Ah, my middle grade happy place! I'm sure you'll find something you love here, happy reading!
Strange Birds: A field guide to ruffling feathers, by Celia Perez (MG)
This middle grade novel is essential about renegade Girl Scouts, need I say more? Four very different girls come together in an effort to push their local scouting organization, the Floras, to drop an outdated, problematic tradition that the community is very attached to. It’s full of adventure and self-discovery and solidarity, plus it’s quirky so much fun.
Look Both Ways, by Jason Reynolds (MG)
I mean, Jason Reynolds is a rockstar in the world of writers for young people. A chill, soft-spoken rockstar whose magic is weaving stories and capturing kids’ voices. Look Both Ways is a captivating series of interrelated stories, each a different perspective of the same walk home from the same school on one unusual afternoon. The only problem with this storytelling approach is that each snapshot is so vivid, I want a whole book about every character. The snapshot quality, as well as the narrative creativity, would make it a phenomenal mentor text for middle school language arts.
The Bridge Home, by Padma Venkatramen (MG)
Ooof, this book packs an emotional punch. It is so beautifully written, and tells a story very much from the margins. Sisters Viji and Rukku are trying to survive alone in the city of Chennai, India, having run away to escape an abusive father. They find family in Muthi and Arul, two boys living together on the street, and together they find ways to survive and care for one another. The book is told from the perspective of Viji, the older sister, retelling their story to Rukku, who has a developmental disability. All of the relationships between the four children are full of love and truth, and the themes of courage, hope, and grief (yes, there is a huge heartbreak within the story) are tenderly handled by this author. Not an easy read, but a powerful (and quick) one.
Hurricane Child, and King and the Dragonflies, by Kacen Callender (upper MG)
These two books aren’t connected to each other, but I’m pairing them as two books by the same brilliant author. Both are coming-of-age stories. Hurricane Child is about Caroline, a girl living on a tiny island near St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, struggling with being ostracized at school and desperately searching for her mother, who left without a trace. King, the main character in King and the Dragonflies, is a boy in rural Louisiana, reeling from the death of his older brother. So, both of these stories are heavy, but so beautifully written, and ultimately contain hope, healing, growth, and acceptance. Queerness is also a part of both stories (I don’t want to spoil exactly how), carefully and compellingly told by this #OwnVoices writer. They remind us, too, of the power of friendship in these pre-teenage years.
A Boy Called Bat, by Elana K. Arnold (early MG)
Okay, some levity! A Boy Called Bat is the first book in a series about third-grader Bixby Alexander Tam. Isn’t that an amazing name? Since it’s a mouthful, though, just about everybody calls him Bat. Bat’s mom, a vet, comes home late from work one night because of an emergency case: saving an orphaned newborn baby skunk. Bat immediately begins campaigning to be the kit’s caregiver, which is the main adventure of the book. The story is sweet, funny, and gentle, and offers a lovely representation of a little guy on the autism spectrum, describing Bat’s characteristics and quirks as just that, part of who he is, rather than symptoms of a disorder. There are no sentences like, “Since Bat has autism, he’s bothered by the sounds of the bells at school.” If I remember correctly, this book isn’t #OwnVoices, except that the author is a mom to a child on the spectrum (I’ll have to go back to the KidLit These Days episode she was on to check). I bought a set of the first three books from Scholastic in the fall, so the next two are waiting for me on the shelf!
Dear Martin, by Nic Stone (YA)
High school senior Justyce experiences the injustice and violence of policing in America, as well as the challenges and contradictions of being one of a few students of color at a fancy private school outside of the neighborhood where he grew up. Part of the way he processes his experiences, both with the police and with his classmates, is by writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. The teenagers’ voices in this are so good, both in the serious and the lighter moments (like when Justyce finds himself tongue-tied in front of the girl he likes). A companion/sequel has just come out, too, which I’m looking forward to reading.
This Book is Anti-Racist, by Tiffany M. Jewell
The only nonfiction book on this list! (I so struggle as a reader of nonfiction. The recent trend of YA adaptations of important nonfiction is right up my alley; Jason Reynolds’ Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is a great example, and another great read from this year. Consider this a snuck-in recommendation for that, as well.) Tiffany Jewell is an educator, a classroom teacher, as well as a writer and activist, and this book was born out of work she’s done in the classroom with her students. It’s both primer and workbook, with reflection questions in each chapter to guide the reader’s learning and move them towards action. I think this would be great to read and use with upper elementary and middle school students. It’s also a good jumping-off place for adult readers new to the concept of anti-racism. I used it for a book club with colleagues this summer (I know, white people and their book clubs), and in an environment where we’ve had exactly zero conversations about race and racism, it led us to some really good discussion. It’s approachable without, I think, shying away from the truth or letting people off the hook, and also has really practical advice about how to take action in your life and your world.
Rules, by Cynthia Lord
While most of the other books on this list came out in the last year or so, this one is much older (2007), and has been sitting on my shelf for ages. (I think it was a used book sale find, and oh, do I miss my local used book sale.) This is a sibling story, and a friendship story, and both involve kids with disabilities. Twelve year old Caroline’s younger brother has autism, and a lot of their family life centers around what he needs, in big and small ways. Caroline gives David a lot of “rules” to try to get him to understand how to be in the world, which are...sometimes helpful. Then, in the waiting room at David’s speech therapist’s office, she meets Jason, who communicates using a picture board, and we see a friendship slowly evolve between them. Honestly, it’s their relationship that I find most interesting, and how Caroline quickly goes from seeing him as a <<Person with a Disability>> to seeing him as a kid, as well as how they get to know each other and create their own ways to communicate. I love David, too, of course, who can’t keep himself from putting toys in the fishtank even though he knows he shouldn’t, and will burst into Caroline’s room with a shifty look on his face and recite the rule, “No toys in the fishtank,” to confess that that is in fact exactly what just happened. This is another Own Voices Mom situation, so again, it needs a grain of salt when we’re thinking about who is telling the story and whose story is being told, though it’s clear that the author intimately knows kids very much like these characters.
Genesis Begins Again, by Alicia D. Williams (MG)
Did I save the best for last? No, because I’m not ranking these books, but I absolutely LOVED this one. Where do I even begin? Well, for starters, Alicia Williams is a teacher as well as an author, which is so cool, and her bio at the end of the book is a list of things her middle-graders think you should know about her. Genesis Begins Again tackles big, hard themes about colorism, self-acceptance, and intergenerational trauma. It also tackles light, quintessentially middle grade issues of talent shows, friendship, and eating your friends’ parents’ cooking. Genesis longs to have lighter skin, for her dad to keep a job, for her grandmother to give her a break, for real friends who don’t turn on her, and through the story, she learns a lot about all of these things. The real friends she finds are not who she expects, which introduces some wonderful secondary characters. In addition, her perceptive music teacher introduces her to great Black singers, women like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, who change her life as well. This book is so many things, you should probably just go read it to understand.
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Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.