31 Days, 31 Lists: 2022 Middle Grade Fiction
Oo. The penultimate list. The super big one is tomorrow (Picture Books) but I suspect that if you were to look at sheer amounts of reading time, today’s list took more work. Last year, I needed the help of my library’s 101 committee to drum up a decent number of titles. This year, not so much. I can’t read as much as, say, a Newbery committee can, but I can at least make a decent stab at some of the stuff coming out this year. Here were the titles I was particularly drawn to and enjoyed. And if I don’t miss my guess, I do believe your kids will be quite keen on them as well.
Curious about past middle grade lists? Then check out the ones from previous years!
2022 Middle Grade Fiction
Attack of the Black Rectangles by A.S. King
In any other author’s hands, this book could have run into danger of didacticism or, at the very least, boredom. I mean, we’ve seen books about the censorship of books before, right? Even when I was a kid we had the novel The Day They Came to Arrest the Book by Nat Hentoff (circa 1982, thank you very much). That’s why it came as a bit of a relief to me to see that the author of this book was A.S. King. Whew! Okay, that’s all right then. Because you know what Ms. King does well? Weird details. I mean, she’s an excellent writer too, no question, but so are a lot of folks. No, what sets her apart is how she can write a straightforward story and then throw in a detail like the fact that the book’s hero, Mac, has a dad that believes he’s an alien. And because we’re getting this from Mac’s point of view, the child reader is placed in the same mindset as the hero. You don’t know what to believe or not believe. You both like and are appalled by some of his dad’s actions. You realize that there’s a lot more going on under the surface than is apparent at first. As for the censorship storyline, it’s this beautiful example of adults not treating children as people but as cute objects that they have to protect or humor. It is, in short, an incredibly insidious story, and a highly frustrating one. Precisely, in fact, what we need in this current era of censors. A great book about how even the smallest act of obfuscation ripples with greater implications.
Aviva vs the Dybbuk by Mari Lowe
Bad enough that Aviva lost her dad and doesn’t have any friends at school, but why does she have to live with a mischievous and difficult dybbuk at home? A clever tale of grief, loss, and practical jokes. A nice enough cover but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be blown away by this book. More fool me. This is remarkable title in which trauma and folklore intersect in remarkably subtle and respectful ways. I found the Glossary really helpful since I’d never heard of a lot of things on these pages (including what a mikvah was). But the truly amazing skill of the book is the fact that it’s capable of dealing with dark, serious subject matter on the one hand, and then pepper the book with fun and neat ideas on the other. At one point it even seems to replicate those old girl detective novels of yore. And yes, the twist at the end has a bit of Sixth Sense floating around it, but by that point I didn’t care. I was already hooked. I’m sniffing Newbery potential around this one, no lie.
Black Bird, Blue Road by Sofiya Pasternack
There you go. That’s the killer cover I was hoping for. Jewish fantasy got a leg up, what with this book and the aforementioned Aviva vs. the Dybbuk coming out in the same year. In both cases you have strong female leads with some definite flaws in their characters. The heroine of this book, Ziva, loves her brother. Loves him so much that she’s not going to let a little thing like leprosy (known today as Hansen’s disease) stop her. As she says at one point, she’d poke out all the eyes of the Angel of Death if she had to, to keep Pesah with her. When the two find themselves on a mission to the city of Luz where the Angel of Death cannot follow, with a half-demon boy as their guide, it’ll take all their skills together to escape his grasp. Now the tricky thing with starting out your story with a flawed heroine is that you need the reader to simultaneously sympathize with her, and, at the same time, understand when she’s in the wrong. And Ziva is in the wrong a LOT at the start of this book. It may turn off a couple readers, but advise them to stick with it. This is a girl with a bottomless well of strength, and there’s something incredibly satisfying about that. Just as there’s also something incredibly satisfying about this book as a whole. A can’t miss title.
Breda’s Island by Jessie Ann Foley
Class struggles across continents isn’t a topic I see too often in my middle grade fiction but it’s what I’ve found with Foley’s latest. Breda’s just been packed off to Ireland to spend the summer with her grandfather. The same grandfather her mom can’t talk to for two minutes on the phone without crying. A hard, quiet man, Breda’s been sent as punishment for her stealing. Never mind that she’s just seething with the unfairness of it all. Her single mom is always working on her business and is never around. She won’t tell Breda who her dad is. And to top it all off now Breda’s in another country with a man who makes her eat fish the first night she arrives (which she promptly upchucks all over the floor). Weaving in Irish folktales of the past, Foley expertly draws together Breda’s awakening, and carves a complex relationship between herself and her grandfather. I loved the fakeout with the man who may or may not be her father, and the whole thing is just a thoroughly enjoyable read. Not flashy. Just very well-written.
Consider the Octopus by Nora Raleigh Baskin and Gae Polisner
Can two kids solve the problem of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Nope! But can two kids make a difference? You bet. A story of synchronicity, goldfish, and stowaways. This is a lot of fun. There’s a bit of backing and forthing between the present and the past at the beginning that threw me for a while, but once I got that sorted out in my brain it was a delightful ride. I was very grateful that the authors mentioned in the backmatter that a giant vacuum really wouldn’t work on the Patch since I saw a really cool piece online recently about the creatures that travel with it (they’re tugged by the same tides as the garbage). All told, this book is fun and friendly with a good message and it even convinced me that a kid could sneak onto a ship and do some good.
Different Kinds of Fruit by Kyle Lukoff
Annabelle was pretty sure her family was as boring as could be. But when non-binary Bailey enters her classroom, it turns out they have more in common with her home life than she ever imagined. Foof! Honestly, I think the less you know about this book, the better it is as a read. Kyle’s trying something pretty original here. The danger, of course, is that the book could easily degrade into LGBTQIA+ 101. It doesn’t, though I do I think a Glossary at the back of definitions would have been very useful. Still, I liked how this completely upset expectations (and extra points for the book jacket NOT giving away the whole darned thing). All told, I think that this is pretty successful and accomplished. Definitive proof that while other LGBTQIA+ books for kids are covering the basics, Lukoff’s teaching a Master’s Class.
Honestly Elliott by Gillian McDunn
Elliott, a budding chef with ADHD, is finding himself facing a whole slew of life changes. He wishes he can move on past “The Incident” that has caused his distant dad to mistrust him. He’d also like to make a new friend, since his old one is on a months long trip. But when he starts working on a class project with the smartest girl in school, things start looking up. Sometimes when I listen to a children’s book audiobook I find it’s a little bit of a slog to get through. The kids have just so many issues and for some reason listening is harder than reading. But though this particular book is dealing with the serious subject of ADHD and failure to connect to a parent, I was really taken with it. Maybe a lot of that had to do with the fact that in spite of your sympathy for Elliott, the dude can be a total snobby jerk when he wants to be. I like that. I like that he isn’t some poor suffering little angel. It’s got a nice arc and a good wrap-up and altogether it just feels really satisfying. Two thumbs up from me!
If You Read This by Kereen Getten
We are none of us ever able to completely separate from our own prejudices and worldview. For me, when I read that Kereen Getten was from Birmingham, I got really excited. That meant that his book could be considered a potential Newbery winner! It was only when someone patiently explained to me that she was, in fact, from Birmingham, ENGLAND that I realized my American-centric mistake. Doggone it, this book would win things if it could, though. I mean, the premise alone is delightful. Living in Jamaica, Brie misses her mother. Mama was a wild child herself, capable of taking her daughter on wild unexpected adventures, while also frustrating her kid with her unpredictability. When she died, she left a huge hole in the family. Now it’s Brie’s twelfth birthday, and her mama has left her a surprise. It’s a treasure hunt, one-of-a-kind, with a secret that will be Brie’s and only Brie’s at the end. But with a papa who’s always working and nosy cousins who want to help, will Brie ever be able to discover her mama’s secrets on her own? Loved the tone of this, and was surprised by the ending as well. I think the book makes a nice balance with the final solution of what to do with Brie’s grandfather, who’s been in a home pretty much ever since his daughter’s death. The relationship between Brie and her papa is still fairly fraught by the story’s end, and will take a couple years of work to repair, but at least you can see that they’re on the right path. It’s a pretty book jacket too, but one change I would make is to really play up the mystery/treasure hunt aspect of the title. This one’s a fun one.
It’s the End of the World and I’m in My Bathing Suit by Justin A. Reynolds
Eddie’s a kid who’s got it all figured out. Then his summer plans go apocalypse-level awry. Prepare for hilarious hijinks from kids unafraid to have some fun. Okay, truth? I don’t think I’ve read a book for kids that made me laugh this hard in a long long time. I’m talking Diary of a Wimpy Kid level guffaws (from me that’s a really big compliment). Man, when Justin A. Reynolds writes a joke it LANDS! I was seriously reading aloud long portions of this book to my kids and THEY were cracking up too. The fact that the entire book hinges on the premise that the hero figured out how to do his own laundry only twice an entire summer is key. There’s just something about the degree to which Eddie is obsessed with his laundry conundrum when, quite possibly, the world has ended that worked for me. Reynolds works in some heart in there too, but then it picks right back up. For a while I thought it might be the first in a series, but now I’m not so sure. It’s actually a more amusing book if you never know if the apocalypse alluded to was real or not. In any case, if you’re looking for funny fare in the middle grade section, this is my top pick. I want more!
Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone by Tae Keller
After “The Incident”, Jennifer, who believes in aliens from outer space, has gone missing. Now the students who bullied her must figure out what happened to her. Welp, I think I just found my second major Newbery Award contender of 2022. Funny since while I enjoyed Keller’s previous award winner When You Trap a Tiger, it didn’t impress me nearly as much as this book has. I always like a title unafraid to take big risks, and Keller is risking everything with this book. First off, it’s the first thing she’s published since her Newbery win, which is an enormous amount of pressure to place on any children’s book author. Next, she alternates not simply between the past and the present, but the near past, the distant past, the present AND THEN she alternates between Mal’s voice and the journal entries of Jennifer herself. Work in the fact that this is a book about not simply bullying but the very nature of what makes someone a good or bad person and you’ve got yourself the Great American Children’s Novel on your hands. Wildly accomplished and fun to read to boot with just the barest hint of science fiction elements, I guarantee you won’t be able to put this one down.
The Kaya Girl by Mamle Wolo
Abena is not looking forward to spending her vacation with an aunt she hardly knows at Accra’s largest market. Then she meets Faiza, a girl her age, also from Ghana but living in almost another world, and all her assumptions start to fall away. Uh-oh. This is, like, really really good. For those of you that prefer to listen to your middle grade novels as e-audiobooks, run, don’t walk, to the Libby app and check this one out. Reader Ekua Ekeme gives this book the perfect read, and that book jacket! It’s remarkable. Absolutely perfect. Sometimes I find that a book’s subject matter is a little much for me and I’ll have a hard time picking it up again. This book? I couldn’t wait to get back to it. Every time I had to put it down was almost painful. Wolo paints this complex and nuanced look at different aspects of Ghanaian society. So much so that even if she’s teaching you, you don’t feel it. My only objection is the magical way in which our two female leads are suddenly able to communicate at the start, but if you can get past that then you’ll be treating to a simply fantastic twist at the end. So fun!
The Language of Seabirds by Will Taylor
Parents. They are the worst. Or at least Jeremy’s dad is in the running. He definitely cares about his son but ever since he found himself unexpectedly divorced he has not been doing well. Jeremy and his dad are spending a summer in a cabin in Oregon owned by his uncle and it’s a complicated situation. Jeremy’s dad is simultaneously trying to solo parent by coming down hard on his son on every tiny thing, while, at the same time, drifting into alcoholism. All this means that Jeremy is not about to share the fact that he’s attracted to boys. And this summer, there’s one boy in particular. When Jeremy meets Evan, a kid helping out his grandma’s knick-knack shop in town, the two become instant friends. And maybe more? This is one of the gentlest, sweetest first love stories I’ve heard in a long time. There are a couple passages in here where Jeremy feels as though he has dozens of elbows or hands, beautifully accenting his awkwardness. His feelings about Evan will ring true for anyone who remembers what it was like to start getting crushes at that age. Some of my librarians wondered, before reading it, whether or not it was more YA, but this is a purely middle school book as far as I’m concerned. Very chaste and sweet and innocent and full of way too many feelings for one person to contain.
The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat
Sai’s been living a lie, ever since she became assistant to Mangkon’s greatest mapmaker. Nobody knows her secrets, and when she’s invited on an epic adventure, how can she say no? A rousing, rollicking adventure tale full of fun and villainy. Okay, considering how many Newbery Honors Soontornvat has under her belt already, I feel a little weird confessing this but here goes: This is the first novel of hers that I’ve ever read. I know! I’m late to the party! But WHAT a party is! This book has friggin’ everything. Orphans with mysterious lineages, dragons, high seas storm battles, a cunning villain, swordplay, forgery, the works! My sole regret is that it’s so short. Of course, that’s part of its charm too. Ms. Soontornvat is the master of brevity. This could easily have been some drawn out 500-page tome. Instead, it clocks in at a neat 358. A kid reading this will breeze through it without a problem. Love the characters, the plotting, the whole kerschmozzle.
The Lock-Eater by Zack Loran Clark
Melanie Gate is an orphan and a lock-eater a.k.a. someone who can open any door. But when she sets off for adventure under an assumed name with a sentient automaton, she discovers there’s more to the world, and herself, than she ever could have imagined. Oh, splendid! Just splendid! I do love an introspective fantasy novel with LGBTQ leanings and surprise villains. This is just a delight. I listened to the audiobook but I’m sure the book itself is just as good. This remarkable fantasy novel just packs in the adventure. Imagine if Dorothy and the Tin Woodsman just set off to overthrow the Wizard, and you’ve pretty much got the gist of what’s going on here. I also give it points because there were times when I felt very smart and clever for figuring a key component of the book out, only to have that surety tossed upside down near the end. A delight.
My Own Lightning by Lauren Wolk
The first time I read Wolf Hollow I remember thinking that I’d never seen such a perfect encapsulation of murderous intent in a child character before. I also remember getting so thoroughly sucked into the writing that extricating myself later was hard. Finally, I remember that feeling of deep satisfaction when the book won a Newbery Honor. Now, after all these years, Wolk has written a sequel. I approached it with some mild trepidation. Wolk, in my opinion, has never dropped the ball when it comes to her middle grade. Each one of her books has been incredibly accomplished, and I’ve enjoyed them all. Still, was there more to tell about Annabelle and her family? Well, considering the events of the first book, how about grappling with a bit of trauma? Only, it’s not a bleak read in the least. My Own Lightning starts with Annabelle getting hit by lightning and it just proceeds from there. It’s about forgiveness and animals, the human animal most of all. There’s a pretty clear cut villain on the pages, but it may not be who you first suspect. Best of all, when I found myself at the end I was honestly surprised. Seemed like the story could go on and on after that last page. The mark of a stellar book.
Northwind by Gary Paulsen
During a great plague in the distant past, a boy must escape The Sick by paddling up the coast and heading North. He encounters many obstacles along the way in this thrilling (and at times gross) survival story from the late Hatchet author. If 2022 is remembered for anything, apparently it’ll be for some of the grossest books for kids you’ve seen in a long time. This one definitely starts out with a serious “ew” factor, and for that I commend it! Nothing gets a young reader’s attention faster than puke and poop, after all. Aside from all of that, though, Paulsen really had writing down to a science right up until the end. This has all the thrill of even his earliest books but with some really remarkable introspective passages about the meaning of a life. I deem this book “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: For Kids”.
The Prince of Steel Pier by Stacy Nockowitz
In 1975 Atlantic City, 13-year-old arcade whiz Joey meets a bunch of mobsters who have their eyes on being the biggest power on the boardwalk. How will he outwit them and save his family…and himself? Lean and fast-paced. So there I was, only 20 pages left in the book, and I seriously was convinced that our hero Joey was going to end up swimming with the fishes and mighty soon. This is a fascinating glimpse into another time, but it’s also a great play on the King Arthur myth. After all, it’s no coincidence that the King of Steel Pier is named “Artie”. You thoroughly believe in this family, and Joey’s increasing anger and irritability rang true. I have no idea what Kirkus was doing when they gave this a tepid review. It’s great! And certainly list-worthy. Extra points for having the characters play Monopoly at one point.
The Sheep, the Rooster, and the Duck: A Tale from the Age of Wonder by Matt Phelan
When a disreputable villain tries to start a war through evil means, it’s up to two French children and some highly intelligent barnyard animals to save Benjamin Franklin and the day! Animal fiction meets historical fiction. So apparently Matt Phelan listens to the same podcasts I listen to. Or at least it feels that way when I read this book. On the surface it’s just a cute (and quick!) read featuring three highly intelligent animal spies working to battle evil in pre-Revolutionary France. For me, I was entranced by how Phelan was able to work in Mesmer, Cagliostro, Marie Antoinette, Benjamin Franklin, Mozart, Bonaparte, and even that bizarre armonica instrument Franklin invented. This is younger fiction but not quite early chapter, I’d say, so it falls into a very specific reading level. I was also deeply sad when I discovered that the galley I was reading didn’t have any backmatter yet.
Three Strike Summer by Skyler Schrempp
Wow. Oh wowie wow. That, that, THAT, my friends, is how you write a piece of historical middle grade fiction. Schrempp. Remember that name. That’s the name of a woman who knows how to string two words together so that they just start singing in your ears. So I had the great good fortune to have a long car ride ahead of me, so I chose to listen to the audiobook edition of this book. Best decision I could have made. Skyler Schrempp, the very author, reads the book herself. After I got over my envy (I would have killed to read my own audiobook for my middle grade novel last year) I had to admit that there isn’t an actress alive that could have done a better job. And the story? Look, I’m married to a man who used to be a union organizer, so you know I’m gonna be biased in favor of this tale. Though, honestly, if I were to summarize it for a fellow adult then I think I’d call it “The Great Escape meets The Grapes of Wrath” with a healthy dose of that organizing I referenced. In this tale Gloria is mad for baseball but getting into a game is a near impossibility for her. When her family up and moves from Oklahoma in the middle of the Dust Bowl to California to pick peaches, she tries to attach herself to the local boys and their team. Meanwhile, there’s some major oppression coming down from the bosses of the place and Glo’s keep-your-head-down father starts getting radicalized and quick. Glo’s great but the voice. Oh, the voice! The first chapter of this book is so strong I’m surprised it doesn’t just walk off the pages and go out in the world to seek its fortune. It has SUCH a satisfying ending and the writing, as I say, is the best of the best. One of my favorites of the year.
Tumble by Celia C. Perez
Adela loves her mom and stepfather but wants to learn more about her estranged father. Her search involves secrets revealed and professional wrestling! It is not every author you encounter who really understands how to write a legitimately good wrestling sequence. And isn’t it nice when a book lives up to its killer cover? I really and truly enjoyed this book. I saw where some of it was going and some of it surprised me. In the end, it was nice to see that while Addie was wrong about some things, the adults around her were much worse. It’s hard to pull off a mom in the wrong that remains likable and sympathetic while also bugging the crap out of you. This one succeeds wildly.
The Turtle of Michigan by Naomi Shihab Nye, ill. Betsy Peterschmidt
For three long years Aref will be living away from his beloved grandfather in Oman. He’s going to Ann Arbor, Michigan! Will he make friends? Will he miss his home too much? And most importantly… does Michigan have turtles? A gentle tale of finding home wherever you are. Awww. This is such a sweet story. You could regard it as a sequel to The Turtle of Oman, but honestly I read that book so long ago that I don’t remember much. What I do remember is that it felt like a prequel to a more interesting story (the tale of Aref going to Michigan). This would be that more interesting story, and I just loved it. It’s gentle and caring. You get the feeling that one mean word would make the whole thing break into pieces. Plus, the idea of having first graders mediate bullying incidents amongst the older kids is so enticing a plotline. Nye’s a poet, and you definitely remember that at key moments. She has a way with a turn of phrase. Hand this to your gentle readers.
Undercover Latina by Aya De León
“Spy Kids” for the 21st century. Teen spy Andréa has just been tapped to infiltrate a school and get info on a white nationalist from his son. The catch? She’s gotta pretend to be a white girl while trapping a terrorist. Love this. A high stakes spy thriller that engages in all kinds of ideas about passing and code switching. The idea that a Latine girl who can pass for white would use this to infiltrate a school is just fantastic. Love the tense opening sequence and the character of Andréa rings true throughout. They do have to bend over backwards several times to justify how her mom would allow her to do some of these missions, but I found it all explainable. As spy tales go, this one’s fun. However, there is one significant flaw. How is Triángulo not a real thing? I wanna play the game! I wanna read the comics! No fair.
Wildoak by C.C. Harrington
When young Maggie’s stutter gets her sent to her grandfather in Cornwall she discovers the beauty of nature and the wild, as well as an abandoned snow leopard cub that desperately needs her help. This book made me SO tense for poor Rumpus (the aforementioned snow leopard) that I kept having to flip forward in the book to make sure he was okay. It also doesn’t lean too heavily on its more magical moments, which I appreciated. And I liked very much that there wasn’t some miracle cure for the heroine’s stutter at the end. There was an honesty to the book that I found refreshing.
Want to see other lists? Stay tuned for the rest this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 3 – Simple Picture Book Texts
December 4 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
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 – Gross 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.
SLJ Blog Network