girl-reading

10 Best Middle Grades Novels of 2016

So much fantastic middle grades fiction came out this past year. Here are the 10 that particularly captivated me:

1. Wild Robot – by Peter Brown

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This quirky and charming story follows the adventures of Roz, a robot who wakes up alone on a wilderness island.

2. The Girl Who Drank the Moon – by Kelly Barnhill

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This evocative fantasy tells the tale of an oppressed village, a enmagicked girl who drinks light from the moon, and a snarky witch.

3. When the Sea Turned to Silver – by Grace Lin

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An exciting tale of adventure and discovery that features a variety of Chinese folk tales and beautifully rendered illustrations.

4. Wolf Hollow – by Lauren Wolk

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At times rather brutal in its content, this book follows the compelling tale of a young girl caught up in the defense of an ostracized World War I veteran in small town Pennsylvania.

5. Anna and the Swallow Man – by Gavriel Savit

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The haunting tale of a young girl and the stranger she meets as they both try to escape from Nazi-occupied Poland.

6. Paper Wishes – by Lois Stepahban

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A moving story about a young Japanese-American girl in a World War II era internment camp.

7. Grayling’s Song – by Karen Cushman

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An engaging journey-style fantasy, with a memorable cast of characters.

8. Full of Beans – by Jennifer Holm

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A mischievous boy in Depression-era Florida tries to earn money and interacts with the “New Dealers” who come to implement changes in his town.

9. It Ain’t So Awful Falafel – by Firoozeh Dumas

it ain't so awful

The charming story of an Iranian girl adjusting to life in the states during the 1970s. Funny and serious at the same time, it explores the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis.

10. The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price – by Jennifer Maschari

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This unusual and compelling story makes use of magical realism in its exploration of a young boy’s grief over losing his mother.

back to school

Diverse Books for Back-to-School

The voices vary. But whether it’s a girl from Iran adjusting to school in America, a deaf girl learning to incorporate her hearing aid into her school life, or a native boy attending a white school off the reservation, they all have stories to tell and perspectives to share. School isn’t the only topic addressed in any of these books, but it serves as a central space in all of these stories, as the characters work out their struggles and identities.

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel – by Firoozeh Dumas

it ain't so awful

This is the funny and heart-warming story of Zomorod, a young Iranian girl who changes her name to Cindy in order to fit into 1970s America. The Iranian hostage crisis occurs as the story progresses, forcing Cindy to confront her cultural identity in new ways. (Ages 10+)

Save Me a Seat – by Sarah Weeks and Rita Varadarajan

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It’s the first week of 5th grade for both Ravi and Joe. Ravi was the star student in his school in India, but he can’t seem to get the hang of this new school in the US. School has always been difficult for Joe because of his auditory processing disorder, but he’s expecting this year to be even worse. A difficult first week of school unites the boys in ways they didn’t expect. (Ages 8+)

Unidentified Suburban Object – by Mike Jung

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Chloe is fed up with being the only Korean-American in her school. She’s tired of her band director comparing her to the famous Korean violinist, Abigail Yang, and she’s tired of everyone assuming that she’ll be good at math and music just because of her heritage. Her frustration and confusion isn’t helped by the fact that her parents refuse to discuss their Korean heritage. Told in Chloe’s spunky first-person voice, and ramping up into a fun sci-fi themed adventure, this book is hard to put down. (Ages 8+)

Full Cicada Moon – by Marilyn Hilton

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The year is 1969, and Mimi has just moved to a small town in Vermont with her Japanese mother and African-American father. Her mixed ethnicity is enough to set her apart, but she’s also a girl with stereotypically “male interests” — she’d much rather attend shop class rather than home-ec, and wants to go to the moon someday. Told in a series of narrative poems, this story is strikingly beautiful and stays in the imagination long after the book is put down. (Ages 8+)

El Deafo – by Cece Bell

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Cece lost her hearing in a childhood bout of meningitis. This is her warm and funny memoir (told in the format of a graphic novel) about what it was like to grow up and attend school with a bulky hearing aid strapped to her chest. (Ages 8+)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – by Sherman Alexie

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When Junior decides to attend a mostly white school that’s off of his reservation, he’s almost immediately confronted by the issue of his split identity. The other members of his native tribe consider him a traitor and white-lover for attending the new school, and his classmates single him out as the only Indian in the school. Written in a strong, robust voice, and dealing with issues of racism, poverty, and alcoholism in a realistic yet compassionate way, this book is a powerful addition to the conversation around diversity. The book doesn’t shy away from confronting difficult subject matter, and is recommended for ages 12+.

 

school cafeteria

Save Me a Seat – by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

save me a seatIt’s the first week of 5th grade for both Joe and Ravi, and things are not going well. Joe was expecting trouble — he’s been the target of the school bully for years, and he knew this year would be worse for him since his mom just took a job as the school lunch monitor. School has never been easy for him, since he struggles with Auditory Processing Disorder, but until this year, lunchtime was his favorite part of the day. Now that is ruined too.

Ravi, on the other hand, was not expecting any difficulty. He was the top student at his school in Bangalore, as well as being popular and a good cricket player to boot. He’s sure he’ll fit right in at his new school in the US. Yet it seems that misunderstanding and humiliation are waiting for him at every turn. His teacher mispronounces his name, and the class as a whole can’t seem to understand his accent. He’s sent to the resource room for help with his English skills, even though English is his first language. Everything he does to try to establish his competence and identity winds up slapping him in the face. He’s bullied and teased by the people he thought would be his friends, and he can’t seem to find his footing at this new school.

The book switches back and forth between Joe and Ravi’s perspectives, often addressing the same events from different points of view. The narration flows seamlessly, and the reader comes to know and understand both boys individually. They have very distinct voices, and the immediacy of the writing makes it seem as though they’re talking to us. This is a story about the dangers of relying on assumptions and stereotypes, and about the trust and growth that come from learning to see another person’s point of view. Both boys grow and mature in their own ways over the course of this difficult week in their lives.

My only complaint was that the book ended too abruptly. The two boys recount their experiences throughout the first week of school, but it’s not until Friday that they give each other a chance and end up becoming friends. There is so much potential in their friendship, and I would have loved to see a more fleshed out exploration of their relationship. So much of the book takes place when both boys are isolated and alone. I wanted to see how they worked through their differences and became close.

At the end of the book, the authors provide some additional cultural resources. There are two separate dictionaries (one with terms that Ravi uses and another with terms that Joe uses) — a tool that could surpass its obvious use as a source of definitions. American students who are needing to look up terms like “dosa” or “tennikoit” might find it thought-provoking to see entries for “M&Ms” or “snow globe” in the accompanying dictionary. It can be enlightening to see how many things are familiar to us simply because of our cultural context. The book also closes with two recipes — one for the apple crisp that Joe’s mom makes, and the other for naan khatais that Ravi’s mom makes. Making and sharing food cross-culturally is always a good starting point in building solidarity and understanding.

Overall I found this book to a very satisfying read. I came to feel a close connection to both boys, and was drawn in to see what would happen to them. It’s a beautiful reminder to seek to understand the people around us, and not to judge based on preconceptions and assumptions.

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Just Like Me – by Nancy Cavanaugh

just like me.jpgThe three girls were all adopted from the same orphanage in China. They all have the same donated baby blankets, and the same posed snapshots of themselves at the orphanage. Their adoptive parents have remained close after sharing the life changing experience of travelling to China to pick up their new daughters.

But now the girls are eleven, and they’ve become very different people. Becca and Avery live in the same neighborhood and are best friends. Becca is a soccer star and Avery is a whiz at school, and both girls share an interest in their Chinese heritage — they’re studying both Mandarin and Cantonese, and they enjoy eating with chopsticks and carrying Chinese fans.

Julia, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with her Chinese heritage. She doesn’t feel Chinese at all, and wishes people would stop bringing it up. Julia feels like she barely knows Becca and Avery, and doesn’t see why the fact that they were at a Chinese orphanage together should give them any sort of special connection.

But now Ms. Maricia, the International Adoption Co-ordinator, has asked the three girls if she can write a follow-up article about their stories. The three girls are sent off to a summer church camp together for a week, to bond together and discuss their adoption stories. Julia grudgingly agrees to go along with the plan, although spending a week “bonding with” Becca and Avery is the last thing she wants to do.

Now, this book could have been a pretty cliché summer camp story, with the grumbling girl who ends up having a great time, and the fighting cabin that learns to get along. But it ended up being so much more than that. There’s an empathy that develops as the girls learn to trust each other that reaches far beyond the traditional “frenemy” trope. And while the story of the three girls’ adoption from China is a strong theme throughout the book, it doesn’t come at the cost of the other campers’ stories — one girl in the cabin admits that her parents are recently separated; another is in the foster care system. It’s a beautiful picture of how isolating “being different” can feel, but how in reality we are often surrounded by other people who feel just as isolated and “different” as we do.

The author of this book is an adoptive mom herself, and while every experience of adoption is unique, this book deals in a complex and authentic way with the emotions and issues it addresses. The setting of summer camp is perfect — there’s lots of action and fun, but it still allows space for self discovery in the characters. I grew to love the characters in this book — not only Julia and her “Chinese sisters,” but the rest of the girls in her cabin as well. It was also beautiful to watch Julia, Becca, and Avery respond to their adoptions stories and their Chinese heritage in their own individual way. I felt the book acknowledged the unique journey that each individual must take in response his or her own adoption story, while also showing how helpful it can be to share the journey with someone else who has been through the same thing.

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The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price – by Jennifer Maschari

charlie priceCharlie Price, a 12-year old boy who loves math and scavenger hunts, is trying to hold things together after his mother’s death from cancer. Sometimes it seems to be working: he’s back on the mathletes team and has some wonderful friends around him. When he answers a difficult math problem correctly, he has the feeling that some questions do actually have answers. But other times, when his dad is working late (again), and he and his sister Imogen try to make spaghetti like their mom used to (and fail rather spectacularly in the attempt) — it all seems to be falling apart.

Then he notices that Imogen is starting to behave rather oddly. She disappears during the middle of the day and doesn’t show up for scheduled activities. She seems to be tired all the time, and even quits theater — an activity that she used to live for. Charlie discovers her secret: she’s found a portal to an alternate reality where their mom is still alive. Charlie is blown away — they can spend time with their mom again! — what could be better? But soon he realizes that this seemingly perfect world hides a dark and dangerous secret of its own. After he spends time with this alternate-Mom, his real memories of his Mom start to disappear. Also, the photographs of himself and Imogen are fading from the real world — fading more and more quickly as they spend more and more time in the alternate world. Can he save himself and his sister before it’s too late?

This poignant book deals with one of the most difficult hypothetical situations that I can imagine — if you had the choice between a world that was real but filled with loss and grief or a world that wasn’t real but where you could be with a lost loved-one, which would you choose? The issues of grief and memory are handled in a beautiful and compelling way, and in a way that I think will be very accessible to its intended audience of young people. This book is definitely on the heavy side for middle grades fiction, but it’s big-hearted and genuine in its acknowledgement of the difficulty of grief and also the importance of holding on to life.

I found the magical realism elements in this book to be very compelling as well. It’s the sort of middle grades magical realism that I associate with books like Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me — the supernatural elements are woven seamlessly and un-selfconsciously into the narrative flow of highly realistic fiction. The author uses these elements of magical realism to explore the landscape of grief in a way that also makes for an exciting and suspenseful story. The emotional journey is made through actions and choices in an alternate realm — not just locked up in someone’s head.

This is a beautiful book, but be prepared to “feel all the feels.” It’s about choosing life over grief. Choosing to make new memories rather than live in a world solely composed of past memories. There’s deep sadness but also hope. Grief and anger but also love and friendship. It’s a book that I think will stay with me for a long time.

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The Last Boy at St. Edith’s – by Lee Gjertsen Malone

the last boySt. Edith’s used to be an all-girls academy. And now it may be again. The experiment of making it co-ed wasn’t too successful. One by one, the male students trickled away and transferred to other schools until no one was left but Jeremy. Jeremy is the last boy at St. Edith’s — a lone male 7th grader surrounded by a sea of girls. And he wants out.

But the situation is complicated. He has told his mom that he wants to transfer. But Jeremy’s mom works at St. Edith’s, so tuition is free. They can’t afford for him to go to a different private school, and the local public school is terrible. Plus, Jeremy suspects his mother of running her own private feminist experiment on him — will he turn out to be a more sensitive man if he attends an all-girls’ school? So Jeremy is stuck. Until he decides to try to get himself kicked out.

Jeremy is a good kid. He’s never gotten in trouble before. And flunking out would take too much work — good grades come too naturally to him. He doesn’t want to get in serious trouble — just enough to get him kicked out of St. Edith’s and put into a more normal middle school setting where he wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb. So when his best friend suggests the idea of pulling a series of pranks together, he’s intrigued.

I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. When I saw that the plot was turning towards pulling pranks and trying to get kicked out of school, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. But Jeremy grows and matures as a person over the course of the book, and I thought the potentially problematic themes were handled beautifully. Jeremy is a very likable character. I definitely understood his desire to be in a more normal setting, and his frustration with his mom’s frazzled responses to him on the subject. But I appreciated the growth in his character that developed throughout the book. He realizes how his actions impact other people. He develops in his awareness of the feelings of others. It’s a bit of a coming-of-age book, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I was impressed with how this book handled issues of the interaction between the genders as well. Middle school is a notoriously tough age to navigate (particularly in interactions between guys and girls), and I felt that the author acknowledged this and wrote a very real and heartfelt story right through the middle of these difficult waters. As the only male student at St Edith’s, Jeremy deals with the whole range of teasing (particularly at sporting events with other co-ed schools) — from the intimation that is must be a nice set-up for him since he gets his pick of girlfriends to the comments that the girls at St. Edith’s must be getting uglier since one of them looks like a boy. But none of these mocking comments strikes the reality of his experience with all female classmates. The descriptions of his actual interactions with his female classmates was quite nuanced and realistic. His two best friends are girls. Claudia is outspoken and gregarious — the kind of person who stands out and tends to get her way. It’s a friendship that involves its fair share of fighting, but also more than its fair share of laughter and fun. Emily, Jeremy’s other best friend and neighbor is more reserved and can come across as prudish. She’s loyal and understanding, but can sometimes disappear into the woodwork.

The thing I particularly loved was that these were real friendships. Jeremy is young and male, and very obviously doesn’t fully comprehend all of the nuance in female conversation, but he is able to have very real friendships with girls on a human level. He does have a romantic interest in the book, but that is separate from his friendships. As a 7th-grader, Jeremy is still very much in the throes of figuring out relationships of all sorts, and I thought the author did a wonderful job of exploring this element of the teenage years — we see Jeremy learning about true friendship, about deepened relationships with both family and friends, and about the complexity that’s introduced when romance and attraction becomes part of the picture. I found it to be a rich exploration of the complexity and confusion of the teenage years and the navigation of newly deepened relationships.

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Echo – by Pam Muñoz Ryan

This isn’t a typical Newbery Honor book. (Yet it won that honor for 2016.) For one thing, it’s much longer than most Newbery books, finishing out at nearly 600 pages. For another thing, it doesn’t fit easily into a single genre. echoAt first, I thought it was going to be a magical realism novel. The frame story, which we only encounter at the very beginning and the very end of the book, reads like a fairy tale —with a boy lost in the dark Germanic woods meeting with three magical nymph-like ladies who give him a prophecy. But after the first few pages, the narrative transitions to well-grounded historical fiction—three different historical fiction vignettes in fact— loosely tied together by strains of music from a very special harmonica.

The three vignettes are fairly different from one another. The first features a boy in Germany in the early 1930s, dealing with the fact that his older sister is embracing Hitlerism even as he himself is faced with possible sterilization due to past medical issues. The second story follows an orphaned boy and his brother in Depression-era America, as they interact with a wealthy heiress who is considering adoption. The third vignette focuses on a Hispanic girl growing up in a migrant working family in 1940s California, dealing with the wartime injustices towards her Japanese-American neighbors. All three stories interact with real social and historical injustices that touched the daily lives of the three young people.

The thread that links each of these vignettes is a harmonica—a magical harmonica if we are to take the fairy-tale-esque frame story literally. Each of the three main characters find him or herself inspired and comforted by the music of this harmonica, and the fact that they are musical plays a unique part in each of their stories. The way Ms. Ryan describes the experience of playing and performing music is quite compelling. She evokes the emotions of many different aspects of playing music—improvising, practicing, performing, and just fiddling around on an instrument.

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All three of the stories were moving and compelling, and they joined together to make a rich novel. But the vignette that stood out the most to me personally was that of Friedrich, the young boy growing up in Nazi Germany. I particularly appreciated Friedrich because he was born with a large birthmark on his face, and has to come to grips with how to stand up and face the world rather than trying to hide his physical imperfection – particularly in a society so fixated upon “physical perfection.”

I live with physical scars that are the result of a bout of bacterial meningitis that I had as a child, so stories that deal with these issues are very meaningful to me personally. As a child, I don’t remember ever reading a book whose main character had physical scarring. This fact never really occurred to me at the time, yet I think reading a story like Friedrich’s might have been helpful to me.

Too often in literature and movies, physical imperfection and scarring are used as dehumanizing characteristics. I recently re-watched Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and was struck with how physical scarring is used to visually represent both the Emperor and Darth Vader’s transformation toward evil. Think of how much more human (and less villainous) both of those characters would seem in that movie without their physical scarring. There’s something very beautiful and important about seeing sympathetic characters like Friedrich in our literature and movies. Those of us with scars and physical imperfections should have characters to relate to, who understand what it is like to get stares while walking down the street, or who have to think about what they will wear in relation to how much of their physical scarring they want to be visible. It should not be the case that the only fictional characters we see with scars are pirates or outlaws or leaders of evil galactic empires. We need more characters like Friedrich.

All in all, I found this to be a very compelling read. It was unusual in its format and lack of adherence to a single genre, yet each of the main characters came very much alive for me. The worlds opened up by the three different historical vignettes felt real and immediate, and there was a sense of urgency to the social injustices that were pointed out in each story. While the size may be intimidating to some middle grade readers, the journey is worth it in order to know these wonderful characters and enter into these unique moments in history.