Booklist’s 50 Best Middle-Grade Novels of the 21st Century (Now With Ample Edits!)
If you received your latest issue of Booklist in the mail then you might have noticed that its editors got together and created nothing less than the 50 Best Middle-Grade Novels of the 21st Century. My first thought upon seeing the list was, “Boy, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.” My second thought was, “Wait . . . what the heck am I saying? I would LOVE to be in their shoes! Making this list would be so much fun!”
Don’t get me wrong. There are things on this list that I’d definitely change. But as I gazed upon it, the things they got right really stood out. You see, in each issue of Booklist, subscribers get a free poster of the winners. It’s an elegantly designed little number, but alas I cannot find it online to show to you. You’ll have to settle for an impromptu photo from my dining room floor instead:
As you can see, on the poster the books are split up into the following categories: Adventure, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Contemporary, Science Fiction, Mystery, Horror, Crushes, Humor, and Arts. Some categories are works of perfection (“Horror” has only three titles and each one is, what I’d consider, a necessary addition). Others are a bit on the wonky side, but all of them are books that have come out since 2000 (with a single 1999 exception that I entirely approved of).
Now let’s have some fun! I have identified a slew of books that I’d like excised from this list. I’m going to keep that list private (nobody likes it when you pick on their book, after all) and just say which categories they’re in. Then I’ll substitute them for some favorites that I would have also liked to have seen instead.
Let the rejiggering begin!
Suggested Removal: One Title
I won’t beat the proverbial dead horse with this one. Suffice to say, I recently did a post about the true wonderfulness of this book called Wait… That Book Was Good! Flashback 2006: Enola Holmes. I maintain that it should have all the things.
Suggested Removal: Four Titles
Rules by Cynthia Lord
While it did win its fair share of awards back in the day, this is one of those contemporary middle grade novels that is just as popular today as when it first came out. I was talking with a co-worker recently, and he pointed out that RULES has aged incredibly well over the years.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Okay, admittedly I’m straining at the boundaries of what we can call “Contemporary” since technically you could call this book historical since it takes place in the 90s. But since the most recent book in the “Historical” category of the Booklist list was set in the late 1960s, I’m going to fudge the details a bit and claim it for today. The only real reason I read Yang’s book last year was that it kept cropping up on so many Mock Newbery lists. I’m so glad I did because it’s stuck with me ever since. Just a great book, with a lot to say about the world in which we live.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
I know I said I wouldn’t say which books I’d remove from the Booklist listing, but in this case I’ll make an exception. AS BRAVE AS YOU is on that list and it is also by Jason Reynolds. This is fine, but to my mind GHOST is the book to beat. Let’s put it another way. When your book shows up on PBS’s Great American Reads list, and you’re pretty much one of the only recent children’s books selected, you know you’re doing something right.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha La
Boy, I owe this book a great big thank you. Not just because it’s one of the more eloquent bits of narration and writing (I love the changing narrative shift, to say nothing of the characterizations, plot, and setting) but also because it taught me the foolproof way to cure yourself of mosquito bites: human saliva. The book has many other recommendations as well, but you can see what sticks in my brain sometimes.
Suggested Removal: Four Titles
The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
And sure, this could have gone in the Horror category just as easily (the image of a child being forced to walk away from his mother on backwards feet while he reaches out to her is gonna haunt me until the day I die) but since I really like the Horror category we’ll put this in for Fantasy instead. Truth told, while this isn’t the title I was most surprised not to see, it was up there. How could we not have some Jumbie action on this list? As far as I’m concerned, Baptiste wrote a modern day scary classic.
The Monster Blood Tattoo series by D.M. Cornish
You haven’t read it. You probably haven’t even heard about it. The series name (“Monster Blood Tattoo”) grosses you out and then you see how thick it is and the not insignificant fact that it’s out of print in paper editions in the U.S. So why did I include this? Because it’s the best thing you’ve never read. An epic trilogy that basically tears to shreds the colonialism of Australia’s past, but in a fantasy setting. Should have gotten more love.
A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
Trying to pick a favorite Schlitz is akin to trying to pick a favorite child in your home. I thought about The Night Fairy, of course, or even Splendors & Glooms, but in the end my heart still belongs to Maude here. Locked in the outhouse, singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic at the top of her lungs. This should have had all the things.
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson, ill. Eugene Yelchin
I was reluctant to put anything on my list that was too new, but when I saw that the Booklist folks had included last year’s Harbor Me and Serpent’s Secret, I figured a little Cold War, Middle Earth, buddy comedy fiction wouldn’t be amiss. I still maintain that it broke new ground in the realm of middle grade fiction with its unreliable visual narrator.
Suggested Removal: One Title
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
And finally we have the most confusing book left off of the Booklist round-up. No Cabret, eh? What gives? It is possible that with its original mix of fiction and image, perhaps the committee deemed it more of an illustrated novel ala comics. But if that’s true, why include El Deafo by Cece Bell, which makes no bones about its own comic book status? To my mind, Selznick ushered in an entirely new era of visual representation in literature when he published this book. It was a daring choice that ultimately paid off. Of all the novels of the last 20 years, this is one you absolutely must include.
But confess. You’re missing some titles on this list too, aren’t you? What would you have included?
Filed under: Best Books
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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