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31 Days, 31 Lists: 2018 Middle Grade Novels

The penultimate list! I’m so excited! This year I did a bit better than in 2017 in terms of reading middle grade fiction. Thanks to a system of following starred reviews, the recommendations of readers I trust, blogs, Twitter, Mock Newbery lists, the whole kerschmozzle, here are the 2018 books that I think are great. But, as with every year, I should say that one person can only read so much. This is just a tiny sampling of what came out. There were a lot of wonderful books I missed. If you’d like to know what they are, check out the various Best Of lists by the folks and journals you trust.

For my part, these were my favorites:


 

2018 Middle Grade Novel

Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle by Christina Uss

AdventuresGirlBicycle

One list I don’t come up with every year is a Magical Realism list. Why? That’s easy. Not enough books are out there to count towards it. But if I had made such a list, this title would be #1. I once predicted that it could potentially win itself a Newbery Honor, but it’s a bit of a dark horse candidate, what with its debut author and the fact that it’s funny. Funny books can win Newberys but it’s like the Oscars. They’re less likely than their dramatic fellows. If you want a fun quest novel with haunted bicycles, monks, men in giant chicken suits, and a whole lot of seeing the country via bicycle, this is the book for you! More fun than it deserves to be.

All Three Stooges by Erica S. Perl

AllThreeStooges

And speaking of humor, who could forget Erica Perl’s latest? Have you ever seen a systematic list of female Jewish comics? Or a story in which a child deals with a friend’s father’s suicide? Heavy and light themes mix expertly in this tale about one boy’s selfishness in the face of overwhelming grief. There is also a LOT of research here about Jewish comedians, that’s interesting. I should note that in summarizing the great Jewish comedians of the past, there are some small mentions of Woody Allen that could have come right out, but that don’t sink the book as a whole. And don’t worry. Not a lot of Stooges here.

Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

AruShah

This was the year that Rick Riordan used his Lightning Thief format to cede story and writing control to new authors we’d not seen before. Aru Shah follows the basic Percy Jackson storyline of finding out that your parentage is literally divine (in this case, Indian), but the humor and story beats are 100% Chokshi’s. I love it when I can read a book that’s just a joy to return to over and over again. This fit the bill.

Just for fun, check out the same book but with its British cover:

AruShahBritish

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson, ill. Eugene Yelchin

As seen on the list: Older Funny Books

BrangwainSpurge

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, ill. Ian Schoenherr

BookBoy

Speaking of books that were a sheer joy to read, there is nothing about this one that I dislike (and that’s saying something). Murdock’s sheer joy of telling a tale set in medieval Europe shines through every page of this novel. It’s like The Inquisitor’s Tale, if you lightened it up a smidge. The twist is twisty. The art, by Ian Schoenherr, amazing. How amazing? Look at the little buildings at the top of the cover. According to Murdock, and with only one mild exception, these are completely accurate renditions of the architecture featured in the cities of the book just as they would have looked when the events in it take place. Writing this, I want to reread it again. It’s that good.

The Boy, the Bird & the Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods

BoyBirdCoffinMaker

This was a pleasant surprise. It’s another one of those fantasies that are more magical realism than anything else. The magic here comes in doses, not all at once. It’s far more about grief and relationships and trust. And fishies. It’s definitely about fishies.

The Button War by Avi

ButtonWar

The darkest children’s novel of the year. I think I’ve seen comparisons to Lord of the Flies, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. There are adults in this world, they just have concerns of their own. Mainly, the fact that they’re in a little village in Poland at the beginning of WWI, caught between the Russians and the Germans, and there are a LOT of invading forces. You know what it reminded me of the most? That desperately dark YA novel Nothing by Janne Teller. The final image of this book, though, will be burned into your head by the time you get to the end.

Dear Sister by Alison McGhee, ill. Joe Bluhm

As seen on the list: Older Funny Books

DearSister

Dodger Boy by Sarah Ellis

As seen on the list: Older Funny Books

DodgerBoy

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

FrontDesk

Confession: I’m not completely done with this, but from the general enthusiasm of the universe (including my colleagues) and the amount I’ve seen so far (I’m more than 50% finished) I can tell that it’s a keeper. Basically, you’re looking at The Florida Project, for kids. Though it’s set in the 80s, it’s an insightful examination of immigration and prejudice from the perspective of a girl with a keen head on her shoulders.

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

GhostBoys

And speaking of timely, Rhodes has gotten a lot of attention for her Black Lives Matter novel about a boy gunned down by a police officer. Reading the descriptions, I was concerned about how the ghost of Emmett Till would be used in a work of fiction. Fortunately Rhodes uses him sparingly and well, tying together her tale of grief and guilt (or lack thereof) as it relates to all those boys killed.

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

HarborMe

I’ve seen a lot of backing and forthing on this book this year. The reviews were stellar. The reception keen. But since its release, the ardor has cooled into respect. Respect is good, but we’ll see where this goes when the ALA Youth Media Awards are handed out. With Woodson, a reader feels safe and secure. Sentences pop off the page and cause you to say, “Oh! So that’s what really good writing sounds like!” Woodson is having a killer couple years here. This book just typifies her reign. Great stuff.

The Heart and Mind of Frances Pauley by April Stevens

HeartMindFrancesPauley

A much quieter, unobtrusive novel than a lot of the others on today’s list. The Sophie Blackall cover is actually a pretty good complement to this story of a girl who would prefer to be called Figgrotten (something you’ll notice the title doesn’t respect, which is a pity because THE HEART AND MIND OF FIGGROTTTEN kind of sells itself). I won’t lie to you. This one’s a tearjerker. And I give extra points to tearjerkers.

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

IvyAberdeen

2018 was a good year for coming-of-age coming-out titles. But none were quite as bold and interesting as Ivy Aberdeen here. First off, the book begins with Ivy’s home being completely destroyed by a tornado. So, right there, good kickoff. From that point she’s dealing with her crush on a girl, her feelings about her own art, her parents paying her inadequate attention, her small war with her sister, and more. It’s a heady little book in a small package, expertly crafted. I do feel the cover does it a disservice, but that’s why the good lord invented paperback editions, eh?

The Journey of Little Charlie by Christopher Paul Curtis

As seen on the list: Older Funny Books & American History

JourneyLittleCharlie

Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

LouisianasWayHome

Remember when I said that Harbor Me is the kind of book that reminds you that the author is great writer? Same case here. The lines, man, the lines. Sentences that just work with a quirky little story that no one else could possibly dream up. I’ve had more than one librarian come up to me this year and just talk endlessly about how much they loved this book. They’re not wrong about it.

The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras

MadWolfsDaughter1

I think I read this back in February and every scene, character, and situation in it remains in my memory. It’s hugely fun with the strongest female character you’ll encounter in quite a while. Plus, who doesn’t love a little swordplay or clever outwitting of the villains?

Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya

MarcusVega

Still loving it. The family connection, plus Marcus himself, makes for a great novel. I missed Cartaya’s previous novel THE EPIC FAIL OF ARTURO ZAMURA. This book guarantees that I won’t make that mistake again.

Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

MerciSuarez

I love having a children’s book committee as part of my workplace. How else would I be able to find all the great children’s novels that otherwise I might miss? A book can get all the stars in the world (and this one did) and still not quite gel for librarian gatekeepers. Fortunately, in the case of this book everyone was blown away. I don’t read YA, but after this book I’m kind of keen to check out Medina’s YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS.

The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

As seen on the lists: Math Books for Kids & Older Funny Books

MiscalculationsLightning

Out of Left Field by Ellen Klages

As seen on the list: American History

OutLeftField

The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson

ParkerInheritance

Mystery. History. Racial inequities. Smart girls. Smarter writing. Varian Johnson proved himself long ago to be an author to watch. The attention he’s received for this book is well and truly deserved. It’s kind of like The Westing Game, except it plays fair. Oh yes! I said it!

Rebound by Kwame Alexander

Rebound

New idea. I think next year I’m going to have to make a Sports list. They’re the hardest books to get children’s librarians to read (aside, for some very strange reason, from horsey books) but there are huge swaths of the population that would love to get their hands on the good ones. And no one writes sports the way Kwame Alexander does. This book is the prequel to THE CROSSOVER, and darned if it might not be better. If you missed it, go back to it. Good old verse novels. They’re quick reads for a reason.

Saving Winslow by Sharon Creech

SavingWinslow

A friend of mine suggested that the perfect SAVING WINSLOW drinking game would be to take a shot every time someone in this book is on the cusp of telling its hero, Louie, that his baby donkey might die. You wouldn’t make it past page 15, though, so maybe it’s not the best idea. For me, the heart of this novel isn’t the usual boy-and-his-donkey narrative, but the keen presence of Louie’s “friend” Nora. She’s fascinating. A prickly creature that’s been hurt in the past and refuses to be hurt again. To deal with the loss of a baby brother, she puts up these huge walls around her emotions. Honestly, I could just spend books and books getting to know that girl better. A wonder.

The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon

As seen on the list: Older Funny Books

SeasonStyxMalone

The Sky At Our Feet by Nadia Hashimi

SkyOurFeet

I think some of my regular readers are aware that I have these impossibly high standards for children’s books set in NYC. Essentially, I have to get the sense that the author has at least visited it once, and knows basic things like “there are no alleyways on the Upper West Side” and how to make sense of the subways. This book doesn’t just feel like Ms. Hashimi visited Manhattan, but that she got lost in it several times, and then decided to live there for another decade. There are so many familiar New Yorker elements here. How the two heroes keep running into the dang New York Marathon (it really IS everywhere on that day). Getting “East” and “West” mixed up when you’re dealing with a long street. It does have the impossible conceit that if two kids went missing from a hospital, every New Yorker would get an Amber Alert (uh-huh) but otherwise I found it interesting, exciting, and moving. Plus, it’s so New York!

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

SmallSpaces

On previous lists I’ve mentioned the books I’d include on my Top Five of the Year. This would be one of them. A scary book for kids that plays by the rules, but still ends up legitimately horrifying. I’ve used this description for the book before, and I’m not afraid to use it again: If you have a kid who loved Stranger Things and thinks the books in the children’s room are too tame, hand them this title and tell them, “Think again.”

Speechless by Adam P. Schmitt

As seen on the list: Older Funny Books

Speechless

Stanley Will Probably Be Fine by Sally J. Pla, ill. Steve Wolfhard

As seen on the list: Older Funny Books

StanleyWillProbably

The Stone Girl’s Story by Sarah Beth Durst

StoneGirlsStory

I regret that I didn’t read enough Fantasy this year. Fortunately, Sarah Beth Durst helped me out a little. Back in 2007 she wrote this crazy/weird/good fairytale fantasy novel of the darkest degree for kids called Into the Wild. I’ve never forgotten it. This year, in between those adult novels she writes, she penned this smart-as-a-whip fantasy about a stone girl who sets forth to find an expert sculptor to help her and her friends. I honestly didn’t know where this one was going from scene to scene. Some of the best world building I’ve seen this year.

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

Sweep

You know, it was Jonathan Auxier here who clued me onto the aforementioned Small Spaces. The man knows his fantasy. He also knows his creepy, but while there are definitely some mighty dark moments in this book (as the mother of a little boy, I had a very hard time reading about the little boys in this book, but that’s just me) overall I’d say it was much lighter than his previous novel, The Night Gardener. It’s a touching tale of a female chimney sweep and her loving soot golem. You know. One of those. And one of the best of the year.

Tight by Torrey Maldonado

Tight

I was so very very happy to see that Torrey Maldonado had a new book out this year. Years ago I met him at a Brooklyn bash, and I’d kind of been waiting for a middle grade book from him ever since. This one instantly earned my respect when I realized that he wasn’t going to make up a bunch of fake superheroes and fake video games (something that always drives me a little crazy with other books). It’s a good boy put it bad situations despite his best efforts. Plus, the man knows NYC. You can read my interview with him about the book here, if you’re curious.

Two Roads by Joseph Bruchac

As seen on the list: American History

TwoRoads

Wicked Nix by Lena Coakley, ill. Jaime Zollars

WickedNix

“Handsome” is the best way to describe this book. Tired of fantasies that clock in at more than 300 pages? Observe this svelte little novel, with every single one of its 163 pages in perfect position. Not a word out of place. Not an extraneous scene in sight. This fairy story follows all the rules, while also upsetting your expectations. Not easy. Also, apparently Jonathan Auxier blurbed this one too. That man’s on a blurbing streak!


Interested in the other lists? Here’s the schedule of everything being covered this month. Enjoy!

December 1 – Board Books & Pop-Ups

December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations

December 3 – Wordless Picture Books

December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds

December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books

December 6 – Alphabet Books

December 7 – Funny Picture Books

December 8 – CaldeNotts

December 9 – Picture Book Reprints

December 10 – Math Books for Kids

December 11 – Bilingual Books

December 12 – Translated Picture Books

December 13 – Books with a Message

December 14 – Fabulous Photography

December 15 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales

December 16 – Oddest Books of the Year

December 17 – Poetry Books

December 18 – Easy Books

December 19 – Early Chapter Books

December 20 – Comics for Kids

December 21 – Older Funny Books

December 22 – Fictionalized Nonfiction

December 23 – American History

December 24 – Science & Nature Books

December 25 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books

December 26 – Unique Biographies

December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books

December 28 – Nonfiction Chapter Books

December 29 – Fiction Reprints

December 30 – Middle Grade Novels

December 31 – Picture Books

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth 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.

Comments

  1. Penultimate means second to last.

  2. The only one I’ve gotten to read is Louisiana’s Way Home, which might be the best DiCamillo I’ve read. I found it much better than Flora and Ulysses, which, in my opinion, lacked any particularly arresting character or plot point. Louisiana was a great reminder of how important style can be. I guess I’ll have to do an interlibrary loan for at least one or two of the other books on this list.

  3. This website was shared with me on fb but I’m always interested in books to encourage reading at the middle school level. Would you have any recommendations for catholic school summer reads?

    • You know, I’ve considered doing a Middle School List every year, but hadn’t heard from any folks that would consider it. Maybe I should think about that more seriously. In the meantime, I’m going to be one of those people and recommend my own book from last year. FUNNY GIRL, which I edited, is an ideal summer read. And, as of this year, it’s out in paperback. Woot!

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