Publisher’s Weekly has released their picks for the best books of the year. They do three lists for books for children and teens. Here are the middle grade books that made the list:
All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker, illustrated by Kelly Murphy
Dream Within a Dream by Patricia MacLachlan
The Line Tender by Kate Allen
Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds
The Lost Girl by Anne Ursu
My Jasper June by Laurel Snyder
New Kid by Jerry Craft
The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt
Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis
Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez
The Strangers by Margaret Peterson Haddix
This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia
Roll with It by Jamie Sumner (9781534442559)
Ellie isn’t the sweet little girl everyone thinks she is simply because she’s in a wheelchair. No, she has plenty of opinions and shares them too. Where Ellie’s sweetness does come in is her baking. She plans one day to be a professional baker. When Ellie’s grandfather manages to drive his truck into the front of his local grocery store, Ellie and her mother move across the country to live with her grandparents in their trailer. Ellie has to start a new school in January, though she really doesn’t have any friends to miss. Ellie’s mother has to drive her to school and takes two other kids from the trailer park along. Steadily, Ellie begins to make her first-ever friends but when a health crisis arises it may mean leaving this town where she finally feels she belongs.
I love the immediate shattering of stereotypes in this book as Ellie has a strong voice of her own that has a little more spice than sugar in it. It’s her voice that makes the book a compelling read, whether she is writing fan letters to chefs or speaking out about her own needs. The book also does a great job of showing children who don’t use a wheelchair the many barriers that those in wheelchairs face on a daily basis. Sumner never allows those barriers to be turned into personal responsibility for Ellie, assigning them firmly to society.
Sumner’s writing is lively. While Ellie herself a particularly great protagonist, the secondary characters also shine. From Ellie’s mother to her grandparents to the children she befriends. Each one is a distinct character, and that includes her grandfather who may have dementia and still is more than his limitations as well.
Bravo! This is a great read that reaches beyond limitations to show the human heart of its characters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy (9780062866417)
Rahul just wants to be the best at something, anything. But he’s skinny and the target of Brent, one of the biggest bullies at school. He’s also carrying the secret that he’s gay. Brent taunts Rahul into trying out for the football team, which ends up with Rahul not making the team and nursing a hurt ankle. Meanwhile, Brent has figured out Rahul’s secret when Rahul looks a bit too long at Justine in class. Rahul’s best friend Chelsea tries to get Rahul to understand how amazing he is, even if he’s not the best at something. As Rahul searches for his niche, he finds himself getting more anxious and his nightly rituals are less soothing. Whatever Rahul discovers about himself he also realizes that his Indian-American family and his friends will be there to cheer him on, no matter who he is.
Pancholy, an Indian-American actor, has written a compelling and heart-wrenching middle grade novel that deserves applause. He captures the angst of a kid who is different from the straight white kids in his school and who is trying desperately to fit in with them. Pancholy grapples in this book with many large themes, all of which fit with Rahul’s story. There is the bullying of LGBTQIA+ children at school. He addresses racism in casting and racism towards anyone brown-skinned or non-white. He takes these issues on directly, showing how standing up to bullies and racism is the best course of action.
Rahul is a great protagonist. He has support from an extended family as well as a best friend. It is a joy to see a middle grade book with a gay protagonist who is supported and loved by his family and friends. In fact, the book shows that sometimes it is the child who is torn up about coming out while their family and friends may have known for some time.
A great read from a multi-talented debut middle-grade author. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers.
The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner (9781534431454)
Moth has always loved everything to do with magic and witches. So when Halloween comes, she dresses up as a witch. That does nothing but encourage some school bullies who tease her in the hall in front of the new kid in town. But something strange happens and Moth’s hands start to glow. It turns out that Moth comes from a family of witches, something her mother had never shared with her. Now it all makes sense why Moth has felt so different from everyone else and struggled to make friends. As Moth learns more about her family and the secret separate magic land her grandmother helped create and still lives in, Moth’s powers grow. She meets a talking cat, makes her first real friend, and then discovers that while witches are real so are those who hunt them!
Steinkellner’s debut graphic novel for youth is a delightful mix of diversity and magic. While comparisons can be made with other teen witches, this book stands entirely on its own. Part of that distinction comes from the unique world that the town’s witch elders created for safety. It is a world of floating islands, crystalline colors and flowing robes. It contrasts dynamically with the world of middle school. Moth is the one who brings both worlds together as her magic begins to take form.
The characters in this graphic novel really make the book special. Moth moves far beyond middle-school misfit and is a friendly, funny protagonist with a talking cat who is brave and conflicted. Her mother too is complicated in all the best ways.
A great middle-grade graphic novel that is full of magic. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin.
Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds (9781481438285)
In ten separate but linked stories, award-winning author Reynolds creates an entire neighborhood of ten blocks. The book begins, and refers throughout, with a school bus falling from the sky. There is one story per block, different kids on each block living their lives, going to school, facing various things in their futures, pasts and presents. There are best-friend boogers, petty theft for a good cause, complicated but important handshakes, stand-up comedy, body odor and body spray, and fake dogs. It’s a book about what happens after school, whether it is friendship or bullying, loneliness or comfort.
This one deserves a medal. Period. It’s one of those books that reads so easily, since it’s written with such skill. The voices of the characters are varied but all intensely realistic and vibrantly human. Reynolds plays with the reader but invites them into the joy of the joke, showing the layers of what children are and what they feel and do. He demonstrates that ten times here, always deeply exploring each character before moving on to the next and celebrating them.
The stories arc together moving from humor to pain to loss to fear to freedom and everywhere in between. The characters form a community on the page, streets unfold before the reader and they get to journey them with friends they just met opening the book. The final chapters are masterful, the text moving from narrative to spoken word to rap. The rhythm of the book throughout is a dance, here it becomes a heartbeat of life.
Look for this incredible read to win some big awards this spring. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy (9780062473097)
Sweet Pea’s parents have gotten a divorce and came up with the brilliant idea of living just one house away from one another on the same street to make it easier on Sweet Pea. The houses are decorated very similarly too, particularly Sweet Pea’s room in each of them. In between the two houses is one that belongs to the town’s resident advice columnist, a woman known to be eccentric and a loner. So when she asks Sweet Pea to be responsible for picking up her mail and sending it to her, it’s a big surprise. As Sweet Pea’s own life continues to get more complicated with friend issues and her mother starting to date, she keeps one secret all her own. She has started to reply to some of the letters asking for advice herself!
This is Murphy’s first foray into middle grade writing and it’s a great way to start! In Sweet Pea, she has created a female protagonist who isn’t obsessed with boys, isn’t thinking about hair and makeup, and is much more concerned with her family, her cat and her friends. Sweet Pea is funny, intelligent and brave. She also procrastinates, takes a few too many risks, and fails sometimes at friendship. She is also not a small girl, all of which makes her a breath of fresh air in middle grade books.
As always, Murphy’s writing is light and readable even when dealing with large emotions or issues. In one of the best scenes of the book, Sweet Pea pukes at a birthday party she crashed. The scene offers humor mixed with deep empathy and then addresses the bravery it takes to return to school afterwards. This book is all about giving people second (and even third) chances, including yourself.
The author of Dumplin’ has another winner here. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.
Stargazing by Jen Wang (9781250183880)
Moon and Christine could not be more different even though they both have grown up in the same Chinese-American neighborhood. Christine has strict parents who don’t let her wear nail polish, much less makeup. Moon’s single-parent mother is accepting and gentle. Christine tends to be more concerned with fitting in than Moon who is rather dreamy and loves dancing and music. The two girls decide to enter the school’s talent contest as a dance team, bringing out Christine’s performing side that she never knew existed. Just as the girls start to gel as friends though, Moon reveals that she has visions sometimes. When the true cause of the visions turns out to be seizures, Christine must figure out what sort of friend she really is.
Award-winning graphic novelist Wang invites readers into a personal story about growing up Chinese-American. She draws from her own medical past with seizures and brain surgery to create a graphic novel that is wrenching and real. She entirely leaves her heart on the pages, giving us two girls who are different from one another but clearly meant to be friends. The books’ premise may be personal, but the result is a book that is universal. Wang’s art is accessible and friendly, inviting readers to explore and learn along the way. There are wonderful moments that are distinctly Chinese-American that resonate across cultures.
A warm and rich graphic novel about friendship and so much more. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly (9780062747297)
Lalani lives on the island of Sanlagita during a long drought where all of the plants are dying and water is growing scarcer by the day. The residents of her island pray every day for mercy from the large mountain they live near. There are tales of another mountain across the sea that is on an abundant island where all of your needs are met. So the island sends out ships of their strongest men trying to journey to this other island and mountain. Nothing returns from these journeys but broken pieces of the ships. Lalani is a regular girl inspired by the tale of another island girl who died trying to make her own journey. As Lalani finds herself caught up with a magical exile, she wishes for rain and the unending rain that results brings disaster with it. Shunned by others on the island, Lalani makes the choice to take her own journey across the sea.
Inspired by Filipino folklore, this is an amazing novel by a Newbery-award winning author. The barren and limited world that Lalani lives in is filled with anger, bullying and still love and friendship. The entire society feels tense and on edge, one step from coming to blows. It makes what Lalani finds on her journey all the more incredible. Kelly has created a world of magical and unusual creatures that spring to life. Several of them are given special treatment where the reader is asked to imagine themselves being that creature which is a marvelous invitation to change perspective.
As always, Kelly’s writing is so skillful that one doesn’t even realize it. Her books read so easily and well, this time carrying readers into a fantastical world filled with creatures from dreams and nightmares. Lalani is a great protagonist. She is brave, audacious with just the right amount of regular person mixed in too.
A glorious fantasy from a master storyteller. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson (9781681191089)
When a project about family is assigned at school, Amara realizes that there is a lot she doesn’t know about her own family. Her mothers’ parents are both dead and she had no siblings, but her father’s side lives across the country in Harlem. Amara asks if she could travel to Harlem to see her grandfather whom she only knows from phone calls and cards, since her father often goes there on business. Her parents refuse for some time, then agree to allow her to go. It will be the first time in twelve years that her father sees his own father. Now it is Amara’s job to complete her school assignment by interviewing family members, explore New York City and also bring her family back together, all in a single week!
Newbery Honor winner, Watson brings her considerable writing skill to a fractured family. She captures how forgiveness is difficult even though love is still there and allows the connection between father and son to organically rebuild. All of this is seen through Amara’s eyes as she discovers that her family is different than she realized and that her father has a surprising history she knew nothing about.
Setting is so important in this novel with Harlem and New York City becoming characters in Amara’s story. Many important places in African-American history are explored including the Apollo Theater and the Schomburg Center. Murals and sculptures that feature African-American figures in history are also featured in the story. Readers will want to explore these streets themselves.
A warm and rich exploration of complicated family relationships and love. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.