Every year since 2014, I’ve tried to do an audit of my reading, as well as a list of my favorite books of the year. Most of you, dear readers, seem more interested in the books than the numbers, but publishing the numbers is my way of keeping myself accountable.
What I Read
I’ve been doing these graphs for several years now – here they are from 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, and 2014. As always, if you know of any middle grade or teen books, especially fantasy books, that would help me round things out as far as reading more LGBTQ or Native authors, and authors outside the US or UK, please do let me know!
When my teen librarian, Ms. D, and I started talking about a realistic fiction list for middle school, the way that formerly close friendships often start shifting in middle school came up as a particularly relevant topic. I’d been working on this slowly when my daughter’s Cadette troop started working on their aMAZE journey, which covers very similar themes. Several of these are books that Ms. D recommended, and which I still need to read myself. If you’ve read any of these, or have others you’d add to this list, please let me know in the comments!
As usual, links are to my reviews where available. Most of the books are available in ebook and audiobook formats from the library through Libby or Hoopla.
Best Friendsby Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham – In this sequel to Real Friends, Shannon, now in sixth grade, is part of the popular crowd! But this comes with strict requirements about dress and behavior – can she follow these rules, and is it worth it?
The Boys in the Back Rowby Mike Jung- Sixth graders Matt and Eric have been best friends ever since fourth grade, enjoying hanging out together at the back of the band. When they learn that Eric has to move, they plan the adventure of their lives – sneaking away from their band competition at an amusement park to go to a nearby comics convention and meet their favorite author.
A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Ramee Libby – Shayla’s world has been rocked when she and one of her best friends want to take the same boy to the middle school dance. Then, an unarmed Black man is killed in their community. Shayla starts wearing a black armband to school to protest – only to get in trouble with the administration.
Goodbye, Strangerby Rebecca Stead Libby – Best friends Bridge, Em, and Tab join different clubs and making new friends as they enter middle school. Bridge is very unsure about this, wearing cat ears every day, and wondering about her role in the universe.
Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly Libby – “Lives of four misfits are intertwined when a bully’s prank lands shy Virgil at the bottom of a well and Valencia, Kaori, and Gen band together in an epic quest to find and rescue him.”
Keep it Together, Keiko Carter!by Debbi Michiko Florence Hoopla – Middle school romance, changing friendships, and a bit of dealing with casual racism blend with Keiko’s love of both chocolate and dogs to make a sweet read with a solid heart.
Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds Libby – Ten kids walk home from school, all on the same day, their stories intertwining in unexpected ways.
The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert Libby – Two girls with different backgrounds bond over being the only two Black girls in their seventh-grade class. But when they discover a box of old journals in the attic, everything they thought they knew about their town changes.
So Done by Paula Chase Libby – When Tai’s best friend Bean comes back to the city after spending some time with family out of town, Bean is changed – more interested in ballet than in going along with the adventures Tai planned for them, and wanting to go by her real name, Jamila. Can Tai figure out what happened to drive them apart and fix it?
The Stars Beneath our Feet by David Barclay Moore Libby – “Unable to celebrate the holidays in the wake of his older brother’s death in a gang-related shooting, Lolly Rachpaul struggles to avoid being forced into a gang himself while constructing a fantastically creative LEGO city at the Harlem community center.”
Strange Birds: a Field Guide to Ruffling Feathers by Celia C. Pérez – “After Ofelia, Aster, Cat, and Lane fail to persuade a local girls club to change an outdated tradition, they form an alternative group that shakes up their sleepy Florida town.”
Tight by Torrey Maldonado Libby – “After his quick-tempered father gets in a fight and is sent back to jail, sixth-grader Bryan, known for being quiet and thoughtful, snaps and follows new friend Mike into trouble.”
Twins by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright – Maureen and Francine are twins who have always had the same best friends as well. But when they start middle school, Francine starts pulling away, leaving Maureen struggling to make her own way. Before she quite knows what’s happening, they’re running against each other for class president.
Here is the list of the finalists in my category, Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction – as always, it was hard to narrow things down, and especially hard this year with so many other things dragging our attention away from the books. Still, digging deep into so many good books was an excellent distraction!
The individual titles below are linked to my own reviews where available, but click above to see a beautiful blurb for each of the books written by my fellow panelists.
Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake – no review yet, but this book, strongly reminiscent of Frog and Toad for slightly older readers, and with good openings to discuss racism and unconscious bias, was funny and heartwarming, with the potential to make a great read aloud.
Now I’m off to read a couple of adult fantasy books I had on hand waiting to be read – The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin and Daughters of Nri by Reni K. Amayo. But I definitely want to read some of the finalists in other categories. I’m already partway through teen speculative fiction Legendborn on audio and have graphic novel finalist Class Act on hand as well. So many books!
Here are two stories of girls – one past, one future – leaving the safety of their homes for the first time, and the adventures that follow.
The Magnificent Monsters of Cedar Street by Lauren Oliver. Read by Reba Buhr.
HarperCollins, 2020. ISBN 978-0062345073. Listened to audiobook on hoopla.
In late 19th-century Boston, Cordelia Clay (who, like all the other major human characters in the book, appears to be white) lives with her veterinarian father, learning everything she can of the monsters her deceased mother studied. Since her mother died researching a particularly rare monster in Brazil, her father’s regular veterinary practice has suffered. Instead, he and Cordelia spend their nights searching Boston for distressed monsters of all kinds, caring for them in their dilapidated mansion.
But when Lizzie wakes up after they’ve found a baby dragon with an injured wing, her father is gone, as are all the monsters in the house except for the two in the oven – the baby dragon and a stinky filch. She sets off to find her father with a street boy named Gregory, whose zombie puppy she saved, and a threatening note in handwriting she can’t quite decipher.
The resulting adventure involves multiple chases, train and hot air balloon rides, as well as circuses, international travel. On the intellectual side, it also involves Cordelia exploring what really ended her friendship with her former best friend Lizzie, who stopped talking to Cordelia and started wearing extravagantly ruffled dresses both around the same time. We also learn a lot about the big scholarly debate in which her mother had been involved between those who believe that monsters are unnatural and inherently evil and those who believe, like Cordelia’s mother, that they are just another expression on the tree of life.
The biggest downside of listening to this on audio is that it starts off with Cordelia’s mother’s guide to monsters – a full 30 minutes of them described scientifically, mostly explaining away their magic. I would probably have skipped or skimmed it in print – I find magical creatures interesting because of their magic. And when some of them are animals and some clearly sentient and intelligent, it gets even more confusing. However, once in the story, the magical creatures do still feel magical, and Ms. Oliver is making an important point about judging people by their actions and character, not their appearance, whether human or monsterish. Though I had been very impatient through the first section, once the story got going, I was invested and would recommend it to those who love stories of adventure, discovery, and magical creatures.
Cleo Porter and the Body Electric by Jake Burt
Feiwel and Friends, 2020. ISBN 978-1250236555. Read from library copy.
In a timely happenstance, this book, written pre-pandemic, is about a girl living in a post-pandemic world. In this future, humanity gave up on curing the pandemic, opting instead for permanent lockdown. The few remaining humans live in giant apartment buildings scattered across the country, with residents of each apartment sealed inside, receiving everything they need through drone-serviced delivery tubes, and socializing with people outside their apartments only through virtual reality.
Our young heroine Cleo is already in training to be a surgeon. But when the supposedly infallible drones misdeliver a package of life-saving medicine to her, she ignores the advice of her parents and AI teacher, Ms. VAIN, and decides to deliver it in person. But the building outside her apartment is meant for drones, not humans, including drones to expel vermin. And what will a girl raised inside a few small rooms do in the terrifying out-of-doors?
Cleo herself is a satisfyingly empathetic and courageous heroine, and I know so many kids feeling her terror at leaving the safety of her apartment, and one by one, all the other supports she’s been accustomed to. She attracts an adorable little drone along the way (whom she puts in her skull replica for safety), has to escape multiple terrifying large drones (as seen on the cover) and meets some interesting characters on the outside. There are some inconsistencies in the world-building, and it could have used some diversity in the characters, but overall, this is a compelling adventure with thoughts on what it means to be human in the face of pandemic.
These books have been nominated for the Cybils awards. These reviews represent my opinion, not that of the committee as a whole.
Here are two Cybils-nominated fantasy books, one contemporary and one fantasy, one set at Halloween and one at Christmas, that nevertheless have many elements in common, including the exploration of mostly empty mansions and stopping the disappearance of children at the hands of the Fae, though they have different names in each of the books. They are also both refreshingly shorter books, coming in at 225 and 175 pages respectively, something that being the mother of a kid with dyslexia has made me very aware of.
Thirteens by Kate Alice Marshall
Viking, 2020. ISBN 978-0593117026. Read from library copy.
Eleanor – whose mother always called her Elle – is newly living with her very pregnant Aunt Jenny and Aunt Jenny’s husband Uncle Ben in an old, illogical mansion (including a stairway leading nowhere in the middle of the fireplace) on the edge of the perfectly picturesque town of Eden Eld, where her mother grew up and which she told her never, ever to go to. But since the mysterious event which has left Elle living without her mother, she’s not sure either how much she can trust her mother. The only thing she has left is a book of strange fairy tales called Thirteen Tales of the Grey, a book her mother had read to her frequently but that Eleanor was sure was lost until it appears in her room.
She’s always known not to talk about the things she sees and hears that no one else can – but what about the huge grandfather clock, ticking backwards, that appears outside her room overnight? Then, at school, she meets two children who can also see unseen things, Otto and Pip, both, like her, turning 13 on Halloween. Together, they piece together some of the secrets of Eden Eld – and find out that they are in danger, with only days to save themselves.
This is a contemporary tale filled with gothic and fairy tale dread – the People Who Look Away are major characters in the Thirteen Tales of the Grey, people whose bargains are tricky and whose feet point backward. Creatures from the book, including a flame-eyed dog, a bone crow, and a cat of ashes, also appear both in the storybook and the main narrative. Other important, repeated elements include palindromes and the number 13. Though there isn’t much in the way of actual violence, the creepiness factor is high and the ending is both hardwon and uncertain.
The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher
Walker Books US, 2020. ISBN 978-0062698728. UK Firefly Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1910080849. Read from library copy.
In the Victorian era, Seren Rees was orphaned years ago, and after a string of other living arrangements, is traveling by train to stay with her godparents in Wales. She has high hopes of a warm family life and a boy her age, Tomos, to play with – maybe even a Christmas with beautiful decorations and lovely, personal gifts, such as she never got in the orphanage where she spent many years. On the way, late at night in a nearly deserted train station, she’s given a package wrapped in old newspapers by a mysterious man who runs away, promising to be back soon as telling her under no circumstances to open the package.
But the man doesn’t come back, and the mansion at Plas-y-Fran is nearly shut down, leaving just two servants and none of the family Seren was expecting. Naturally, as a bright and inquisitive child, the first thing she does is open the package and, ignoring the dire warnings on the paper inside, put together the clockwork crow in bits that the package contains.
Next, now with the dubious help of a sarcastic and selfish clockwork crow, she decides to find out just what happened to Tomos and why no one will talk about him. She may not know enough to be as frightened of the Family as everyone else is – but she’s also determined not to just abandon the search for a kid her own age. This is a beautifully told tale with a very classic children’s literature feel. It starts off feeling a lot like The Secret Garden before quickly veering off into fantasy territory. Though set just before Christmas, it’s more of a cold, wintery book, with lots of exploring of the empty mansion and learning about her Welsh heritage. It felt like enough Christmas to make it pleasantly seasonal for those who celebrate that, but not so much that it would be oppressive to those who don’t. It would also be an excellent fit for my Winter Fantasy list.
I am very much looking forward to the next book in the series, The Velvet Fox, which is out now in the UK and coming to the US at some point, though I was unable to find a date.
Are you ready for some cozy reading for yourself, or looking for something seasonal for the kids in your life? This list is a mix of Christmas, Yule, and just snowy adventures. (I was unable to find any middle grade Hanukkah books, whether fantasy or realistic, so I guess I’ll be sticking with recommending Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins to those looking for Hanukkah magic.)
Most of them are available for download from public libraries through either Hoopla or Libby, and hopefully you’re able to request them from your library in print as well if that’s your preference. As usual, links are to my full reviews.
Breadcrumbsby Anne Ursu – winter – Ebook and audiobook on hoopla
Since my kids schools are all online these days, we’ve been working hard to find ways for kids to connect, especially with books. I’ve been working on ideas of discussable books for the 4/5 classes and middle school kids. And while I have lots of books that I love, here’s a small starting sample limited to books available on Hoopla, which is ideal for book clubs because unlike Libby, a whole class can check out the same title at the same time. I tried to mix in older and newer titles, realistic and fantasy, and throwing in a few books just because my own daughter loves them.
Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan audiobook on hoopla, ebook on Libby. (This is the only one of these I haven’t read. I swear I will once my Cybils reading is over, though! And also A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan, though this one doesn’t seem to be available on either Libby or Hoopla yet.)
Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Emily Jenkins, and Lauren Myracle. Audiobook on Hoopla, ebook and audiobook on Libby.
I apologize for the silence on my end, dear reader! There has been so much real life interfering with my writing of late (it turns out that I have a hard time writing with loud hammering and drilling sounds going on, among other things!) But I have been reading lots and hope to start to catch up here.
Here’s a start, with two stories mixing introspection, action, and dealings with the supernatural.
The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf. HarperCollins, 2020. ISBN 9780062940957
Read from library copy. Ebook and audiobook on Libby.
The old witch used the ghost she’d captured for curses and vengeance, making life miserable for villages without their knowing it, then taking their money to remove the curse before moving on. The ghost has always lived feeding (in small, ritual amounts) off her blood, so when she dies, he goes hunting for more, finding her small, joyous granddaughter.
That granddaughter, Suraya, grows up with the ghost as her best friend, naming it Pink for her favorite color when she’s 4. She lives alone with her mother, always too busy and stressed to be affectionate. But while Pink loves Suraya as much as a vengeful ghost-type can, Suraya isn’t interested in the kind of magic he does. When she makes her first good friend, Jing, in high school, Pink is terribly jealous. And when the trouble he makes gets bad enough that Suraya’s mother notices, the help she calls turns out to be even worse. Should Suraya try to help Pink or cut him loose?
This is the first book set in Malaysia I’ve ever read – the author lives there now, though I didn’t see any signs of this having been translated from another language. I appreciated the setting and magic (I have left out a good deal of the complexity of the many kinds of magical beings that show up in the story), and that it shows the diversity of Malaysia itself, not just in Suraya’s travels between the poor village by the rice paddies where she lives and the city where she goes to high school, but also between Muslim Suraya and Jing, whose religion isn’t specified but who seems to be of Chinese ancestry and talks about eating pork. This is a story of friendship, redemption, grief, and love of many kinds.
The Girl Who Lost Her Shadow by Emily Ilett. Kelpies, 2020. ISBN 978-1782506072.
Read from library copy.
Newly 12-year-old Gail can’t even be excited about her birthday with everything else that’s going on – her father moving out and her big sister Kay, always before her closest companion, too depressed to leave her room. When Gail’s shadow wriggles away from her, and she sees that Kay’s shadow is also gone, Gail sets out on a hunt for it over, under, and around their tiny Scottish island. And while Gail’s grieving has made it hard for her to keep her friends, she makes some new ones on the hunt, including a red-haired younger girl named Mhirran who’s been trying to stop her brother’s shadow collecting, and an older boy named Femi who’s been leaving messages in drawings for Kay about the conservation work they’d been trying to do before she got sick.
The magical mixes with the mundane, and the larger world with the interior, as Gail realizes that she needs to realize who she is on her own to be able to help her sister, and that also gives her the strength to work to help the wildlife on and around the island.
This Scottish setting with magic and the closeness of the sea reminded me of The Turning by Emily Whitman, though while I loved both, The Girl Who Lost Her Shadow is a little more active and relevant, and about half the length, making it a much easier sell for most kids. I’ll be looking for more from this debut author.
These books have been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.
The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020. US ISBN 978-1534462762. UK edition copyright Macmillan, 2019. ISBN 978-1529019230. Read from library copy.
As the book opens, 12-year-old Abi is on a raft in the ocean, with a bright green parrot flying by. Then her little step brother Louis runs by – Abi is pulled out of the book back into their new ivy-covered house in the north of London, but with salt in her eyelashes and Louis asking about the parrot. After this intro, we go back in time to Abi, Louis, his 14-year-old brother Max becoming a family when their parents, Abi’s dad Theo and Max and Louis’s mum Polly, meeting in the emergency department where Theo is a nurse after an epic skateboard accident.
Theo and Polly may be madly in love, but Abi is much less pleased to have her reading time disturbed and most of all, to have her Granny Grace, who’s helped raise her over the past decade, move back to Jamaica. And when the boys are absolutely not able to share a room peacefully, it’s time to move house.
This new house does have magic in it – bits of books brought to life for all three children, including the giant cat shown on the cover for Louis. And when Polly’s work for a charity – started back up to be able to afford the larger house – requires her to work overseas for an extended time – the kids will have to rely on each other more than they ever have before.
As in Hilary McKay’s previous books, her depiction of the messiness of the many individuals that make up a family trying to get along together really shines, from Louis wanting to treat Abi like a close sister from the beginning, disregarding her personal boundaries, but hating reading so much he flushes his books down the toilet, to the pain of Max’s fight with his best friend and his first incandescent crush and Abi’s slow, slow journey to being willing to share even reading letters from Granny Grace with anyone. There are details like an exhausted Theo falling asleep in the middle of telling Louis a bedtime story, mixing three fairy tales into one, and scrambles to order take-out when life has just gotten overwhelming or something needs to be celebrated, and language like, “a recorder club was tormenting a Christmas carol to shrieking ribbons”
Magic slips into the corners, at first hardly real and easily brushed away, then becomes more and more insistent, though more often highlighting the beauty of the normal world than taking over. It’s a lot more relationships and small family moments than overarching plots. And while I found it transcendent, I have found that it takes a particular reader to catch the appeal of McKay’s writing.
The Copycat by Wendy McLeod MacKnight. Read by Reba Buhr. Greenwillow Books, 2020. ISBN 978-0062668332. Listened to audiobook on Hoopla.
Middle schooler Ali has just moved back to the small town on the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick that her father left years ago. She’s excited to be able to spent more time with her great grandmother GiGi, whose hundredth birthday is approaching, but much less excited about the constant fog and making friends in the latest of a string of new schools. She’s developed lots of rules to help her fit in, essentially doing her best to copy whatever the popular kids at the latest school do and like. But for the first time, her rules are getting her into trouble – causing jealousy between a popular and a geekier girl both of whom Ali likes. And it leads her to join the debate team, even though she has anxiety about public speaking and much prefers swimming.
When Ali begins to develop her family’s hereditary copycat powers, things are kicked into higher gear. Suddenly she’s trying to manage transforming into animals or lookalikes of her classmate without really meaning to. She also meets a cousin for the first time – a cousin she’d never met because of a family tragedy that divided Gigi’s family in two. Can Ali manage both her social and magical lives, and find a way to reunite her family before Gigi’s birthday?
This is a great book for kids who like some magic with their stories of school and family troubles. Ali’s father has never been able to hold down a steady job with her mother working long shifts as a nursing home aide to compensate, though they never quite make ends meet. These looks both at working poverty and at a strained but still loving relationship between the parents are both pretty rare. Because of the high correlation between Ali’s coping strategies and her magic skills, I could see this one being used in classrooms or by school social workers, though my daughter listened to a little bit near the end with me and then went back to listen to the whole book.
This book has been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.