Every year, it's fun to look back at all the wonderful new books that were published. This year we can be thankful for the bounty of wonderful titles that enhanced our children's reading lives. Putting together this list of the best middle grade books of 2021 was not easy, as there were so many quality choices!
(Note: this list contains affiliate links that may earn commission.)
We've chosen our favorites, keeping in mind that our aim is to create a best of 2021 list that also has the widest appeal possible!
JUST LIKE THAT by Gary D. Schmidt
For fans of: The War that Saved Me
Schmidt's latest middle grade novel is set in the same 1960s world as his books, The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now, but it stands on its own. Meryl Lee Kowalski, devastated by the recent death of her friend, goes away to boarding school in Maine. The headmistress, Dr. MacKnockater, challenges Meryl Lee to think about herself and her strengths in new ways. Dr. MacKnockater is also nurturing Matt Coffin, a boy with a mysterious past. Issues of class, the Vietnam War, and grief round out this insightful and page-turning novel. Ages 10 and up.
THE VOYAGE OF THE SPARROWHAWK by Natasha Farrant
For fans of: The Vanderbeekers
Farrant's marvelous novel reads like a classic. In 1919, 13-year-old Ben wants to find his adoptive brother, Sam, who disappeared in France during the First World War. Back in England, he meets Lotti, who is being looked after by her unsympathetic aunt and uncle. Lotti is about to be sent away to boarding school and so she and Ben decide to take the Sparrowhawk, a narrowboat that is Ben and Sam's home, across the channel to find Sam and Lotti's grandmother. On their journey, Ben and Lotti meet supportive adults who help them to their destination. The story is full of dynamic characters that pull at your heartstrings. Don't miss this one; it also makes a terrific read aloud. Ages 9 and up.
HOW TO FIND WHAT YOU'RE NOT LOOKING FOR by Veera Hiranandani
For fans of: It Ain't So Awful, Falafel
It's 1967, and the Supreme Court has just struck down interracial marriage prohibitions in Loving v. Virginia. Although Ari lives in Connecticut, where interracial marriage was never banned, Ari thinks a lot about the recent court case because her sister, Leah, has fallen in love with a young man from India. Ari's Jewish parents disapprove of the relationship, so the pair elope. Ari grieves the loss of her sister and wants to find her. She also has to navigate her own complicated relationships with her parents and at school faces the antisemitic taunts from a classmate, as well as struggles with undiagnosed dysgraphia. There's a lot going on here, but the unique second-person narration grips the reader from start to finish. Ages 9 and up.
THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY by Kate DiCamillo
For fans of: Breadcrumbs
One morning, Brother Edik, who spends his days creating illuminated manuscripts, finds a strange girl sleeping in the straw with the monastery's resident troublesome goat. The girl does not remember who she is but Brother Edik takes her in. The powers that be at the monastery, horrified that Beatryce knows how to write, send her away. In the forest, she and the goat meet Jack, an orphan, and Cannoc, an old man who turns out to be more than he seems. Beatryce begins to remember who she is and the importance of the prophecy that a girl will unseat the king starts to become clear. Absolutely luminous. Ages 8 and up.
THE TROUBLED GIRLS OF DRAGOMIR ACADEMY by Anne Ursu
For fans of: Harry Potter
When 12-year-old Marya Lupu upsets an important visit by sorcerers come to test her older brother for magic, she is sent away to Dragomir Academy. Dragomir is a boarding school housed in a castle donated by a Count for the purpose of educating "troublesome" girls. The teachers, while not unkind, insist that girls follow rules. Marya, and her new friend, Elana, find this difficult. At the academy, Marya, starts to build relationships and questions what she's told about magic, who can wield it, and why it threatens the land. Her discoveries lead to uncovering secrets about the structure of Illyria's society. Ages 8 and up.
SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith
For fans of: Percy Jackson
Lily and Wendy are stepsisters, but also friends. One night, during story time with their younger brother, Michael, Peter and the fairy Belle arrive and invite them to Neverland. One sister is eager to go. The other turns down the offer, but Peter's shadow convinces her to follow them. Cynthia Leitich Smith has crafted a truly marvelous re-envisioning of the Peter Pan legend centered around a blended Muskogee Creek and British family. Ages 9 and up.
THE LEGEND OF HOBART by Heather Mullaly
For fans of: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
I was not prepared for how much I would enjoy this short novel! The charming, wry humor manages to be both hilarious and moving. Hobart dreams of going to the King's School for the Education of Future Knights. He doesn't have a sponsor to nominate him, so he sets out to prove his mettle by accomplishing some heroic deeds. He can't rescue any damsels, because they already know martial arts and can save themselves. Instead, he goes on a quest to slay a dragon. But the quest ends quite unexpectedly and Hobart's deeds have us all thinking profoundly about the nature of heroism. Quietly and humorously, wonderful. Also recommended as a read aloud. Ages 8 and up.
AMARI AND THE NIGHT BROTHERS by B.B. Alston
For fans of: Artemis Fowl
Amari's brother, Quinton, is missing, but Amari insists that he is still alive. One day there is a mysterious visitor on her doorstep who delivers a package that reveals Quinton's secret. He is part of a Bureau of Supernatural Affairs and now Amari has a chance to find her own magic and earn a place in the Bureau. But Amari is not just an escapist fantasy, Alston deftly incorporates themes of bullying, prejudice and inequality. Ages 8 and up.
TIME VILLAINS by Victor Piñeiro
For fans of: A Hero's Guide to Saving the Kingdom
Sixth grader, Javier Santiago, is struggling at school. A school project to imagine a dinner party with three guests from any time period sets off a rollicking and hilarious adventure when a magical table makes the imagined guests a reality. One of the guests, Blackbeard the pirate, escapes the party and when Javier, his friend, and sister go after him, the madcap events follow. Great fun! Ages 8 and up.
THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE by Eugene Yelchin
For fans of: Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Yelchin's illustrated, semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in the USSR is hilarious. Yevgeny’s ballet-obsessed mother wants him to be a dancer like her beloved Baryshnikov. He family is aware that displaying talent leads to small freedoms that may otherwise be elusive in their restricted society. Little does she know that Yevgeny spends his evenings drawing on the underside of the dining room table. Yevgeny’s Jewish family lives in such a small apartment that, as the youngest, he sleeps under the table. The discovery of Yevgney's talent provides the family with some hope. Yelchin's writing and illustrations masterfully walk the line between tragedy and comedy. Very enjoyable! Ages 10 and up.
AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY by Cliff Burke
For fans of: The Wednesday Wars
Theo is not looking forward to a camping vacation with his dad and sister in the desert. It's also clear that something suspicious is going on since his dad is keeping part of the vacation plans a secret. I read this book out loud to my son and although there is a serious side to Theo's story, we spent much of the time in stitches, laughing at the hilarious characters that Theo encounters and the misadventures that befall him. Ages 9 and up.
STARFISH by Lisa Flipps
For fans of: anything Judy Blume
Ellie is tired of being bullied about her weight. It's bad enough coming from her peers, but her mother also doesn't seem to accept her for who she is. Ellie is about to start sixth grade and her best friend has moved away. When Catalina moves in next door, she befriends Ellie and, as a person of color, understands what it is to be judged by what you look like. Flipps writes Ellie's story in verse, mirroring Ellie's own use of poetry to express herself. A very satisfying story. Ages 9 and up.
FAST PITCH by Nic Stone
For fans of: The Parker Inheritance
Shenice is the captain of her softball team and normally she is totally focused on the game. However, her great-uncle recently revealed that what she thought happened to her great-grandfather's baseball career may not be true. Shenice becomes consumed with finding out the truth so she can resurrect her ancestor's reputation. Readers will learn about the historical Negro Baseball League and what it was like to play ball in segregated America. Ages 9 and up.
BOY, EVERYWHERE by A. M. Dassu
For fans of: Esperanza Rising
After Sami's mother and sister are injured in an explosion at the mall, his family decides to flee Syria and travel to England. The journey is difficult and dangerous and once they reach England, his father requests asylum at the border. The family is then separated and detained by the authorities while they work to present their case. Moving, eye-opening and hopeful. Ages 10 and up.
LAST GAMER STANDING by Katie Zhao
For fans of: video games
Admittedly, I would not have expected to have a video game-themed title on this list of best middle grade books of 2021. However, Zhao has crafted an emotionally nuanced story about a 12-year-old Chinese-American gamer who, knowing how badly girl gamers are harassed online, hides her identity behind a teen boy avatar. The year is 2067 and Reyna is at gamer summer camp in Manhattan. She's participating in a gaming tournament, hoping to win the prize so she can help pay for her mother's medical treatment. Ages 9 and up.