I’ve gotten into a groove (of sorts) when it comes to my middle grade reading; I’ve been reading one upcoming book and one from my TBR, trying to keep both lists copasetic. I had to read Angela Dominguez’s latest two Stella Díaz books back to back because I enjoyed them so much! I wrote about the first Stella book, Stella Díaz Has Something to Say, when I read it in 2018 (and revisited in a book bundles post this past June), and finally read the next two. Stella is such a great young heroine for middle graders; read on and see for yourself.
I pulled Coop Knows the Scoop off my TBR yesterday morning, and I finished it this morning. That’s how good this middle grade mystery is. Cooper Goodman – call him Coop, please! – lives with his mom and grandfather in Georgia, where he helps out in his mom’s bookstore/coffee shop when he’s not in school. His dad, a Marine, died in action, and his Gramps is the retired town doctor. It’s small town life, where everyone knows one another, and it’s pretty idyllic, until the morning a skeleton is discovered buried at the playground. After some DNA testing, the skeleton is revealed to be Coop’s grandmother, Tabby, whom everyone thought left Gramps years ago, when Coop’s dad was little more than a baby. When Gramps falls under suspicion – they always suspect the spouse, right? – Coop enlists his best friends, twin siblings Liberty and Justice, to help him search for clues and exonerate Gramps.
Written in the first person from Coop’s point of view, I could not put this book down. It’s got all the elements of a good whodunnit: a scandal, a quirky cast of local characters, smart dialogue, fleshed out characters with good backstories that make just about everyone a suspect, and an impending sense of danger that you just know is going to explode when you get these elements mixed together. You and your readers are going to want to know what the real scoop is, and that’s going to keep all of you reading this book until you get to the end, and its very satisfying conclusion. Put this on your mystery lists, for sure.
Read more about Taryn Souders and her books at her author website. Coop Knows the Scoop is a 2021 Edgar Award nominee for Best Juvenile mystery novel. Download a great activity kit, including a recipe for sweet tea, through publisher Sourcebooks, Download a discussion guide from Sourcebooks here, too!
Every day, a little girl rides to school on the back of her father’s bike, pretending she is a bird. Arms outstretched, she “caws” to the birds, who sing back to her as people wave. But one woman in a blue coat does not wave or smile, and the girl wonders why; one day, she and her father discover where this mysterious woman, with her mysterious bag, heads off to every day, and she is delighted! I Am a Bird is a gentle story with a sense of freedom and abandon. Spare text allows the pencil and gouache illustrations to breathe and wander; the little girl rides securely at her father’s back, arms thrown out wide and head thrown wide as she greets the day with joy. Endpapers are blue and white, with flocks of birds flying across the spreads. A lovely story for storytimes.
I Am a Bird has a starred review from Kirkus.
Hitting right in the middle school hard-to-read spot, My Name is Layla is the story of 12-year-old Layla, an eighth grader living with her single mother and older brother, who has a secret: she has a hard time reading. The letters move on the page; she has to fight to focus, and it takes longer than the turnaround time to complete an assignment. When a new English teacher, Mr. McCarthy, sees her potential, Layla is terrified: she can’t have promise, can she? The teacher has to be imagining things! As parent-teacher conferences draw closer, Layla’s fear over her grades and her learning struggles being discovered, and she makes a choice that has big repercussions for herself, her family, and her relationship with her best friend. My Name is Layla is a realistic portrayal of a young woman living with dyslexia. Supporting characters all feel real, with back stories and realized lives off-page. Good for YA collections and middle school collections.
I’m back with more graphic novels! It’s an all-consuming joy of mine; I love them all. I’ve got some newer and up-and-coming books, and some backlist that shouldn’t be missed. I’ve got books for middle grade/middle school, and I’ve got teen/YA, so let’s see what’s good!
An autobiographical graphic novel that really hits the sweet spot for middle schoolers but will also appeal to upper elementary and high schoolers, Sylvie is the story of the author and illustrator’s life, quirks and all. She grows up in a school where her father was principal. She loves art from an early age, but her mother is focused on her pursuing a career in math or science. The book follows her family as they add more children to the family and Sylvie’s mother doggedly pushes her academically. As she grows in confidence, and seeks her father’s council, Sylvie takes control of her own future. Artwork is cartoony and friendly, and easy-to-read, first-person narration makes Sylvie readers feel like they’re talking with a friend. Discussions about racism and anti-Semitism in ’60s and ’70s France sets the stage for discussion.
Another middle school-geared book, Tell No Tales is a fictionalized account of pirate Anne Bonny, pirate Mary Read, and their female and non-binary pirate crew. They have a growing reputation, but a privateer is on their heels: Woodes Rogers, a failed pirate turned pirate hunter for the Crown, has sworn to wipe the stain of piracy from the seas. There are strong positive female and non-binary characters, based on characters from history, but the overall story falters, leaving readers to look for the thread in between the individual stories of Bonny’s crew, all of which are fascinating. The artwork is colorful, manga-inspired, and will grab viewers. Back matter includes a word on the real-life exploits of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, notes, and a bibliography.
One of the most beautifully illustrated graphic novels I’ve ever seen, Fantastic Tales of Nothing is one of heck an epic fantasy for middle graders and tweens, and early teens. Nathan is a human living what he considers a pretty ordinary life until that fateful day when he wakes up in the middle of nowhere and meets a being named Haven and a race of shape shifters called the Volken. As the unlikely group find themselves on a quest, Nathan also learns that he isn’t that ordinary – he has mysterious power in side of him, and the fate of Nothing lies in his hands. Vivid color, breathtaking fantasy spreads, and solidly constructed worldbuilding lays the foundation for what could be a groundbreaking new fantasy series for middle graders, with nonbinary and Latinx representation to boot. Where are the starred reviews for this book?
Tales of Nothing received IndieNext Honors. The website has more information about the characters, authors, and upcoming projects.
Illustrator Julian Peters has taken 24 poems by some of the most recognizable names in the art form, and brought them to life using different art forms, from manga to watercolor to stark expressionist black and white. Organized into six areas of introspection: Seeing Yourself; Seeing Others; Seeing Art; Seeing Nature; Seeing Time, and Seeing Death, Peters illustrates such master works as “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou, “Annabel Lee”, by Edgar Allan Poe, and “Juke Box Love Song” by Langston Hughes. It’s a great way to invite middle school, high school, and college students to deep dive into some of the greatest works of poetry.
This graphic adaptation of PEGOT (Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner Marvin Hamlisch’s biography is one I did not see coming! The legendary musician, composer, and conductor discusses his family’s flight from Hitler’s Austria and settling in America, Hamlisch’s admittance to Julliard at the age of 6, and the intense anxiety that plagued him before every performance. He tells readers about attending high school with Christopher Walken and Liza Minelli, and playing the piano for Judy Garland as a teen; about composing pop radio hits and learning to compose music for a motion picture as he went along. By the time he was 30, he’d won his first major award. Hamlisch’s voice is funny, warm, and conversational throughot, and Marsden’s realistic art has touching moments, particularly between Hamlisch and his father. A great read for theatre and music fans – this one is going to be my not-so-secret weapon.
MJ is a twelve-year-old wrestling fan who is dealing with loss in her home life and racism in her school life. She feels isolated, alone, with only her wrestling show for company until she notices a covered wrestling ring in her neighbor’s yard. Turns out, her neighbor is the owner of a wrestling school, and after some intense discussion with her mother and some successful nudging on MJ’s part, Mr. Arellano – Papí, to his wrestling students – agrees to take her on as a student. At the Victory Wrestling School, MJ finally feels like she’s part of something, but an investigator from the state Athletic Commission is doing his best to shut Mr. Arellano down. MJ is determined to get to the bottom of some shady business and save the school and her wrestling family.
I loved Bump, because it’s such a good mix of family stories – the family we have and the families we create – plus the fun and work of the wrestling business. MJ knows that the bruises are real; she loves the rich history of the luchadores, and she loves being part of this history. Wrestling fans will enjoy all the nuances and peek into the ground floor of the industry, and sports fans will enjoy the heart and guts that comes with dedication. Matt Wallace addresses the casual racism that exists in our schools, and all too briefly looks at the issues with racism within MJ’s friend group. The action is fast-paced, and there’s a wild moment that belongs in a wrestling storyline that brings the story to its conclusion. A good read that I’d hand off to my library kids. Add some luchador coloring masks to your book discussion activity and invite the kids to explain why they chose the designs they did; make the masks an extension of their personalities. There’s a good explanation of lucha libre and its place in Mexican culture at SpanishPlayground.net. Not an #OwnVoices book, but a good read that kids will like.
In the interest of holiday season posting: need gifts for the kid who has every video game, or a bookworm who has read everything, and needs something new? Allow me to be your guide through a few fantastic middle grade reads I’ve just finished.
Where do I even start with Malcolm and Me? This book blew my mind in the best way possible. It’s 1973, and 13-year-old Roberta has a lot of feelings. She’s reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and discussing Black history and Black Power with her father at home, and clashing with a racist nun at her Philadelphia Catholic school. When she’s sent home after a blowup with Sister Elizabeth, she deep dives into the Autobiography, examining her own feelings and frustrations through Malcolm X’s lenses. Already a writer, she begins journaling her verse and diary entries, guided by Malcolm, and it gives her the strength she needs as her home life and school life begin unraveling.
There is such power in this book and in the characters. Roberta emerges as an incredible heroine; a self-aware 13-year-old coming of age in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, during Watergate, she questions her own faith in God and in organized religion, in family, and in color. Inspired by an event in the author’s life, Malcolm and Me is essential reading that hits that often hard-to-reach middle school/high school age group. Please put this on school (and adult) reading lists, and talk about this book with your tweens and your teens. Talk this up to your Angie Thomas fans, Nic Stone fans, and – naturally! – Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter. Author Robin Farmer’s author website has more information on the author’s articles, her books, and a link to her blog.
Orphan Seren Rhys thinks she’s being rescued from the orphanage when her mysterious godfather, Captain Jones, sends for her. His country mansion, Plas-y Fran, is just going to be wonderful, Seren knows it! She’ll be the apple of Captain Jones and his wife, Lady Mair’s eyes, have wonderful parties, and play with the couple’s young son, Tomos. She realizes things are very different when she’s picked up at the train station and arrives, late at night, at Plas-y Fran, which looks rundown and all but abandoned; Mrs. Villiers, the cold housekeeper, tells her that the family is in London for the foreseeable future. Seren turns to the mysterious package entrusted to her at the train station and discovers a mechanical crow. Upon assembly, the crow can talk, fly, and complain. A lot. But when Seren learns that Tomos has been taken by fairies, she decides to rescue him and restore life to Plas-y Fran: and the crow will help her do it.
A fun fantasy with a bit of steampunk, which I always enjoy, this is a quick read with adventure and a warm family story at its heart. Seren is the hopeful orphan, and the cantankerous Crow is a great foil, making this a fine buddy comedy. Fairie lore amps up the action and the tension, and adds some dark fantasy and magic to the plot. A good choice for readers who loved the Nevermoor/Morrigan Crow series by Jessica Townsend.
Hayley Chewins is back! Her 2018 novel, The Turnaway Girls, was one of the best books I’d read that year, so I was excited to read her newest, The Sisters of Straygarden Place. The Ballastian Sisters – Winnow, Mayhap, and Pavonine – have lived in the house by themselves after their parents left seven years before, only a note telling them to “sleep darkly” left behind. The house takes care of their basic needs – food, clothing, shelter – but they cannot leave the house, lest the tall silver grass take them. Winnow grows tired of waiting and ventures outside, leaving 12-year-old Mayhap to take care of their youngest sister, Pavonine, and figure out how to heal 14-year-old Winnow. As Mayhap discovers more about the house and the history of the magic within it, the mystery deepens. Readers will love this gorgeous, dark fantasy written with prose that’s almost lyrical, magical. Hayley Chewins writes like Neil Gaiman, where the words just caress you, wrap themselves around you, and when you’re fully under their spell, tell you stories that will leave you wondering. In a world where dogs crawl into your mind to help you sleep and the grass tempts you to come outside so it can take you away, The Sisters of Straygarden Place is truly magical reading.
The Sisters of Straygarden Place is is one of Kirkus’s Best MG Fantasy & SF Books of 2020.
This is a tough time of year we’re going into. We want to hug people that we can’t. We want to see people in person, not through a device screen. We’ll get there. Until then, we have books to share with those we love. Let these snuggly books do the talking when your arms can’t; if you are lucky enough to have snuggly folx within your quarantine circle, then enjoy these books together.
You Are a Beautiful Beginning, by Nina Laden/Illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley,
(Aug. 2020, Roaring Brook Press), $18.99, ISBN: 9781250311832
If little ones ever needed inspiration and to hear about their incredible potential, this is the time. You Are a Beautiful Beginning is all about potential, with encouraging, rhyming phrases that are just what we all need to hear to keep us going: “It is not the number of pages. / It is the story in the book. / It is not how far you traveled. / It is the journey that you took.” Messages also include having self-confidence and not worrying about the outcome, but the progress; being a good person, and being part of a team, and ultimately, becoming who you are supposed to be. Mixed media artwork creates magical spreads with classic fantasy story elements bright colors. You Are a Beautiful Beginning is the encouraging talk so many of us need today, especially our little ones who are facing remote learning, lack of socialization, and feeling overwhelmed by big, often scary feelings. A much-needed pep talk and hug in book form.
Because You’re Mine, by Nancy Tillman, (Sept. 2020, Feiwel & Friends),
$18.99, ISBN: 9781250256133
Nancy Tillman, award-winning author of On the Night You Were Born, is back with a rhyming story about the love between a parent and child. Because You’re Mine is a parent’s declaration of love from the very beginning: “The moment that you came along / my heart grew mighty, fierce and strong / And everything just fell from view / All that I could see was you”. That fierce devotion never wanes, as Tillman also notes: “The clouds can blow, the wind can call / the snow can come, the rain can fall / but they’ll just have to wait in line”. It speaks to the protective love parents and caregivers have for their littles; children will feel secure and protected hearing their loving grownup read this to them and it’s perfect for bedtime and cuddle time reading. Ms. Tillman’s instantly recognizable artwork, images of children and grownups, frolicking across spreads of woods, fields, and enjoying flora and fauna, brings to mind carefree days and joy.