best of the year

My Favorite Middle Grade Books of 2022

The Last Cuentista (Levine Quierdo)
Written by Donna Barba Higuera

For ages: 9-14
Halley’s Comet has become a threat to humanity, barreling towards Earth. Scientists have determined it will impact and destroy the planet. So adolescent Petra Peña’s family was chosen to join one of three space arks leaving to restart human civilization on the distant unpopulated world humans have named Sagan. During this journey, all the scientists and their families will be put into stasis, frozen as they are, and given vast quantities of knowledge over the centuries it will take to reach Sagan. Another group of people have been chosen to maintain the stasis pods and will teach this to their children and on and on until the grand day arrives. While it is heartbreaking to leave Earth behind, everyone has hopes for this new chance.

However, problems arise from the start. The pre-selected academic courses loaded into Petra’s pod aren’t right. It’s missing the mythology and folklore extracurricular she was looking forward to. Petra had an extremely close relationship with her grandmother, who taught the young girl to have a deep appreciation of the power of storytelling in Mexican culture. Through these larger-than-life characters, Petra discovered the means to keep going despite hardship. Petra wakes up thinking it’s time to begin populating Sagan but discovers something terrible has happened during her sleep. A cultish group known as The Collective has infiltrated the ship’s crew. It has erased the memories & identities of so many. Petra finds herself renamed Zeta-1 and has to hide her memories of the old world as she tries to figure out if she can reverse this horrible development.

Read my full review here

Caprice (Scholastic, Inc.)
Written by Coe Booth

When you read her first words, Caprice comes alive on the page. She’s a twelve-year-old girl on the cusp of significant changes in her life. Caprice’s parents pick her up after attending a summer program at the private all-girls school, Ainsley. She is offered a free ride by the school’s headmaster. There’s time to think it over, but not much as she returns to her neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. Caprice spends time with her best friend Nicole, contemplating if she feels something more for her longtime friend Jarrett and deciding if she should go to Ainsley and leave all this behind. But something else weighs on Caprice, an experience from her early years has haunted the girl, and she’s kept it secret from everyone who loves her.

In the tradition of classics like Dear Mr. Henshaw, we get Caprice’s story as a series of journal entries and poems she writes down in her notebook. Instead of author Coe Booth telling us about the events as they happen, we get Caprice’s contemplations after the fact. The reader gets to see how Caprice processes some immense feelings, and I think that is vital for our children to see. You might see this as an excellent book for girls, but I argue it’s something boys should read too. The frustrations and fears Caprice feels reflect the way women & girls are still marginalized. It’s not just the big secret Caprice has kept. You have the boys at the community center grading the adolescent girls on their bodies as they head into the gym. The protagonist lives in a world like ours, where boys’ behavior is often excused as “being silly.”

Booth centers the sexual assault of Caprice as the novel central conflict. It’s never presented explicitly, but there’s no mistaking what happened to the girl. Booth also includes commentary on class, with Ainsley representing a separation from Caprice’s beloved community. In addition, there are health issues with Caprice’s maternal grandmother. Her estrangement from this grandmother goes back to that one night when Caprice was four. Booth captures the massive complexity of life that young people are experiencing right now, balancing the personal with the universal. For older elementary and especially middle schoolers, this is a contemporary text that demands to be read.

Skunk and Badger (Algonquin Young Readers)
Written by Amy Timberlake
Illustrated by Jon Klassen

I was immediately struck by how unexpectedly unusual and pleasant this book was from the first page. Author Amy Timberlake is tapping into that same creative vein that has given us books like Beatrix Potter’s bibliography, Frog & Toad, The Wind in the Willows, The Odd Couple, and the Wallace & Gromit movies. It’s a world of animals that behave strikingly like people, all the same, with little daily struggles, annoyances, and triumphs. As an adult, I felt very connected to this book and would be fascinated to know how a child would process it. There is no big epic story, just the interactions between these two roommates. It’s a cozy world that I felt compelled to crawl inside and hang out for a while. It’s also a genuinely hilarious book, with humor coming from the characters’ responses to each other and silly anxieties over tackling simple problems.

Badger lives in his aunt’s plush brownstone in the middle of the city. One day there’s a knock at the door. It’s Skunk. Badger slams the door shut, assuming he is dealing with a salesperson. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, as Badger discovers. He had been ignoring his aunt’s letter that informed him the son of one of her good friends was moving in and going to have one of the bedrooms. Badger is worried this will disrupt his vital daily tasks of examining, polishing, and displaying his rock collection. Well, it does, but that is not a bad thing. Skunk brings a horde of chickens along with him, and by the end of the story, Badger has warmed up (a bit) to his new living situation.

This is unlike most middle-grade novels on the market, which is why it stands out so strongly to me. It’s a hilarious, calm book that uses these animal characters to look at our foibles & hang-ups.

Attack of the Black Rectangles (Scholastic Press)
Written by Amy Sarig King

In America today there is a growing problem with far right-wing reactionary behavior. A small but loud subset of the population is creating a lot of difficulties in public education by making wild accusations about what happens inside schools. I’m sure you’ve seen the nonsense claims of CRT (a law school theory) being taught in schools, that “furries” are allowed to use litter boxes in schools, and that teachers are grooming children to become transgender. It’s absolute psychopathy used by fascistic political forces to gain power in the country. As educators, we have an obligation to aggressively push back in any way we can against this rhetoric. We must educate our students on media literacy and critical thinking, so they do not get swallowed up in this frenzy.

Author Amy Sarig King agrees and has penned Attack of the Black Rectangles to talk to children about this problem. Sixth grader Mac Delaney is nervous about the new school year mainly because his teacher, a known town crank responsible for getting many things banned, including trick-or-treating and pizza delivery. Mac’s friends Denis & Marci are on the same page and find their worries are warranted when they get their copies of The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen for Reading Circles. Specific passages describing the bodies of Holocaust victims are blacked out despite the book being an entirely appropriate middle-grade novel. Mac begins a mission to liberate himself and his classmates so that they can learn the truth and not have it censored for them.

Read my full review here

The Beatryce Prophecy (Candlewick)
Written by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrations by Sophie Blackall

Kate DiCamillo published her first book in 2000 when I was out of the intended age range. This was the first of her books I’ve ever read, and I was profoundly impressed. DiCamillo’s name had come across my radar for the last twenty years through her breakout hit Because of Winn-Dixie and later The Tale of Despereaux. Despite seeing her name and these titles so often, I never thought to pick them up and give them a read. I think this mainly because the students I was around didn’t really gravitate towards her work unprompted. My reticence to read her work was also due to the adage of judging a book by its cover. The covers didn’t appeal to my personal tastes, so I passed them by. Wow, I was missing a great writer!

The Beatryce Prophecy is an amazingly complex and surprisingly short read about some tremendous ideas. In an unnamed medieval kingdom, a mysterious child shows up at a monastery belonging to the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing during a time of war. She’s found in the stables by Brother Edik and protected by the monastery’s willful goat Answelica. Edik begins to realize he wrote about this girl in a prophecy, the one who is destined to upend the king and establish a new order. Beatryce finds she has stories swirling in her mind, and these stories inform her decisions and open the minds of the people she meets. DiCamillo presents a stunning allegory about how power seeks to suppress stories and imagination because they know it will bring them down. However, for people to imagine a world they are told is impossible is a powerful thing; to stretch beyond the boundaries of the mundane can begin to create a new world.

Read my full review here

The Counterclockwise Heart (Algonquin Young Readers)
Written by Brian Farrey

While I am not the biggest fan of fantasy literature, I always enjoy a thought-provoking book, especially one where children are encouraged to think outside the boundaries they’ve had set around them. Most popular kids’ lit I see seems to pander, and it makes sense that children would be pulled toward familiar brands and names. However, I think this book is well worth your effort to present as a read-aloud or for those voracious readers who can’t get enough.

The Counterclockwise Heart concerns three characters: Alphonsus is a prince who was found by one of the royal couple. He has a clock where his heart should be, and no one quite knows how or why. Esme has been sent by the Hierophants, masters of magic, to kill the Nachtfrau, an evil witch living in the Hexen Woods. But when she meets Nachtfrau, everything the girl thought was true crumbles. And then there’s Guntram. He spent his youth speaking to the Onyx Maiden, a massive stone statue that magically appeared in his town one day. By talking to the frozen woman, he’s helped his community avoid the plagues & disasters she brought at first. How these three people’s lives intersect and the things that link them from before they were born will thrill & surprise readers.

Read my full review here.

The Midnight Children (Henry Holt & Co [BYR])
Written by Dan Gemeinhart

If you have students that are fans of Strange Things, this will be a must-buy middle-grade novel. It captures that sense of small-town life when a supernatural element is introduced into it, how these new arrivals reshape people’s thinking, opening their minds to bigger things. Ravani Foster is a timid young boy growing up in Slaughterville, named for its central employment hub, a cattle slaughterhouse. One night, as Ravani gazes wistfully out his bedroom window, a truck drives down the street, and seven children jump out. They take up residency in the empty house across the street. Ravani becomes intrigued with them, especially Virginia, who is his age.

Gemeinhart tells his story in an engaging omniscient narrative style that implies we are reading in a modern fable. There are moments where he remarks on the larger, cosmic & spiritual sense of the friendship growing between Ravani and Virginia or when Ravani begins coming into his own and standing up for himself. The moments the author chooses to spend most of our time with have been carefully selected and thought out. They represent crucial changes that all children go through, especially when building up their self-esteem. But all of this is wrapped up in a charming fairy tale of magic and wonder.

Josephine Against the Sea (Scholastic Inc)
Written by Shakira Bourne

This first book in a new middle-grade fantasy series begins with the genuine world conflict of watching your widowed parent start a new relationship. Eleven-year-old Josephine is not ready to see her father move on from her late mother quite yet, which distresses her immensely. Once her mom died, life seemed to get so much more complicated. She lives in Barbados, her dad is a fisherman, and Josephine passionately wants to play cricket on a real team. Everything changes when Maris comes into their lives, a beautiful & mysterious woman who wants dad all to herself. Josephine suspects her potential new stepmother is more than she seems on the surface and begins researching Caribbean folklore to determine what she is up against.

Josephine Against the Sea is a very well-plotted piece, taking its time and building up suspense. We get plenty of space to meet Josephine and the people that populate her world in Fairy Vale. Of course, there’s her dad, gruff at first but ultimately a softie. Her best friend is Akhai, a young man on the autism spectrum. His mom, Miss Mo, is superstitious and knowledgeable about the creatures that inhabit the waters and the land. We get to know them all before Maris shows up on the scene, but she steals the show when she does.

Read my full review

The Story of More (Adapted for Young Adults) (Delacorte Press)
By Hope Jahren

If you are an older Millennial like myself, you must come to terms with the idea that this planet is not ours. A solid argument can be made that the older generations clung to their positions of power for too long, resulting in a complete imbalance. Octogenarians run the American government, and activism is quickly becoming the realm of the young people. As a teacher, you must realize your crucial role in this dynamic. Despite not having the immediate power to upend the broken society crushing us, our students, their parents, etc., you must provide the youth with knowledge. You are arming them to face the devastation of climate collapse on this world in the hopes that, sometime after you are long gone, they create that better world of which we dream.

Hope Jahren is an American geochemist and geologist at the University of Oslo in Norway. Her best-selling book The Story of More has been adapted for younger readers starting around the age of 12. Within this book, she provides a beautifully constructed presentation of the importance of natural resources to the survival of humanity, the history of how we have been able to generate more food for the growing population, and how this growth has damaged the planet. The big question looming over all of this is, what can we do about it? Jahren doesn’t posit to have a magic solution but states that we have to develop a complete comprehension of the problem before we adopt a solution. She admits the path to getting there will be difficulties and suffering because we have delayed action for so long. Still, it is possible to reverse what is happening.

Catch You Later, Traitor (Algonquin Young Readers)
Written by Avi

The Second Red Scare (1947-1957) is a period of American history not often addressed with our younger students. As the political climate in the United States becomes increasingly reactionary (one look at today’s headlines shows the horror), we must inform our students about times in America’s past when people’s political beliefs were used to harm them. The tradition in the United States in times of political strife is for most of the brutality to be visited upon Leftists’ heads. This was no more apparent than during the McCarthy era when people lost jobs and were even sent to prison simply for holding a political belief supportive of Communism.

Pete is in seventh grade and is much like your average kid from early 1950s New York City. He loves the Dodgers, reading Dashiel Hammett’s crime novels, and hanging out with his best friend, Kat. However, things rapidly change when accusations of Communism are thrown at his history professor father. This leads to Pete taking on the things he’s learned from his detective stories to uncover the obscured history of his family. He begins to learn more about a grandfather he believed died before he was born, his father’s youth, and how people are hurt by many of the institutions that make up American society. He’ll also be saddled with heavy pressure from his school teacher, Mr. Donovan, and a pestering FBI agent.

Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend (Random House Books for Young Readers)
Written by Katie Zhao

Middle school can be a scary transition in life. New building with new teachers, some familiar faces among the student body, but always the chance it’s other kids you’d rather not be in class with. Winnie Zeng has the expected anxieties around this new chapter in her life. Still, it’s about to get more complicated than she could imagine. When a class bake sale is announced one morning, Winnie begins racking her brain on what to bake and settles on her late grandmother’s mooncakes. After making them, she suddenly unleashes grandma’s spirit from her pet bunny. The world is full of ghosts, some friendly and others malevolent. Winnie comes from a long line of people who fight back against the evil ones. Unfortunately, something has entered our realm and is causing havoc, so it’s up to Winnie, her grandmother, and some unexpected allies to take it on.

This first book in a new middle-grade fantasy series is off to a fantastic start. Author Katie Zhao has presented a main character whose voice is clearly defined from page one and experiences all the pitfalls and successes you would expect from a young child. However, even without the fantasy elements, this is still a solid book about growing up and dealing with insecurities surrounding siblings & classmates. It’s become cliche to feature Asian children whose parents have very high standards. Still, I think it’s an experience that all children can relate to. As a young adolescent, life is full of figuring out people’s expectations of you and trying to juggle them all.

Read my full review here

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