Book List

Best Middle-Grade Books of 2018 about Kids Navigating Solo

Ivy’s story is no mere niche-filler in LGBTQ middle-grade realism—it’s a standard-setter.

IVY ABERDEEN'S LETTER TO THE WORLD

Twelve-year-old Ivy Aberdeen finds comfort in drawing; she keeps a private sketchbook the way other kids her age keep written diaries.

After a tornado destroys her home, her notebook, filled with things Ivy isn’t ready to talk about or trust with anyone, goes missing, and she feels the last bit of her world drop out from under her. The images are telling; there can be no doubt that the white girl with the “coiling mane” of wild strawberry-blonde hair is 12-year-old Ivy or that she’s holding hands with a dark-haired white girl in every picture. When her drawings begin turning up in her school locker, Ivy’s biggest fear comes true: someone knows her secret. The mystery person encourages Ivy to come out, but whom can she trust? Is she even ready? Blake’s (Suffer Love, 2016) first middle-grade novel is characterized by rich, descriptive prose. The tornado scene is filled with breathtaking urgency as Ivy and her family run for safety, and the descriptions of Ivy’s contradictory and confusing feelings capture the heartbreaking difficulty of a non-normative early adolescence filled with questions of identity and belonging. Most characters are assumed white; the black lesbian who owns the inn where the Aberdeens stay after the storm and who steps in as a surrogate mother while Ivy’s own is occupied with insurance and a sick baby, is engaged to a brown-skinned Latina.

Ivy’s story is no mere niche-filler in LGBTQ middle-grade realism—it’s a standard-setter. (Fiction. 8-14)

Pub Date: March 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-51546-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 27, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2017

Cruz’s touching debut breathes life, beauty and everlasting hope into a place where danger lurks and the dead rest.

EVERLASTING NORA

According to 12-year-old Nora, “A home does not have dead people inside it.”

Nora lives in the North Cemetery, Manila’s largest, with her mother, Lorna, after having lost her home and father to a disastrous fire. Now impoverished, Nora sells dried flower garlands by the cemetery gates and helps her mother wash laundry for others to get by. More than anything, Nora wishes to return to her old life and go back to school. Past hardships with family have made Nora reluctant to depend on others for help. But when her mother goes missing and she must confront a street tough named Tiger who may have the answers she needs, Nora learns to accept help from those in her community, including her spirited friend Jojo and his kind grandmother, Lola Mercy. Nora is an impressive young heroine whose extraordinary self-awareness helps her to bravely take on adult responsibilities to support herself and Lorna. Even when frustrated with her mother’s poor choices and conflicted about whom she can trust, she remains resilient. Nora’s story is a tribute to Filipino children, and readers of all backgrounds will find themselves immersed in the culture, learning bits of Tagalog and longing to savor the delicacies described throughout such as biko, champorado, and banana-que.

Cruz’s touching debut breathes life, beauty and everlasting hope into a place where danger lurks and the dead rest. (glossary, author’s note, activity guide) (Fiction. 8-13)

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7653-9459-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Starscape/Tom Doherty

Review Posted Online: Aug. 1, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

This gripping, suspenseful read with compelling characters and a spellbinding setting lures readers into the deep-cold night...

NORTH TO BENJAMIN

After he moves to Dawson, Yukon, with Stephanie, his troubled mother, Edgar bonds with an elderly dog and remakes his connection to the world.

When they broke up, Stephanie’s ex gave Edgar a camera. Hours into their Dawson housesitting gig, she’s flirting with their new neighbor Ceese, while his friendly daughter, Caroline, introduces Edgar to Benjamin, an infirm Newfoundland, age 14. Living with an unstable, alcoholic parent has made Edgar both passive and fearfully observant. He’s seen her use her looks and charisma to attract the partnered men she fancies before she flees with Edgar to start over. Edgar, almost 12, is determined to keep her from claiming Ceese, whose long-standing girlfriend he admires. Drawn to the Yukon’s icy, implacable beauty—and immersed in Benjamin’s smelly but endearing reality—Edgar identifies with the dog in Jack London’s iconic story “To Build a Fire.” As Benjamin speaks to him, then understands him, Edgar’s words sound like barking to humans though he still writes in English. With heightened senses and his camera he tracks his out-of-control mother, whom he sees as a predator, and makes desperate efforts to warn the preyed upon. Cumyn deliberately builds this memorable world, easing readers into their suspension of disbelief as Edgar’s engagement with Benjamin grows. Far from a mere survival tale, this is a psychological thriller for sophisticated middle-grade readers. Edgar and his mother present white; Ceese and Caroline have brown skin.

This gripping, suspenseful read with compelling characters and a spellbinding setting lures readers into the deep-cold night even as they long for a life-affirming sunrise. (author’s note) (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4814-9752-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum

Review Posted Online: Aug. 14, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

Unique and utterly satisfying.

THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL

1 math genius + 1 year of middle school = problems even the most gifted mind can’t anticipate.

Four years ago, 12-year-old Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning. The strike left her with brain damage, resulting in acquired savant syndrome and a “supercomputer brain.” Lucy can solve any equation, recall every number she’s ever heard or seen, and recite pi to the 314th decimal place (she doesn’t allow herself to go beyond that). Lucy has finished school online and is ready for college, but her grandmother has a few conditions for Lucy to meet before she’ll allow her to move on to higher education. (Nana is her guardian, her mother being dead and her father having split.) The reclusive Lucy has to develop her “soft skills”: She has to attend middle school for 1 year, make 1 friend, and join 1 activity. Math is comfortably predictable; every problem has an answer if you know how to find it. But Lucy quickly realizes no formula can calculate the perils and pitfalls of public school. The multidimensional, highly likable Lucy’s first-person narration is direct and unrestrained. In her first novel for middle graders, McAnulty (Max Explains Everything, 2018, etc.) eschews stylistic convention: All numbers are represented as numerals to allow readers to see the world the way Lucy does. Lucy is white, but she does not subscribe to the white default, observing and describing skin color evenhandedly.

Unique and utterly satisfying. (author’s note) (Fiction. 8-13)

Pub Date: May 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6757-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: March 4, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018

A boy’s home is a place in the heart of one whose heart makes a place for him. Beautiful.

GONE TO DRIFT

A Jamaican boy and his family are caught on the cusp of change.

Lloyd Saunders, a young brown-skinned Jamaican boy, keeps counting the days until his fisherman grandfather, Maas Conrad, returns from Pedro Bank. His father occasionally comes around with a few dollar bills, fists, and the smell of rum. His mother sells Conrad’s catch to the well-to-do by the nearby Liguanea supermarket and has no time to worry about the old man. Only Conrad talks to Lloyd and teaches him about the sea, life, and times gone by. As each day passes he wonders what has happened to the old fisherman. Determined to find his grandfather, Lloyd sets out asking around Kingston, enlisting his buddy Dwight to help solve the mystery. Although Lloyd has faith, each day erodes the belief of everyone around him. When he learns that his grandfather may have been involved in dolphin hunting, Lloyd realizes sinister forces threaten Conrad and his family. The characters’ lilting patois guides readers into a changing Jamaica rich with lessons bobbing just below the surface. The quiet, deliberate third-person narration is interspersed with the thoughts of Conrad, whose personal history of Jamaica gently anticipates Lloyd’s journey. The relationships between boy and elder, man and sea, crime and poverty all lift McCaulay’s first children’s novel into a different league.

A boy’s home is a place in the heart of one whose heart makes a place for him. Beautiful. (Fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-267296-4

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Jan. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

Inspired by Malala Yousafzai and countless unknown girls like her, Saeed’s timely and stirring middle-grade debut is a...

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AMAL UNBOUND

A Pakistani girl’s dreams of an education dissolve when she is forced into indentured servitude.

Bookish Amal, who lives in a small village in Punjab, Pakistan, dreams of becoming a teacher and a poet. When she inadvertently insults Jawad, the son of her village’s wealthy and influential, but corrupt, landlord, Khan Sahib, she is forced into indentured servitude with his family. Jawad assures Amal’s father that she will be “treated like all my servants, no better, no worse” and promises him that he will “let her visit twice a year like the others.” Once in her enslaver’s home, Amal is subject to Jawad’s taunts, which are somewhat mitigated by the kind words of his mother, Nasreen Baji, whose servant she becomes. Amal keeps her spirits up by reading poetry books that she surreptitiously sneaks from the estate library and teaching the other servant girls how to read and write. Amal ultimately finds a friend in the village’s literacy center—funded, ironically enough, by the Khan family—where she befriends the U.S.–educated teacher, Asif, and learns that the powerful aren’t invincible. Amal narrates, her passion for learning, love for her family, and despair at her circumstance evoked with sympathy and clarity, as is the setting.

Inspired by Malala Yousafzai and countless unknown girls like her, Saeed’s timely and stirring middle-grade debut is a celebration of resistance and justice. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: May 8, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-399-54468-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

Readers will eagerly join Bicycle and “pedal headfirst” into this terrific adventure, which is chock-full of heart and humor.

THE ADVENTURES OF A GIRL CALLED BICYCLE

Twelve-year-old Bicycle secretly takes off from Washington, D.C., on her steadfast bike, Clunk, and heads to San Francisco by herself to find her bike-racing hero, Zbig—and, hopefully, her first real friend.

Brought up at the Mostly Silent Monastery since she was 3 and home-schooled there, Bicycle understands that loving (and indomitable) Sister Wanda has signed her up for the Friendship Factory Spring Break Special for her own good. But it sounds like a “guaranteed nightmare”; introverted and reflective, with a penchant for wordplay, she needs to seek friends in her own way. In this impressive debut, Uss deftly mixes in elements of fantasy, magic, and mystery—a chatty ghost that haunts Clunk’s handlebars, a second bike that can write and launch missiles, a creepy lady in black with “eyes that freeze your heart”—while always remaining true to the reality of Bicycle’s journey. The author, a cross-country bicyclist herself, perfectly captures the rhythms of day-to-day life on the road: the joy, the hardships (“But everything is just so…big. Crazy-hilly and big!”), the growing sense of freedom and accomplishment, the stick-to-itiveness, the great hunger and the delicious food that relieves it, the kind people, and the bonding with one’s bike. Though it has a substantial cast of quirky supporting characters, the book’s default is white.

Readers will eagerly join Bicycle and “pedal headfirst” into this terrific adventure, which is chock-full of heart and humor. (map) (Fabulism. 8-12)

Pub Date: June 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-8234-4007-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Margaret Ferguson/Holiday House

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

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