Book List

Best Middle-Grade Realistic Fiction of 2015

A gutsy girl in a laugh-out-loud book that navigates tough issues with finesse.

DREAM ON, AMBER

Overwhelmed by a new school and worried about her little sister, Amber draws a lively Dream Dad to give her fatherly advice.

Originally published in England, Shevah’s funny yet poignant first novel makes its American debut. Eleven-year-old Londoner Amber is half-Japanese and half-Italian, but her Japanese father has not been in touch since she was young. Her younger sister, Bella, writes a letter to invite their dad to her birthday party. Feeling protective, Amber responds as their dad, inadvertently convincing Bella that their father will attend her party. In addition, Amber does not fit in with the other girls in her middle school, she has a crush on a boy, and a teacher forces her to enter the school’s art contest. Drawing and creating art is Amber’s refuge, but she’s afraid to show anyone her work. During a fit of sadness, she sketches a Dream Dad and shares all her fears with her drawing. With art as her therapy and witty Dream Dad on her side, Amber realizes that she doesn’t need to navigate life on her own. Shevah tenderly captures the void of growing up without a father yet manages to create a feisty, funny heroine. Crawford-White’s whimsical pen-and-ink illustrations line the margins, as if Amber herself has added the doodles. Chapters are numbered in English, Italian, and Japanese, reflecting Amber’s multicultural identity, but refreshingly, that identity does not drive the plot.

A gutsy girl in a laugh-out-loud book that navigates tough issues with finesse. (Fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4926-2250-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2015

A fine, superbly illustrated tale of adventure, bravery, and loyalty.

THE TALE OF RESCUE

A cattle dog rescues a family caught in a blizzard in this middle-grade adventure.

One of the first things readers will notice is the story’s thoughtful and deliberate third-person narration, sounding much like a timeless tale told ’round the hearth and quite distinct from the many chatty, casual narratives popular in current middle-grade fiction. Adding to the traditional storytelling tone, the members of the family in the story—a 10-year-old boy and his parents—are not given names, and the name of the dog who saves them is not revealed until the end. But this somewhat formal narrative style doesn’t mean it isn’t an exciting tale of adventure. Rosen portrays the dog’s attempts to save the family so astutely that readers will feel the dog’s determination and exhaustion, and his somber, parsed descriptions of the blizzard and the family’s subsequent disorientation in the whiteout bring their cold and fear close. The writing is matched by Fellows’ superb watercolor illustrations—expertly rendered scenes that are, thankfully, liberally sprinkled throughout. When the rescued family leaves the farm the dog leads them to without even learning the name of the dog or meeting her again, readers may cry foul, but the epilogue sets things right as the story comes full circle.

A fine, superbly illustrated tale of adventure, bravery, and loyalty. (Adventure. 8-13)

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-7636-7167-9

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Candlewick

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2015

Warm, funny, and inspiring.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2015

  • Stonewall Book Awards Winner

GEORGE

George, a fourth-grader who knows she is a girl, despite appearances, begins to tell her secret.

The word “transgender” is used midway through, but far more work is done by the simple choice to tell George’s story using third-person narration and the pronouns “she” and “her.” Readers then cringe as much as George herself when bullies mock her or—perhaps worse—when well-meaning friends and family reassure her with sentiments like “I know you’ll turn into a fine young man.” Each year the fourth-graders at George’s school perform a dramatized version of Charlotte’s Web, the essentials of which are lovingly recapped (and tear-inducing ending revealed) for readers unfamiliar with the tale. George becomes convinced that if she plays Charlotte, her mom will finally see her as a girl. George’s struggles are presented with a light, age-appropriate, and hopeful touch. The responses she gets when she begins to confide in those closest to her are at times unexpected but perfectly true-to-character—most notably her crude older brother’s supportive observation that, “No offense, but you don’t make a very good boy.” A coda to the Charlotte’s Web story, in which George presents herself as a girl for the first time, is deeply moving in its simplicity and joy.

Warm, funny, and inspiring. (Fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-545-81254-2

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

An adoption story that’s rich in family complexities and that readers won’t abandon.

RED BUTTERFLY

Set against the backdrop of China’s one-child policy, this emotional debut novel-in-verse reveals how one girl refuses to be left behind.

Eleven-year-old Kara lives a sheltered life in Tianjin with Mama, an elderly, American, non-Chinese woman. Mama rarely goes out and refuses to send Kara to school like other Chinese kids. With money tight and a “daddy” who lives in Montana, Kara begins to question why they can’t go live with him. When Kara’s neighbor Zhang Laoshi tells her about being abandoned as a baby, Kara suspects that her hand, “with two short nubs / instead of fingers,” is at the root of her woes. “This is why my birth mother / didn’t keep me, / why she decided to try again / for someone better.” Piece by piece, she discovers a shocking secret about why they must hide. Soon, an accident during a visit from Jody, Mama’s older daughter, sets into motion a roller-coaster adoption process. Kara must make unthinkable choices and painstakingly claim with whom she belongs. Sonnichsen draws upon firsthand experiences in volunteering to improve China’s orphanages and adopting her own Chinese daughter. With spare, fluid language, she creates the endearing, authentic, nuanced emotions of a girl stuck between two worlds and brings to light a foundling’s hope and determination.

An adoption story that’s rich in family complexities and that readers won’t abandon. (author’s note) (Verse/fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4814-1109-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

A delightful protagonist, interesting fowl of various breeds and a cast of appealing second-string characters make this a...

UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER

Moving to the farm her family inherited from Great-Uncle Jim, Sophie Brown, 12, discovers a flyer from a local poultry purveyor promoting its “unusual chickens” and quickly discovers it’s not false advertising.

Sophie’s story unfolds through her correspondence with the poultry people and her letters to Great-Uncle Jim and her beloved abuelita (both deceased but very much alive to Sophie). While Dad’s white, brown-skinned, U.S.-born Sophie and her freelance-writer mother are frequently assumed to be migrant farmworkers, legal or otherwise, but they take it in stride. (The town of Gravenstein’s fairly diverse, but some residents need remedial multicultural ed.) The chickens Sophie acquires are plenty diverse themselves, from Henrietta, who lays glass eggs, to Chameleon, with her nifty gift for turning invisible when predators are near. The chickens’ superpowers aren’t a secret. Most who are in the know are trustworthy with one big exception: a wannabe poultry thief. Genuinely informative, entertaining chicken-raising tips are offered (and may prompt readers to lobby parents for chickens of their own). Matching the text in tone and substance, the illustrations honor the tale’s serious chicken-raising elements, portraying breeds in anatomically correct detail, while perfectly capturing that intense, slightly demented demeanor chickens, unusual and otherwise, are known for.

A delightful protagonist, interesting fowl of various breeds and a cast of appealing second-string characters make this a top pick for young readers, poultry fanciers or not . (Fantasy. 8-12)

Pub Date: May 12, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-75552-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2015

Children’s literature has been waiting for Apple Yengko—a strong, Asian-American girl whose ethnic identity simultaneously...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

Google Rating

  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2015

BLACKBIRD FLY

Apple Yengko has one possession from the Philippines—a Beatles cassette tape with her father’s name written on it. She knows every song by heart.

After her father’s death when she was very young, Apple and her mother moved to the United States. There is not much diversity in Apple’s small Louisiana town. Her classmates call her Chinese though she is Filipina and bully her with taunts of “dog-eater.” Apple’s self-esteem plummets when she learns she is on the Dog Log, the boys’ list of the ugliest girls, and her friends abandon her. She hates her name, her mother’s accent, the shape of her eyes, everything that makes her different. She takes refuge in music, becoming determined to get her own guitar, despite her mother’s protests. Slowly, Apple develops new, healthy friendships. She comes to see through the cruelty of her classmates and to discover the unique characteristics that make her special. Each character in Kelly’s debut novel—the mean kids, the misfits, the adults and Apple herself—is portrayed with remarkable authenticity. The awkwardness and intense feelings inherent to middle school are palpable.

Children’s literature has been waiting for Apple Yengko—a strong, Asian-American girl whose ethnic identity simultaneously complicates and enriches her life. (Fiction. 9-14)

Pub Date: March 24, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-06-223861-0

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Greenwillow

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

An exciting adventure with true depth.

STORMSTRUCK!

Determined to save Pogo, his elderly Labrador retriever, from being put down, 12-year-old Sam sets sail on his catboat for an island just off the coast of Maine.

A violent storm chases them across the water, landing them on an unfamiliar beach. There, the two take shelter in a shed where they meet Magnus, a retired ornithologist, and his arctic tern, Fuego. Over supper, Magnus shares his wisdom about life and death, and Sam realizes his selfishness and decides to return home. But the sea has other plans. Blinded by impenetrable fog, driven by unpredictable tides, and hunted by a terrifying shark, Sam and Pogo are quickly lost. They finally make their way to a wrecked ship, where they survive on rainwater and the charity of a one-eyed cormorant. There, Sam confronts not only Pogo’s fate, but his brother’s death in Afghanistan. Short chapters filled with nonstop action will keep the pages turning. While deep questions about love, sacrifice, and death offer no easy answers, Sam’s struggle is both authentic and heart-wrenching. Macfarlane’s sure hand creates accurate nautical details, a cast of fascinating human and animal characters, and the timeless struggle between man and nature, all attuned to middle-grade sensibilities with no hint of patronization.

An exciting adventure with true depth. (Fiction. 8-12)

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8234-3394-0

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Holiday House

Review Posted Online: June 23, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2015

This powerful introduction to a great warrior and leader invites readers to ponder the meaning of “hero.” (author’s note,...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

Google Rating

  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • google rating
  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2015

  • American Indian Youth Literature Awards Winner

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CRAZY HORSE

School bullies claim Jimmy McClean’s blue eyes, fair hair, and Scottish surname mean he’s not a real Indian; to validate Jimmy’s Lakota heritage, Grandpa Nyles suggests a road trip in search of another Lakota with fair hair and skin: Crazy Horse.

Their journey takes them across the Great Plains to where Crazy Horse first witnessed attacks on his people and where he fought to end white appropriation of their homeland. Accounts of battles and stories of his integrity and commitment to providing for the weak and elderly in need bring Crazy Horse into focus. The Lakota author’s first book for children (The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn, 2007, etc.) doesn’t airbrush tragic events; they are here, placed in context. At each site, Nyles tells the story (set in italics) of what happened to Crazy Horse there. Between stops, Nyles answers Jimmy’s questions in conversations that allow readers distance to process often bleak events and to reflect on their meaning today (the art’s storybook sensibility helps here). The story’s heavy in losses and defeats, but it’s also uplifting in ways seldom addressed in children’s fiction. Crazy Horse could have led his last small band of warriors to a heroic end in battle. But great leadership mandates a different kind of courage. He chose surrender as the best hope for protecting his people—the vulnerable children, women, and elderly.

This powerful introduction to a great warrior and leader invites readers to ponder the meaning of “hero.” (author’s note, glossary, bibliography) (Fiction. 9-12)

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4197-0785-8

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Amulet/Abrams

Review Posted Online: Aug. 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

Luminescent, just like the artwork it celebrates. (Historical fiction. 10-14)

THE SEVENTH MOST IMPORTANT THING

Traumatized by his father’s recent death, a boy throws a brick at an old man who collects junk in his neighborhood and winds up on probation working for him.

Pearsall bases the book on a famed real work of folk art, the Throne of the Third Heaven, by James Hampton, a janitor who built his work in a garage in Washington, D.C., from bits of light bulbs, foil, mirrors, wood, bottles, coffee cans, and cardboard—the titular seven most important things. In late 1963, 13-year-old Arthur finds himself looking for junk for Mr. Hampton, who needs help with his artistic masterpiece, begun during World War II. The book focuses on redemption rather than art, as Hampton forgives the fictional Arthur for his crime, getting the boy to participate in his work at first reluctantly, later with love. Arthur struggles with his anger over his father’s death and his mother’s new boyfriend. Readers watch as Arthur transfers much of his love for his father to Mr. Hampton and accepts responsibility for saving the art when it becomes endangered. Written in a homespun style that reflects the simple components of the artwork, the story guides readers along with Arthur to an understanding of the most important things in life.

Luminescent, just like the artwork it celebrates. (Historical fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Sept. 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-553-49728-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: June 10, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

Celebrate a truly accepting multicultural character.

LOLA LEVINE IS NOT MEAN!

From the Lola Levine series , Vol. 1

Brown introduces a smart, young protagonist with a multicultural background in this series opener for chapter-book readers.

Second-grader Lola Levine is half-Peruvian and half-Jewish; she is a skilled soccer player, a persuasive writer, and aspires to own a cat in the near future should her parents concede. During a friendly recess soccer match, Lola, playing goalie, defends an incoming ball by coming out of her box and accidentally fouls a classmate. And so Lola acquires the rhyming nickname Mean Lola Levine. Through Lola’s first-person narration, readers see clearly how her savvy and creativity come from her family: Dad, who paints, Mom, who writes, and a fireball younger brother. She also wears her bicultural identity easily. In her narration, her letters to her friends, and dialogue, Lola easily inserts such words as diario, tía, bubbe, and shalom. For dinner, the family eats matzo ball soup, Peruvian chicken, and flan. Interspersed throughout the story are references to all-star soccer athletes, from Brazilian master Pelé to Mia Hamm, Briana Scurry, and David Beckham. Dominguez’s black-and-white illustrations are cheery and appealing, depicting a long-haired Caucasian father and dark-skinned, black-haired mother. Typefaces that emulate penmanship appropriately differ from character to character: Lola’s is small and clean, her mother’s is tall and slanted, while Juan’s, the injured classmate, is sloppy and lacks finesse.

Celebrate a truly accepting multicultural character. (Fiction. 6-10)

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-25836-4

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Aug. 12, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

A painful story smartly told, Benjamin’s first solo novel has appeal well beyond a middle school audience.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2015

  • New York Times Bestseller

THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH

In middle school, where “Worst Thing” can mean anything from a pimple to public humiliation, Suzy “Zu” Swanson really has a reason to be in crisis: her former best friend has died unexpectedly, and the seventh-grader is literally silenced by grief and confusion.

A chance encounter with a jellyfish display on a school trip gives her focus—for Zu, the venomous Irukandji jellyfish, while rare, provides a possible explanation for the “how” of Franny’s death. And Zu is desperate for answers and relief from her haunting grief and guilt. In seven parts neatly organized around the scientific method as presented by Mrs. Turton, a middle school teacher who really gets the fragility of her students, Zu examines and analyzes past and present. A painful story of friendship made and lost emerges: the inseparable early years, Franny’s pulling away, Zu’s increasing social isolation, and a final attempt by Zu to honor a childhood pact. The author gently paints Zu as a bit of an oddball; not knowing what hair product to use leaves her feeling “like a separate species altogether,” and knowing too many species of jellyfish earns her the nickname Medusa. Surrounded by the cruelty of adolescence, Zu is awkward, smart, methodical, and driven by sadness. She eventually follows her research far beyond the middle school norm, because “ ‘Sometimes things just happen’ is not an explanation. It is not remotely scientific.”

A painful story smartly told, Benjamin’s first solo novel has appeal well beyond a middle school audience. (Fiction. 12 & up)

Pub Date: Sept. 22, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-38086-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

Full of charm and moxie—don’t let this one roll past.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2015

  • Newbery Honor Book

ROLLER GIRL

One summer changes everything for two 12-year-old girls whose friendship is tested when their interests—and attitudes—diverge.

Astrid and Nicole have been BFFs truly forever. When the girls go to the roller derby one night, Astrid is immediately hooked and jumps at the chance to attend a roller-derby camp, skating alongside the tough, dyed girls. Nicole, however, who's passionate about ballet, decides not to follow along with Astrid, creating the first real rift the girls have known. The two quickly make new friends in their new circles: Astrid with her roller-derby cohorts and Nicole with the popular ballet crowd. As Astrid navigates the rough-and-tumble sport she’s fallen in love with (and the bumps and bruises that come with it), she must also deal with what happens when friends just stop being friends and grow apart. Jamieson captures this snapshot of preteen angst with a keenly decisive eye, brilliantly juxtaposing the nuances of roller derby with the twists and turns of adolescent girls' friendships. Clean, bright illustrations evince the familiar emotions and bring the pathos to life in a way that text alone could not. Fans of Raina Telgemeier or Jimmy Gownley's Amelia series should certainly skate on over to this gem.

Full of charm and moxie—don’t let this one roll past. (Graphic fiction. 9-13)

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8037-4016-7

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: Dec. 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2014

More Book Lists

The Magazine: Kirkus Reviews

Jenn Shapland reclaims a queer icon in My Autobiography of Carson McCullers.

subscribe
  • The Kirkus Star

    One of the most coveted designations in the book industry, the Kirkus Star marks books of exceptional merit.

  • The Kirkus Prize

    The Kirkus Prize is among the richest literary awards in America, awarding $50,000 in three categories annually.

    See the 2019 winners.

Great Books & News Curated For You

Be the first to read books news and see reviews, news and features in Kirkus Reviews. Get awesome content delivered to your inbox every week.

Thank you!

Looks good !! Please provide a valid email.