New Middle-Grade Books, October 2021
Across the Desert by Dusti Bowling
REALISTIC / DRUG ADDICTION
One of the best books of the year! Across the Desert is a stunning story (that you won’t be able to put down) about a brave girl who has been secretly dealing with her mother’s opioid addiction (which has left them in poverty with very little food) 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 because no one else watches and Addie’s mom doesn’t know about the plane. She tries to tell adults but no one believes her so Jolene steals her mom’s phone and credit card and takes the bus as close as she can to Addie’s location, planning to walk to find Addie. 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, finding 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.
Pony by R.J. Palacio
Pony is a deeply moving story set in western frontier times about a boy who, with a remarkable pony and ghostly best friend, sets off from home in pursuit of his kidnapped father. Silas lives with his genius father whose been a bootmaker but now is an innovative photographer, improving on the daguerrotypes using his own scientific experimentation. After a group of counterfeiting bandits kidnaps Silas’s dad, a mysterious Arabian horse returns back to Silas’s house; he sees this as a sign and leaves his home on “Pony” to find his father. In a haunted woods, Silas meets a U.S. marshall who is also tracking the group and who abrasively teaches Silas how to survive. The two track the bandits to a cave — and things get even more complicated with the marshall and his horse are badly hurt. Silas must ride to the nearest town and hope that he can convince the sheriff to gather a posse to rescue his dad and capture the bad guys. Ultimately, Pony is a story of courage, love, and the ties that bind us together, even after death.
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!
A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll
REALISTIC / AUTISM
A heart-wrenching, powerful story about autism, intolerance, kindness, and righting wrongs. An autistic girl in Scottland named Addie is treated cruelly by people in her town and especially by her mean teacher at school. That’s why it resonates with Addie when learns the history of how the witches were treated (killed) in the Scottish witch trials. She can relate and she campaigns for the city to make amends to the women accused of witchcraft with a memorial. The city council says no immediately. Then, her older vlogger sister Nina puts her on a makeover video, exposing Addie to even more cruelty with unkind comments and publicity. And, her other beloved mentor autistic big sister, Keedie, has a breakdown after too much masking (acting neurotypical) at her university. Life is complicated and as Addie experiences all of this, she feels determined to show people that intolerance is wrong and needs to be both acknowledged and apologized for.
The Monster Missions by Laura Martin
SCI-FI / DYSTOPIAN
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, all the humans live on ships. Berkley lives with her family on a boat where she works as a scavenger. But when she and her friend Garth uncover a blood-red, dangerous hydra, it attacks their ship and only their quick thinking saves their lives and those on the ship. Unfortunately, because sea monsters are a secret from most humans, the friends are sent to a prison ship. Luckily, a mysterious submarine arrives just before the kids are sent off and offers them an alternative — live on the submarine and hunt sea monsters. They accept quickly. Their new life means a different kind of work including learning about monsters, escaping when they get swallowed by one, and protecting ships from monsters. Berkley loves everything about her new life–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. Everything hinges on the plan because their old ship is under attack from the hydra and the ship and all its occupants will be destroyed without any help.
Black Boy Joy: 17 Stories Celebrating Black Boyhood edited by Kwame Mbalia
Middle-grade readers need more short stories and this book hits the spot big time! These short stories for ages 8 to 12 celebrate Black main characters in space, at school, hanging out, and more in 17 different stories from 17 different authors. I loved the writing, the variety of genres, and the focus of Black boys living their best lives — it’s a must-read, must-own collection.
Cuba in My Pocket by Adrianna Cuevas
Based on Cuevas’s father’s life, this beautiful novel captures a boy’s heartfelt longing for family and culture when he’s forced to leave his homeland. Cumba, a 12-years-old boy hates the secrets and fear since Fidel Castro took over plus the government-controlled curriculum, no Coca-cola, and boys sent off to soldiers. It’s the soldier mandate that makes his family decide to send Cumba to the U.S. with fake documents while they still can. He leaves alone for Miami. There, he’s overwhelmed with the language, noise of the big city, and missing his family. He and his little brother write frequently which is how he learns that both his parents have been detained by Castro’s soldiers. As he makes friends and learns about this new country and freedom, he never stops thinking of his family and hoping that they’ll be reunited one day…
The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera
A mesmerizing, beautiful story about a girl named Petra who is on a spaceship with her family, traveling to a new home after the Earth is destroyed, that is also about humanity, storytelling, and survival. When Petra wakes up, the reality on the ship is horrifically different than she expected. Her parents have been killed, her brother is missing, and all the other humans’ memories have been erased. Except her memory remains. Since she’s the only person who knows the truth and the past, Petra is determined to foil the sinister Collective’s plan to control everyone and every narrative. She plays the part of a mind-controlled teenager but shares Mexican cuentos / folktales with the other Zetas. Her determination will save not only the Zetas but possibly an entire civilization of settlers. Petra is a brave, fierce girl who shows us that we are less than human without art, music, and stories. Había una vez…
Lotería by Karla Arenas Valenti, illustrated by Dana SanMar
MAGICAL REALISM / LATINX
Life and Lady Death, Catrina play their yearly Lotería game; this time, for a little girl’s life and debate about free will, love, hope, and fate while a story unfolds about a girl named Clara who lives in Oaxaca City with her family. After Clara draws a cool dragon for her little cousin Esteban, he notices the exact dragon drawing on the gigantic El Arbol de Tule. Before she can figure out why it’s there, Esteban’s mother dies and he is lured into a mythical world called Aztlan by El Diablo. Clara embarks on a perilous journey to find and save Esteban. On her journey, she learns about the power of her drawings — and makes the ultimate sacrifice for love. Oaxaca City brings back so many wonderful memories for me so I immediately loved this story and that it was filled with Mexican and Aztec mythology and culture.
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 and for once, it’s not because of her. Instead, they’re being chased because the boy named Albert has some sort of powers– and his prison warden and guards want him back for more experimentation. Albert wants to reach the only safe place for people like him in the Seven Kingdoms so they hire an old man and his granddaughter to get them to the safe isles. An unlikely friendship develops, even with the old man, as they escape monsters and murderous humans. Note: There is one bad word at the beginning (bastard) but don’t let that stop you from reading because it’s a fantastic adventure and it’s the only bad word.