Here are some of the latest middle-grade books and one YA book that have made a big impression on me. I hope you love them as much as I do!
New Chapter Books, October 2020
Three Keys by Kelly Yang
REALISTIC / IMMIGRATION
This sequel to Front Desk shows the challenges of being an undocumented immigrant, the power of the community to support each other, and the importance of speaking up for change. Tensions are high with a proposition on California’s ballot to make it illegal for undocumented immigrant children to go to school. Even Mia’s “Immigrants Welcome” sign gets retaliation when she puts it up at the motel. Then, Lupe’s mom leaves for Mexico for a funeral and her hard-working undocumented dad is arrested and detained. Lupe moves in with Mia and with Hank’s support, they hire a lawyer, start a petition, and write letters. Meanwhile, Mia and Lupe’s teacher begins to soften on her hostile opinion towards immigrants and sees the girls and their families as people, not problems.
Closer to Nowhere by Ellen Hopkins
REALISTIC / VERSE / #OWNVOICES
A #ownvoices heart-warming story in verse of struggle and unconditional love for a child with challenging behaviors. Hannah hates that her cousin Cal is now living with her family. He’s ruining everything from her parents’ relationship to her gymnastics competitions, not to mention that he’s impossible to trust. As she narrates, we also begin to loathe Cal because of his lying, running away, pranks, and talking back. But once we learn Cal’s backstory and the pain he’s feeling from living with an abusive dad who is now in jail and an addict mom who died of leukemia, we begin to feel compassion for him. Understanding Cal, his stories seem less like lies and more like imaginative ways for him to deal with his life. Just when Cal becomes more likable to Hannah, too, his father arrives at school armed with weapons…I couldn’t put this story down; it’s a rich, nuanced story about family, love, and empathy.
A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi
REALISTIC / PAKISTAN
The author transports us into an immersive Pakistani experience and gives us a story that shows how we can understand someone with a different background if only we are willing to listen and learn. Mimi’s not happy about visiting Pakistan for the summer to stay with grandparents she’s never met. Once she’s there, Mimi is shocked that her stern relatives have servants. Pakistan is a huge cultural difference for her, in not just language but daily customs, especially as she notices the difference between rich and poor. When Mimi befriends the cook’s daughter, Sakina, Mimi learns that Sakina has never gone to school and is studying to pass a test in order to attend school one day. The girls’ differences seem pronounced but they slowly learn from each other and develop a beautiful friendship.
Cinders and Sparrows by Stefan Bachmann
Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie
Claire’s dad isn’t just fascinated by ghosts but he leads ghost-tours of Chicago. When a reluctant Claire, a firm disbeliever, and scientist, is forced to help out on the tour one night, the ghost of a dead little boy follows her home. And won’t leave her alone. Claire is so scared that she confides in her brother and estranged friends. Together, they use research and scientific reasoning to figure out who the boy is and what he wants from Claire. Creepy with an interesting dose of Chicago history.
Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
REALISTIC / VERSE
Written in verse with precise text, this is an important book to bring awareness to CTE as well as show families in grief. ZJ’s professional football player dad is changing. He’s stopped playing, gets terrible headaches, surprising anger outbursts, and forgets ZJ’s name. ZJ contrasts this with memories of his dad before the ever after; the before dad who played with ZJ, made him breakfast, and treated his friends like family. Now, there are a lot of doctor’s appointments and not much hope. It’s real, raw, and profoundly sad to watch ZJ slowly lose the dad he once knew. Readers are thankful for ZJ’s friends and family who have his back as he deals with the difficulties of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that is only recently being researched and seen as a devastating result of too many head injuries.
Becoming Muhammad Ali by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile
BIOGRAPHY / VERSE
Masterfully plotted and beautifully written, Becoming Muhammad Ali, focuses on Cassius’s teenage years with some reflections of earlier childhood, setting the stage for the man that he becomes. His parents don’t encourage boxing, preferring academics, but Cassius is terrible at school. When he finds boxing, it becomes a powerful outlet not to mention, something at which he finally excels. Ali’s personality shines through the pages — a son, a friend, and a dedicated athlete who trains for hours each day; he’s cocky but likable and a gifted master of (rhyming) trash talk. The authors’ writing transports us to the city of Louisville where racial prejudice is rampant, giving us details that show the unfair treatment of black Americans –such as not being able to go to the local amusement park or get a drink of water in a store downtown. Growing up, Cassius notices the unfairness and injustice, preparing Cassius for the activist that he will become later in life. The poetry is Alexander at his best — vivid figurative language with an ideal cadence and an accessible narrative. Readers will zip through this page-turning biography; it’s both informative and inviting. I could NOT put it down.
Cleo Porter and the Body Electric by Jake Burt
An eerily timed pandemic adventure with a smart heroine you’ll love! People are sealed into apartments ever since Influenza D tore through the world. Cleo is only a kid but she’s studying to be a surgeon like her mom who performs virtual surgeries using robots from a room in their apartment. When a life-saving medicine for someone else gets delivered to them by accident, Cleo breaks out of her apartment to find the sick person. Unfortunately, she gets tossed outside their ginormous apartment building with the compost. Outside she meets an elderly woman and a child…and sees the sky for the first time. But Cleo is determined to help her patient so she reenters her building in one of the food transport robots. When she arrives at her destination, she learns it was all a test — and she’s mad and feels betrayed. The story ends with a glimpse of her spending time both inside and outside.
Escape from a Video Game by Dustin Brady
ADVENTURE / SCI-FI
Atty at Law by Tim Lockette
MYSTERY / ANIMALS
Barren Grounds: The Misewa Saga by David A. Robertson
#OWNVOICES / FANTASY / INDIGENOUS CULTURE
Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron
Fly on the Wall by Remy Lai
The Language of Ghosts by Heather Fawcett
A story about magic, family, and growing up, these siblings fled their home when the evil Xavier killed their queen mother. Now in hiding, Noa helps her dark mage older brother, Julian, as he searches for allies and a mysterious secret magical language. It’s a lovely escape read with a strong sense of family and doing what’s right.
The Wild Path by Sarah R. Baughman
REALISTIC / DRUG ADDICTION
Claire’s beloved brother is in rehab for pain-pill addiction. She feels confused and angry with him, not wanting to accept that things are now very different for their relationship and family. Making things worse, her parents need to sell their two horses due to tight finances. But the horses are the best cure for Claire’s growing anxieties. Then, she sees ghost horses in the woods and researches a historical accident with horses. This leads her to make a friend in her support group and learn about equine therapy which she hopes her family could do in order to keep the horses. As she explores the woods and the possibilities of equine therapy, Claire slowly comes to terms with the truth of her brother’s situation.
Dear Justyce by Nic Stone (YA 13+)
REALISTIC / #OWNVOICES
Quan’s story is an eye-opening, honest story of a black boy’s life of poverty, violence, racism, and incarceration that must be read and discussed. Quan recounts the events of his life that got him where he is today, in juvie awaiting trial for murder. He writes letters to an old school friend, Martin, a friend who believes in Quan’s innocence and helps him find a new lawyer. Quan shares about his awful home life, abusive mom’s boyfriend, lack of food, and attempts to protect his younger siblings, which all lead to Quan finding a gang family.