31 Days, 31 Lists: Great Middle Grade Novels of 2020
The penultimate list. And, as with all lists you will ever see, entirely subjective. As I write this, I think of the tough row all those authors and illustrators of children’s books had to hoe. Very few had a chance to do the bookstore debut parties, conferences, meetings, library appearance, school visits that typically surround new titles. For debut creators it was even worse. How do you get the info out there about a book when most means of creating word-of-mouth are closed to you? And so I congratulate all of them for sticking it out. It was a horrible year. Maybe, with lists like this one, we can all try to end it on a slightly less terrible note. This magnificent outpouring in 2020 is a good start:
2020 Middle Grade Novels
Before the Ever After by Jacquline Woodson
Sometimes you just want to read a book where a boy has problems (like a football player dad suffering from too many concussions) but also has incredibly supportive family and friends to get him through. Woodson tempers the pain of seeing a parent turn into someone unrecognizable with plenty of comforts. Here, characters are funny and can be a delight to hang out with. Recently someone asked me on Twitter if I’d be including a list of verse novels as part of this 31 Days, 31 Lists series. I had to admit that I really couldn’t, since so few were being published these days. Yet even in a year when there haven’t been that many verse texts, Woodson’s stands out. This, in spite of its painful subject matter, is a #blackjoy book through and through. Looks like there’s a reason she won that MacArthur Genius Grant this year, eh?
The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman
Valentina Kaplan and Oksana Savchenko are two girls living near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It’s 1986 and when their fathers get caught up in an accident they must travel to Valentina’s grandmother, Rita Grigorievna, for safety. Consider this a big thick book that’s worth getting through. As with so many middle grade novels in 2020, once again we’ve a story that discusses child abuse in some fashion. The historical aspects are particularly different, however. It’s one of the most interesting examinations of Anti-Semitism in the Russia of the 1940s and 1980s that I’ve ever encountered in a middle grade. Also notable? I’d not seen Chernobyl featured in a children’s book before, and Blankman takes you there. Extra points for taking the time needed to show how learned prejudice can, potentially, be overcome. It is intense, but also very satisfying.
Curse of the Night Witch by Alex Aster
I feel guilty. This year, I honestly don’t feel like I read enough high fantasy. That’s on me. It can be easy to get distracted by all the well-written realistic stuff out there. But fantasy was, as I mentioned before, always my first love as a kid, so when you stumble on a book that renders it really well, you should grab on with both hands. In the world of Emblem Island, each human is born with a small picture or emblem on their skin that indicates a particular skill or talent. For Tor Luna, he was born with the emblem of leadership. It’s a symbol he despises and so, on a day when wishes might come true, he wishes to change his symbol. It works, but at a terrible price. Now Tor and two friends are in search of the Night Witch. She’s the only one who can lift the curse on their heads, and to find her they’ll have to travel through an array of real Latinx folktales, any one of which could kill them. There are times when the book drove me mildly crazy (like when they’re lost yet have a compass that they keep forgetting about) and it ends on a cliffhanger, but it’s a GREAT cliffhanger. Aster honestly manages to conjure up all kinds of ideas and images I don’t recall ever seeing in children’s books before. If you have kids that are fantasy fans, hand them this first book in a new series. They’ll dig it. I know they will.
The Dream Weaver by Reina Luz Alegre
And in this corner, weighing in at 263 pages, is our latest contender in the Worst Dad of the Year middle grade competition! The Jersey Shore is practically its own character in this tale of a girl and her flighty father. Ever since Zoey’s mother died she’s been dragged from place to place with her brother Jose, never settling down. And why? Because her dad always has a new dream he wants to pursue. Now they’ve moved in with her grandfather, Poppy, while Dad high-tails to New York to try another new job. Trouble is, Poppy’s bowling alley is failing. It’s gonna take Zoey and her own dreams to make friends, make a stab at saving the place, and stand up to her dad once and for all. Reading this as a parent, I have such a visceral reaction to Zoey’s dad. Put simply, I wanna maim ‘im. Kids will probably be more forgiving, and to be fair he’s absent a lot of the time. Reina’s amazing skill at giving you such a clear cut sense of time and place is one-of-a-kind. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book and one worth plowing through, full blast. So fun! Now if only I could get this dang Gary Wright song out of my head. It pops up every time I read the title . . .
Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk
Everyone blames Ellie for her father’s accident but this city girl turned mountain expert is determined to find his cure. A Depression-era tale of fortitude punctuated with scintillating descriptions and writing. This one is classic Wolk. Her basic mode is what I like to call “long and gripping”. If you notice, I’m fairly certain that I’ve included this book on every single Newbery/Caldecott prediction list published this year. My reasoning is simple. First off, there’s not a dull word on any of these pages. Second, you can’t help but love the writing, and yet you won’t be able to tell where any of it is going from one moment to another. Somehow Wolk manages to combine authenticity of characters together with some truly stomach churning scenes. Hope you like maggots! This book is chock full of them!
Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros
Fifth grader Efren’s life turns upside down after he discovers his beloved mother has been deported. This powerful, fast-paced novel shows a boy struggling to keep his family together. It’s an odd want to root against an unrealistic happy ending in a book. On the one hand you want the characters you’ve grown to love and care for to get back what they’ve lost. On the other hand, if things come too easy to them, unearned, then it doesn’t feel real anymore. And this book feels real. Real real. It substitutes that big slap-happy ending for a smaller, less happy, but satisfying ending, and kids are just going to have to be content with that. By the end I had enormous respect for the choices Cisneros made on these pages. It’ll also make you want to hug your own mom real tight. This book is adept.
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Sisters Della and Suki have always stuck together, even when they had to live with their mom’s terrible boyfriend. Now he’s headed to jail but Suki’s still not okay. A tough and gripping story of abuse and hope. I can almost never stomach books on child abuse (particularly child sexual abuse) but going into this novel I trusted Bradley as a writer. My instincts turned out to be right. I’ve loved her work since I read Jefferson’s Sons back in 2013. The most surprising thing about this book? The fact that a title with this tough subject matter can also be so readable. The pages just flew! Della has an amazing narrative voice. Loved the replacement of cuss words for “snow” (you know EXACTLY what she is saying at all times) and how none of the stuff in here is easy, but is hopeful. Also loved how Bradley tries desperately not to make the foster mom an angel, and manages the right balance.
Fly On the Wall by Remy Lai
Henry Khoo’s family treats him like a baby, so he does the only natural thing in response. He buys a ticket and hops a plane to Shanghai. Oh me, oh my. It sounds crazy but I actually like this even more than Lai’s last book Pie in the Sky. That book was great but exhibited a real sadness at its core that made it hard to enjoy sometimes. This book also features a boy struggling against the dictates of his mother and an absentee father but the tone and feel could not be more different. This book is purely enjoyable. Lai expertly manages to make her hero, Henry, have a meaningful turnaround regarding his online activities, and every character felt real to me. This is an adept piece of writing for young people. One of the standouts of the year.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
Budding chef Zoe discovers a letter from her estranged birth father serving time in jail for murder. When he tells her he did not do it, Zoe will stop at nothing to prove his innocence. I was invited to speak to a school last month on the topic of what the Newbery Award is and what books I’d like to see awarded. In the course of things I must have mentioned 10-15 different 2020 titles, yet what was the book that the kids kept asking their school librarian about over and over again? Zoe Washington, man. Even just describing the book to them, they were hooked. I mean, basically you’re bringing together a serious social justice issue (Black men who are disproportionately incarcerated in America) with a love of baking. Now I never saw the final copy of this book, so I certainly hope the recipe for macaroni and cheese that keeps getting mentioned in the book is there. But, uh, no need for that Fruit Loops cupcake recipe as well. No need at all.
A Game of Fox and Squirrels by Jenn Reese
If you could have only one wish, what would it be? When Samantha meets a charming fox, she has a chance to make everything go back to the way it was. But should she? Startlingly adept. Were an author to come to me with the concept of this book in hand, I would have to advise them not to proceed. Mixing child abuse and fantasy sounds like a terrible idea. But Reese takes everything slow. She’s one of those authors that believes that the child reader is smart enough to figure out what’s happening on their own. As a result, she gives her readership all the clues, then lets them work things out on their own. Much like the aforementioned Fighting Words, this book is just a joy to read. The writing is lyrical. Honest-to-goodness lyrical. Love the plot, the mix of reality and magical realism, the character development, the whole package. My one criticism? Every time I read the title I hear Boris Badinov’s voice from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I suspect that this is a me problem. And who knew that the most gutting scene in any book this year would be the destruction of a stuffed animal? Not I, said the fly.
Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! by Sarah Kapit
Baseball is the sport most likely to be written about in a children’s book and yet trying to get my fellow children’s librarians to read any book with sports can often prove to be a challenge. In Vivy Cohen’s case, the sport has a particular significance for her. Vivy’s on the autism spectrum, and has mastered a difficult knuckleball pitch that catches the eye of the local Little League coach. Intrigued by her pitching skills, he hires her for the team where she has to deal with bullying, pressure, and the occasional sports-related injury. The whole thing is told as an epistolary novel between Vivy and her hero, a knuckleball pitcher like herself. Parts strain credulity, but overall it’s a good-hearted piece with plenty of ups and downs. One of the defining characteristics of the middle grade novel is the degree to which you sympathize with the character when they are placed in a difficult situation. Vivy’s mom would probably get along like gangbusters with Ware’s mom in Here in the Real World (see below). In both cases you have a parent who think they know what’s best for a kid, and are instead seriously stifling them. An interesting take from an interesting angle.
The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf
Suraya’s best friend has always been a ghost. He’s cruel and terrible and scary and he adores Suraya. So what happens when she decides the two can’t be together anymore? Yeah, this book is a bit of a wonder. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything quite like it before. I’m so sad it doesn’t have a chance at a Newbery, but at least it received a Kirkus Prize nomination. It’s hard to find too many middle grades that excel in emotional satisfaction quite as well as this one does. And hey! Hanna also has a piece in the collection Once Upon an Eid. Look like this is her year.
Here In the Real World by Sara Pennypacker
Ware loves the age of knights and chivalry. Jolene prefers the reality of plants and trees. A powerful look at friendship and the birth of a budding artist. Call this one “portrait of an artist as a young boy”. Pennypacker deals in layers. The book begins with a simple premise and then loads it with down with layer after layer after layer of deeper meaning. At its heart this is a story about how a single person can reach outside their interior world and connect with others. It doesn’t go for easy endings. It doesn’t go for faux emotions. But it’s also unafraid to give a very honest accounting of what it’s like when you are always the outsider to large groups of kids. It’s one of those books where individual lines strike you as remarkable when you encounter them. My favorite involved the girl Jolene. Ware (our hero) loves castles. Her eyes, he finds, are like the windows that soldiers would use in castles to shoot out of the windows. She has window slit eyes. I’m a sucker for writing like this.
Hide and Seeker by Daka Hermon
A simple game of Hide and Seek turns into a nightmare when a malevolent monster starts pulling kids into its terrifying world. You can run, but you cannot hide! Essentially Stranger Things meets It with a mostly Black cast. This is exactly the kind of book I would have picked up as a kid, only I don’t think I ever read anything quite this dark back then. Hermon doesn’t pull any punches. The nightmare world the kids are trapped in is terrifying (our hero gets in by being buried alive). This is for those kids that saw the aforementioned scary fare on their own and are convinced that there’s nothing in the children’s room dark enough for them. Though less psychological than last year’s Small Spaces, I still think it’s got some strong things to say about economic disparities. Not everyone’s problems magically disappear at the end (and there is at least one dangling thread that I imagine will get picked up in a sequel) but altogether it’s strong. Probably the top scary book of 2020 for kids.
King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender
In this visceral Louisiana-set novel, twelve-year-old Kingston experiences racism and homophobia while grieving the death of an older brother who may now be a dragonfly. When did you realize that this book was the book of the year? When it won the National Book Award for Young People Literature in November or way back at the beginning of 2020 when it got the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award? Maybe it was when it started cropping up on all those Mock Newbery lists. Or perhaps you just read the stellar reviews and made up your own mind. Howsoever you came to it, you can’t help but love it. I listened to the audiobook and found myself completely swept up by Callender’s way with language. They also appear to be the rare author capable of putting out highly acclaimed adult and YA literature simultaneous with their children’s fare. Of course, part of what I really respect about this book is how it doesn’t talk down to its readership. Some of the best writing you’ll read all year.
Mañanaland by Pam Munoz Ryan
Maximiliano wants answers to his many questions. Will his long lost mother return? Will he make the futbol team? And are the fantastical stories his Buelo tells him true? 2020 is all about the allegories it seems. As I read through it I kept expecting, at every moment, to discover that Max’s father is not actually his father and that he was adopted as an infant. Fortunately, Pam Munoz Ryan is not the kind of author to disappoint in this manner. I recently reread her Esperanza Rising and was struck all over again but how expertly she wrangles language. As for this book, the presence of peregrines kinda clinches it for me. Love those birds. Love this book.
The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert
California surfer Alberta is the only Black girl in her grade until goth Brooklynite Edie moves into the house next door. Will the two set aside their differences and become friends? I listened to the audiobook on Overdrive and I like the vibe of this story. There are stakes but it’s not nasty. Some MG novels make you feel miserable 90% of the time. This one doesn’t even try. Friends may separate but they always reunite, and man oh geez does the betraying friend get the comeuppance of a lifetime! I won’t lie to you. I enjoyed that moment exquisitely. A fun MG title with a heaping helping of #blackjoy.
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian, ill. Nasaya Mafaridik
Omar, a Pakastani Muslim boy living in England, faces big changes when he starts school in a new town. Need something a little more international for the fans of Wimpy Kid and Big Nate? Omar’s got your number. And “Affable” is a real good word for Omar here. I read this book to myself and then liked it so much I just had to read it to my kids as well. Definitely on the younger side but manages to deftly weave serious issues into the narrative with skill. I liked the tone and the fact that it’s set in England doesn’t affect the read at all (I suspect some of the words were changed for the American edition). Strong and funny #ownvoices stuff.
School by Britta Teckentrup, translated by Shelley Tanaka
Technically this book doesn’t really have a home. It’s heavily illustrated and comes from Germany (though it was printed in Slovenia). I thought about including it in the translation list, but most of those titles are picture books. This book straddles the picture book/middle grade chapter book line, leaning far more heavily towards the latter than the former. At the start, a girl informs you that she’s in the sixth grade. “I’ll bet my school is like most others. Not good, not bad… just somewhere in between.” To illustrate this fact, she shows you her classmates. “Everyone in my school has their own personal story. I’ll tell you about a few of them…” From there you see stories about all kinds of kids. Some are bullies and some are bullied. Some are brave but hide secrets and other just want to hide. When we think of international tales from Europe, we assume that all the characters will be white. School is wonderful because it eschews all that. The cast here is multicultural (not that you could tell from the cover or anything) and every single child holds a whole worlds’ worth of stories inside. You get very invested with the kids here. I don’t think anyone will have difficulty identifying with the words on these pages. And since Teckentrup is incapable of illustrating without making things beautiful at the same time, it’s a wonder to eye and ear alike.
Second Dad Summer by Benjamin Klas, ill. Fian Arroyo
Jeremiah is seriously embarrassed by his dad’s new boyfriend when he goes to stay with them for the summer. I feel like the cover does this book a disservice, though it’s honest. Do you know, I’ve never really seen a heroic gay fictional man in a book for kids. At least not to the extent that you see with Michael in this story. Isn’t that crazy? So much of this book struck me as so real, and then the twist that the nasty neighbor is gay himself was fascinating. As a former resident of Minneapolis I just drooled over all the accurate details in the story, and I really came to care for Michael. His backstory, by the way, is utterly horrific and is handled so well. Plus, this is one of those rare transitional books, with a bigger font and lots of pictures that I really appreciate whenever I run across them. Let’s give this tiny press some love! If, for no other reason, the fact that it’s just nice to see a happy gay love story about embarrassing parents.
Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare Le Zotte
Set in 1805, this atmospheric novel introduces Mary Lambert, a proud Deaf girl who lives in a Deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard. Still mourning the death of her beloved older brother, Mary finds her world shaken up by the arrival of a troubling stranger. Marvelously researched and rendered, this engrossing story just sucks you in. Do believe me when I tell you that that the minute Mary is kidnapped no child alive will be able to put the book down. And yes, wimp that I am, I had to flip to the back to make sure everything worked out okay. I think you can see why I can’t really take adult novels.
Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake, ill. Jon Klassen
Yeah, no, I got thoroughly charmed by this one. And not just because Algonquin got all kinds of crazy on us and pulled out all the stops for this book. The occasional tipped in full-color glossy illustrations? Check. Thick creamy pages? Check. A cover that actually feels good to the fingers? Check and check. Timberlake is going for a Winnie-the-Pooh vibe, but I think she’s tapped into something far better. This book has “bedtime” written all over it. It has long words that are fun to listen to, a sly sense of humor, and (of course) Jon Klassen’s art. Mind you, Klassen has gone in a very different direction with the pictures in this book, and I like what he’s done with it. You know how I say kids won’t pick up books with sepia-colored covers? This one might be the exception to the rule. Deserving of all the praise it has received so far, this book’s a winner from tip to smelly tail.
Stand Up, Yumi Chung by Jessica Kim
Is it possible to follow your dream as a stand up comedian when your parents have big Big BIG plans for you instead? Expect mistaken identities and karaoke where Yumi is concerned. Yep. I like this. And not just because I’ve a weakness for books about funny girls. Kim knows from whence she speaks. I actually enjoyed this story quite a lot when it became clear that Yumi’s ridiculous plan to change her parents’ minds was just that. Ridiculous. Can you see where this is going a mile away? Sure, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to read. Honestly, pick up this book and read just the first chapter and you’ll see why I consider this book a natural remedy to the deep-seated depression we’ve seen in so much of our Fiction lately. Encore!
The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez by Adrianna Cuevas
When you’re dad’s deployed all over the country, you get used to moving constantly. Nestor Lopez learned long ago never to unpack fully, never to make friends, and never to get attached to his new “homes”. But Nestor might have a hard time following these rules in his new home. Now he’s living with his abuela and there’s a mystery in town involving missing animals. Nestor and his two new friends are going to have to investigate. His secret ability that allows him to talk to animals? That should help. I was impressed by how elegantly the Latinx mythology was worked into Cuevas’s narrative. Sometimes when middle grade fantasies use myths it can feel awkward, but Cuevas really did the heavy lifting to make it feel inevitable. Good mystery elements and a nice military brat characterization. Plus, Nestor’s dad’s job doesn’t feel like a convenient plot element but is integral to our hero’s personality and inner life. Good strong stuff.
Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson, ill. Nina Mata
After her family experiences some financial hardship, Ryan Hart has to move to a new house and face new challenges, in this warm series opener. The tale of a black girl in Portland, Oregon, just getting through life. I was a little worried at the very start of this book because I wasn’t getting enough spice. It was reading like a very nice, very normal, very rote happy book. But that’s just Chapter One. After that you get the anxiety of having to move into a much smaller home, a sibling relationship that reads so real on the page, authentic Portland details (I can’t believe Fred Myer just made it into a kids’ book!), and parts that I’ve never seen in a book before, like the swimming section. The publisher wants to call this the next Ramona. I say it’s its own creation entirely. My co-worker Brian put it absolutely perfectly when he said, “The book has a great sense of humor and has a zippy charm, but there’s a storm under the calm.”
Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom by Louis Sachar
The wacky kids of Wayside School have all kinds of problems, so when a great big, nasty cloud of doom perches on top of their school, things go from weird to wild. One of the last events I attended in 2020 was the Anderson’s Bookshop Children’s Literature Breakfast. A massive, sprawling event, it takes place in late February and this year the special guest was Louis Sachar. He was supposed to talk about this book, but at some point wires must have gotten crossed. As he stood before us, baffled, he confessed that when he accepted his invitation to talk, he had had no idea he would be speaking to such a large crowd. I have to hand it to him. This was precisely the kind of situation that has all the finer points of a terrible anxiety dream (and yes, he did just fine). Now, as you know, so many books just sort of blend together. So when you get something as ridiculous and almost non-linear as this title, you feel this crashing wave of gratitude. Though there is kind of an overarching narrative, for the most part you could read this as just a series of interlinked stories about a bunch of kids at a wacky school. Sachar keeps a tight grip on the internal logic, so that even when things get truly wacky, it still feels true to the nature of the book. Could any author other than Sachar get a book like this published today? Probably not. Let’s be grateful we have him then.
What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado
In this fast-paced realistic novel, Black sixth grader Stephen’s eyes become open to a world divided by race and forcing him to take “different lanes”. Years and years and years ago I met Torrey Maldonado at a friend’s Christmas party in Brooklyn. He’d already had one book out by then, but I was struck by his natural presentation manner. Some authors stick their heads into their shells. This guy? You’d talk to him for three minutes and then want to stick him on a TED Talk stage. In his more recent titles, Torrey’s been specializing in the short and the sweet. I know how some kids get turned off of reading by huge thick 300+ page tomes. As such, I really liked how succinct this little book was. There’s not an inch of fat on it, that’s for sure. Find it and then hand it out in droves.
Wink by Rob Harrell
It’s hard to blend in when you’re losing your hair, forced to wear a floppy cowboy hat, and get called “the cancer kid” behind your back. But when Ross Maloy get obsessed with learning the guitar, things go from awful to awesome. This is quite the funky little book. I adored Harrell’s Monster on the Hill when it came out in 2013 and I was always sad he didn’t do another comic after that. Turns out he got the rare eye cancer featured in this book. This story also includes a lot of what I love. Really really gross details, a bully who isn’t, and interstitial comics. I don’t always agree with the people who write the blurbs for middle grade, but in this case I think Max Brallier said it best when he wrote, “It’s fun, it’s important, and it’s got songs!” For the record, I vote that we cast Jack Black as Ross’s radiation technician, Frank. Who will second this idea?
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
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 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
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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