Book List

Best Middle-Grade Books of 2013 for Keeping It Real

Early chapter book or read-aloud, this effort will leave its audience with lots of smiles, too.

LEFT BEHIND

From the Jasper John Dooley series , Vol. 2

After Jasper John Dooley's beloved Nan goes on vacation without him, he goes pththth.

It feels just like when the air leaked out of his beach ball. At school the next day, he writes a story about a snake that gets stepped on a lot. The story is so long that it needs staples, but he accidentally staples it to his stomach. That eventually somehow necessitates a full 28 Band-Aids, since it just keeps feeling like the air is escaping from his sad body, possibly through the staple holes. Jasper and best friend Ori, who is given to prefacing his statements with, “The thing is...” (a phrase that neatly captures his amiable take on the world), try to build a cruise ship out of leftover lumber, not altogether a success. Ori gets a bit bossy. A final trial comes when Jasper gets to bring home the class hamster for the weekend but accidentally loses it in his house. As in Jasper's first outing (Star of the Week, 2012), nothing truly compelling happens, but the concerns of this early grade schooler are so aptly, charmingly and amusingly depicted that it's impossible not to be both captivated and compelled. Clanton's simple black-and-white illustrations feature skinny bodies, oversized heads—and lots of smiles.

Early chapter book or read-aloud, this effort will leave its audience with lots of smiles, too. (Fiction. 5-8)

Pub Date: March 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-55453-579-8

Page Count: 132

Publisher: Kids Can

Review Posted Online: Jan. 28, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2013

Lilting, lyrical and full of hope.

SERAFINA'S PROMISE

Eleven-year-old Serafina has a dream: to go to school and become a doctor. Yet her life outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is filled with urgent chores and responsibilities.

A natural healer, Serafina has already witnessed the loss of baby brother Pierre to disease and hunger, wishing she could have done more to save him. Now Manman is about to have another baby. How will her family ever do without Serafina’s help or afford her school uniform? Burg uses gentle language and graceful imagery to create the characters that make up Serafina’s loving family—Papa, Manman and Gogo, her wise grandmother. (Sadly, Granpè was taken away long ago by the Tonton Macoutes.) Told in first-person verse appealing to both reluctant and passionate readers, the novel is woven with Haitian history, culture and Creole phrases. Readers will root for this likable heroine as she overcomes obstacles—poverty, family obligations, the catastrophic 2010 earthquake—in her effort to emulate her mentor, Antoinette Solaine, the physician who tried to save Pierre. The spirit of the text’s celebration of the power of determination, family, friendship and love is ably captured in Sean Quall’s delightful cover art.

Lilting, lyrical and full of hope. (Historical fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-545-53564-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2013

LOOK UP!

BIRD-WATCHING IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD

A chatty, appealing introduction to observing these easiest-to-see of all wild creatures.

Amusing scenes of loquacious birds and occasional human observers fill these busy pages. The pen-and-ink–and-watercolor cartoons are reminiscent of Roz Chast, with speech bubbles carrying much of the information. Where it would be informative, birds are labeled. Their variety is astounding; the page on coloration alone shows 60 different species from across the country. Cate’s enthusiasm is catching, but she starts simply. She talks about looking at birds in one’s backyard and neighborhood, with no special tools except for a sketch book—not since drawing is easy but since the effort requires close attention to details. She addresses color, shape and activities before moving on to using field marks to distinguish similar-looking birds. A comical central spread shows a sparrow fashion show, with the different species sporting their distinctive decorations. She discusses plumage variations, sounds and the use of field guides. The fact that birds look different because they live in different places and behave in different ways leads to consideration of habitat, range and migration. Finally, an explanation of classification includes an introduction to scientific names. The bibliography has good suggestions for birders of any age. Small and accessible, this is jam-packed with accurate information likely to increase any potential birder’s enthusiasm and knowledge. (index, drawing, tips) (Nonfiction. 8-15)

 

Pub Date: March 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-7636-4561-8

Page Count: 64

Publisher: Candlewick

Review Posted Online: Jan. 16, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

Poignant and memorable.

MOUNTAIN DOG

An absorbing story of an 11-year-old boy from Los Angeles who, when his mother is incarcerated for organizing pit-bull dogfights, moves in with his forest-ranger great-uncle and his chocolate Lab in their remote cabin high in the Sierra Nevadas.

Writing in verse with an understated simplicity that quietly packs a punch, Engle compassionately portrays a boy who is struggling to leave his “pit-bull life” behind—though “the sad / mad / abandoned” memories of visits to his mother in the Valley State Prison for Women make this difficult. Soon after he arrives, Tony’s great-uncle Tío takes him on the first of many wilderness tours in which he learns about thru-hikers on the Pacific Coast Trail, trail angels and trail magic. And Gabe, a skilled search-and-rescue dog, plays a big and joyful role in helping Tony feel a part of things: “Gabe time. Dog time. Dirty, dusty, / rolling around in grass time”; by hiding as a volunteer “victim,” Tony helps SAR dogs practice finding a lost hiker and feels useful. Revealing both Tony’s and Gabe’s points of view in alternating chapters, the author deftly incorporates a fascinating mix of science, nature (cool facts aplenty) and wilderness lore into a highly accessible narrative that makes room for a celebration of language: “Maybe words / are my strength. / I could turn out to be / a superhero / with secret / syllable powers.” The Ivanovs’ black-and-white illustrations nimbly reflect the story’s tone.

Poignant and memorable.   (author’s note) (Verse fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9516-6

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 22, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2013

An uplifting, memorable read.

AFTER IRIS

In this keenly drawn family drama, Blue, sure that no one else still misses her twin, Iris, turns a camera on her workaholic parents, tempestuous older sister, Flora, and younger siblings Jasmine and Twig, the Babes, who entertain themselves with race-car–driving rats.

Blue captures the action in film transcripts and diary entries written in breathless, run-on sentences that reflect the family’s spinout. With their parents absent, possibly divorcing, their doctoral-student babysitter struggles to maintain control. Flora dyes her hair pink, the Babes get lost, and even Blue gets in trouble when a cute bad boy convinces her to seek revenge against a bully with a stunt involving the rats. A typical early adolescent, Blue has a sharp eye but is believably blind to everyone else’s sadness. As she comes to terms with her own grief, she grows ever more aware. But it takes another near tragedy to rally the family—although, as readers will have come to expect with this hapless crew, miscommunication and mayhem, even nature itself, almost keep them apart. With her first children’s book, Farrant has created a wounded, flawed cast of characters and depicts them with great compassion. The situations are a mix of hilariously funny and poignantly touching. Ultimately, loyalty, forgiveness and love reunite them, and the closing scene is lovely: The camera is turned on Blue, and readers see her laughing.

An uplifting, memorable read. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: July 11, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-8037-3982-6

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: May 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2013

As Tara learns in this skillful exploration, an important source of her special strengths—questioning spirit, empathy and...

MY BASMATI BAT MITZVAH

The latest spunky heroine of South Asian–Jewish heritage to grace middle-grade fiction, Tara Feinstein, 12, charms readers from the get-go in this strong, funny debut.

Cheerful, sociable and a New Yorker through and through, Tara’s blessed with two best friends: Ben-o, a gentile, and Rebecca, who's Jewish. Both girls attend Hebrew School. As boys prepare for their bar mitzvahs and girls for bat mitzvahs, Tara struggles with doubts (does she believe in God?) and fears devaluing her beloved Indian heritage. When Sheila Rosenberg tells Tara she’s not a real Jew because her mother (an Indian-American convert to Judaism) wasn’t born a Jew, Tara hits back—literally. Tara looks forward to working with Ben-o in Robotics Club for seventh grade. Instead, she’s stuck with ADD-challenged Ryan Berger, whose interest is Tara, not robotics, and her comfortable relationship with Ben-o is threatened now that he seems to want to take it to the level of romance. Her simmering feud with Sheila complicates life further. Authors often mention but then shrink from exploring in depth their characters’ mixed religious heritage; it’s a sensitive subject that demands close scrutiny. Freedman bucks that trend, avoiding didacticism by portraying broader issues through Tara’s personality and unique circumstances.

As Tara learns in this skillful exploration, an important source of her special strengths—questioning spirit, empathy and strong ethical compass—is her mixed heritage. (Hindi-Yiddish glossary) (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4197-0806-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Amulet/Abrams

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2013

An inspirational exploration of caring among parent, teacher and child—one of Grimes’ best. (Poetry. 8-12)

WORDS WITH WINGS

In this delightfully spare narrative in verse, Coretta Scott King Award–winning Grimes examines a marriage’s end from the perspective of a child.

Set mostly in the wake of her father’s departure, only-child Gabby reveals with moving clarity in these short first-person poems the hardship she faces relocating with her mother and negotiating the further loss of a good friend while trying to adjust to a new school. Gabby has always been something of a dreamer, but when she begins study in her new class, she finds her thoughts straying even more. She admits: “Some words / sit still on the page / holding a story steady. / … / But other words have wings / that wake my daydreams. / They … / tickle my imagination, / and carry my thoughts away.” To illustrate Gabby’s inner wanderings, Grimes’ narrative breaks from the present into episodic bursts of vivid poetic reminiscence. Luckily, Gabby’s new teacher recognizes this inability to focus to be a coping mechanism and devises a daily activity designed to harness daydreaming’s creativity with a remarkably positive result for both Gabby and the entire class. Throughout this finely wrought narrative, Grimes’ free verse is tight, with perfect breaks of line and effortless shifts from reality to dream states and back.

An inspirational exploration of caring among parent, teacher and child—one of Grimes’ best. (Poetry. 8-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-59078-985-8

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Wordsong/Boyds Mills

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2013

Readers intrigued by the premise of this moving story will sympathize with the plucky protagonist and rejoice in the way her...

SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY

Worried that she will grow up to be crazy like her mother or alcoholic like her father, rising seventh-grader Sarah Nelson takes courage from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, writing letters to Atticus Finch and discovering her own strengths.

Sarah is a survivor. She survived her mother’s attempt to drown her when she was 2 and the notoriety that has followed her and her father from one Texas town to another in the 10 years since. In a first-person, present-tense narration interspersed with definitions, diary entries and letters, she describes the events of the summer she turns 12, gets her period, develops a crush on a neighbor and fellow word lover, and comes to terms with her parents’ failings. In her first middle-grade novel, Harrington revisits the characters of her adult thriller, Janeology (2008), to imagine what it might be like to be the child of a filicidal mother. Sarah’s 12-year-old voice is believable and her anxieties realistic. Intellectually precocious and responsible beyond her years, she is also a needy child who finds helpful support when she reaches out to a grieving elderly neighbor. Although her situation is difficult, Sarah is resilient and hopeful.

Readers intrigued by the premise of this moving story will sympathize with the plucky protagonist and rejoice in the way her summer works out. (Fiction. 9-13)

Pub Date: Aug. 20, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-316-21058-4

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 4, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2013

Sweetly low-key and totally accessible.

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THE YEAR OF BILLY MILLER

Billy Miller’s second-grade year is quietly spectacular in a wonderfully ordinary way.

Billy’s year begins with his worry over the lump on his head, a souvenir of a dramatic summer fall onto concrete: Will he be up to the challenges his new teacher promises in her letter to students? Quickly overshadowing that worry, however, is a diplomatic crisis over whether he has somehow offended Ms. Silver on the first day of school. Four sections—Teacher, Father, Sister and Mother—offer different and essential focal points for Billy’s life, allowing both him and readers to explore several varieties of creative endeavor, small adventures, and, especially, both challenges and successful problem-solving. The wonderfully self-possessed Sal, his 3-year-old sister, is to Billy much as Ramona is to Beezus, but without the same level of tension. Her pillowcase full of the plush yellow whales she calls the Drop Sisters (Raindrop, Gumdrop, etc.) is a memorable prop. Henkes offers what he so often does in these longer works for children: a sense that experiences don’t have to be extraordinary to be important and dramatic. Billy’s slightly dreamy interior life isn’t filled with either angst or boisterous silliness—rather, the moments that appear in these stories are clarifying bits of the universal larger puzzle of growing up, changing and understanding the world. Small, precise black-and-white drawings punctuate and decorate the pages.

Sweetly low-key and totally accessible. (Fiction. 7-10)

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-226812-9

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Greenwillow

Review Posted Online: April 24, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2013

With facts sure to delight readers—who will be impatient to share their discoveries—this spectacular book is a must-purchase...

THE ANIMAL BOOK

Building on years of experience in selecting animal facts and creating arresting illustrations, Jenkins surpasses his previous work with an amazing album characterized by clear organization, realistic images and carefully chosen examples.

The thoughtful, appealing design will both attract browsers and support those looking for specifics, but this also provides a solid introduction to the vast animal kingdom. After a chapter of definition, information is presented in sections on animal families, senses, predators, defenses, extremes and the story of life. More facts appear in the final chapter, which serves both as index (with page numbers and thumbnails) and quick reference. Most spreads have an explanatory paragraph and then a number of examples, each with an animal image and a sentence or two of detail set on white background. These cut- and torn-paper illustrations have realistic color and features: eyes that look at readers, teeth that amaze, and tiny legs, whiskers or feelers. Some are actual size or show a close-up portion of the animal’s body. Sections end with a jaw-dropping two-page image; chapters end with charts. Jenkins fills out this appealing celebration with a description of his bookmaking process.

With facts sure to delight readers—who will be impatient to share their discoveries—this spectacular book is a must-purchase for animal-loving families and most libraries. (glossary, bibliography) (Nonfiction. 5 & up)

Pub Date: Oct. 29, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-547-55799-1

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: April 24, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2013

Readers who peel back the layers of obsessions and fears will find a character who is determined, compassionate and...

THE THING ABOUT LUCK

Twelve-year-old Summer and her Japanese-American family work every harvest season to earn money to pay their mortgage. But this year, they face unprecedented physical and emotional challenges.

It has been a particularly hard-luck year. Among other strange occurrences, Summer was bitten by a stray, diseased mosquito and nearly died of malaria, and her grandmother suffers from sudden intense spinal pain. Now her parents must go to Japan to care for elderly relatives. So Summer, her brother and their grandparents must take on the whole burden of working the harvest and coping with one emergency after another. She writes a journal chronicling the frightening and overwhelming events, including endless facts about the mosquitoes she fears, the harvest process and the farm machinery that must be conquered. As the season progresses, her relationships with her grandparents and her brother change and deepen, reflecting her growing maturity. Her grandparents’ Japanese culture and perspective are treated lovingly and with gentle humor, as are her brother’s eccentricities. Kadohata makes all the right choices in structure and narrative. Summer’s voyage of self-discovery engages readers via her narration, her journal entries and diagrams, and even through her assigned book report of A Separate Peace.

Readers who peel back the layers of obsessions and fears will find a character who is determined, compassionate and altogether delightful. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: June 4, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4169-1882-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Atheneum

Review Posted Online: March 20, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2013

A brilliant depiction of the complexity of human relationships in a story that’s at once contemplative and suspenseful.

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PICTURE ME GONE

Mila, 12, a keen observer of people and events, accompanies her translator father, Gil, on a journey from London to upstate New York in search of Gil’s lifelong friend, who’s disappeared.

Mila applies her puzzle-solving skills to the mystery of why Matthew would abandon his wife and baby, not to mention his dog. On a road trip to Matthew’s cabin in the woods, she mulls over the possibilities while Gil keeps his thoughts to himself. Mila, who finds strength in her multinational pedigree and her ability to read people, is the one who eventually puts the pieces of the story together. Rosoff respects her young character, portraying her as a complete person capable of recognizing that there are things she may not yet know but aware that life is a sometimes-painful sequence of clues to be put together, leading to adulthood. The author skillfully turns to a variety of literary devices to convey this transition: the absence of quotation marks blurs the line between thoughts spoken and unspoken; past, present, and future merge in Mila’s telling just as they do in the lives of the characters as truths come to light and Mila is able to translate Matthew’s darkest secrets.

A brilliant depiction of the complexity of human relationships in a story that’s at once contemplative and suspenseful. (Fiction. 11 & up)

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-399-25765-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2013

An exemplary addition to an always thought-provoking series.

THE DOLPHINS OF SHARK BAY

From the Scientists in the Field series

If dolphins learn how to use tools from their mothers, does that mean they have a culture?

This is only one of the interesting questions addressed in this latest entry in the Scientists in the Field series. Unlike their relatives around the world, some dolphins in Shark Bay, in western Australia, use sponges to protect their rostrums while foraging through the channel bottoms for a fish that can’t be found through echolocation. The explanation for this behavior was found by scientist Janet Mann and her colleagues, who have been studying these dolphins for more than 25 years, observing their actions, charting their lives and even using DNA samples to determine lineage. Turner’s narrative takes readers on board the research boat Pomboo to follow the dolphins for several days as they hunt, nurse, play tag and other games, practice herding and mounting, fight and pet one another affectionately. Smoothly woven into the text are facts about dolphin life and evolution as well as methods of scientific observation. This fascinating window into their complicated society (“a juvenile dolphin’s world resembles middle school. But with sharks”) is illustrated with clearly identified photographs of the dolphins as well as the scientists. The account is followed by solid suggestions for further research, including encouragement to try reading scientific papers.

An exemplary addition to an always thought-provoking series. (more about dolphins, latest news, index) (Nonfiction. 10-15)

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-547-71638-1

Page Count: 80

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 18, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2013

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