Starting at a new middle school can be a horrifying experience for anyone.
Seventh-grader Caitlyn finds it harder than she ever imagined. For one thing, she’s expected to help take care of the goats—and the kindergartners. Plus, none of her new classmates appear to play by the same social rules as her old middle school. Instead of trying to be cool, everyone at Mitchell stands out, and they do it on purpose. Even a kid who’s no longer there stands out. When Paulie Fink, legendary for his pranks, doesn’t return for seventh grade, his old classmates miss him so much they decide to hold a contest to name the next great Paulie Fink. Caitlyn, as the most objective person in the class, serves as organizer, judge, and jury. But by the time the next great Paulie Fink is named, Caitlyn understands that it’s far more than one person they’re trying to save. A story with massive heart, Benjamin’s follow-up to The Thing About Jellyfish (2015) proves this writer’s incredible wit, charm, and ability to navigate deep questions while tapping directly into the middle school mindset. The novel is rare for the ease with which it combines ancient Greek studies with modern-day issues such as bullying and change, helped along by a delightful multiracial cast. Diversity is communicated mostly via naming convention; Caitlyn seems to be default white.
A book to make readers think, question, reach, laugh, and strive harder.
Sunny St. James has just had a heart transplant and is ready to take three crucial steps into her New Life.
Step No. 1: Do “awesome amazing things” her cardiomyopathy kept her from doing. Step No. 2: “Find a new best friend” to replace Margot, who betrayed her trust. Step No. 3: “Find a boy” to kiss, “because kisses.” Sunny achieves the first two steps almost simultaneously: She goes swimming in the ocean for the first time since her diagnosis and she meets blue-haired Quinn Ríos Rivera, and the two agree to be best friends. The third proves to be difficult, because Sunny finds she doesn’t want to kiss a boy. She wants to kiss Quinn. Sunny’s struggles are numerous but well-balanced and never overwhelm readers. The 12-year-old’s mother, Lena, who gave Sunny to her best friend, Kate, to raise eight years ago, is ready to be part of Sunny’s life. Sunny isn’t sure she wants to know Lena, a recovering alcoholic. She’s also uncertain as to which feelings are hers and which ones belong to her unknown heart donor, but her thoughtful, present-tense voice as she parses these feelings is all hers. Quinn is Puerto Rican; Kate’s boyfriend is black; and Lena’s husband is South Asian. Assume whiteness for everyone else.
A sweet and gentle story of self-discovery and a beautiful addition to the growing genre of middle-grade realism featuring girls who like girls.
A bilingual girl named Lety volunteers at an animal shelter where she gets drawn into a competition with a boy she finds unkind.
Lety signs up to be the animal shelter’s scribe, writing biographies for cats and dogs that are up for adoption. It’s a tough job—she is an immigrant from Tlaquepaque, Mexico, and she and her best friend are still taking special classes to improve their English. Drawing attention to bilingual learning, the slipperiness of colloquialisms, and the power of dictionaries, Cervantes deftly engages young readers in Lety’s predicament through the device of a crabby white boy named Hunter, who challenges her for her position. As the two of them enter into a competition for the job, Lety worries about breaking the rules, encountering prejudice, becoming competent in English, and convincing the shelter’s veterinarian that she is the right girl to take home a very special dog. Just as all seems lost, Lety proves her intelligence and willingness to serve by suggesting a solution that benefits immigrants in her community as well as animals in the shelter. At its heart, this is a sweet, entertaining story about a kindhearted girl who has compassion for both animals and people. Young readers will be drawn in by the sweet pet portraits yet they will leave with much more: an empathetic understanding of the immigrant experience in America.
A touching story about the power of language, pets, and friendship.
After five years of leukemia treatments, a 15-year-old gets her prognosis.
“In just a few minutes, they’re going to tell me how much time I have left to live,” opens this slim volume holding a full-bodied story. As the narrator walks down a hospital corridor, the door at the end appears so small it almost vanishes, showing how far away her fate still feels. While waiting, she takes readers through her years of treatment, touching on medical, emotional, and social aspects as well as hospital smells and sounds. She experiences romance; she has strong but unidealized parents. Cancer clichés receive welcome push back: Her best friend’s death was “definitely not because she wasn’t strong enough or didn’t fight hard enough,” and her own process isn’t a “battle…because there was nothing I could do to fight it. All I could do was let everything happen.” The titular spoiler sets this reassuringly apart from cancer stories that lean on suspense. Ferrer illustrates every page in pen and watercolor, using mostly reds and greens of low intensity that range dramatically from pale to dark; blacks and browns are secondary. Some visual elements are unnerving and fantastical—doors and tiles at a slant, bodies boneless or full of Swiss cheese–like holes. Compositions are ever shifting. Most characters’, including the protagonist’s, skin tones range from pallor to healthy pink.
Visually dreamlike, textually grounded: a deft balance proving that a single-issue exploration needn’t be formulaic or dry.
(Picture book. 9-15)
Gerber, who tackled scoliosis with Braced (2017), turns her lens on a young woman with ADHD.
Massachusetts seventh-grader Clea loves magic and chess, hates math, and wants to be a better friend, sister, and student. No matter how hard she tries, she struggles to finish homework and tests on time, putting her spot on the chess team in jeopardy. Meanwhile friendships hit a snag when she impulsively blurts out sensitive information her best friend and chess teammate, Red, would rather keep secret. When teachers and the school counselor suggest her struggles may be related to ADHD, Clea is resistant to diagnosis and treatment, considering it a black mark and further evidence that she is somehow broken. Through it all a friendship blooms with Sanam, another chess teammate, who encourages Clea with her own story of learning differences and her persistent optimism. Though not a biographical story, Gerber’s tender first-person narrative perfectly resonates with the ADHD experience, which she knows firsthand. The supportive world Clea inhabits both at home and at school is an ideal place free of stigma; would that all students with learning differences experience such in real life. Gerber’s text and author’s note feature excellent information and resources for ADHD brains and the hearts who love them. Clea and Red present as white while Sanam’s name suggests she’s Middle Eastern or South Asian.
An accurate and compassionate picture of growing up with ADHD is the icing on the cake of this well-told novel
. (Fiction. 8-12)
Near the end of seventh grade, a girl tangles with her family’s changing shape, her friendships’ changing shapes, and a professional advice column that’s left temptingly unguarded.
Sweet Pea lives in Valentine, Texas. Her therapist mother and housepainter father are divorcing—so amicably that Dad moves only two houses away, into a house almost identical in both structure and décor. This “twinning-parent-freak-show” is meant to keep Sweet Pea’s life stable, but it doesn’t. An ex–best-friend reenters Sweet Pea’s life; a current best friend feels (justifiably) unappreciated; and Sweet Pea’s job facilitating paperwork for a newspaper advice columnist—the peculiar old woman living between Sweet Pea’s two “mirror” houses—gives Sweet Pea unfettered access to the incoming letters and the columnist’s typewriter. What’s a girl to do? Sweet Pea’s first-person narration is endearing and funny while her oblivious self-absorption on certain topics lets readers figure out connections first. Murphy’s portrayal of a fat protagonist whose body is neither symbolic nor problematic is cheerworthy; a scene about the juniors’ section carrying only sizes too small for Sweet Pea is the only one that shows discrimination, and her parents and community support her. Sweet Pea, her parents, and the advice columnist are white (refreshingly, specified rather than assumed); one best friend is Mexican, the other mixed-race (black/white). A few characters are gay.
An excellent blend of eccentricity, humor, genuine sweetness, and mild drama
. (Fiction. 8-12)
Twelve-year-old Shayla finds herself in trouble when she wears a Black Lives Matter armband, which violates her school’s dress code
In her first year of junior high, Shayla follows all the rules. And things are going well—though she’d be happy if the boy she has a crush on would notice her. She eats lunch in the same spot every day with her best friends, Isabella, who is Puerto Rican, and Julia, who is Japanese-American. Shayla is African-American, and she’s content with their “United Nations” trio. But when some start to question whether she’s black enough, Shayla’s not sure what that even means. Sure, she’s not involved in the Black Lives Matter movement like her older sister, Hana, and she doesn’t sit with the black kids at lunch, but why does that matter? But then the United Nations is threatened when Isabella gets her braces off and catches the eye of Shayla’s crush and Julia starts hanging out more with her Asian friends. Suddenly, everything is changing—including Shayla herself as concern mounts over cases of police brutality in the news. Realizing that race does matter and that sometimes you have to break the rules, Shayla wears a Black Lives Matter armband. Trouble follows, bringing with it important lessons about friendship and courage. Awkward, endearing, and memorable, Shayla navigates the world of middle school and the troubled world beyond with wit and endless heart.
A timely, funny, and unforgettable debut about friendship, facing your fears, and standing up for what’s right.
In each of 10 stories, kids reentering the neighborhood from their school day reveal their unique narratives.
BFFs T.J. and Jasmine find their yearslong friendship getting them through parental separation, illness, and foster care. A group of four, all children of cancer survivors, has been brought together by a school counselor. A female skateboarder is the target of a bully—to the relief of his usual victim. A teen with the signs of OCD meets a street musician who changes her outlook. Two ardent gamers are caught up in the confusion of sexual questioning, and there’s an odd couple of friends whose difference in size is no barrier to their bond. A teen with a fear of dogs devises an elaborate plan to get past his neighbor’s new pet, and the class clown tries to find a way to make her overworked mother laugh. Three boys work to make their friend presentable enough to tell a classmate that he likes her. An accident sustained by the school crossing guard causes her son significant anxiety. There are connections among some of the stories: places, people, incidents. However, each story has its own center, and readers learn a great deal about each character in just a few lines. Reynolds’ gift for capturing the voices and humanity of urban teens is on full display. The cast adheres to a black default.
The entire collection brims with humor, pathos, and the heroic struggle to grow up.
Carter Jones’ family inherits the services of a “gentleman’s gentleman” with a passion for cricket just when they most need him.
Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick arrives in a purple Bentley at their New York state home during a downpour on the morning of Carter’s first day of sixth grade. The Butler, as Carter thinks of him, helps with Mary Poppins–like efficiency and perceptiveness to organize and transform the chaos of a household with little money, four children, a father deployed overseas, and a gaping hole. Six-year-old Currier died three years ago, and Carter carries his brother’s green shooter marble like a talisman. Carter’s memories of a more recent wilderness trip with his father are filled with deep sadness and foreboding. Meanwhile, Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick (amusingly snobby about pizza, television, and American slang) encourages Carter to step up, to play a bigger role in his sisters’ lives—and to learn to play cricket. Schmidt convincingly conveys the zany elegance and appeal of the game without excessive explanation. Though the newly formed middle school cricket team includes boys surnamed Yang and Singh, none of the characters are described by race, and the primary cast is assumed white. Schmidt gracefully weaves together the humor of school, siblings, and a dachshund with a delicate digestive system with deeper themes of family connection, disappointment, anger, and grief.
The result is wonderfully impressive and layered.
When her dad is arrested for embezzlement, life changes abruptly for 12-year-old Lizzie and her mother.
Their home repossessed, they are forced into a shelter for homeless families. Lizzie’s mother quickly finds work, while Lizzie spends most of the summer silently watching, sketching, and writing poems about the ponies at a teaching stable near the shelter. When a frightened, unbroken young pony arrives, Lizzie feels an instant connection and vows to do whatever it takes to make him hers. At this point, readers might think they know where the story’s going, but they don’t. Lizzie begins working at the barn in exchange for lessons and gradually comes out of her self-imposed isolation, emerging as strong, determined, and empathetic, but the horses are not the solution: Lizzie is. She relates the story of her rough transition from innocence to experience in an emotional yet measured first-person. Steveson’s nuanced portrayals of the many ways families can be in crisis and her unflinching honesty toward her characters elevate this book into something unexpectedly full of grace. They are always people who exist independently of their problems, and that’s a rare and beautiful thing. Lizzie and her family are white, while some important secondary characters are black and Latinx.
A middle schooler with cerebral palsy faces a new school and family upheaval in Sumner’s debut.
Twelve-year-old Ellie Cowan dreams of becoming a great baker; when she’s not penning letters to celebrity chefs, she’s practicing recipes. But sometimes—especially when her single mom’s protectiveness goes overboard—her CP feels like “the Go to Jail card in Monopoly: No matter where you are, it always shoots you back to zero.” When Ellie and her mom temporarily move from Nashville, Tennessee, to Eufaula, Oklahoma, to help care for Grandpa, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, Ellie struggles with being not only “the new kid in the wheelchair” at school, but one of the ostracized “trailer park kids.” But after Ellie befriends outspoken aspiring singer Coralee and fact-reciting “mega geek” Bert (who is, Ellie observes, “probably on the spectrum” but undiagnosed in this small town with little support), the quirky trio find themselves cooking up ways for Ellie to stay—“maybe forever.” Her voice equal parts vulnerable, reflective, and deliciously wry, Ellie is refreshingly complex. Kids navigating disabilities may find her frank frustration with inaccessibility, illness, and patronization particularly cathartic, but readers with and without disabilities will recognize her desire to belong. The mother of a son with CP, the author portrays Ellie and her mom’s loving but fraught relationship with achingly vivid accuracy, bringing the tension between Ellie’s craving for independence and her mother’s fears to a satisfying resolution. Characters, including Ellie, appear white.
An honest, emotionally rich take on disability, family, and growing up.