31 Days, 31 Lists: 2019 Middle Grade Novels
Every list that I write during my 31 Days, 31 Posts month is subjective. Reviewing, selecting, judging, and gatekeeping is, in and of itself, subjective. I never call any of my lists “Best” lists because I am just one person and I cannot see everything. But of all the lists that I do, surely the MOST subjective is the middle grade fiction. Just yesterday on Twitter, author Dusti Bowling started a conversation about how “MG novels have gotten longer over the years”. It’s certainly true, but that’s not the only factor leading to a decrease in what I’ve seen. Since leaving New York City I’ve found that my reading time decreased in tandem with the time of my commute. I used to ride the subway an hour to and from work every day. Perfect reading time! Now I walk 20 minutes to and from work. Not great for keeping up with upcoming novels, that.
Having placed my little excuses in a row before you, consider this just a sampling of titles that I found particularly toothsome in 2019. You will miss some of your favorites, no doubt, but these are the books that truly made my little heart sing.
2019 Middle Grade Novels
Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord
Emma is on the cusp of starting public school for the first time as a rising fifth-grader when her game warden father rescues a trapped rabbit. Now she must balance the chance to make a real friend with deciding whether or not to keep the bunny she names Lapi. I think the key here is the fact that this is one of those rare lower middle grade reads. It’s a quieter book, and often our kids need quieter books. It’s not about abuse or bullying. Just a girl trying to get along in school. And a cute rabbit. Who can’t relate to that? Something for our gentle readers.
Best Babysitters Ever by Caroline Cala
Earlier this year I had an assignment to read four funny middle grade novels all by women (this probably had more than a little to do with Funny Girl). Of the four, only one actually made me laugh out loud in an embarrassing way, which I sort of consider the bar for funny books. Caroline Cala knows how to write a first chapter. This book grabbed me right away, and not just because I read The Babysitters Club when I was a kid (though it probably didn’t hurt). Turns out, Cala also knows how to write a second chapter. And a third. By the time I got into the book I wanted revenge on Malia’s evil older sister Chelsea even more than Malia did. Granted, the adults in this book are 2-dimensional cardboard cut-outs (the hippy mom is practically a walk-on from I Love You Alice B. Toklas), but the kids are keen. You want the funny? You want this book. Comedy is tragedy plus tween.
Beverly Right Here by Kate DiCamillo
If you’re Beverly Tapinski and your dog has died, why stick around? DiCamillo deftly unspools narrative threads connecting the lives of all kinds of people living in small town Florida. I don’t think that there’s a soul alive that could argue convincingly that DiCamillo isn’t one of the most accomplished authors working today. The woman is a living embodiment of “show don’t tell”. She is capable of railing against making snap judgements about other people without saying a damn word to that effect. She just lays out before you a cast of characters and it’s up to you, the reader, to realize their humanity. And boy does she write creeps well. If she ever writes an adult novel I’m heading for the hills. I wouldn’t be able to take it.
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
Starve or live in fear? When little sister Viji runs away from home with her developmentally disabled sister Ruku, they discover danger, freedom, and a new family on the streets of India. One of my librarians called this book solid. I think that may be the best descriptor I’ve heard for it yet. It’s really interesting to look at it and see how Venkatraman has constructed the world of this novel. Sturdy, strong middle grade fare.
Captain Rosalie by Timothée de Fombelle, ill. Isabelle Arsenault, translated by Sam Gordon
Rosalie is on a secret mission. While her father serves in the war, she declares herself a captain and sets about completing secret operations that will bring her closer to a terrible truth. The real question here is to where to put this book. It’s sophisticated, for all that it looks like an early chapter book title. It’s VERY good, but for older readers. Yet it looks younger. What to do? Here’s an idea: Read it. It’s so small and slim and smart. Perfect for kids that don’t want a book that’s 200+ pages.
Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee
We’ve all heard that kids don’t read science fiction, so it takes an extra bit of chutzpah to not only set your middle grade novel in space but to also mix it up with some Korean mythology for spice. Space foxes! Space tigers! Space dragons and goblins and ghosts! I gotta tell you, I really dug this book. Lee gets a little wrapped up in world building sometimes, but on the whole the storytelling is quick, slick, and fun. I’m amazed that he managed to combine the two very different types of tales into a coherent story. Best of all, this may be the first in a series but it stands alone if you want it that way. Woot!
Eventown by Corey-Ann Haydu
In case you missed it, I’m just goofy about this book. Of course, I’ve always had a weakness for sunny tales that feature a slow, creeping sense of dread. Haydu outdoes herself in making this little town as Martha Stewart Magazine perfect as possible. Honestly, it reminded me a lot of Orphan Island, but with a different message in place. Add in the fact that I always love a book where the lesson is to work through pain with others rather than just make it go away by some outside means, and you have yourself a lovely, strange little winner.
A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée
A perfect companion to New Kid. I’ve heard it described as the Middle Grade answer to The Hate U Give. In this story, Sayla confronts the ways in which her friends are drifting away from her, even as she becomes more politically active. I was particularly taken with the mom’s explanation of why Sayla might want to have friends that look like her, above and beyond her Asian-American and Latinx besties. It’s a pretty nuanced book, for something that reads so simple at first. Very good.
I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day
In this compelling page turner, Edie, a Suquamis/Duwamish girl, longs to solve a mystery involving her identity and her family’s history. So I was just reading this merrily and enjoying the mystery of it all when, out of nowhere, that ending come up and socks me in the gut. As an adult I completely understand why her parents weren’t being honest with her. And perhaps the fact that Edie doesn’t ask her parents straight out about her own history is kind of contrived, but I didn’t particularly care. That ending man. I had no idea.
Just Jaime by Teri Libenson
What do you do when your best friends dump you? Jaime used to be the school “gossip girl” but now her bestie Maya thinks she’s babyish. A graphic novel hybrid about finding your people. I’m just kicking myself that we missed reading Positively Izzy last year. What a loss! Libenson is what you hand kids when they’ve already finished all the Telgemeier and Chmakova in the stacks. It doesn’t have the twist at the end that some of her other books do (well, it does, but it’s on a much smaller scale). I love that her heroine is no angel herself. A thoroughly satisfying read.
The Line Tender by Kate Allen
How do you mourn something that’s lost forever while moving ahead? Delicate and brutal by turns, this is one of the standouts of the year. Not a happy, cheery, giggly book but a slow patient one. As one of my co-workers told me, it’s the best encapsulation of moving through grief they’ve ever read.
Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds
School’s out and ten different stories are all happening at the same time. These kids are planning an escape, a con, a show, a romance, an apology, and more on just an ordinary day. The problem with reading a Jason Reynolds book is that it almost always is better than 90% of the other titles you’ve read in a given year. The man knows how to put words to a page. Heck, he can write about boogers and manage to make the conversation encompass all the matter in the universe (and I’m not even exaggerating about that). Funny and moving by turns, this is a standout title of the year
Max and the Midknights by Lincoln Peirce
I can’t believe it but I really really like a Lincoln Peirce title! When it comes to his Big Nate series, I’ve always been a bit lukewarm on poor Mr. Peirce. But now that he’s branching out a little and trying his hand at fantasy, I definitely dig what he’s laying down. My kids were big time fans of this book (it’s a lot of fun to read out loud). And for an extra added bit of fun, check out the full cast audiobook sometime. Perfect for kids of all ages.
Maximillian Fly by Angie Sage
Dead parents got you down? Then join me in this dystopian nightmarish ROMP! The name “Angie Sage” might sound familiar to you because she wrote the Septimus Heap series. Now she’s crafted this crazy detailed post-apocalyptic burg where the imprisoned society is populated with normal humans and human/cockroach hybrids called Roaches. Max is our Roach hero and he is adorable. I admit I was very very tense reading this book because I was so invested in its heroes, but all told very few good guys bite the bullet. Tense and terribly exciting!
Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee
An unwanted hug. An “accidental” brush or hand. Murmured comments. Dee delves deep into a 7th grader’s early experience with sexual harassment and what it takes to be believed. A book so well-designed that I honestly had difficulty reading it. There is something horribly accurate in Dee’s depiction of early sexual harassment. I discussed with a colleague whether or not the boys get off too lightly at the end, and they probably do, but at least you feel a sense of catharsis. It’s a rough read for MG, no question, but worth it and necessary.
Midsummer’s Mayhem by Rajani LaRocca, ill. Rachel Suggs
Mimi’s never quite felt as accomplished or special as her siblings, though her baking is second to none. But when some enchanted food starts wrecking havoc with her family, she’ll discover that only her talents can get everyone out of a magical mess. This may be too firmly wedged in my wheelhouse for me to be impartial about it. I’ve seen MG novels attempt to adapt Shakespeare plays into their plotting before, and they always fall a little flat for me. LaRocca’s much cleverer. She’s latched firmly onto the element of A Midsummer Night’s Dream surrounding the changeling child from India, and just gone on from there. Plus there is a LOT of baking (baking!) at work. I made the thyme chocolate chunk cookies with citrus for my colleagues and they were a huge hit! One of the more enjoyable books of the year.
Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai
Wow. A true blue illustrated novel. Reminded more than a little of The Arrival and Here I Am in terms of how it conveys what it’s like to be plunged into a country where you don’t speak the language. It also balances grief and guilt well with levity, humor, and (of course) CAKE! So. Many. Cakes. I was surprised to see that this was a debut. Lai has a sophistication to her art and writing that others would envy.
A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata, ill. Julia Kuo
I won’t lie to you. It took me a little while to finish this book. There is no denying the fact that Kadohata is one of the best writers for children working today. If you were to look up the phrase “indelible images”, she would have to be the first author referenced. There are sections of this book that I will never be able to get out of my head. Kadohata tackles a bit of history unheralded and unknown to many Americans. After being forced into Japanese internment camps during WWII, Hanako and her family have decided to leave the United States to become Japanese citizens. Yet when they arrive in Japan it becomes quickly clear that the country is a difficult place to live. There’s a sadness at this book’s bones, but I wouldn’t label it as depressing. The only change I would make to it would be to remove the interior spot illustrations by Julia Kuo. They’re too infrequent to add much to the narrative, and too many times they downplay elements like a boy’s post-bombing scars. Otherwise, it’s fairly tight. Kadohata probably writes the best grandparents in all of children’s literature. She’s done it before and she’s done it again here.
Rat Rule 79 by Rivka Galchen, ill. Elena Megalos
You know, sometimes an author of a children’s book just takes a wild swing at something and even if there are elements to it that don’t completely work out, you gotta admire the guts it took to try. Galchen’s an adult author with prizes like a Guggenheim Fellowship or The William J Saroyan International Prize in Fiction under her belt. But generally speaking, adult authors don’t have a clue how to write for kids. Sometimes they do what Galchen does here: They emulate Lewis Carroll. Oh, it’s a dangerous way to go. I mean, can you even do a Lewis Carroll book today? The answer appears to be yes and no. This may be the closest I’ve seen since Juster took a hand at it with Phantom Tollbooth. Like Juster, Galchen flirts with wordplay and a teensy bit of math. She’s helped in no small part by the art of Elena Megalos (also a children’s book first timer). I was prepared to dismiss the book, and the ending does fall flat, but on the whole I really enjoyed the ride. Not an easy book to write, but she gets away with it for the most part. Good bedtime reading in any case.
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
The ultimate kid fantasy of traveling the world in a school bus without a responsibility in sight. Somewhat tempered by the fact that your father is living under a crushing grief that he doesn’t want to deal with, to say nothing of your own. This books checks off all those little boxes people keep in their brains when assessing middle grade novels. Heart? Check. Humor? Check. Random quirky element like, say, a house-trained goat or the reason why watermelon slushies are the devil’s drink? Check and check. I’d say we have a pretty charming book on our hands here.
Ronan Boyle and the Bridge of Riddles by Thomas Lennon, ill. John Hendrix
When a writer makes no bones about the fact that they are looking to emulate the works of Douglas Adams, it gives one pause. Adams is pretty site-specific when it comes to fiction. You need to cultivate a certain level of detachment and anything-can-happen humor where it’s concerned. Lennon manages rather well. You sympathize with Ronan, though you might not feel a real emotional investment in him. But emotional investment is not what this book is aiming for. It’s aiming for some pretty good gags, my favorite being the fact that harpy bites give you bad ideas, “Take the harpy to London, get a record deal, then invest all the money we make into cryptocurrencies!” It ends on a cliffhanger, which is a bummer, but if you need something pretty hilarious, this is your best bet.
The Runaways by Ulf Stark, ill. Kitty Crowther, translated by Julia Marshall
Gottfried Junior’s grandpa is cranky, cantankerous, and difficult. What to do? Why not kidnap him for a day to take him back home one last time? A loving story of intergenerational mischief. Weirdly enough, I’ve read several middle grade novels about kids helping their grandparents escape from nursing homes (the most recent being Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth by Frank Cottrell Boyce). This book is an excellent example of getting the tone right. For such a snarky old man, this is a very loving book.
Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker
This is essentially Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm, but with foxes instead of people. And like Gidwitz, this book follows a pretty classic fairy tale format, but the stories that start out separately weave together in time to merge. It begins off with a slam bang story of rabies and just kicks off from there. Plus, how can you resist a novel where the great human villain is a bloodthirsty Beatrix Potter?
The Size of the Truth by Andrew Smith
If the thought of an Andrew Smith middle grade baffles you, I at least love the reasoning behind its creation. Apparently whole hoards of youngsters have been reading Smith’s very YA stuff for years. Just seemed logical to write something with a slightly dialed down weirdness for them. The result is this oddly sweet and touching novel. Part of what I like about it so much is the fact that this is, at its heart, a book about kids trying to protect their parents’ feelings. It’s also about the fear of parents in this helicopter age. And there’s a talking armadillo who quotes Bartleby the Scrivener. So, y’know. Normal stuff.
Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson
Amy Ruth’s. That clinched it for me. You know how sometimes an author fails to catch the sense of a place? Not a problem for Renée Watson. In this book her heroine, Amara, goes to New York City for the first time and you get this incredibly clear sense of the place from the get-go. I’m very keen on public art and Watson gets the location and look of everything from the Harriet Tubman statue to the one of Adam Clayton Powell completely dead on. But it was little mentions of things like Amy Ruth’s that made it clear that the woman knows from whence she speaks. In this story Amara is seeking to heal a wound between her father and his father, even while worrying about her mom and an upcoming baby. Yet the real breakout star of the show is New York City and, if you know me, I’m never going to have any problem with that.
Spy Runner by Eugene Yelchin
I cannot express to you enough how much I enjoyed this book. The Red Scare has never been so exciting. Somehow our hero Jake manages to injure himself in every possible way, but he just keeps on going. Written in response to our current era’s love of ideology, this is a scathing critique of both Communism and McCarthyism. You literally never know what the book is going to do from one moment to the next. Just floors me.
A Story About Cancer (With a Happy Ending) by India Desjardins, ill. Marianne Ferrer, translated by Solange Ouellet
So I’ve been seeing reviewers and some libraries labeling this book as YA because the main character grows up and falls in love. And yeah, she ends up a teen but then I read the reason the book was written specifically with a young reader in mind. The author was visiting a hospital in Québec when she met a 10-year-old with leukemia. The girl said she was fed up with stories about kids with cancer that had sad endings and just for once she wanted one with a happy ending that included humor and romance. Because, and we forget this, some children LOVE romance. I myself was crazy about it when I was that age. And yes, the heroine jokes that her boyfriend first saw her butt through the crack of a hospital gown, but it’s fine. So I’m smacking this right in the middle of the Fiction section and devil take the consequences. It’s a great book, a beautiful book, and if you wanted to put it in the graphic novel section instead, that would be okay too.
To Night Owl From Dogfish by Holly Goldberg Sloan & Meg Wolitzer
I was good this year. I kept track of every single instance where this book made me snort out loud. Big loud snorts too. Like when one of the girls in this book (Bett – a good name) says she’s not a good speller. “I’m okay with that because Snoop Dog + a man named Churchill, who wrote the slogan that goes on shopping bags saying: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, were both bad spellers. So maybe Churchill first wrote it as KEYP COMM AND CAREY ON. We may never know.”
At one point in this book the character of Avery Bloom writes, “I really like reading stories with an unreliable narrator, because the person telling you what happened can’t be trusted with the facts and you have to figure it out.” And then, “Maybe when it’s your own story, you’re always going to be an unreliable narrator.” Consider that your warning. Or maybe not? Part of what I respected so much about this updated epistolary take on The Parent Trap was the authors’ commitment to misleading the reader. Not in a mean way, but more a way of upsetting expectations. You think the ending is going to go one direction, and then it goes on a completely different path and you know what? That’s okay. Plus I rather loved that the book makes it clear that relationships aren’t all sunshine and roses. You have to work on them and they can be hard going. But there are rewards.
Trace by Pat Cummings
A good old-fashioned ghost story. Putting aside the fact that the Colored Children’s Orphanage was never on the city where NYPL currently stands (which the book’s backmatter is quick to point out), this is a pretty cool tale of grief, therapy, and how our past is always with us. Please do not pay attention to its cover either. I don’t know what marketing goblin got their sticky little hands on this book, but that teeny tiny child on the cover is NOT the book’s hero. This book deserved a jacket that highlighted its history and the creepy crawly vibes you get in forbidden spaces. Discover it for yourself.
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia
Thrown into a world where African-American folk heroes mix and mingle with West African gods, it’s up to seventh grader Tristan to use his newfound powers to heal a dying world. You know, it took me a little while to get into this one. Initially, I could see the African-American folk heroes and the West African gods, but I wasn’t getting the relationship between the two. I still think there could be some bridging there, but it was the villains that really drove home a lot of the themes. Once I realized that the big bads were living shackles, a sentient slave ship, and King Cotton, I got what Mbalia was saying. Strong (no pun intended).
We’re Not From Here by Geoff Rodkey
If 2019 typified anything for me, it was middle grade novels that don’t waste time and get right to the point. The previously mentioned Eventown was a good example of this, and so was We’re Not From Here. Funny post-apocalyptic space opera stuff? Baby, that’s my jam. Told by Lan (no gender mentioned or particularly needed, thanks) it discusses how humor saves humanity. Well, humor and singing, but essentially humanity is rescued by America’s Funniest Home Movies type stuff. The book itself utilizes a wide range of different kinds of humor, and is just a joy to read. I sped through it with delight. Of course, I knew I was in safe hands. Geoff Rodkey’s one of the middle grade funny greats. You ever read his Chronicles of Egg series? If not, you’re missing out.
Wildfire: When Trees Explode by Rodman Philbrick
As a co-worker of mine pointed out to me, there are different kinds of action middle grade books for different kinds of readers. For example, I’m a big fan of Eugene Yelchin’s aforementioned Spy Runner, but not all kids would have patience with its slower moments. The nice thing about Wildfire is that it really does start with a literal bang and run run runs to the end. That same co-worker also pointed out to me that the hero, Sam, is great example of positive masculinity. He joins up with an older girl and together the two become this kind of makeshift brother and sister fire-escaping duo. Add in the scary motorcycle dudes that feel like escapees from some 1970s Billy Jack flick, and a wonderful moment of the girl walloping one of them with her crutch (metaphor, anyone?) and you’ve got yourself an honest-to-goodness pulse pounder. For the kids that want to feel like their eyeballs have been soaked in adrenaline for the read.
Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Easy Books
December 18 – Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Older Reprints
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture 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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