What a year. When it comes to middle grade novels for tweens, the quality and breadth of the stories released month after month in 2018 totally blew me away. There were many chapter books I devoured breathlessly in one sitting, then wanted to pick right back up and start all over again upon reaching the very last page.
There were books that made me feel so deeply, made me question social norms, and made me ache desperately for change, growth and enlightenment for our society as a whole. And there were also stories that made me cheer, because the protagonists with whom I fell in love found strength, friendship and, perhaps most importantly, themselves.
These are my favorite chapter books written for tweens this year,* books I would loosely recommend for fourth grade on up. I am seriously in love with these stories, and I hope your children and students will use these books as windows through which they can learn about others and mirrors in which they see themselves reflected in wondrous and inspiring pages.
Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed: This is the story of Amal, a bookish girl living in Pakistan with dreams of becoming a teacher. But one day at the market, Amal mouths off to the wrong man: Jawad, son of her village’s wealthy landlord. In order to pay off the debt for her insulting behavior, Amal is forced into indentured servitude with Jawad’s family, leaving her own family behind. At the landlord’s pretentious home, Amal sees firsthand the dangers of illiteracy and gender inequality, and she begins sneaking books from the library and teaching the other servants to read. When Amal is sent by the family to be a patron at the village's new literacy center, she recognizes that her education has given her a powerful hand- the ability to take a critical stance against corruption. Simply stunning - and as proof of its excellence, it was this year’s Global Read Aloud, utilized to connect children all across the globe. For our full review of Amal Unbound, click here!
The Creativity Project: An Awesometastic Story Collection, by Colby Sharp: This fantastic collection of stories is just so much fun! In this unique book, kidlit champion Colby Sharp gathered a group of more than forty beloved children’s book writers and illustrators and engaged them in one heck of a creative challenge. Each writer created a story prompt — a photo, a poem, a sentence, a quote, whatever they wanted — and that prompt was sent to another writer in the group. When everyone received their prompts, they could transform them into anything they wanted. The result? An incredibly dynamic, unique and poignant collection of short stories, words, poems and art from some of the most beloved writers in the children’s book industry, including Peter Brown, Kate DiCamillo, Minh Le, Jennifer Holm, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Javaka Steptoe, and so many more. Priceless!
Front Desk, by Kelly Yang: This is the story of Mia Tang who, together with her parents, leaves China and arrives in America in search of the American Dream. But their hard work and determination doesn’t mean life will be easy, and when Mia’s family finds themselves operating a motel for a cruel and exploitative owner, life is anything but what they had imagined. Mia runs the front desk at the motel, and the tougher her days are, the more she longs for a better and easier life. With the help of a new friend, the motel’s “weeklies,” her devoted parents, and a lucky pencil, Mia may be able to find that she can achieve her own American dreams with a hefty amount of perseverance and a whole lot of heart. A beauty, and my school book club’s favorite book this semester! For our full review of Front Desk, click here!
Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes: This is an absolutely fantastic and gut wrenching novel about Jerome, a twelve year old black boy who is shot and killed by a white police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real one. As a ghost, Jerome sees the devastation and chaos his death has caused, with his family and community at the heart of it. While his family protests what they believe is an unjust killing, Jerome meets another ghost — that of Emmet Till, a boy who lived decades earlier and experienced the same destructive injustice — as well as Sarah, the police officer’s daughter, who is still alive. Together, Emmet and Sarah help Jerome process his death. Deftly weaving history with today’s pressing issues, this story is a haunting beauty, one that has a place of importance on every tween bookshelf and in every school collection. Though this is undoubtedly a tough topic, Ghost Boys is age appropriate and expertly written.
Harbor Me, by Jacqueline Woodson: Six children are taken to their school’s old art room and told it’s a place for them to have a weekly chat— without teachers, thus making it totally unmonitored. The six kids, from varying walks of life, are hesitant at first. They each have their stories, but is it safe? Can they open up to one another? The room becomes dubbed the ARTT room, an acronym for “a room to talk,” and soon enough, their stories begin. As the kids’ connections develop and their words bridge divides, the students realize that sharing their stories could be the very thing they needed to give them the strength to handle circumstances that once made them feel so desperately alone. Timely, tough, but oh-so-touching, this is one not to be missed. For our full review of Harbor Me, click here!
Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, by Ashley Herring Blake: Ivy Aberdeen’s s home is flattened by a tornado that rages through her town. All she manages to save as she flees her house is her pillow which contains her most precious possessions- fancy markers and a journal filled up with drawings, many of which include pictures of Ivy holding hands with an unidentifiable girl. After the storm, Ivy’s notebook goes missing. When her pictures mysteriously begin showing up in her own locker, together with notes encouraging Ivy to be true to who she is, Ivy hopes the letters are coming from a girl on whom she has developed a secret crush. But is owning her truth as easy as Ivy wants it to be? Ivy’s words and yearnings will be windows for some and mirrors for others, but her burning desire to understand who she is at her core will be loved and cherished universally.
Louisiana’s Way Home, by Kate DiCamillo: In this beautiful, moving story of self discovery, we revisit one of the three girlfriends from Raymie Nightingale. Who? Louisiana Elefante, of circus family fame! But our story begins not in Florida, and instead with Louisiana and her granny on the run - they have left their home in the middle of the night and are driving straight up to Georgia, where they must stop when Granny suffers from a horrific toothache. The pair wind up at a motel in the middle of nowhere, so when Granny leaves again - this time without Louisiana by her side - Louisiana is alone and devastated, fearing she will forever be destined for goodbyes. When Louisiana learns a painful secret upon her grandmother’s disappearance, her past unravels before her eyes and she must decide what she wants — and who she wants to be. A breathtaking masterpiece that made me cry over and over again. For our full review of Louisiana’s Way Home, click here!
The Night Diary, by Veera Hirandandani: The year is 1947. India, no longer ruled by the British, has been divided into two countries, Pakistan and India, which has created significant discord between Hindus and Muslims. This leaves twelve year old Nisha, half Indian and half Muslim, distraught. Who is she, and where does she belong? When Nisha’s Indian father decides Pakistan is no longer safe, Nisha and her family flee, becoming refugees overnight. Told entirely in letters to the Muslim mother she never knew, Nisha’s story is riveting, nuanced and oh-so-compelling, especially for children struggling to understand who they are, where they fit in the world, and how to move on when both home and heart are ripped in two. An accessible, historical masterpiece that I fell head over heels in love with from the very first page.
The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson: I love when puzzling stories of the past become present day mysteries just begging to be brought to life and explored. That is exactly what happens here, in this fabulous, intricately plotted story about Candice and her sidekick, Brandon. After Candice discovers a letter addressed to her grandmother describing an injustice that happened long before Candice’s time, she goes on the hunt to solve a puzzle - and find a fortune. Expertly moving between past and present, the challenge leads the friends deep into the history of their South Carolina town and is marked by great discovery — not just about their home, but about themselves, too. This book has received a long list of accolades for a reason - love, love, love it!
Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster. by Jonathan Auxier: This is the story of Nan Sparrow, an orphaned chimney sweeper who spends her days performing a thankless — and wholly dangerous — job. After her “Sweep” leaves her, and after she almost loses her life in a chimney fire, Nan fears her days are numbered. But when she awakens in an abandoned attic and discovers a golem made of soot and ash in the room with her, she begins a new life full of hope, friendship and the courage to conquer her greatest challenges. Antisemitism, child labor, and social justice are just some of the issues explored in this beautifully written, fantastical story about one child’s struggle with her position in society and her relationship with an unconventional new friend. Folks, this one utterly astounded and captivated me from beginning to end. For our full review of Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, click here!
Where the Watermelons Grow, by Cindy Baldwin: This beautiful book tells the story of Della Kelly, a tween girl whose mother suffers from schizophrenia. The book opens with Della’s mother digging seeds out of a watermelon in the middle of the night, talking to people only she can see, and Della at once knows her mother is being tugged back down a dangerous road that once landed her in the hospital for months. With her Dad distracted by trying to save the family farm and her mom spinning out of control, Della decides she is the only one that can heal her mama and save her family - and she refuses to let others in for help. Will Della be able to hold her family together as her mother’s symptoms worsen by the day? Baldwin’s treatment of mental illness feels authentic at every step, and this important book gently reminds us that sometimes, letting go and letting others in is just what we need to survive. For our full review of Where the Watermelons Grow, click here!
Which of these books were your favorite? What would you add? Make sure to tell us on our Facebook page! We can’t wait to hear from you!
Did you love this post? Then you absolutely MUST check out these as well! Happily Ever Elephants’ Favorite Picture Books of 2018, Happily Ever Elephants’ Top 20 Picture Books of 2017, and Favorite Chapter Books for Newly Independent Readers!
*Please note that I cannot possibly read the same amount of chapter books in a year as I do picture books - thus, the number of middle grade books read in total is significantly smaller than my picture book sample!