The following titles—representing different genres, subjects, and formats and aimed at readers across the entire middle-grade developmental spectrum—are ideal jumping-off points for celebrating a year of exceptional publishing for young readers. You’ll find our complete list of 100 Best Middle-Grade Books of 2021 here.
These first two books reflect children’s natural affinity for the outdoors. In Crossing the Stream by Elizabeth-Irene Baitie (Norton Young Readers, June 8), Ato, a Ghanaian boy, and his best friends grow vegetables with nontoxic pesticides, trying to win a contest that grants the rare opportunity to visit the bird sanctuary established by Ato’s late father. Thoughtful, sensitive Ato’s passion for the wild grounds him when relationships with people are confusing. The graphic novel Saving Sorya: Chang and the Sun Bear written and translated by Trang Nguyen and illustrated by Jeet Zdung (Dial Books, Sept. 14) was inspired by the author’s childhood in Vietnam and her fierce determination to become a wildlife conservationist. It follows the reintroduction into the wild of an orphaned sun bear, incorporating environmental facts into a dramatic storyline.
The best historical works tread a fine line, making the past accessible to contemporary readers while providing fascinating insights into cultural differences. While dealing with utterly dissimilar subject matter, the following three books have in common vivid writing and memorable characterization. Shackleton’s Endurance: An Antarctic Survival Story by Joanna Grochowicz, illustrated by Sarah Lippett (A and U Children/Trafalgar, Oct. 1), is an immersive nonfiction account of the famously grueling expedition. The atomic bomb’s intergenerational legacy of human suffering is the subject of the tragically beautiful novel Soul Lanterns by Shaw Kuzki, translated by Emily Balistrieri (Delacorte, March 16), set in 1970 Hiroshima. English and German families alike confront the dislocation of World War II with love, hope, courage, and great humanity in The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay (McElderry, Oct. 19), companion to her 2018 novel, Love to Everyone.
The enduring appeal of escaping into fantasy worlds needs no explanation—especially not this year. The graphic novel ¡¡Manu!!, written and illustrated by Kelly Fernández (Graphix/Scholastic, Nov. 2), is a vibrant story set in a convent school in fictional Santa Dominga where a girl struggles as her good intentions go awry, her lively spirit doesn’t always want to obey, and magic proves hard to control. Series opener Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski (Aladdin, May 25) brings all the charm of bygone classics into a thoroughly modern, witty adventure. Flick finds starting over in the new town her family moves to much more interesting after she stumbles into a travel agency that transports its clients through multiverses. The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins, Oct. 12) is a grand, sweeping fantasy set in a world where boys are privileged and girls who challenge the status quo are subject to repressive reeducation; nevertheless, young Marya asks difficult questions and seeks real answers.
Packing huge emotional impact into an economical word count, poetry is a natural fit for young readers. We Belong by Cookie Hiponia (Dial Books, March 30) combines Pilipino cosmology with a mother’s immigration story as she spins magical, stirring tales for her daughters. “We are mothers and sisters and daughters. / We are friends and family. / We are singers of stories. // We belong.” (Read our interview with Hiponia.) The exquisite, gut-wrenching Niños: Poems for the Lost Children of Chile by María José Ferrada, illustrated by María Elena Valdez and translated by Lawrence Schimel (Eerdmans, March 23), imagines the voices of the youngest victims of brutal Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. In “Hugo” Ferrada writes, “He will be a poet. / And he’ll create a poem that rhymes / with the clap-clap of the soles of his sneakers / in the puddles.”
Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.