Best Middle-Grade Chapter Books of 2020
The Brave by James Bird
OJIBWE INDIGENOUS CULTURE / NEURO DIFFERENCES / MAGICAL REALISM
Collin is a boy who counts every letter spoken to him and then says the number of letters out loud. He gets kicked out of yet another school and his father sends Collin to live with the Ojibwe mother he’s never met. Living with her is a totally different experience than his previous home — because with his mother, he’s welcomed and not judged. Collin befriends the neighbor girl who teaches him how to be brave. Which he needs. And so does she because she’s going to be a butterfly soon…(I’m intentionally not sharing this part of the plot because you need to discover it for yourself.) This book is one of the BEST middle-grade books of ALL time; you’ll feel all the feelings!
Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee
Based on her grandmother’s escape from North Korea, this historical fiction story is a powerful read that captures the fearful culture of North Korea, the marginalization of females, and the bond between siblings. As war erupts between North and South Korea, Sora and her family decide to flee from North Korea while they still have a chance. But she and her little brother are separated from their family. As they continue south, they experience death, kidnapping, starvation, killings, winter’s brutal cold with the Red Army marching right behind them. Even worse, her brother, Youngsoo, is getting sicker and sicker. The siblings’ journey is interspersed with memories of her childhood including her mother’s disdain and criticism and how she was forced to leave school to care for her little brothers. Amazingly, the two make it to the south where they’re reunited with their family but it’s a bittersweet ending.
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
SEXUAL ABUSE / FOSTER CARE
Heartbreaking and hopeful and horrifying and powerful. Della’s drug-addicted, psychotic mom is in jail, and so is Clifton, her mom’s boyfriend with whom she and her sisters lived for years, even when her mom was in jail. Now Della and her older sister Suki are safe in foster care with a woman named Francine. As Della’s story unfolds, we learn that Suki saved her from Clifton. We suspect that Suki was also abused but we don’t know until much later in the story after Suki’s suicide attempt. When both girls start going to therapy, Della learns that she’s not alone (which is why this book needs to be shared with kids) and helpful strategies for her anxiety. Yes, this book is about hard, awful things and suggest that grown-ups read it with kids so they can unpack the big issues.
Wink by Rob Harrell
HUMOR / CANCER
I highly recommend this funny, standout cancer story based on the author’s own life. When Ross is diagnosed with a rare kind of tumor, he immediately starts radiation treatment. School becomes pretty challenging because his eye drips goop and his hair starts falling out in clumps– among other things he makes comedic with cartoon drawings. A goofy, kind-hearted radiation tech gets Ross interested in alternative punk music, and in order to impress a girl, Ross asks the tech for guitar lessons. Turns out, the guitar and his new music, help Ross express his frustrations and find joy again, leading to some surprising results — like a new, unexpected friend. (Note: There are a few bad words.)
Get a Grip Vivy Cohen by Sarah Kapit
REALISTIC / AUTISM SPECTRUM / BASEBALL
What a page-turner! The book is written as letters and emails between Vivy, a girl on the autism spectrum who loves baseball, and her favorite baseball player, VJ Capello. Vivy writes VJ all about getting to play on a team as well as making her first friend, pitching, and getting bullied by the coach’s son. When she gets hit in the head with a ball, her overprotective mom won’t let Vivy play anymore. How can Vivy change her mom’s mind when her mom won’t listen? It’s no surprise that this is an #OwnVoices book because the story feels so genuine. It’s not just for readers who enjoy sports but for anyone who understands dedication to a passion.
The Ship We Built by Lexie Bean
REALISTIC / GENDER IDENTITY / TRANSGENDER / SEXUAL ABUSE
Rowan is a lonely child who feels confused about his gender identity. Born a girl, Rowan longs to be a boy. He even changes his name frequently. He shares his thoughts in letters attached to balloons, hoping someone will find them and want to be his friend. Even more confusing is that his dad comes into his room at night making him very uncomfortable and prompting unanswerable questions of what it means to be a male. The Ship We Built is a story filled with longing and heartbreak, confusion and questions, abuse and hope. It’s a powerful, emotional story about gender identity, sexual abuse, and survival.
Tune It Out by Jamie Sumner
POVERTY / Sensory Processing Disorder / FOSTER CARE
I think you’ll love Lou’s story as much as me because of the beautiful character arc, authentic portrayal of SPD, and compelling writing. 12-year-old Lou lives in a truck and doesn’t go to school. During the days, she hangs out where her mom works or sings for money even though performing makes her extremely anxious. A series of events lands Lou in foster care with an aunt she’s never met. Surprisingly, in her new home, Lou finds friends and gets help from an occupational therapist which includes a sensory diet for SPD. Not only that, she learns to trust her kind aunt and uncle. I love that the ending is complicated and imperfect because it feels completely authentic.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
On her 12th birthday, Zoe, a girl who loves to bake, discovers a letter to her from her incarcerated biological father, Marcus. She decides to write him back, even daring to ask him if he really committed the murder for which he’s in jail. Marcus writes back to Zoe that he’s innocent and he can prove it. This sets Zoe on a quest to find out the truth for herself, even if her mom and dad forbid it. You won’t be able to put down this winsome middle-grade story with a determined heroine in a story about social justice, family, friendship, and love.
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.
Santiago’s Road Home by Alexandra Diaz
REALISTIC / IMMIGRATION
Santiago leaves his cruel tia’s home in rural Mexico with nowhere to go yet unexpectedly meets a kind woman and her daughter who let him join their journey to el Norte. Unfortunately, their group is attacked and must find the way without the coyote’s help. The heat and lack of water almost kill them but Santiago and his adopted little sister are rescued half dead, taken to an internment camp, and separated. He’s confined for endless, hopeless days with guards who treat him like a criminal. Will Santiago get a happy ending? This book is amazing — unflinchingly honest about the situation of illegal immigrants with a heroic main character.
Coo by Kaela Noel
Coo, rescued as a baby by the pigeons, only speaks Pigeon and lives in the bird’s dovecote. She bravely ventures down from the dovecote when her best friend bird Burr breaks his wing. She gives Burr to the healer only wearing plastic bags and looking half-starved from surviving on garbage the pigeons bring her. When a snowstorm hits, the healer returns and brings Coo to her apartment, teaching Coo about the basics of being human including human language. Then, Coo’s beloved pigeons are poisoned. Coo knows she must leave Tully to save the birds. What happens next will change everything for them both. You will love the tender, perfect ending.
Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte
Set in the Martha’s Vineyard community of Chilmark where a high percentage of Deaf individuals live, Mary’s a smart girl who speaks sign language. But when a researcher arrives with preconceived notations of the “infirmity” of Deaf people, he kidnaps Mary as a “live specimen”. For months she’s imprisoned and forced to work, then locked in a room to be studied with no way to communicate by signing or writing. Not only will you learn about this interesting historical community and life as a Deaf person but you’ll also fall in love with the admirable heroine in this compelling story.
Class Act by Jerry Craft
REALISTIC / RACISM
Primer by Jennifer Muro and Thomas Krajewski, illustrated by Gretel Lusky
GRAPHIC NOVEL / SUPERHERO / ART
16-year-old Ashley hopes her latest foster home will be a fit — and it is! The couple is great– they’re funny, quirky, and accepting. Then, Ashley finds very special lab-created body paint in her foster mom’s closet and learns that when applied to her body, the paint gives her superpowers, different powers for each color like fire, flying, and strength. Meanwhile, her incarcerated dad is giving her trouble and the government’s soldiers hunt for the missing paints. Fast-paced and exciting, this story is perfect for readers who love underdogs, girl power, superheroes, and art!
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, illustrated by Victoria Jamieson and Iman Geddy
REFUGEE MEMOIR / GRAPHIC NOVEL
An emotional true story of a Somali boy and his brother who grow up in a Kenyan refugee camp. Readers are transported into the boys’ day to day lives of hunger and boredom. Omar doesn’t attend the dusty camp school until age 11 because he must care for his younger brother Hassan who has special needs. When the brothers get a coveted interview with the UN, Omar hopes they might be approved to go to the U.S….but nothing happens. Years pass with many struggles. Education and the camp friendships continue to be the main bright spots for Omar. The book ends with a bittersweet yet wonderful new beginning.
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 teenage Cassius with some reflections of his earlier childhood, setting the stage for the man that he will become. When Cassius finds boxing, it becomes a powerful outlet and finally something at which he excels. His personality shines through the pages. He’s a son, friend, and dedicated athlete; he’s cocky but likable…and a gifted master of trash talk. Readers will zip through this page-turning biography; it’s both informative and inviting. I could NOT put it down.
Tornado Brain by Cat Patrick
The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling
ADVENTURE / HEALING / TRAUMA / CLIMBING
Whale of the Wild by Rosanne Parry, illustrated by Lindsay Moore
ENVIRONMENT / OCEAN / ADVENTURE