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BEST OF 2015: Our Favorite Books for Middle-Grade Readers & Tweens
I confess. This list is entirely out of control. But then, 2015 was a fantastic year for middle-grade books. I don’t think the selection has been this strong since 2012, the year that gave us Bomb, The One and Only Ivan, Wonder, Three Times Lucky, Summer of the Gypsy Moths, and the first books in Neilsen’s Ascendance Trilogy and the Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom series. And I didn’t even mention the stellar contributions from MG all-star authors like Christopher Paul Curtis and Rebecca Stead.
But I digress… We’re talking about 2015 here. Although, speaking of Rebecca Stead, she has another major Newbery contender in this list with The Goodbye Stranger, one of my personal 2015 favorites. But as long as this list is, there are still wonderful, buzz-worthy titles we’ve chosen not to include. For example, those who have followed other Best of the Year lists might be expecting to see Ryan’s Echo or Selznick’s The Marvels. Sorry, not on this list. I haven’t yet read Echo, but two of our committee members were bored, so off it went (I’ll let you know later if I agree!). And we really liked The Marvels, but… we just didn’t love it, maybe because in comparison we loved Selznick’s previous novels so, so much more and with The Marvels his work is beginning to seem just a bit too formulaic (if still quite impressive). So instead of regurgitating all the same titles everyone else has named, we’ve also chosen several off-the-radar titles, including awesome graphic novels, hard-to-place niche titles like Confessions of an Imaginary Friend, and a hilarious history of the Vikings!
Ares: Bringer of War by George O’Connor In this 7th and final volume of Olympians (a superbly executed graphic-novel retelling of The Iliad), the Trojan War is underway and Ares has the starring role. This book and series was a late-in-the year discovery for us and we are still waiting for library copies, but we just couldn’t leave it off the list. One committee member, who claims to not even like graphic novels, loved it—as did her son.
Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes While visiting her grandmother in the Louisiana bayou, 10-year-old Maddy learns more about the history of her family and discovers she may be destined to carry on a magical legacy. This is an enchanting novel with vibrant characters, strong themes about community and environmentalism, and just the right touch of strangeness. One of our committee members named this her favorite book on the list.
Beastkeeeper by Cat Hellison Like Bayou Magic, Beastkeeper is a somewhat under-the-radar choice that hasn’t garnered a lot of critical attention, but it is a definite favorite of a (different) member of our 2015 committee. More for the tween set than the younger kids of the group, the story is a very loose retelling of “Beauty and the Best”—with a very important twist!
Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley Fifth-grader Micah Tuttle is not okay. His grandfather is very sick and the great-aunt now living in his house is mean and crotchety and refuses to let Micah see his beloved grandfather. Then there is a spark of hope when Micah learns that the magical circus Micah’s grandfather Ephraim describes in stories is true and the powerful Lightbender owes Ephraim a decades-old favor. The magical feats of the circus, the battles with Aunt Gertrudis, and Micah’s friendships with his grandfather and a new student are by turns captivating, hilarious, and touching. Kids will love this novel, as will teen and adult fans of books like The Night Circus.
Confessions of an Imaginary Friend by Michelle Cuevas Ignored by his parents, teacher, and classmates, Jacques Papier has grown up believing everyone but his twin sister Fleur must hate him. Then it slowly becomes clear that that the problem is no but Fleur sees Jacques because he just a figment of imagination! This is a short, offbeat, and thoughtful book perfect for children ages 8 to 10.
The Cottage in the Woods by Katherine Coville Featuring talking animals, mystery, family, and more in a delightful fairy-tale mashup, a quick summary of this suspenseful fantasy might read “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” meets Jane Eyre.
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate Jackson believes everything has a scientific explanation. In his crazy family of dreamers, he is the calm, logical on. So how does he explain the giant talking cat that no one else seems to see? Crenshaw appeared once before when Jackson was just a little kid then disappeared for years, but now that Jackson’s family’s financial problems seem to be back, Crenshaw won’t go away no matter how mortified Jackson is to have an imaginary friend.
The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly In this sequel to The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, thirteen-year-old Callie finds her calling when But to achieve her dreams, she know she will have to bravely face off against the pressures of society in 1900 Texas.
Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton In 1969 twelve-year-old Mimi and her family move to an all-white town in Vermont, where Mimi’s mixed-race background and interest in “boyish” topics like astronomy make her feel like an outsider.
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt “Ally’s greatest fear is that everyone will find out she is as dumb as they think she is because she still doesn’t know how to read”–.
George by Alex Gino At first glance, this might seem like a do-over of Gracefully Grayson, one of my favorite 2014 selections. But George, the story of a 4th grade transgender girl finding the courage to speak her truth is a gentler story better suited to the younger end of the MG age range. Also, despite the similarities of story and situation, George has a distinctive voice and viewpoint all its own, making it clear that no matter how similar situations are superficially, each child’s journey—transgender, cisgender, or whatever—is personal and never quite the same as another’s. BCPL copies are on order.
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia In this third and final installment of the Gaither Sisters saga, the three city girls spend the summer with their grandmother in the rural South.
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead Ever since surviving a near-fatal accident at the age of eight, Bridge has wondered why. Did she survive to fulfill a special purpose she has yet to discover. Now in seventh grade, she and her best friends are struggling with what it means to grow up, and how the changes and new challenges will affect their friendship and their future direction.
Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick While his family is busy doing the million things they do perfectly—ballet, music, tennis, etc., etc,—DJ is sitting alone thinking he isn’t good at anything, especially since his best friend Gina moved away to the city. Then a blonde boy wearing nothing but silver underwear crashes in from the sky in a ball of fire. Before he knows it, DJ is covering for the strange boy who can’t seem to remember where he’s from and battling (or running from!) robot monsters. When Gina returns, the three team up, each using strengths they didn’t even know they had to help their friends. This is a fun yet substantive graphic novel, full of energy and hilarious, original dialog. As Hilo would say, “Outstanding!”
Lost in the Sun by Lisa Graff Trent Zimmerman is a sixth grader and a killer. Or at least that is how he has felt since a (sort of) friend was killed by a hockey puck that Trent hit. Now Trent is angry and pulling away from his family and best friend, turning his disturbing thoughts into drawings in his Thought Book. Then oddball outcast Fallon Little decides to befriend him, they bond over sports movies, and things start to seem a little better. But will the secrets of Fallon and her awful scars be too much for the tentative new friends to navigate. Graff has deftly created flawed, likable characters and a wholly believable, mostly upbeat story that manages to tackle serious issues with wit and humor.
Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai Assisting her grandmother’s investigation of her grandfather’s fate during the Vietnam War, Mai struggles to adapt to an unfamiliar culture while redefining her sense of family. BCPL copies are on order.
Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, et. al. Five best friends encounter a series of creepy happenings—from three-eyed foxes in the forest to a cave filled with living statues and deadly booby traps—while attending a summer Lumberjane camp. The series was originally intended to be a close-ended miniseries, but is now ongoing. Funny, inventive, and wonderfully smart, it’s no wonder this series has become something of a comics sensation. We currently only own the first volume in print, but volumes 1–10 are available from Kentucky Libraries Unbound.
Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb Vibrating with easy charm and poetic writing, this relatable tale follows 11-year-old Flor as she becomes involved in a geological excavation and struggles with a variety of family and personal issues. The story, characterizations, and tone are reminiscent of Birdsall’s Penderwicks series, and the atmospheric setting—tiny Moonpenny Island in the off season—may appeal to Three Times Lucky fans.
The Nest by Kenneth Oppel “When wasps come to Steve in a dream offering to fix his sick baby brother, he thinks all he has to do is say yes. But yes may not mean what Steve thinks it means”–Publisher description
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt Jack, 12, knows only a handful of things about his new, fourteen-year-old foster brother. (1) Joseph almost killed a teacher; (2) he has been in a correctional facility called Stone Mountain; and (3) he is a father. When he arrives at the Hurd family farm, it is clear the Joseph has suffered terrible abuse and all he wants is to find his baby daughter Jupiter. Jack may or may not grasp the full tragedy of Joseph’s history, but he understands enough and is determined to have his back no matter what. This is a difficult book with some darker themes more often found in YA literature than in middle grade, but they are explored in an off-scene way that, when combined with a younger protagonist who sees and knows only so much, makes the book best suited to tweens. Stunning and heartbreaking, Schmidt’s latest novel is a work of spare beauty and grace.
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall As spring arrives on Gardam Street, there are surprises in store for each Penderwick, from neighbor Nick Geiger’s expected return fromthe war to Batty’s new dog-walking business, but her plans to use her profits to surprise her family on her eleventh birthday go astray.
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson Bright, dynamic artwork and sharply humorous text tell a coming of age of twleve-year-old Astrid as she struggles with changing friendships, enemies, and the challenges of roller derby! Perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier.
Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper When a burning cross set by the Klan causes panic and fear in 1932 Bumblebee, North Carolina, fifth-grader Stella must face prejudice and find the strength to demand change in her segregated town.
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin Twelve-year-old Suzy Swanson wades through her intense grief over the loss of her best friend by investigating the rare jellyfish she is convinced was responsible for her friend’s death.
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley A young disabled girl and her brother are evacuated from London to the English countryside during World War II, where they find life to be much sweeter away from their abusive mother.
The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wan-Long Shang In 1972, after his older brother is killed in a car crash, Peter Lee’s mother is paralyzed by grief and his traditional Chinese father seems emotionally frozen–but Peter hopes that if he joins a Little League team in Pittsburgh he can reawaken the passion for baseball that all the members of his family used to share and bring them back to life. BCPL copies are on order.
Big Top Burning: The Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and the Greatest Show on Earth by Laura A. Woollett Draws upon primary source documents and survivor interviews to recount the story of one of the worst disasters in American history, the 1944 Hartford circus fire, which claimed the lives of over one hundred people.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Reader’s Edition by William Kamkwanba and Bryan Mealer An adaptation for young readers of a best-selling memoir follows the experiences of 14-year-old William Kamkwamba, who built a windmill out of junkyard scraps to bring electricity to his famine-stricken Malawi village.
Chasing Freedom by Nikki Grimes In this imaginative biographical story, Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony sit down over a cup of tea in 1904 to reminisce about their struggles and triumphs in the service of freedom and women’s rights.
Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings by Matthew Burgess Presents the life and work of the twentieth-century American writer, focusing on his fascination with words from a young age and highlighting his poetry’s inspirational properties.
Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow Chronicles the story of the early 1900s typhoid fever epidemic in New York, providing details as to how its infamous carrier was ultimately tracked down and stopped.
Guts & Glory: The Vikings by Ben Thompson Presents the history and myths of the Vikings, from their rise in the eighth century, raids throughout Europe, conversion to Christianity, and eventual decline following the Norman Conquest in 1066.
Mesmerized: How Benjamin Franklin Solved the Mystery That Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Jacopo Bruno With whimsical humor and fantastic artwork, Rockliff and Bruno bring to life the true story of how the American innovator used the scientific method to uncover the secrets of a famous Parisian magician.
Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor: An Abolitionist Tale by Nathan Hale In graphic novel format, Revolutionary War spy Nathan Hale tells a hangman and British officer about the life of Harriet Tubman and her life-risking dedication to helping runaway slaves find freedom. BCPL copies are on order.
The Nitty Gritty Gardening Book: Fun Projects for All Seasons by Kari CornellPresents step-by-step, illustrated instructions for a variety of seasonal gardening projects for children, including how to create a hanging garden, strawberry basket, and compost bin.
The Octopus Scientists: Exploring the Mind of a Mollusk by Sy Montgomery Looks at the work of renowned octopus scientist Jennifer Mather and a team of researchers on the island of Moorea, where they work to learn more about octopuses and their behavior.
Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower by Greg Pizzoli Recounts the life of Victor Lustig, an international con man who had swindled thousands of people, including Al Capone, and was best known for “selling” the Eiffel Tower. BCPL copies are on order.
Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights Marchby Linda Blackmon LoweryShares the story of the youngest person to complete the Selma to Montgomery March, describing her frequent imprisonments for her participation in nonviolent demonstrations and how she felt about her involvement in Civil Rights events.
Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall by Anita Silvey “This biography for children will trace Goodall’s life, but each chapter will also focus on two or more the chimpanzees that she observed, with information in sidebars about these particular animals. Along with biographical details, the book will explore the ethical issues that surround Goodall’s work and show what has changed in our understanding of Great Apes. What do we know today about these animals in terms of language, speech, tool use, and DNA? How has sophisticated technology – GPS systems, Satellite imagery, portable digital microphones – been used to gain new information about animal populations.”–Publisher description BCPL copies are on order.