fantasy, humor, middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Read – This Was Our Pact

This Was Our Pact (First Second)
Written & Illustrated by Ryan Andrews

I fell in love with the Cartoon Network mini-series Over the Garden Wall from my first viewing. It’s become seasonal viewing for us as autumn rolls in. What I love most is how the world surprises you at every turn, delivering magical-realist surprises, both exciting and scary. It exists in the realm of dream logic, where the oddest things just make sense. Even as an adult, it evokes that sense of wonder we had as children reading through a masterfully written middle-grade novel. That magic is captured in the pages of This Was Our Pact, a story about two friends on a bike ride that takes them into strange & wondrous lands just around the corner from their own neighborhood.

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fantasy, humor, kid connection

Kid Connection – I Am a Unicorn/Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I am an uncle who regularly records & sends my nieces and nephew read-aloud videos. While I like sharing books that I love with them, I am curious about what books they enjoy and why. Kid Connection is a place where you aren’t hearing as much from me as you are my nephew and eldest niece (the youngest is only three, so one day, she will be able to join in). So I recently asked them to pick out two books they enjoyed and explain some details about what they liked.

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black lives, community, culture, family, fantasy, holiday, illustration

Book List: Christmas Tales

Tacky’s Christmas (Scholastic)
Written by Helen Lester
Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger

For ages: 3-7
Christmas time in Icy Land can be daunting as this is when the hunters arrive. Tacky isn’t going to let them ruin the holiday season, and he gets his penguin friends to decorate and celebrate. Tacky dresses up like Santa while his buddies dawn elf ears and hats. But then, a trio of beasts shows up with an evil gleam in their eye. Oh no! No worries. They think they have met the real Santa and his elves and a Christmas miracle occurs. This is a fun tale of Christmas time and how it can soften even the hardest hearts. The illustrations from Lynn Munsinger are the perfect accompaniment to this festive tale.

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animals, black lives, fantasy, save the planet

Spotlight: Oona & Fish

Oona: The Brave Little Mermaid (Katherine Tegen Books)
Written by Kelly DiPucchio
Illustrated by Raissa Figueroa

For ages: 4-8
Oona is a young Black mermaid who adores the treasures she finds at the bottom of the ocean. To the people above, these are items tossed overboard or lost in a shipwreck. But Oona and her otter Otto love treasure hunting and curating these objects. There’s one object, though, that is proving too hard to get. Deep in the ocean is a jeweled crown wedged into a rift. Try as she might, Oona can’t unstick it. An accident causes Oona to forget about the crown for a time, she pursues other things, but none of them give her that feeling of joy she used to have. But then she remembers and knows how to finally get her crown.

This is a gorgeously illustrated book. Raissa Figueroa gives us a beautiful Oona with her enormous Afro and striped tail. I see people excited about the new Disney live-action Little Mermaid, but Oona will remain my favorite. You may think picture books cannot deliver layered, nuanced characters, but Oona proves us wrong. She is one of the most delightful protagonists I’ve read about in years. She teaches the reader that persistence is the key and that valuing yourself is paramount.


1. We all deserve a beautiful crown, just like Oona. Have your students draw or (if they are up to the challenge) construct their crown. If they can use repurposed materials, that’s even better!

2. Have students write about something they own that was repurposed. This could be a hand-me-down, something bought at a yard sale or thrift shop, or a thing they found. Have them explain why this object means so much to them and how they care for it.

3. I want to know what happens next! Having students write the next story for Oona would be great fun. Take them through brainstorming as a group, listing out future adventures the character could have. Then back to their desks to get those beautiful ideas onto paper so they can share them later!

Fish (DK Children)
Written & Illustrated by Brendan Kearney

For ages: 4-8
Finn is a fisherman, and he loves his job. He and his dog Skip will get up before the rest of his village has woken up and row themselves out into the ocean, casting his line and waiting for the first bite. But today, things are different. Nothing is biting anymore, and all Finn brings up is trash. He and Skip go home without anything to eat, and Finn is confused. Finally, Finn realizes the fish will return once the trash is dealt with. So he finds a creative way to use this discarded material to help his community. 

This is an excellent early book introducing ideas about protecting children’s environment. The illustrations are bright and colorful. The story is written in a way that will engage all kids and keep them interested as Finn & Skip solve a big problem that hurts their ability to feed themselves. The trash is detailed, and you can see how much work has been put into this book by author Brendan Kearney. With every day that passes, the environmental collapse of our planet becomes more urgent, and we’re currently headed to the point of no return (if we haven’t passed it already). Our children need to know the truth of what our ancestors and we have done to this world if we ever hope to repair the harm.


1. A good writing activity would be to have students journal about ways to keep the ocean clean once the trash is removed. What are practices they could be employing in their lives every day to help with that?

2. Have a class project where students work together to repurpose classroom trash. Don’t toss the paper away; store it. Do the same with broken pencils, water bottles (washed out, of course), and other things that might get tossed. Then have groups of students go through this refuse in the second of the year to make something functional or just beautiful. 

3. One of the best things you can do after reading a book like this is to start and continue a regular program at your school for community clean-ups. The goal isn’t to fix every problem but to get people involved. When we organize, we can change things, and we need people organized to fix what’s happening to our planet.

fantasy, humor, middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Reads – Once Upon a Tim

Once Upon a Tim (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Written by Stuart Gibbs 
Illustrated by Stacy Curtis

There are more fairy tales than we know what to do with. And among that avalanche of books, there are a nearly countless number of Damsel-In-Distress + Knight-In-Shining-Armor tales. But I can guarantee you none of them are like this one. Seemingly inspired by Monty Python, author Stuart Gibbs has penned an age-appropriate satire of chivalrous literature. Tim is a peasant, like his parents before him, their parents before them, etc. But he doesn’t want to remain a peasant; Tim wants to travel and see the world. An opportunity arises when the Stinx kidnaps Princess Grace of the neighboring kingdom (it’s like a Sphinx but smellier). Prince Ruprecht announces a call for all brave enough to join him on his quest to save her.

Tim jumps at the opportunity but so does his best friend, Belinda. But girls can’t be knights, right? Belinda doesn’t care and disguises herself as a boy to go with Tim. They quickly find only them and the “village idiot” shows up…but don’t underestimate this supposed “idiot.” The party journeys through a landscape where everything is the X of Doom (i.e., Forest of Doom, River of Doom). The sense of humor here never lets up and makes the book a perfect pick for a wisecracking kid. It’s also a quick read at 160 pages. Oh, your kid wants more? There’s already a sequel, The Labyrinth of Doom, with promises of more to come!

fantasy, middle grade

Middle-Grade Must-Read – The Midnight Children

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.

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fantasy, mexican, middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Read – Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears (Rick Riordan Presents)
Written by Tehlor Mejia

Some saw Rick Riordan as piggybacking off of the popularity of Harry Potter when he began publishing his Percy Jackson. And while there are some surface-level similarities, it’s ultimately a celebration of Riordan’s love of Greek mythology. The same sentiment is present in Tehlor Mejia’s first entry in her Paola Santiago series, which Riordan presents. This is a celebration of Mexican folklore and culture delivered in an exciting manner that will draw in children whether they have a personal connection to the figures presented or not. The key to the book’s success are richly-drawn characters and a pace that keeps the reader hooked.

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asian-american, fantasy, middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Reads – Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend

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.

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family, fantasy, science, social-emotional

Spotlight – Unicorns Are The Worst/The Great Whipplethorpe Bug Collection

Unicorns Are The Worst (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Written & Illustrated by Alex Willan

For ages: 3-7
It’s easy to judge but harder to look at others with empathy. That’s a lesson the goblin narrator of this tale learns. He is sick of unicorns for many reasons, mainly because he feels that other magical creatures are ignored. The goblin also dislikes all the glitter the unicorns are sprinkling everywhere. He spends so much time talking to the reader about the unicorns he doesn’t spot the other magical creature stalking him. 

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fantasy, middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Read – The Beatryce Prophecy

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!

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