secret to keep. And it’s big. Like, MAGICAL big.
Alice Hoffman (yes, THE Alice Hoffman) brings her trademark writing style to the elementary set. Gorgeous prose and a magical plot that won’t stop twisting and turning will make you reluctant to leave the world that Hoffman creates. The way I describe this to mothers is Practical Magic for 11 year olds. The way I describe this to young readers is a town on the edge of Hogwarts. The truth is somewhere in between, and something of Hoffman’s unique creation.
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
Stead is already a beloved author of the tween set, but this book took her to the next level for me. It’s the wonderful story of three best friends who are entering 7th grade, where everything just can’t remain the same way it’s been since kindergarten. Despite their serious No-Fighting policy, Bridge, Emily and Tabatha are facing some of the most fight-inducing scenarios a 7th grader has ever encountered. Bridge won’t stop wearing cat ears and is getting a little too close to Sherm Russo, a boy in tech club. Emily is acting more like a high schooler than ever and making some very questionable choices. And Tabatha? Well, you’ll have to read to find out.
I loved these girls. Their friendship and their personalities were bigger than the page. I felt that if they walked in the bookstore one afternoon, I would recognize them in a second. Not just that, I’d give them a big hug and ask to be a part of their girl group.
In typical Rebecca Stead fashion, this novel jumps around between the three girls going about their business and an anonymous student in the same town who may have just committed the greatest social sin anyone has ever seen. While it might be a hard push for lower readers, girls pushing the boundaries of their fifth and sixth grade reading lists will find this book as gripping and heartfelt as I did.
Brief parental disclaimer: this novel tackles a little bit of sexting. Nothing too raunchy beyond a few indecent pictures, but just FYI.
Scavengers by Michael Perry
Set in a semi-dystopian future, Maggie is one of the most killer heroines I have met in adult or children’s literature recently. She can beat down a GreyDevil with a Whomper-Zooka and fix her neighbor’s Scary Pruner all while avoiding her annoying little brother and reading Emily Dickinson poems with her mother.
But things are starting to get weird. Her father is acting stranger than usual, and the GreyDevils are just a bit more…active. Don’t read too much about the plot. The surprises are great and I was ripping through pages to find out what happened next.
The real pleasure of this novel is Perry’s world (and language) building. As one might expect in the future, things are different. Maggie and her family have to build their house and grow their own food. Survival is the most important thing. And the threat of the government is ever-present. Lucky for us, Maggie is a force to be reckoned with.
The choices that Maggie must make are so realistic, so sophisticated, I found myself completely wrapped up in Perry’s universe. While I was reading this, I kept thinking of Maggie as a spiritual sister to Madeleine L’Engle’s Meg: two girls who drive headfirst into the most dangerous circumstances not because they love the danger, but because they love their family.
Have I gushed enough? Add to all of this that the novel starts off with Perry’s dedication: “To my daughters.”
An awesome book for awesome kids. Promise me that you’ll check this one out.
These are just a few of the wonderful Middle Grade novels that have been published this year. I’m positive I left a bunch out, so tell us your favorite middle grade novels and I’ll add them to my reading list!