Book List

Best Middle-Grade Books of 2019 That Prove the Past Isn't Past

Rich, complex, and confidently voiced.

THE LINE TENDER

Lucy finds solace in her late mother’s passion for shark biology during a summer that brings a new grief.

First-person narrator Lucy and neighbor Fred are compiling a field guide to animals they find near their Rockport, Massachusetts, home. Lucy is the artist, Fred the scientist, and their lifelong friendship is only just hinting that it could become something more. Lucy’s mother, who died of a brain aneurysm when Lucy was 7, five years earlier in 1991, was a recognized shark biologist; her father is a police diver. When a great white is snagged by a local fisherman—a family friend—video footage of an interview with Lucy’s mother surfaces on the news, and Lucy longs to know more. But then another loved one dies, drowned in a quarry accident, and it is Lucy’s father who recovers the body—in their small community it seems everyone is grappling with the pain. Lucy’s persistence in learning about the anatomy of sharks in order to draw them is a kind of homage to those she’s lost. Most of the characters are white; a marine scientist woman of color and protégée of Lucy’s mother plays a key role. Allen offers, through Lucy’s voice, a look at the intersection of art, science, friendship, and love in a way that is impressively nuanced and realistic while offering the reassurance of connection.

Rich, complex, and confidently voiced. (Historical fiction. 11-14)

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-7352-3160-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

A pitch-perfect middle-grade novel that insightfully explores timely topics with authenticity and warmth.

EACH TINY SPARK

A nuanced novel about a neurodiverse preteen’s political and social awakening by a Pura Belpré Honor–winning author.

Sixth grader Emilia Rosa Torres sometimes has a hard time keeping up with schoolwork and concentrating on one thing at a time, but her software-developer mother and superinvolved abuelita help her keep on task. Days before her father’s return to their Atlanta suburb from his most recent deployment, her mother goes on a business trip, leaving the middle schooler to juggle his mood swings, her friend troubles, and her looming assignments all on her own. When a social studies project opens her eyes to injustices past and present, Emilia begins to find her voice and use it to make an impact on her community. Writing with sensitivity and respectful complexity, Cartaya tackles weighty issues, such as immigration, PTSD, and microaggressions, through the lens of a budding tinkerer and activist who has ADHD. The members of this Cuban American family don’t all practice the same religion, with Emilia’s Catholic grandmother faithfully attending Mass multiple times a week and the protagonist’s mother celebrating her culture’s Yoruba roots with Santería. Conversations on race and gender crop up through the narrative as Emilia’s grandmother likes to emphasize her family’s European heritage—Emilia can pass as white, with her fair complexion, light eyes and auburn hair. All of these larger issues are effortlessly woven in with skill and humor, as is the Spanish her family easily mixes with English.

A pitch-perfect middle-grade novel that insightfully explores timely topics with authenticity and warmth. (author’s note) (Fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-451-47972-3

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Kokila

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

Debut author Day (Upper Skagit) handles family separation in Native America with insight and grace.

I CAN MAKE THIS PROMISE

A Suquamish/Duwamish girl uncovers her tragic family history in this contemporary tale of adoption.

Edie’s idyllic life in a Seattle neighborhood is upended when she realizes her parents have been telling lies. Biracial 12-year-old Edie has always known her mother was Native American but adopted into a white family. Due to this, her mother has claimed to be ignorant about her birth family and tribe. (Edie’s father is white.) While the ambiguities of Edie’s family history make her uncomfortable, she accepts the story until the day she searches the attic while working on a film project with her two best friends. They discover a box there with photos of a woman who looks exactly like Edie. Opening letters in the box, the friends realize the woman shares Edie’s name. Even as preteen tensions begin to pull her friend group apart, young Edie struggles as she seeks to discover the truth about her past without asking her parents directly. Preteen anxiety gives way to daunting maturity as she learns about the misrepresentation of Native Americans in film, the activism of the American Indian Movement, and the reason her parents decided to keep her family connections a secret for so long. The novel is enlightening and a must-read for anyone interested in issues surrounding identity and adoption.

Debut author Day (Upper Skagit) handles family separation in Native America with insight and grace. (Fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-287199-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

A beautiful tale of the value of friendship against unconquerable odds.

STRANGE BIRDS

A FIELD GUIDE TO RUFFLING FEATHERS

A quartet of mismatched girls find themselves united for unforgettable summer adventures.

Lane DiSanti wants to avoid boredom during her summer at Sabal Palms. Her grandmother, Mrs. DiSanti, wants her to join the Floras, a beauty pageant/girls club Mrs. DiSanti’s family helped found. Instead, Lane forms the Ostentation of Others and Outsiders, her own version of the Floras, by leaving secret messages for potential friends to find. At first, rebel/artist Lane, foodie Aster Douglas, aspiring-journalist Ofelia Castillo, and bird-watcher Cat Garcia cannot seem to find common ground. However, Cat, a Floras defector, informs them the ancient hat used to crown the Miss Floras is made of real bird feathers. Finally united, the quartet of strange birds begins campaigning to get the Floras’ leader to stop using the hat. Their plans backfire one after the other as the Miss Floras pageant grows closer. Soon, the Ostentation must choose to either give up the fight or escalate their efforts. Shifting perspective girl by girl and writing with wry restraint that’s reminiscent of Kate DiCamillo, Pérez doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that the consequences might not be equal for each girl, as they differ in background—Lane presents white, Aster is Bahamian, and Ofelia and Cat are both Cuban—and socio-economic status. As their friendship develops, the secrets they hide from their families and each other might grow large enough to tear them apart.

A beautiful tale of the value of friendship against unconquerable odds. (Fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-425-29043-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Kokila

Review Posted Online: June 16, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

A stirring Southern middle-grade book that burns brighter than fireworks on the Fourth.

JUST SOUTH OF HOME

Twelve-year-old aspiring astrobiologist Sarah Greene digs into a dark history to help heal her family, both those present and from the past.

Sarah’s thieving cousin, 11-year-old Janie, a “citified” Chicago native, stays with her family in their small, country town of Warrenville, Georgia, for the summer and continuously uses her “five-finger discount” whenever she wants. When Janie disturbs the town’s haints, restless spirits with unresolved business on this spiritual plane, by taking a necklace from the haunted ruins of a black church burned down by the Klan, Sarah must lead her cousin, little brother, Ellis, and their friend Jasper into the woods during the dangerous Witching Hour in order to communicate with and save the souls trapped there. Strong’s prose pours from her pen like iced sweet tea on an August afternoon—it’s refreshing, steeped in tradition, and mixed with love. Many characters are familiar Southern staples in black communities. Devoted deaconess Mrs. Greene, the children’s paternal grandmother, whom they always address formally, with her loose, wavy hair and light skin, leans deep into colorism; her nemesis, Mrs. Whitney, the town conjuring woman, is dark-skinned and always adorned in all white, and she memorializes the victims of lynchings in their county. No punches are pulled when these personalities collide in this sometimes-spooky ode to how an unacknowledged past can come back to haunt us.

A stirring Southern middle-grade book that burns brighter than fireworks on the Fourth. (Supernatural adventure. 8-12)

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5344-1938-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Feb. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

This immersive novel bursts with life.

MY FATE ACCORDING TO THE BUTTERFLY

A superstitious girl tries to fix her broken family before death catches her.

Ten-year-old Filipina Sabrina “Sab” Dulce believes all the superstitions her artist dad used to tell her before he and Mom split up. So, when she sees the Butterfly, a giant black omen of death, she knows she only has a week left to live. Determined to make the most of her last days, she convinces her American best friend, Pepper, a white girl, to help her reunite her family. Sab must uncover the truth behind the broken relationship between her college-age sister, Ate Nadine, and their father. Spying on her sister’s journalism work and adventuring across Manila, Sab discovers family secrets that change her forever. Villanueva’s debut is a beautiful #ownvoices middle-grade novel. Tough topics—the brutal war on drugs in the Philippines, family reconciliation, and recovery—are addressed, but warmth and humor, often in the vehicle of Sab’s pet duck, bring lightness to Sab’s story. The detailed writing offers a true look at life in Manila, with alluring descriptions of Filipino foods and landscape. The text is interlaced with Tagalog phrases and words, especially cultural honorifics. Sab’s father is now in a same-sex relationship with a man Sab considers Dad No. 2, while her mother’s boyfriend is Dad No. 3, details shared matter-of-factly and with love.

This immersive novel bursts with life. (Fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: July 30, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-338-31050-4

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019

A beautiful, painful, heartfelt reminder that the past is with us still.

BROKEN STRINGS

Zayde’s memories profoundly affect his young granddaughter.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the school’s annual musical is to be Fiddler on the Roof, because its themes resonate. Eighth grader Shirli is a very talented singer and actor who is disappointed to be given the lead part of Tevye’s wife, Golde, who has no solo. She believes that her beloved grandfather can help her research background for the play, although she knows almost nothing of his past. Zayde has never allowed any form of music in his home, and when Shirli finds an old, damaged violin in the attic, it causes him great pain. As the play begins to take over Shirli’s life, she shares it all with Zayde, who finds he is able to recount bits of their family history. His mother barely survived the pogroms in Russia. When he was a child, he played violin in his family’s klezmer band. And then came the Holocaust and the hell that was Auschwitz, where he lost them all and was forced to play music as his fellow Jews went to the gas chambers. Shirli’s voice is true and strong as she narrates her own tale of rehearsals, her very ethnically diverse friendships, her deep distress as she witnesses Zayde’s pain, and her joy as he reconnects with his music.

A beautiful, painful, heartfelt reminder that the past is with us still. (authors’ note, acknowledgements) (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-73526-624-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Puffin/Penguin Random House Canada

Review Posted Online: June 10, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

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