31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Middle Grade Novels
This is a little unorthodox, but a nice librarian recently asked if I could move this list up in the roster this month because it would help her with her ordering. In retrospect, I suppose it would have made more sense to just email her today’s list directly, but what’s done is done. Consider it a holiday miracle!
Now comes the caveat. I simply haven’t read all the books on this list. But but BUT I have read most of them. The rest I’ve entrusted to the librarians at my workplace, who put in blood, sweat, tears, and more to make sure that they read some of the best books on offer. I trust them completely and the end result is a list that contains some truly remarkable books. Like so . . .
2021 Middle Grade Novels
Aftermath by Emily Barth Isler
Considering the fact that my kids have to participate in active shooter drills on a regular basis, it stands to reason that the plot of this book should touch on the reality behind it. Lucy and her family move to a town that experienced a massive school shooting a couple years before. Now entering the 8th grade, Lucy is the same age as the kids that witnessed and survived the shooting firsthand. And since no one really ever moves to this town, her status as the new kid is unique. Lucy, as it turns out, is living in the wake of her own family trauma. Her younger brother had a heart defect and died not long before her move. Now indulging in her love of math and joining an afterschool mime group, Lucy has a chance to make a new life for herself and for her classmates. It’s a dark premise but Isler keeps things nicely balanced throughout. Of course, for my part I was impressed by how well the author worked Lucy’s love of math into the basic text. It’s a tricky subject, and maybe I don’t agree with every choice the writer made, but on the whole it’s unique, full of math love, and emotionally balanced. Something to look out for then.
Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston
Men in Black meets Harry Potter! When Amari Peters discovers that her brother has nominated her to attend the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs she discovers powers she never knew she had. First and foremost, do NOT listen to the audiobook of this title. Whatever actor they hired, I found myself initially disliking the book thanks to her read (her terrible Irish accent alone is a crime against man). It was only when I read the book itself that it won me over. Amari’s a bit passive at the beginning and the end has a bit of the old deus ex machina to it, but there’s a lot of fun packed in these pages. It has some smart things to say about assumptions and though it piles the messaging on a bit thick, if you want something fun and fast, this is a darn good choice. Worth considering anyway.
Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz
A girl as precious as amber. A boy as common as clay. Two children in ancient Greece dance with bears, play with ghosts, and live in a time of gods and philosophers. I’m going to spend a long long time thinking about this one. To call it “ambitious” is to sell it short. Schlitz is incapable of merely writing a book set in ancient Greece. She has to write it in a wide variety of different styles, in keeping with the time period. She includes images of objects that would have had special significance to the main characters, thereby tying the storyline to the bits and pieces you might see in a museum. It really reminded me of A Single Shard in that respect (particularly the pottery). It looks like a brick but reads quite quickly. Plus any book where Hermes gets to interrupt continually is going to be fun. Like no other book you’ll ever read.
Here’s my interview with Laura about the book:
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith
An amazing group of Native writers contribute interconnected short stories about young people (and one cool rez dog, which is clearly a theme of 2021) heading to the University of Michigan Dance for Mother Earth Pow Wow – a real-life Pow Wow that has been going on for 48+ years. The stories in this book go a long ways towards providing much-needed windows into some of the struggles and joys of Indigenous youth identity development and experiences. It’s also nice to see something contemporary here. My librarians did feel that the book would have benefited from some visual elements. Often short story collections do a bit better if you can break up the blocks of text in some way with comics or art. Still, it’s a strong piece overall and a very nice addition to any collection.
The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, ill. Sophie Blackall
A young girl, hunted by the king, is found in a monastery, bathed in blood, where she is nursed back to health by a monk. So begins this particularly epic medieval tale. Lyrical narration is supported by gorgeous black and white illustrations along the way. Has anyone else noticed that the medieval era is producing a whole host of award-winning children’s books lately? There was Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale and Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s The Book of Boy. Now DiCamillo throws her hat into the ring. The book? It’s very good. I much prefer her all-human casts (with the exception of a singular goat) to her animal ones. Some of the best writing of her career, with everything that makes kids love her, as well as everything that makes adults love her too.
Being Clem by Lesa Cline-Ransome
If you are an author, it is good to find fellow contemporary authors to aspire to. Me? I aspire to someday lasso even a tenth of the emotional power of a Lesa Cline-Ransome novel. In a sense she’s sort of painted herself into a corner. This book is a companion to her previous books Finding Langston and Leaving Lymon. And yet it had been a long time since I read either of those books. Having completely forgotten their plots, I came into Being Clem cold and I can tell you for sure and for certain that it stands entirely on its own. There isn’t so much of a whiff or a hint that there are other books out there. And this book may be one of the best written, most enjoyable of this year. Seriously. You other authors out there need to read this to get a sense of how to write with the least amount of fat. There’s not an excess sentence or superfluous scene in this book. I had the distinct pleasure of listening to the audiobook and reader Dion Graham KILLS IT with his rendition. He made the jokes work. He put real emotion into every page. Sometimes I have to drag myself back to continue listening to an audiobook. Not this one. I kept finding excuses to listen to more. I certainly hope the Newbery committee puts aside the whole this-is-a-companion-novel nonsense and judges this book on its own merits because it is far and away high time Ms. Cline-Ransome got herself some shiny gold. This book would completely deserve it.
Black Boy Joy: 17 Stories Celebrating Black Boyhood, edited by Kwame Mbalia
Look at that cover! Did you know that Kadir Nelson could paint happy people too? That’s a good sign. Inside the book, seventeen stories by acclaimed Black authors celebrating joy form a collection that has humor, heart, science fiction, action, a story in verse, and even a new comic by Newbery-winner Jerry Craft. All short story collections are going to have their highs and lows, but I was impressed by how consistently high the quality was on these stories. Some are a bit complicated, while others breeze by. And in the past year that we’ve had, we desperately need a book that includes a little joy into our lives, wouldn’t you say?
The House That Wasn’t There by Elana K. Arnold
This book is about Southern California, magic, and strong ties of family. Oh, and feline teleportation. It starts out when Alder gets a new neighbor. Alder is determined not to be friends with her, but it seems the universe is bringing them together. The thing you can always say about Elana K. Arnold is that she is adept at gentle boys. I always feel a certain level of safety with an Arnold book. This is a bit more sophisticated than her “Bat” series, though. I did find that the story takes a strange right-hand turn midway through that I didn’t expect. I’d call this less realistic fiction and more magical realism, but that didn’t bug me. Likewise, normally when someone engages in too many coincidences in the storytelling I get bugged, but here it just seemed like a fun series of twists. I enjoyed how it all came together.
It Doesn’t Take a Genius by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
If he’s not guaranteed to win then super smart Emmett doesn’t want to play. But when Emmett’s beloved older brother Luke says he’s going to work at a fancy Black summer camp, Emmett finds a way to tag along. Will he still be a boy wonder or something a lot more complicated? Oo! I like this one! Granted, Olugbemisola likes to pack a LOT of words on a page, so this one took me longer to read than I would have necessarily liked. Even so, this is a real fun book. Emmett is both smart as a whip and really good at self-sabotage. There are moments where it feels like the author just wants to pack as much history and current talking points into the narrative as possible (even the problematic nature of Dr. Seuss makes it into this book) but you stick with it because you’re invested in Emmett. I found the ending satisfying and that cover image by Gordon James? He must have read the book cover to cover because that IS Emmett. You literally couldn’t imagine him any other way if you tried. Big time fan over here.
The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera
When Petra escaped Earth with her family for a new life, she had no idea what would happen when she awoke. Now it’s 300 years later and she’s the only person left with memories and stories of the past. What went wrong? And how can she survive? Oh, I like this one very very much! You might not be able to tell from the cover but this is straight-up science fiction with a Latinx heroine. It even works in a couple classic Southern American folktales along the way (including a rendition of Blancaflor that you may have already seen on my Fairy/Folk/Religious Tales list). I was surprised to find that I could never quite figure out where it was going or what was going to happen next. Higuera keeps you guessing and so I was completely unprepared for a huge twist that happens not too long before the end. If you’re looking for something completely different and completely enthralling, this is your best bet.
The League of Picky Eaters by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic
I come from a long, storied line of picky eaters. It’s not something folks usually talk about, and to this day I cannot eat beets. Can’t do it. If I were a judge on a Food Network television show and the challenge was for the contestants was to create some delicious beet-based recipe, I’d be outta there in a flash. All this is to say that I am very on board with Stephanie’s middle grade novel. In case you didn’t know, she’s the author of the adult work of nonfiction Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate. Performing poorly in her “eating placement test” at her school, our heroine Minerva is sent to the Remedial Eaters class. For any kid that’s felt completely misunderstood when it comes to what they feel they can and cannot eat, this book is going to sing to them. Now keep them dang beets away from me!
Long Lost by Jacqueline West
A middle-grade, ghostly mystery about two young sisters who move to a secretive, small town — the streets are quiet, the houses are old, and whispers echo in the corners. When younger sister Fiona seeks refuge in the town’s ancient library, she finds a book which tells the legend of a local girl who went missing nearly 100 years ago. Some say she died; others say a monster called the Snatcher got her. No one knows for sure, but Fiona is determined to finally give this story an ending. Talk about nicely atmospheric! And just get a look at that cover. Stunning. This is a smartly done fantasy/mystery with a strong, solid foundation in the main character’s relationship with her own sister. I liked the pacing, the clues, and I particularly liked the setting. West has really grown into her own over the years as a fantasy writer for kids. This will prove quite alluring to our fantasy fans.
Long Road to the Circus by Betsy Bird
So I run this marvelous committee out of my library every year that determines the 101 Great Books for Kids. It’s something I stole from my former employer New York Public Library, and I absolutely love running it. Now here’s the problem. I also write books for kids. And putting your own book on the committee that YOU created and help run… that’s a bit skeezy, isn’t it? It’s a little “Oh wow! What a coincidence! A book I wrote made it onto this list I run!” Yech. So it was with a tiny bit of sadness that we made sure that Long Road to the Circus, my debut novel, didn’t make it onto our list. That said, I suffer no such compunctions with today’s list. Why? Because unlike my work’s committee, this is a one-woman show. And as such, I actually think my book is kind of good. If you haven’t heard of it before, it was born out of a crazy coincidence. You see, my grandmother’s no good uncle used to skip out on his farm chores when she was a kid. Why? Because he’d walk on over to an elderly ex-circus performer’s house to try to learn how to teach the farm horses circus tricks. Her name? Madame Marantette. Fast forward to the future and Caldecott Award winning illustrator David Small actually lives IN the Marantette House! I thought a picture book might come out of this story. David, however, saw it as a novel. The end result? A kooky tale about Suzy, a girl determined to get out of small town Michigan and into the big bright world. And how’s she gonna do it? Well… you ever seen a lady ride an ostrich side saddle? You will. It’s a goofy little thing, but I’m fond of it. And the New York Times recently included it on their list of 25 Best Children’s Books of the Year, so that’s something.
The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy by Mary Winn Heider
Siblings Louise and Winston encounter a series of weird happenings at their school. Do these oddities have anything to do with why their teachers are behaving so oddly? Meanwhile, the two hope their football player dad returns home after disappearing suddenly. Consider this a Chicago-based mix of absurd humor and heartbreak. Readers of this book get to take a deep dive into a truly wacky series of unpredictable events. Mind you, the whole reason that this works is that Heider never abandons the heart of the novel, even in the midst of chaos. Loved the jokes. Loved the characters. Loved how prevalent Darth Vader’s “Imperial March” was. Like nothing else out there.
Lotería by Karla Arenas Valenti
Each year Life and Death play the card game Lotería with a single soul held in the balance. Unknowingly, young Clara plunges deep into a fantasy world, determined to save her missing cousin, not knowing that her fate rests in the cards. I’ve enjoyed watching the slow burn of this novel as it catches interest throughout the year. It’s rare to find a middle grade novel with an ending quite as bittersweet as this one too. I loved the way in which the magic realism just filtered through this storyline from the start. There’s something so enticing about any story where Life and Death play at such enormous stakes. Valenti does a marvelous job of taking a large number of ideas and plot points, weaving them together expertly by the end. How can one even resist?
Maya and the Robot by Eve L. Ewing, ill. Christine Almeda
Wanting to show off her serious science prowess, Maya fixes up an old robot and gets more than she bargained for. Let me just pause here and draw up some of the adjectives I’ve heard my children’s librarians use in tandem with this book. Let’s see… we have “sweet”, “funny” and “heartfelt” right off the bat. I’m also seeing “cute” and “positive” with a special emphasis placed on how great it is to see a book with a Black girl science genius at its core. All told, it’s hard to resist a book with this much heart and good humor. Deserving of a special place on any list.
Much Ado About Baseball by Rajani LaRocca, ill. Chloe Dijon
Being the only girl on a new baseball team is tough enough, but Trish never expected to be playing alongside rival math prodigy Ben. Can the two become friends in spite of their competition or will it take a bit of magic? I am constantly on the lookout for sports sports sports! Trouble is, they’re actually rather hard to find (especially starring girls). So to find a book that combines baseball, math, and Shakespeare in equal parts is rather amazing. Though I read Rajani’s previous companion book to this one (Midsummer’s Mayhem), I don’t think you need to have read it to appreciate this one. And to confess, I’m a bit of a nerd about the math in books forwarding the plot and being good. This book incorporates it expertly
Pity Party by Kathleen Lane
A deft and daring collection of stories, quizzes, advertisements, and more. A book for anyone who has ever wanted a funny, strange, sad book to soothe their anxieties. I’d call this a pretty good example of not judging a book by its cover. This is essentially “Black Mirror” for kids. Or maybe it’s more Ray Bradbury. Whatever it is, it’s short fiction and a lot of fun. Some stories circle around and around. Some come up and then disappear again. This is the rarest of all beasts: child satire. It has a dry sense of humor, and embraces nonsense in a rather refreshing way. My favorite story is probably “Imposter” because it feels so specific as to be eerie, and is so universal at the same time.
Playing the Cards You’re Dealt by Varian Johnson
Ant hopes to impress his dad by becoming the next in his family to win a card tournament. However, he must deal with some surprising truths that throw him off his game. I think that any book that has managed to attain the impossible Jason Reynolds / Christopher Paul Curtis dual blurb (one on the front and one on the back) has already floated to upper echelons that we mere mortals cannot hope to attain. And then there’s, y’know, the actual book itself. Varian’s juggling so many different ideas, all at the same time. There’s what it is to be a man, should you try to help someone you love even if they’ve hurt you, hyperbole, a big card game, grief, and joy. Put simply, this is an impressive next step in Varian’s perpetually interesting career.
The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book by Kate Milford, ill. Nicole Wong
Twelve guests, trapped at the Blue Vein Tavern by floodwaters, tell stories to pass the time. An infinitely clever tale of the crossover between storytelling and reality. I am happy to report that even though this book is set in the universe of Greenglass House it is not a sequel. There are neat little details for fans of Milford’s other books to pick up on, but they’re more like Easter eggs than anything else. The book itself is marvelously skilled. It starts out by feeling like a series of unrelated stories. Then, as it proceeds, the stories grow closer and closer together, and the people in the inn get more and more interesting. After I finished I had to go back and reread all the parts between the stories just to see what I’d missed (and I’d missed a lot). An ideal book for new and old fans of Milford alike.
Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac
During the pandemic, Malian has to shelter in place with her grandparents. While doing so, she learns fascinating truths about her family and the struggles they endured. And then a mysterious dog arrives. Bruchac does the audiobook and it hardly takes any time to listen to since it’s so short. On the day that I listened to it I needed a gentle book about family and history, and this one provides precisely that. A good and quiet novel.
Root Magic by Eden Royce
If any of you ever teach a course on How to Write a Great First Chapter, I hope you use this book as one of your examples. Eden Royce grips you with her writing and turn of phrase right at the start and that passage echoes so beautifully later in the last chapter as well. I would advise you NOT to listen to the audiobook, though, if only because the reading is a bit too slow for my tastes. Brought up to speed this book is a skilled mix of folklore and American history. I was a bit worried that the defeat of the villain would feel cheap if it was solved via magical means, but then Royce EARNS that ending. Color me seriously impressed.
Sorry for Your Loss by Joanne Levy
Quilling, grief, and Jewish funeral traditions come together in Levy’s slight, spare, tight novel. Evie doesn’t want friends. Nope. Not happening. This decision is made all the easier by some of the girls at school who call her “Evil” and “Zombie Girl”. Why? Because her parents run the local Jewish funeral home. Evie’s determine to become a funeral director herself someday, but when her family handles the death of two young parents she starts to wonder if she’s cut out for the job. Into her life comes Oren, the son of the dead. He’s traumatized, refuses to speak, and Evie has no idea how to handle him. After a while, though, the two grow close, each harboring secrets from the other that are bound to come out. Lotta tears and a lotta hugging in this one, but you won’t mind. Levy comes by her emotions honestly and with blurbs on the back from folks like Adam Gidwitz and Lisa Brown, you know I’m not the only one who likes it. I found Levy’s writing to be incredibly easygoing, even a pleasure. Kids with curiosity about what happens to our dead will get a very specific answer with this look into Jewish funeral traditions. Some of these I’d heard about from Dancing At the Pity Party, like the black ribbons you rend. Some were new, like the use of unpainted broken pottery pieces. And this book really commits to its Jewish characters. It’s not briefly mentioned and then forgotten, like in some books. Really well done from start to finish.
Thanks a Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas
Music-loving Ezra has developed a crush on his shy, nervous friend Brian and cannot tell anyone. Meanwhile, Brian has to land on his feet after a major family crisis. Good audiobook! So I should mention right off the bat that this is an amusing book to read if you’re not aware that it’s set in Canada. Initially, there’s nothing to give that fact away, but then as it progresses you start to have your suspicions. I must say that in a year when bullying has been the go-to for too many middle grade novels, here it’s not a central focus of the plot at all. I thought this was a very mature look at the complexity behind trauma and, fascinatingly, the different rates at which kids mature when it comes to emotional relationships. Sweet and careful.
Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff
Bug’s house has always been haunted but it wasn’t until Uncle Rodrick died that things started to get weird. Is Rodrick trying to tell Bug something? And is it something Bug’s ready to hear? “Doll Bones meets a trans narrative.” That’s how this book was sold to me and, I gotta admit, it hooked me cause I like both of those things. If the name “Kyle Lukoff” sounds familiar then you may be thinking of his Max books and the Stonewall Award winning When Aidan Became a Brother. This book does go full on horror, but does have a couple deliciously creepy moments. The remarkable blending of haunting and trans discovery is expert. I really think Kyle’s tone here is pitch perfect. No one writes uncertainty better than he does. Plus, considering how many middle grade novels I read in a given year, I loved the moments where Bug would say stuff like, “If this were a book then . . .” and immediately zero in on some trope that I hate. Honestly, the best trans middle grade book I’ve ever read.
Trouble in the Stars by Sarah Prineas
Trouble has no memory of his past but he knows one thing: He’s a shapeshifter, the only one in the galaxy, and now he’s just stowed away on a spaceship to who knows where. Oh yes! I’ve finally found a science fiction novel that I can seriously promote today! And talk about economics of the writing. This book knows how to do character development in a shockingly short amount of time. What could feel like you’re watching a play (since for a lot of this book the characters are on a very small spaceship) instead manages to keep the action hopping. Trouble is such a likeable character, and I was getting a real Guardians of the Galaxy vibe from his motley crew. This is space scoundrel lit at its best. Highly recommend!
The Wild Huntsboys by Martin Stewart
Set in a futuristic England at war, three boys find themselves in danger when they anger the fairies and must battle enemies on every side. I just regret it took me this long to read this book. After reading a lot of “meh” fantasies this year, I needed a book with great writing that was funny and smart. This book checks off each and every last one of those boxes. Few authors could successfully meld dystopia with fairies in a middle grade title, but Mr. Stewart manages it. I highly recommend you get the audiobook as well. Right from the get-go you’ll enjoy the reader. He has to do a wide range of accents and rarely disappoints. We’re going to need some fun fantasies on our list and this gets my vote.
The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold
I HIGHLY recommend that you check out this book’s audiobook. Arnold reads it herself and when she gets to the part where Gabrielle gives up her accent, she stops reading in an accent as well. It’s subtle and smart. Loved the telling overall. Pairs nicely with Root Magic, but from an entirely different angle.
Curious about past middle grade lists? Then check out the ones from previous years!
And here’s what else we have happening 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 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic 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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