For the past three years I have been sharing our favorite newly published picture books and this year I am adding a list of my favorite middle grade books. These chapter books are geared towards kids ages 8 and up. Some of them (in my opinion) are better for slightly older kids and I’ve tried to indicate that when applicable. Before we go any further, however, please remember I have not read every chapter book published this year! In fact there are several book on my nightstand that I am certain would have made it on this list, were there 36 hours in a day.
Also, don’t forget, these are not my favorite children’s novels of all time! They are my favorite middle grade books published in 2015 (that I actually read in 2015 – the plot keeps thickening as I continue to qualify my list against the it-never-fails comment, “I can’t BELIEVE you forgot such and such book! – HA!).
I’d love to hear from you, what do you consider the best new books this year – children’s picture, chapter books, or even books for grown-ups (if you read such things, ha ha ha)? Do you have any favorite middle grade books? (Note: titles and covers are affiliate links.)
George. George is a girl, but everyone thinks she is a boy. She is worried no one will know who she is and she will stay hidden forever. She dreams of playing Charlotte in the school production of Charlotte’s Web but the teacher won’t even consider her for the part. George confesses her secret to her best friend, who helps her concoct a plan. This is a quiet gem of a book and I am impressed at how accessible the text is for the intended audience. George is a fifth grader and the story is not overcomplicated or bogged down with social and political backstory or controversy. While many might dismiss this book (which would be sad), or embrace it solely because of George’s transgender identity it is much more than just an LGBT story. All kids are familiar with keeping secrets and worrying about being accepted by others. This is a moving and hopeful story.
The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Wow. This was a great book! Ada, born with a club foot, has never left the apartment that she shares with her younger brother and cruel mother. When her mother sends her brother out of London to the countryside at the start of WWII, Ada runs away with him. In the country they begin to make a new life with Susan, a woman who reluctantly takes them in. The three of them form a bond and Ada finally gets to truly live. This is one of the best books I have read in recent months, with interesting historical details and a compelling narrative voice.
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead. I liked the narrative style of this book a lot. There are three stories told from different viewpoints of kids growing up in New York City. Bridge, who had a severe accident when she was younger, now wears a cat-ears headband to school every day. She is getting to know fellow seventh grader, Shem, whose story Stead partly tells through his letters to an absent grandfather. A third, unnamed teenage narrator, spends the day trying to avoid someone and reflecting on her complicated friendships. The stories overlap and Stead excels when it comes to telling the complex emotional and social stories of middle schoolers and how complicated their lives can seem to them.
Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper. One night, Stella and her brother witness the KKK burning a cross and it becomes a catalyst for the action in this heartbreaking and compelling story set in Jim Crow South. As the narrator, Stella describes the terror her community lives every day, when walking down the street and looking at a white person could land them in jail, or how a white man can slap her with impunity any time he wants. The intelligent Stella is always questioning the way things are strives to get her thoughts down on paper. She meets with kindness in small ways and makes connections in unexpected places. Draper’s unflinching dedication to depicting the fear Stella and her community experience makes this a book to put on the reading list of every child ages 9 and up.
Adam and Thomas. (Originally published in Hebrew) Aharon Appelfeld’s story of two Jewish boys who hide in the forest is incredibly moving. The boys have been sent into the forest by their mothers. They build a nest in the tree and when their supplies run out, they start to forage for food. A peasant girl leaves them food and Adam’s dog Miro finds them deep in the forest with a message from his mother. The war intrudes into the forest in small ways when people pass though. Everyone tells them to stay in the forest and hide. When winter comes the struggle to survive becomes more urgent. The narrative style is quiet, almost dreamlike and the narration switches between the two boys’ viewpoints as they learn valuable lessons from each other.
The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan is based on the life of America’s first female detective. 11 year old Nell ends up on the doorstep of her Aunt Kate. Aunt Kate would prefer to drop Nell off at the local orphanage but Nell makes herself useful to her aunt, who works for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Hannigan deftly handles multiple story lines and weaves in a lot of interesting historical content. There is a lot going on here: Nell and Kate’s detective-ing (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) around the Baltimore Plot (a real-life attempt to assassinate Abraham Lincoln), Nell’s correspondence with Jemma, an African-American friend who relates stories with troubling details about the Underground Railroad, and the mystery surrounding her uncle’s and father’s death. Interesting characters and fast paced action will make readers want to race to the end!
Greenglass House by Kate Milford is an intriguing book. Milo lives with his adoptive parents in a strange and mysterious smugglers’ inn. During the holiday break a series of guests arrive, all with a secret connection to the inn. The adventure begins when Milo finds a curious map and things begin to go missing. He and his friend, Maddy determined to find the culprit behind the thefts start to unravel the mystery tied to the house and its guests. I love the atmosphere of this book, seeping from every page. I think it would make a great read aloud, but may be over younger kids’ heads, so I recommend it for ages 9 and up.
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir by Margarita Engle. I have mentioned a few times how this past year I have become enamored with novels written in verse. Now I am adding this Latina American author’s memoir to the list. Margarita was born in the USA but her mother came from Cuba. The author grew up in mid-20th century Los Angeles and feels her loyalty being tested by the two countries. She spends holidays in Cuba but that all begins to change as the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. deteriorates. Stories of immigrants are so important right now (well, anytime, really) and this is a gorgeous one about a girl who also learns to love reading and poetry along the way.
The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz. While you may find this book housed in the middle grade section of your library, it is for a YA audience, in my opinion. 14 year old Joan escapes her abusive father and gets a job as a maid in a Jewish household in early 20th century Baltimore. Schlitz tells the story through Joan’s diary. Joan dreams of all that she can become if she can get away from farm life and work hard cooking and cleaning. She immerses herself in doing excellent work for her employers but her determined, naive, and optimistic nature sometimes gets her into difficulty. Nevertheless, she befriends the daughter, falls in love with the son, and is educated by the father, as she explores religion, feminism, art, wealth and a myriad of other profound and mundane topics. Joan’s voice is amusing, intelligent and entertaining. Read it for yourself even if your kids are still too young!
Lost in the Sun. Since reading Absolutely Almost, Lisa Graff has become one of my favorite middle grade authors. A freak accident earlier in the year has left Trent as the town pariah and he is struggling to figure out how to redeem himself, in his own eyes as well as in others. His new friendship with Fallon, a girl with a mysterious scar, acts as a catalyst for his willingness to make better decisions. Trent’s relationship with his brothers, his father, step-mother and his mother are all artfully drawn and nuanced. Graff’s ability to draw us into the lives of her characters is superior.
Mark of the Thief. I put Jennifer A. Nielsen’s False Prince trilogy on my list of books that Harry Potter fans will enjoy, and this is the first book in what is proving to be an equally engaging series. Nic and his sister are slaves in mines just outside of Ancient Rome. When Nic discovers an ancient bulla that once belonged to Julius Caesar, the bulla infuses him with a power. He becomes both a target and a pawn in a political conspiracy. I am on pins and needles for the second book, Rise of the Wolf, to be published in January! (For ages 11 and up)
Like a River: A Civil War Novel. Two lives intersect during the American Civil War. When his older brother suffers a terrible accident, 15 year old Leander runs away to join the army. He ends up in a Southern hospital where he befriends a soldier named Paul, who is caring for his father. Paul, however, turns out to be a girl, Polly. When Polly’s father dies she joins the army, still in disguise and ends up in Andersonville prison where another soldier takes care of her so that her secret stays safe. At the end of the war she is sent home on the infamous Sultana steamboat, and narrowly escapes its destruction. Author Kathy Cannon Wiechman does not gloss over the harsh reality of war time life and prison. The first half of the book is told from Leander’s point of view. The second half belongs to Polly. I recommend it for ages 11 and up.
The Fog Diver by Joel Ross. Both my son and I tore through this book. In a world where a deadly fog covers most of the earth, the population lives high on the mountains. A boy named Chess, with fog in eyes, has the uncanny ability to survive in the fog. He and his friends scavenge for goods from past worlds by diving off a floating boat. They are determined to save their adoptive mother, who is suffering from fog sickness but Lord Kodoc is on the hunt for Chess, whose abilities he both fears and desires for his own purposes. This may all sound very melodramatic, but it makes for a very exciting story. I won’t be surprised if there is a sequel.
Red Butterfly tells the story of a Kara, Chinese orphan who was abandoned — she speculates because of her gender and her disabled hand — and then informally adopted by an older American couple living in the country. At the start of the book, she lives with her American mother, who has stayed in the country illegally to look after Kara. Kara feels the typical push and pull of an eleven year old who both wants to spread her wings, as well as find comfort in a familiar home at the same time. When an accident happens, Kara is separated from her American mother and placed in the Chinese adoption system. I really enjoyed this book and free verse is a wonderful medium for this surprisingly complex and moving tale of a girl who must decide where she belongs.
Night on Fire by Ronald Kidd. In segregated Alabama, the Freedom Riders are coming to town. 13 year old Billie Simms (who is white) dislikes segregation, but it is a hard thing to stand against when most of the town is of the opposite opinion, and she is not even sure what her own parents believe. Billie goes down to see the Freedom Riders, but is horrified as she watches people she knows attack the bus and riders as the Alabama police stand by and do nothing. Billie’s story takes her from her home town to Montgomery, where she hears Dr. King speak. The final chapters of the book are suspense-filled and while there is no neatly wrapped up conclusion (just like real life) this is a excellent book and will provide much for you to talk about with your kids.
I hope I didn’t forget any of my favorite middle grade books of 2015. I probably did, but they’ll no doubt show up on a future list.
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A few “best of 2015” lists from the professionals: