Best Chapter and Middle Grade Books of 2021
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Get ready to stock up on the best chapter and middle-grade books of 2021! Because this year offered us incredible writing for kids in genres like contemporary realistic fiction, fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction.
Whether you’re a teacher, librarian, or parent, you’ll find at least one book (but I predict more than that) for the children in your life from this list of new titles from 2021.
Find the right book that will meet the needs of your readers, get them immersed in a compelling story, and explore other worlds, real or imagined.
Ready to dive in? You’ll find two sections of books, divided by ages. Click to jump to the section you want.
2021 Beginning Chapter Books, Ages 6 – 10
Monday into the Cave of Thieves (Total Mayhem #1) by Ralph Lazar
Wild and quirky, this un-put-downable adventure filled with illustrations is perfect for you if you like good vs. evil adventures where kid power saves the day! Dash Candoo’s Monday is one crazy adventure after another with Devil Cat attacks, a quadcycle pursuit, a math class secret tunnel, stolen perfume, and so much more. I’m a big fan of this exciting, readable new chapter book and look forward to more books in the entertaining new series. (P.S. And it’s funny with zero potty humor!)
Ninja Kid: From Nerd to Ninja by Anh Do
Nelson is a nerdy and likable main character who wakes up on his 10th birthday with perfect vision and… ninja moves! (How cool is that?) His mum and grandma explain that like his missing fisherman dad before him, Nelson is the LAST ninja in the world — and he’s actually destined to SAVE the world. Action-packed, funny, appealing illustrations, and likable characters, this book has it all. You won’t want to stop with book one either because there’s a bit of a cliff-hanger…
Pizazz by Sophy Henn
Illustrated with cartoons and fun fonts, this superhero story is perfect for readers transitioning into middle-grade novels but not quite yet… Not only is Pizazz embarrassed by her name but she’s also embarrassed about her superpower. Also, Pizazz grumbles that her superhero duties of saving the world are always inconvenient AND she still has to go to school! (So unfair.) At school, she is assigned the job of eco-monitor which she doesn’t like either until a classmate helps her see that they might be able to save the park…without superhero powers. 100% fun, relatable, and entertaining.
Cat Kid Comic Club by Dav Pilkey (GRAPHIC NOVEL)
My writing teacher’s heart adores this book about encouraging kids to write their own comics! Plus, it’s totally hilarious. Cat Kid teaches a class for the tadpoles how to write their own comic books…which doesn’t go well until the tadpoles get excited about failure. That helps them get started writing and drawing. If you like a lot of silliness (including potty humor) with great messages about writing, creativity, and persistence, read this book next.
Magic Tree House The Graphic Novel Dinosaurs Before Dark by Mary Pope Osborne, adapted by Jenny Laird, illustrated by Kelly & Nichole Matthews (GRAPHIC NOVEL)
Hands down, one of the best graphic adaptations of a novel ever! Even kids who have read the novels before will love rereading the books in graphic versions. In this first story, brother and sister Jack and Annie, find a magical treehouse filled with books. Jack begins a book on dinosaurs when he wishes that he could travel to see them, they do! Annie befriends a flying dinosaur and the siblings help save baby dinosaurs before they return home.
Super Detectives Simon and Chester by Cale Atkinson (GRAPHIC NOVEL)
Nic and his ghost friend Simon are bored so they dress up and pretend to be detectives. The friends advertise but no one shows up — except a mysterious pug who doesn’t belong to them. Who is the pug? The detectives ask around and follow clues — and their experience is hilarious!
Real Pigeons Fight Crime by Ben Wood
In the first of three silly stories, Rock Pigeon is a crime-fighting pigeon who helps Grandpouter and the other park pigeons solve the problem of the vanishing bread crumbs. With hilarious disguises, charming illustrations, quirky characters, and funny mysteries, this is an entertaining romp that is sure to entice even the most reluctant of readers.
Good Dog by Cam Higgins, illustrated by Ariel Landy
A sweet beginning illustrated chapter book written from Bo the dog’s point of view. Enthusiastic and full of personality, Bo adores his loving family and his life on the farm. But he worries when his dog tag goes missing. He searches the farm with the help of all the farm animals. Eventually, his spider friends help him find it. Your readers will love this new series with a darling doggie narrator
2021 Middle-Grade Books, Ages 8 – 12
Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston
Fantastic fantasy world-building, excellent writing, a strong female heroine of color, and a surprise plot twist ending are just a few of the reasons you’ll love this middle grade fantasy. Amari is an exciting, action-packed, suspenseful story about a girl whose beloved older brother has mysteriously vanished. She gets a virtual message from him revealing that she, like him, is a magician and gets to attend a secret school. At school, she discovers she’s actually a DARK magic magician (which is outlawed). Of course, she’s not evil and she’s determined to prove she isn’t so she can stay in the school and investigate what happened to her brother.
Skyborn Sparrow Rising by Jessica Khoury
Ellie is an orphan Sparrow girl in a world of avian-human caste system who wants to be a warrior, not a farmer. She flees the orphanage so she can enter a race to compete for a coveted spot in a knight training school. On her journey, she travels with a group of outcast thieving kids. When their stolen gem turns out to be a gargol eye with powerful healing properties, her eyes open (slowly) to the truth about who is honorable and heroic. One of my favorite books of the year so far, this fantasy adventure checks all the boxes with a genuine, courageous main character and complicated companions, plus themes of magic, growing up, and secrets, so many secrets…(If Studio Ghibli is looking for another movie project, I vote for adapting this book series!)
The Outlaws Scarlet and Browne by Jonathan Stroud
Unique post-apocalyptic world-building, interesting characters, and a plot filled with adventure and monsters! Scarlett is a skilled survivor and bank robber who, while traversing the dangerous Wilds, discovers a sole survivor of a bus accident. She helps the mysterious boy but they’re pursued because the boy named Albert has powers– and his prison warden and guards want him back for more experimentation. They hire an old man to get them to the safe isles and an unlikely friendship develops, even with the old man, as they escape from monsters and murderous humans. Note: There is one bad word at the beginning but that’s it.
Children of the Fox by Kevin Sands
Callan’s a gaffer, skilled at the art of the con taught by the best, the Old Man. Even though the Old Man is gone, Callan hears him in his head, dialogues with him, which is good because his mentor gives good advice. Callan joins a group of kids who are hired by a Weaver to steal something magical called the Eye. It’s a tricky job with not enough time to plan and all the kids know it’s dangerous but the monetary reward is too tempting. The misfits use their individual skills including climbing, mapping, acrobatics, and knife throwing to plan a heist in less than a week. It’s an exciting, complex, and unexpected plot involving magic and mythological gods from the stories with themes of problem-solving, friendship, and trust that ends with both an amazing resolution and a cliff-hanger. I can not wait until the sequel!
The Magical Reality of Nadia by Bassem Youssef and Catherine R. Daly, illustrated by Douglas Holgate
Funny, entertaining, and filled with important themes of friendship, growing up, and racism. Nadia unexpectedly discovers an ancient Egyptian teacher (Titi) trapped in her hippo amulet. He comes out onto a paper and TALKS! Tita helps Nadia with problems she faces at school like the new kid who is prejudiced about her Egyptian culture as well as her troubles with working on a school project with friends. Wonderful, heartfelt, and relatable.
Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne
If you like mythological adventure stories about growing up and family written with edge-of-your-seat excitement, don’t miss this middle-grade novel set in the Caribbean. Josephine loves cricket and her daddy. Anytime her daddy brings home a girlfriend, she and her best friend plot to get rid of them quickly. But one girlfriend, Mariss, Josephine can’t get rid of. Not only does Mariss move in with them but Josephine’s dad acts like he’s under a spell. (Hint: he is.) Josephine realizes that Mariss isn’t a human and that in order to save her father, she must risk everything.
Contemporary Realistic Fiction
Starfish by Lisa Fipps
MY FAVORITE OF ALL THE BEST BOOKS OF 2021!
Heartbreaking and inspiring, this poignant story in verse shows a girl suffering through years of fat-shaming and bullying who learns to define herself not on what others say about her but on who she really is. She learns to take up all the room she wants–to STARFISH.
Ellie’s nickname is Splash because of her size but Ellie feels safest and most comfortable when swimming. Sadly, her biggest bully is her mother who won’t buy Ellie new clothes because she thinks it encourages Ellie’s weight gain and pushes for a too-young gastro-bypass surgery. Not even Ellie’s dad stands up to her mom’s cruel treatment of Ellie. Fortunately, Ellie finds an understanding therapist who helps her move from powerless to powerful. “As I float, I spread out my arms and my legs. I’m a starfish, taking up all the room I want.” Brilliantly written and empowering, this is a book that normalizes body size differences and therapy not to mention it will make SO MANY KIDS (and adults) feel seen.
Allergic by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter (GRAPHIC NOVEL)
Build empathy or see yourself in this well-done novel about a child with allergies. Maggie wishes she weren’t allergic to dogs. Even her new fifth-grade class must get rid of their class pet because of Maggie’s allergies. But, at least her neighbor understands — until she gets a puppy. Devastated, Maggie believes that their friendship is over. Luckily, the two friends work out a solution that won’t be a problem for Maggie’s allergies. Throughout the story, the author shows the process of allergy testing and going in for regular allergy shots. The story ends with Maggie helping with her new baby sister and finding joy and satisfaction in that.
Boy, Everywhere by A.M. Dassu
Skillful writing transports readers into Sami’s experience of modern Syrian life suddenly torn away by violence, a sudden escape from the violence, awful traveling conditions, detention in England, and a new home in England with hateful relatives. We feel Sami’s emotions every step of this journey — from thinking about playing video games and soccer to his worry about capsizing in an overcrowded boat in the ocean and to blaming himself for his mom and sister being at the mall when it was bombed. In sharing his experiences, readers will see how much they can relate to Sami who is just a regular kid trying to be safe.
Taking Up Space by Alyson Gerber
Sarah’s mom’s dysfunctional relationship with food affects Sarah who believes that her recent slowness in basketball is because she’s eating too much and too many “unhealthy” foods. She’s confused, starving, and stressed out. Finally, a friend pushes Sarah to get help…and, help is just what Sarah needs to understand the truth about her body, what health truly is, and how her mom’s disordered eating has affected her. Girls and boys need this book — they need to know that body image issues and eating disorders happen to other kids, too, that puberty changes their body, and there is NO shame in getting help.
Unsettled by Reem Faruqi
Nurah’s family moves from Pakistan to Georgia, U.S., and she feels distinctly unsettled at her new outsider status which includes everything from her accent to her clothing to her brown skin. She makes one friend and that helps her feel more comfortable. Meanwhile, her brother, who excels at swimming suddenly quits after bullies violently attack him. Watching his story unfold, Nurah learns to speak up for him, finds confidence in her faith, and learns to value herself. This is a beautiful coming-of-age story that tackles racism, bullying, friendship, belonging, family, culture, and self-confidence.
Across the Desert by Dusti Bowling
Across the Desert is a stunning story about a brave girl who has been secretly dealing with her mother’s opioid addiction and who makes a daring (and possibly foolheartedly) trek to the desert to rescue her only friend. When Jolene watches her friend Addie’s live stream showing her crash her ultralight plane in the middle of the desert, Jolene knows that she is the only one who can save her. On the bus, she meets a kind and helpful teenager named Marty who, despite Jolene’s reluctance and mistrust, helps Jolene with advice and ultimately, helps find Addie. The story is about trust, relationships, boundaries, addiction, survival, and family; it’s also an emotional journey of inner and outer strength that leads to hope and healing.
Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman
Kabir is too old to continue living in jail with his mom who was unjustly imprisoned. He’s forced to leave the jail without his mom and quickly realizes that his so-called uncle is trying to sell him into slavery. Kabir runs away and meets a worldly-wise girl named Rani who helps him survive the streets. Together, the two journey to another city where they hope Kabir’s grandparents live and where Kabir and Rani find kindness and second chances. This powerful story illuminates the problem of homelessness and the justice system in India, yet gives readers hope in human kindness and the possibilities of change.
The Chance to Fly by Ali Stroker and Stacy Davidowitz
The Last Gate of the Emperor by Kwame Mbalia and Prince Joel Makonnen
Yared gives his real name during an augmented reality game and not only are soldiers after him but he learns that everything he believed about his life is a lie…including his identity. Yared and another game player, the Ibis, flee the soldiers and their giant monster to search for the truth. They face incredible danger, insurmountable odds, and a galaxy-spanning war but Yared has been training for this and he is ready to fight. Set in a futuristic Ethiopian empire, this exciting adventure grabs your interest and keeps it through wild twists and turns that feature heroic main characters!
The Monster Missions by Laura Martin
If you like adventure, fast-paced action, cool world-building, and heroic kids, then read this book next! In a post-apocalyptic world covered by water, Berkley, like other humans, lives with her family on a boat. In a scavenger trip below, she and her friend Garth accidentally uncover a hydra that attacks the ship. Even though their quick thinking saved their lives and those on the ship, Berkely and Garth are sent to a prison ship. Just in time, a mysterious submarine arrives, offering them an alternative — live on the submarine and hunt mythical sea monsters. Their new life means a different kind of work including learning about monsters and Berkley loves everything about it–until pirates hijack them. Hiding out with her friends in a storage area, she figures that the only way to defeat so many armed adults is to use the creatures in the aquarium tanks. In particular, the brilliant and mischievous– an octopus named Elmer.
Daughter of the Deep by Rick Riordan
Get ready for action, intrigue, plot twists, and super-cool technology! Ana’s freshman class at her specialized marine and naval academy are the only survivors when the academy is blown up. As the class races to board their field trip ship, their chaperone reveals several essential secrets…Jule’s Verne’s novels based on Captain Nemo are true, Ana’s the only surviving relative of Captain Nemo, and they will be attacked by the land school if they don’t get to safety immediately. (They don’t get to safety immediately.) Despite the odds, Ana and her classmates thwart the first of many attacks — and suddenly because their lead professor is deathly ill, Ana is in charge. The first thing to do is to find the Nautilis and the school’s secret base, all the while trying to evade their enemies. You won’t be able to put this book down- it’s a page-turning adventure that will appeal to all boys and girls.
The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera
A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus
I adore this wonderful, heartwarming historical fiction story about three siblings in a challenging situation who eventually find a forever home. These close-knit siblings join the groups of children leaving London during WWII when their neglectful grandmother dies and they need a home. Unfortunately, their placements are horrific and their daily lives consist of bullying and hunger. The “unsuitable” librarian helps them survive by offering them shelter and kindness but she’s not allowed to be their foster mother because her missing husband is German. However, when things go from bad to worse in their latest home, the children advocate for themselves…and they’re rewarded with the happily ever after that they deserve.
Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant
If you want a new favorite warm-hearted adventure with brave kids, dogs, and a happy ending, you don’t want to miss this captivating and beautiful story. The war has made Ben an orphan –again. All that he has left are his dog and his dad’s boat, the Sparrowhawk. When a policeman gets suspicious of Ben’s living situation and his new friend, Lotti’s abusive guardians try to kill her rescue dog, the two friends set off on the boat for France to find Ben’s missing older brother. The boat isn’t meant for a channel crossing but the two kids are determined to make it work…but it won’t be easy. Nor will it be easy to find Ben’s missing brother in a country decimated by war.
Treasure of the World by Tara Sullivan
Set in a Bolivian mining town, this is an engrossing, unique story about a girl’s struggle to realize her own dreams while helping her family survive… Ana is a poor girl whose abusive dad forces Ana’s sickly younger brother into the mines. But her brother doesn’t last long before he’s bedridden with a cough and fever. To help, Ana drops out of school and takes her brother’s place. Then her brother returns to the mines and a mine collapse kills her dad and leaves her brother’s whereabouts unknown. Ana hunts for her brother, struggles to find work, and believes that her dreams of an education are over but her determination results in unexpected answers for herself and for her family.
Soul Lanterns by Shaw Kuzki
A Japanese girl learns about Hiroshima, grief, family, and the healing power of sharing stories. When Nozomi’s art teacher, Mr. Yoshioka, leaves the school due to sickness, she and her friends plan a festival in his honor called “Hiroshima: Then and Now.” They interview people close to them about their experiences during the bombing (which they call “the flash”), learning many unknown stories including that Mr. Yoshioka lost his beloved and still visits her grave. As the kids learn about their family and neighbors’ lives and deaths, their stories impact the way the kids view things now and their hope for the future, which they each share artistically in the festival.
Finding Junie Kim by Ellen Oh
This incredible book packs a big punch because it sensitively and truthfully addresses depression, racism, family relationships, friendship, and injustice. It also recounts the Korean War from the perspectives of two children, the main character Junie’s grandparents. In the present day, Junie faces bullying and microaggressions, then her friends drop her for being too negative. Her sadness and fatigue lead to suicidal thoughts then medication and therapy. Meanwhile, for a school project, Junie interviews her South Korean immigrant grandparents. Her grandpa’s story of a war-filled childhood hardship faced with determination and courage helps Junie find her own strength. She learns how silence against injustice is complicity and that being a good friend is important, too. Moving, meaningful, and beautiful. *SENSITIVE READERS: This book includes suicidal thoughts, the violence of war, and a couple of bad words.
Strong as Fire, Fierce As Flame by Supriya Kelkar
Don’t miss this powerful story set in colonial India about a girl finding her voice and inner strength. 12-year-old Meera’s betrothed dies and her father expects her to join her husband’s funeral pyre. Fortunately, her aunt helps her to flee. But as she’s escaping, she’s captured by a British captain and assigned to work in his kitchen where she witnesses the institutionalized racism and cruelty to her people. She learns that her friend and her friend’s sister are fighting for the resistance but Meera is too afraid to help. Until she reaches a breaking point and can not look the other way.
When the World Was Ours by Liz Kessler
Inspired by the author’s family history, three friends in Vienna, Leo, Max, and Elsa, can’t imagine just how much war, location, and ideology will separate them. Because Leo and Elsa are Jewish, their path includes ghetto housing, escape, and prison camp. But, Max is not Jewish and his main goal is to get the approval of his brutal Nazi father. To do so, he gladly pursues Nazi beliefs and actions, despite the nagging voice that reminds him that his friends weren’t “dogs” or less than human. The story weaves together the three children’s stories in a heartbreaking, beautiful ending that will leave you thinking about humanity, morality, hope, and love.
Ophie’s Ghost by Justina Ireland
Gone to the Woods by Gary Paulsen
This is a compelling, disturbing, and hopeful childhood story of hardship and survival with moments of kindness and time in nature that sustain the neglected, determined young boy. You’ll read how Paulsen found help and solace at the library where he read books that taught him to fish and hunt for his own food when there was none at home. If you love Gary Paulsen’s stories or just enjoy survival and growing up stories, DON’T MISS this powerful memoir.