2019 gave us so many amazing middle-grade chapter books and graphic novels! Especially for realistic fiction books that tackle growing up while facing big issues like colorism, poverty, immigration, and identity. Add several memorable historical fiction stories and a few adventures and your must-read pile might be the biggest yet.
Best Middle-Grade Chapter Books of 2019
Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai
REALISTIC / IMMIGRATION
Pie in the Sky is an insightful, funny, and poignant look at the struggles of immigrating to a new country (Australia) and the difficulties of learning English along with growing up and grieving the loss of a father. Jingwen’s observations and wit make him a likable main character and the illustrations capture the depth and flavors of his experiences. He likens learning English with becoming human. After school with his brother, he bakes the cakes that his father wanted to include at his dream Pie in the Sky bakery. It’s a coming of age story that is both salty and sweet, the perfect blend, and possibly my favorite middle grade book of the entire 2019 year.
Unteachables by Gordon Korman
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
An honest, eye-opening story of siblings, family, resiliency, and courage set on the streets in India that reveals the plight of many homeless children there and yet, finds a way to be hopeful, too. Viji writes this story as letters to her little sister Rukku, a girl who has intellectual disabilities. The story starts with the sisters running away from their abusive father then arriving in the big city where they bond with two friendly brothers, living with them under a bridge, scrabbling to survive by collecting trash. Unfortunately, Rukku gets a terrible cough and fever and what happens next almost destroys Viji. Ultimately, it is the kindness of her new “family” that helps her to see more than misery in the world.
Roll with It by Jamie Sumner
This meaningful story will tug at your heartstrings. It’s narrated by Ellie a girl who loves to bake, who has CP (cerebral palsy,) and who rolls through life in a wheelchair. She hates having an aid at school who’s supposed to help her with everything including going to the bathroom. When her mom moves them to Oklahoma to help care for her grandfather, even though Ellie’s from the so-called wrong side of the tracks, she makes friends with other trailer park kids — the first friends she’s ever had. It’s a sweet story about taking risks, the importance of finding your tribe, and growing up. I appreciate that the author skillfully shows readers that kids in wheelchairs are just like everyone else but with different challenges like accessibility (where your chair can go) and getting dressed. Highly recommended.
Words on Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Nielsen deftly captures the history of Lithuania’s book smugglers as well as the fundamental truth that books give readers freedom from oppression and keep alive a language, culture, and identity. When Audra’s parents are arrested by the Cossacks, she flees to their contact’s house, learning that her parents were part of a network of Lithuanian book smugglers fighting against the Russians. But, she didn’t want anything to do with that, partially because she can’t read. However, as she slowly learns, she develops a fire for words and their power. Not only that, she becomes a passionate and clever smuggler herself. You’ll be so inspired that a small country of farmers managed to keep their culture alive even after the Russians banned their language and their books. Highly recommended!
Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly
FOLK TALE / MAGICAL REALISM
Lalani, a poor girl in a fishing village, savors stories like sustenance. They help her survive her cruel stepfather and stepbrother and give her a roadmap life. During a long drought, she asks magic-wielding Mindoren hiding on the mountain to make it rain. However, in her enthusiasm, she doesn’t ask for the rain to stop eventually. When it doesn’t stop, the village blames Lalani for all their troubles. Believing in the stories and reflecting on something she heard (“Things will never change if everyone’s asleep“), Lalani bravely faces the biggest danger of her life and travels across the deadly sea from which no one has ever returned in order to find a flower that might fix things. Richly layered and full of depth, this beautiful story is one of the must-read books of 2019.
One-Third Nerd by Gennifer Choldenko, illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans
Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dees
Middle schooler Mila is feeling trapped— a group of basketball-playing boys continues to get too close, grabbing her, touching her, and telling her that she’s imagining it. Ignoring doesn’t stop the behaviors, neither does telling an adult, telling friends, or wearing baggier clothing. Plus her toxic friend Zara is acting mad and jealous that Mila’s getting the boys’ attention. Unexpectedly, Mila finds new strength when she starts karate classes which helps her figure out what might work to stop the harassment. I highly recommend this essential middle-grade book; it should be shared widely with middle school boys and girls.
Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
What a beautiful, heartbreaking, wonderful, transformative middle-grade book of 2019! Nova is both autistic and nonverbal but loves her sister everything to do with space. At her foster family without her big sister, she narrates letters in her mind to her “runaway” sister, Bridget. Flashbacks show hiding in the closet from an abusive mother as well as time together living with previous foster families. Nova clings to the promise that Bridget will come back for her in time for the Challenger launch. But the launch comes and goes and Bridget never shows up, prompting Nova to face the difficult truth about where her sister is. I’m in awe of the author’s beautiful, gifted storytelling. I love this book SO much.
Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly
Song for a Whale is a heartening, poignant story that gives readers insight Deaf children, the richness of Deaf culture, and the life-changing power of compassion. Iris is a lonely Deaf girl who feels alone at her school and in her immediate family. When she learns about Blue 55, a whale called the loneliest whale in the world because his different hertz song, Iris immediately feels a connection to him. Iris uses her compassionate heart, intelligence, and tinkering skills to write and record a whale song that Blue 55 could hear so he’ll know that he’s not alone. Then she and her grandmother, who is also Deaf, sneak off without Iris’ parents’ permission on a cruise to the Alaskan research station where they’ll have a life-changing adventure.
Emmy in the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido
REALISTIC / STEM
I loved this exquisite novel in verse that celebrates music, STEM, making friends, and growing into yourself. Emmy’s eager to start a new school and make friends but she’s thwarted by rudeness at every turn. A daughter of professional musicians, Emmy decides to abandon music and take a computer programming class. She sort of makes a friend with a girl in her programming class named Abigail but she’s only friendly during that class. Which makes Emmy feel conflicted. As Emmy’s family adjusts to San Francisco, Emmy figures out her place in the world, especially as it relates to her growing passion for programming. The author skillfully connects music and programming in a memorable, poetic way that even non-programmers can understand.
The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles, illustrated by Dapo Adeola
If you’re a fan of wild and wacky stories, this is the book for you. Cousins Otto and Sheed accidentally stop time, freezing all the people in the town. Mostly. Because a sinister Mr. Flux on a gigantic beast can move about as can all the people related to time like A.M. and P.M.and Father Time. Throw in some unexpected plot twists and excellent writing and it adds up to a delightful adventure that just proves you should be careful what you wish for…
Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation by Stuart Gibb
Each Tiny Spark by Pablo Cartaya
REALISTIC / LEARNING DIFFERENCES / PREJUDICE
For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
Written in evocative yet readable verse, follow a young girl from her home in Syria as she moves with her mother the United States. Jude’s journey is one of growing up, being brave, and discovery. Readers will see how Jude finds her way– relating other ESL students in their safe classroom space, finding new friends, getting her period and starting to wear a headscarf, and even performing in the school play. Her insights on life in America helps us understand what it’s like to be an immigrant experiencing this country for the first time. Beautiful!
Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams
Don’t miss this important middle-grade book from 2019 about self-worth, beauty, and colorism. Genesis hates her dark skin, believing that if only she were lighter-skinned, she’d be pretty and have a better life. Despite this and troubles at home with a ne’er-do-well father who can’t keep a job, at her newest school an insightful music teacher introduces Genesis to jazz legends like Billie Holliday. This changes everything. Now Genesis can find her voice, literally and metaphorically.
The Falcon’s Feather (Explorer Academy #2) by Trudi Trueit
Book two is as impressive as the first book, The Nebula Secret. It’s a well-written, compelling adventure/mystery story filled with everything you’d want in a book: interesting characters, cool science, even cooler science fiction, a puzzling mystery, and an exciting adventure. Plus, it has full-color illustrations, too — which is quite rare in middle-grade chapter books. In this story, Cruz is on a ship to fulfill his secret mission of finding his mother’s hidden project which she scattered in parts around the globe. Cruz and his team believe their first stop should be the Seed Vault in Norway. But someone is trying to kill him so he doesn’t succeed. And if they can’t get to him, they’ll go after his family and friends.
The Best Graphic Novels of 2019
This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews
A compelling graphic novel adventure filled with curiosity, magic, and friendship –as well as a talking bear, a map-drawing crow, and a special journey to the stars. Every year for Autumn Equinox, the town sends lanterns down the river to join the stars in the sky. Curious to know if this is true, Ben and Nathaniel, boys whose unstable friendship doesn’t bode well for cooperation, follow the lanterns on their bikes. Soon, they meet a talking fisherbear who is looking for the river, too. They’re imprisoned by a potions maker, make a daring escape, grow into a true friendship, and finally, learn the unexpected, magical truth about the stars. This fantastical experience feels real and wondrous, made ever more visceral with the dark blue and red color palette of the artwork.
Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen
In this emotionally resonant story, a girl named Willow meets a runaway Magnolia tree spirit named Pilu. As Willow and Pilu sit in the woods and share their stories, Willow reveals that her uncomfortable emotions are bottled up monsters who escape in bursts of mean words. Even though she knows they keep growing, she ignores them so she can be nice. As the new friends talk, Willow realizes that the monsters are a part of her; that if she is kind and listens to them, they won’t be as big. Introspective, sensitive, and important– this is a dazzling openhearted journey of self-discovery and healthy emotional growth. I LOVE everything about this story.
New Kid by Jerry Craft
Jordan’s parents make him go to a private school across town where he’s one of the only kids of color. Besides having the tricky business of navigating friendships, he now must deal with the two separate worlds of his neighborhood and his school along with racism and balancing academics with artwork. This 2019 graphic novel’s story feels truthful, relatable, and important.
Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis
This beautiful, atmospheric historical graphic novel of 2019 narrates the innocent early years of Queen Elizabeth the First of England known as Margaret. She’s an orphan growing up on an island convent. She doesn’t know that she is also a princess until her half-sister, Eleanor, the former queen of Albion, is banished to the island. Eleanor is complex, both kind and manipulative while developing a strong bond with young Margaret. An interesting, marvelous story with a harmonious balance between the text and captivating illustrations.
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