Book List

Best Middle-Grade Books of 2019 That Explore Family Ties

A beautiful, visceral plunge into the perils that the train-jumping migrant brotherhood experiences.

BEAST RIDER

Manuel follows in his brother’s footsteps as he jumps a train that will take him to the U.S.–Mexico border.

“Call me Manuel.” Johnston and Fontanot de Rhoads evoke Moby-Dick’s iconic opening in setting the scene for Manuel, a 12-year-old Mexican boy, to conquer The Beast  and reunite with his brother Toño. Leaving behind his corn-farming family and the milpita they work in Oaxaca, Manuel rides The Beast, a name given by locals to the many trains traveling north. For many The Beast is a vehicle that will lead them to their hopes and dreams. For others, it is a monster that will tear away their limbs and disable them for life. With danger lurking on each train car, Manuel must be cautious of the brutal gangs that prey on the weak and rely on the bond that unites migrants on their harrowing journey and the patrons who help riders tame The Beast. Like the chugging of The Beast, Johnston’s poetic prose permeates Manuel’s journey and gives a steady rhythm to the story even as Oaxaca-based psychotherapist and translator Fontanot de Rhoads provides details to ground it. Without shying away from the cruel and often crude journey that migrants experience, the authors deliver a captivating story of travelers dreaming a better future and their incandescent fight to achieve it.

A beautiful, visceral plunge into the perils that the train-jumping migrant brotherhood experiences. (Fiction. 12-14)

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4197-3363-5

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Amulet/Abrams

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

Like salted caramel, a perfect balance of flavors, this deftly drawn story is a heartfelt treat.

PIE IN THE SKY

Two brothers navigate a new country, a new language, and grief through cake.

In this graphic/prose hybrid novel, 12-year-old Jingwen, his little brother, Yanghao, and their mother immigrate to Australia. The family is Chinese, though their home country is never specified. The boys start at the Northbridge Primary School not knowing any English, which has Jingwen feeling they have just arrived on Mars. Quickly he realizes it is he and Yanghao who must appear to be the Martians to everyone else, comically literalized with pictures of a four-eyed, antennae’d Jingwen. While Yanghao quickly picks up English, Jingwen resists, struggling in lessons and to make friends. Piece by piece readers learn it was Jingwen’s father’s dream to open a cake shop called Pie in the Sky in Australia before he suddenly passed away. After finding the family’s cookbook, the boys decide to secretly bake all the Pie in the Sky cakes. Jingwen especially takes it to heart, pouring his grief and frustrations into every frosted layer, believing that it “will fix everything.” Herself an immigrant to Australia from Singapore, Lai unfolds the story like a memory, giving brief flashbacks interspersed throughout the daily musings and nuanced relationships among family members. Jingwen’s emotional journey is grounded in honest reality; it ebbs and flows naturally with strategic spots of humor to lighten the overall tone.

Like salted caramel, a perfect balance of flavors, this deftly drawn story is a heartfelt treat. (Graphic/fiction hybrid. 10-13)

Pub Date: May 14, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-31409-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

An engrossing, heartwarming, beautifully written debut about building and rebuilding family ties.

CATERPILLAR SUMMER

A sudden change in vacation plans leads to an unforgettable summer for 11-year-old Cat and her younger brother, Chicken, who has special needs.

Cat and Chicken are the namesakes of characters in their mother’s picture-book series, Caterpillar & Chicken. In the books, Cat looks out for Chicken and does everything she can to make him happy. This is true in real life as well: Chicken has special needs (undefined, but he is sensitive to noise and touch, has difficulty governing himself, and has a tendency toward fixations), and Cat is responsible for taking care of him while their mother works. Cat and Chicken are biracial; their mother is white and their late father was black. Cat can’t wait to visit her best friend, Rishi, in Atlanta during summer vacation. But when Rishi’s parents are suddenly needed in India, Cat and Chicken find themselves staying on Gingerbread Island, North Carolina, with their mother’s parents—grandparents they’ve never met before. Cat’s mother is tight-lipped about why she’s estranged from her parents, but Cat is determined to protect Chicken, like she always does. The poignant story of Cat’s unexpected adventures on Gingerbread Island is told with tenderness and a keen sense of what can make—and break—family bonds. While race isn’t central to the story, it’s also not incidental. Through debut author McDunn’s vivid storytelling, issues related to race and bias are deftly woven into the larger narrative.

An engrossing, heartwarming, beautifully written debut about building and rebuilding family ties. (Fiction. 8-13)

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-68119-743-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

A touching, realistic, gently humorous story of how a sensitive boy copes with his treasured grandfather’s decline.

THE RUNAWAYS

A boy helps his ailing grandfather go home one last time in this Swedish import.

Gottfried finds life enlivened by his feisty grandfather, who’s always been “difficult.” They are true kindred spirits. Confined now to the hospital with a broken leg and weak heart, Grandpa’s “worse than ever.” Gottfried’s dad avoids hospital visits because Grandpa’s naughty behavior and declining condition make him “tired and sad.” He rejects Gottfried’s plea to bring Grandpa to live with them, insisting he’s “too sick and angry and stubborn and crazy.” Pretending to be at football training, Gottfried visits Grandpa in the hospital and suggests they should run away. Lying to his parents about where he’s going overnight, Gottfried surreptitiously transports Grandpa to the island house where he lived with Grandma until she died. Back home for one night, Grandpa happily reverts to his old clothes, savors Grandma’s last jar of lingonberry jam, and says farewell to his old life before returning to the hospital. Gottfried’s accessible, unadorned, heartfelt first-person narration reveals the depth of his bond with his grandfather as well as his insightful understanding of his father’s limitations. Linear, colored-pencil drawings capture key interactions between characters and revel in Grandpa’s choler. Characters are white (or, in Grandpa’s case, grouchily pink).

A touching, realistic, gently humorous story of how a sensitive boy copes with his treasured grandfather’s decline. (Fiction. 8-11)

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-776572-33-5

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Gecko Press

Review Posted Online: Jan. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2019

Timely, well-integrated themes, a vibrant setting, and well-drawn, likable characters—the diversity’s unlabeled, but it’s...

RIGHT AS RAIN

Rain, 11, knows that only a quarter of marriages survive a child’s death; she’s determined to make her parents “one out of four.”

The family members mourn separately. Rain’s burdened by guilt over the loss of her teenage brother, Guthrie; her dad’s withdrawn, angry, and depressed; her mom, briskly efficient, has forced a fresh start, finding a job in New York, where Rain must finish sixth grade 288 miles away from her old school in Vermont. Rain misses her best friend and the track team. Their new apartment is tiny; Frankie, the Dominican super’s daughter, is unfriendly; the urban density’s overwhelming. Her family is white and doesn’t speak Spanish, and their new neighborhood is a Latinx one. The only place Rain spots other light-skinned people is at the trendy cafe where they sip espresso. Through community-service projects, a school requirement, Rain slowly finds her footing. The track coach recruits her to run the 100-meter relay with Frankie, Amelia, and Ana for a city meet—that’s scheduled on the anniversary of Guthrie’s death. Realistic explorations of how grief divides a struggling family and gentrification erodes a community are balanced by the love and friendship among these diverse characters. Rain likes to count things and loathes dresses. Like Frankie and her friend who’s moved away, Rain might be gender nonconforming. Amelia stutters; Nestor might be homeless; Casey dislikes being touched. Each is seen whole.

Timely, well-integrated themes, a vibrant setting, and well-drawn, likable characters—the diversity’s unlabeled, but it’s there—make this a winner. (Fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-265294-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2018

An uplifting gem.

TITO THE BONECRUSHER

To rescue his father from prison, 11-year-old Oliver “Spaghetti-O” Jones tries to get a little help from his favorite luchador.

After months of legal woes, Oliver’s father ends up in a Florida correctional center despite his assurances to Oliver and his irritable big sister, Louisa, that “[e]verything was going to be fine.” Now Louisa won’t even talk to their father, but Oliver’s not giving up that easily. Inspired by his favorite luchador-turned–action hero, Tito the Bonecrusher (motto: “Never quit trying!”), Oliver needs to concoct a plan to bust his father out of prison. To do so, he must infiltrate a charity gala to meet the bombastic action star, who holds the know-how required for such a daring caper. Thomson’s excellent middle-grade debut plumbs the absurdity and desperation inherent in a painful situation. Throughout the ordeal, Oliver battles and suppresses his grief and pain in a way that younger readers can recognize and perhaps understand amid the humor; more than anything, it’s this implicit focus that makes this novel a great one. Going along for the tumultuous ride is Oliver’s best friend, Brain (a girl genius), and some unexpected allies. Each scheme (celebrity photos with forged signatures, skipping detention via a decoy) seems more outrageous than the last, but when the day of the gala arrives, will Oliver have what it takes to save the day? A white default is assumed.

An uplifting gem. (Fiction. 8-11)

Pub Date: March 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-374-30353-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

A blisteringly beautiful book.

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THE BRIDGE HOME

Venkatraman’s middle-grade debut tackles sisterhood, chosen families, and loss.

Eleven-year-old Viji and her sister, Rukku, flee their abusive father after he breaks Amma’s arm and kicks Rukku. They find themselves, overwhelmed, in the big city of Chennai, where they are temporarily employed by kind Teashop Aunty, who offers them bananas and vadais, and fall in love with a puppy, Kutti, who becomes their constant companion. The sisters meet Muthu and Arul, two boys who live under an abandoned bridge, and join them; Viji tells Rukku elaborate stories to reassure herself and her sister that they will be OK. Soon, Viji finds herself telling the young boys her stories as well; in return, the boys show the girls how to earn money on the streets: by scavenging for resalable trash in a very large garbage dump Muthu calls “the Himalayas of rubbish.” When tragedy strikes, it is this new family who helps Viji come to terms. Craftwise, the book is thoughtful: Venkatraman employs the second person throughout as Viji writes to Rukku, and readers will ultimately understand that Viji is processing her grief by writing their story. Viji’s narration is vivid and sensory; moonlight “slip[s] past the rusty iron bars on our window”; “the taste of half an orange…last[s] and last[s].” The novel also touches on social justice issues such as caste, child labor, and poverty elegantly, without sacrificing narrative.

A blisteringly beautiful book. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5247-3811-2

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

It’s a story that may be all too familiar for too many and one that needed telling.

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GENESIS BEGINS AGAIN

Thirteen-year-old Genesis Anderson is a black girl who has been dealt a heavy hand in life.

She’s had to move several times because her family keeps getting evicted thanks to her alcoholic, gambling father, who defaults on the rent. Genesis hates her circumstances, and even more, she hates the skin she’s in. Dark-skinned like her father—who takes no pride in their resemblance, especially when he’s drunk and mean—Genesis wants nothing more than to look like her light-skinned mother. With kids calling her names (Charcoal, Eggplant, Blackie) and a chiding grandmother who spouts backward colorist ideologies, it’s no wonder. Genesis desperately wants to be accepted, even causing herself physical pain to change the look of her skin and hair in order to attain it. But Genesis has a talent that demands that she stand out. With the help of her chorus teacher, Genesis discovers a way to navigate the pain she carries. With smooth and engrossing prose, debut novelist Williams takes readers through an emotional, painful, yet still hopeful adolescent journey. Along the way she references accomplished black activists, athletes, artists, and, notably, musicians such as Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Etta James, all in a way that feels natural and appropriate. This book may bring readers to tears as they root for Genesis to finally have the acceptance she craves—but from herself rather than anyone else.

It’s a story that may be all too familiar for too many and one that needed telling. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Jan. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4814-6580-9

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2018

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