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Hi everyone! This is Books Between – a podcast for teachers, parents, librarians, and anyone who wants to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love. I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a 5th grade teacher, a mom of two girls, and enjoying my extra reading time over the holiday break and the chance to relax.
This is episode #66 and today we are celebrating some of the best middle grade books published in 2018.
I’m a bit of a data nerd, and I have always been into tracking my reading – from my color-coded index card system in high school to my alphabatized Excel Spreadsheet in the early 2000s to now where I do a mix of Goodreads and a bullet journal. So looking back over the last couple of years since I started doing this show, in 2016 I read 60 middle grade books with 31 of those published in 2016. And my top three books of that year were Booked, Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, and The Wild Robot. (You can find that list here.)
Last year, I read 79 middle grade with 55 of those published in 2017. A jump I will totally attribute to the intensity of being on the CYBILS committee. And my top three books of 2017 were Posted, Refugee, and Orphan Island and my top three graphic novels last year were Real Friends, Pashmina, and All’s Faire in Middle School. (You can find the full list here.)
This year, I read 59 middle grade books with 41 of those released in 2018.
Before I start – a quick caveat. Selecting ONLY 25 titles was almost impossible. I enjoyed just about every book I read this year, and I know each one will find it’s reader. So how to choose the top twenty-five? I have two criteria – the writing is immersive (a book I couldn’t put down) and the story has that something special – unique character, an intriguing plot twist, or a thought-provoking theme (a book I can’t forget).
And again this year, I decided to separate out the graphic novels so be on the lookout for another best of podcast soon featuring just the middle grade graphic novels.
Okay, let’s get to it! Here are my Top 25 middle grade novels of 2018:
Main Topic – Top 25 Middle Grade Novels of 2018
#25: Granted by John David Anderson
From the author of the soon-to-be movie, Ms. Bixby’s Last Day and last year’s amazing
Posted is this story about Ophelia Delphinium Fidgets – one of the few remaining fairies entrusted with the job of Granter – a fairy who ventures into the dangerous human world to grant a wish. Ophelia’s increasingly difficult quest to grant a little girl her wish of a purple bike will keep you turning the pages. And her reluctant friendship with the slobbery dog Sam – along with some other hilarious touches like Ophelia’s special song – will make this novel one you won’t forget.
#24: Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin
This book – better than any I’ve read – captures the heat and the swelter of a scorching-hot drought-ridden summer. Our protagonist, Della, is feeling the weight of that and also the burdon of her mother’s re-emerging schizophrenia. But this novel is also laced with the sweetness of friendship and watermelon and hope and a touch of maybe magical honey.
#23: Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen & Laurie Morrison
This dual narrative novel is about Lauren and Sierra. The two girls end up living next to each other and becoming friends when Lauren’s neighbors become Sierra’s foster parents. As Lauren starts to become more aware of her priviledge, she comes up with a – shall we say “ill-advised” Robin Hood scheme that quickly starts to spiral out of control. Watching Lauren and Sierra get deeper and deeper and deeper into that pit and wondering how on earth they were going to dig themselves out is what kept me turning those pages. And what makes this book unique and fresh was the strength of the two perspectives – Lauren’s chapters in prose and Sierra’s in verse.
#22: The Three Rules of Everyday Magic by Amanda Rawson Hill
Believe. Give. Trust. With those three magical rules passed on to her from her grandmother, Kate tries to grapple with the changes in her life. Divorce, faltering friendship, and her grandmother’s worsening dementia. Along with the typical difficulties of a 12 year old! I loved this book for its blend of beautiful prose and realism.
#21: Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
This middle grade coming of age novel tells the story of 8th grader Marcus Vega who ends up traveling to Puerto Rico with his mom and younger brother in search of the father who seemed to abandon them years ago. And yes, his journey is about discovering family, but it’s also about discovering his culture. This book is a beautiful homage to Puerto Rico and a story that captures the experiences of many kids with family connections that represent multiple languages and backgrounds. It reminds me a bit of the graphic novel Crush with a twist of Torrey Maldonado’s Tight.
#20: The Frame Up by Wendy McLeod MacKnight
This novel was not only unforgettable but it utterly changed the way I experience walking into a musuem forever. And to me – that is the mark of an excellent book. It makes you see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Frame-up is set in a real-life place – the Beaverbrook Gallery in New Brunswick, Canada. And the art director’s son soon discovers that the paintings are…. alive. And they can travel into other paintings – which is completely fascinating when you consider that this museum includes art from different eras. And multiple paintings of the same person. What the author does in this world is spell-binding. But things start to get dicey when suddenly the art director’s son and Mona, a young girl in one of the museum’s prized paintings, find themselves desperately trying to stop both an art heist and a plot to destroy their community forever.
#19: Everything I Know About You by Barbara Dee
This book was a fun mix of humor and history intermixed with realistic depictions of issues that young people are coping with – like body shaming and eating disorders and figuring out that whole friendship thing while staying true to yourself and your values. What made this book stay with me long after that last page was read was the main character, Tally, whose self-confidence and style and body positivity are inspiring.
#18: So Done by Paula Chase
This upper middle grade coming of age story centers around friends Mila and Tai. The girls have spent the summer apart and as fall starts, it has become more and more clear that their friendship is sputtering out. And yes, part of that is typical things like finding new interests and more focus on boys, but there is this one massive secret hanging over both girls’ heads that threatens to not only destroy that friendship, but could destroy families, too.The slow, shocking reveal of what that secret really IS kept me turning the pages and what made this book stick with me so long afterward are the voices of the characters that are so fresh and unique and real! During the first chapter, I had a huge smile on my face because I was so happy to be reading a book that sounds like some of my students when they are talking to each other – and don’t think any adult is within earshot. Chase has this incredible knack for voice, and I cannot wait to see what other middle grade books she has coming our way!
#17: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
Johnson has expertly woven together multiple storylines across two different eras that are beautifully fused together in the final chapters. The main character, modern-day Candice, discovers a decades old mystery that takes her and the quiet bookworm boy across the street on a quest for a long-lost treasure. But to figure out the clues, they have to delve into some long buried town history that some folks would rather keep hidden. This book is rich with details and touches on topics that are not common in middle grade – like the end of segregation and its impact on black schools and the concept of passing. It’s beautifully written and if you have older middle grade kids who loved The Westing Game and who love mysteries, this is a great book to put in their hands.
#16: You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! by Alex Gino
Alex Gino’s second novel for middle grade readers is a sweet story about Jilly, White and hearing, who befriends a Deaf Black ASL user on a fandom website where they connect over their mutual love of a fantasy series. When Jilly’s new baby sister is born Deaf, she and her parents struggle with which expert advice to follow and everyone makes some missteps along the way. Based on reviews from those in the Deaf community, Gino does seem to get that representation right. To me this book is one to have in your classroom or library because it shows one character’s pathway through learning about incredibly important but tricky topics like white priviledge, racism, micro-agressions, and abelism. And done in a way with warmth and heart.
#15: Stella Diaz Has Something to Say by Angela Dominguez
I’ll admit – this one almost got past me! I was at school and had forgotten my book at home. And so on a whim, I picked up this book from my classroom library and promptly forgot that any other book existed and promptly fell for Stella’s sweetness and charm. Stella is a third grader, born in Mexico, but now living in Chicago with her mom and older brother. She’s struggling with being in a different class than her best friend, Jenny, and dealing with the accompanying worries that Jenny might be forming a closer relationship with another girl. Stella is also figuring out where she fits in with her outgoing family since she is more quiet and is working through some speech difficulties. Three things stand out to me about this book – its utter realness, the excellent illustrations sprinkled throughout, and also the fact that this novel intersperses Spanish in the most organic and well-executed way that I’ve ever encountered before. They pop up frequently and naturally, and yet I feel confident that most non-Spanish speaking readers can fairly easily figure out what those words mean from the context.
#14: Takedown by Laura Shovan
I LOVE books that immerse me in a subculture – like Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl, and the Irish dancing in Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish. I was fascinated to learn about wrestling moves and the tournament process in this novel. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the two main characters – Mikayla (known as Mickey) and Lev are written so vividly and honestly. Told in alternating point of view chapters, Mickey and Lev are each dealing with their own middle school difficulties of faltering friendships and dicey family dynamics. When they both wind up wrestling for the same elite traveling team, Lev needs to cope with having a new wreslting partner (a girl), and Mickey has to deal with a wrestling culture that isn’t exactly keen to accept her. How these two characters grow and how their stories intertwine have stayed on my mind – months later.
#13: Good Dog by Dan Gemeinhart
Another incredible story from a favorite author of so many of my students. Good Dog is told from the point of view of Brodie – a dog who we meet just after he’s entered the great beyond after his death. And as our sweet, noble Brodie figures out the rules of this new place, and makes some friends, he remembers more of his past life on Earth. And remembers the danger that his boy, Aidan, is still in. And Brodie has to decide whether to move on to that ultimate Forever or if saving his boy from that threat is worth the awful price he’ll have to pay to even attempt helping him. I love this book for so many reasons – but mostly for how it quietly but powerfully connects with Gemeinhardt’s previous novel, The Honest Truth. I don’t want to say more, but…. if you have a kid who has read and loved that book – give them Good Dog right after.
#12: Escape from Aleppo by N. H. Senzai
This is another novel that snuck up on me and then wouldn’t let go of my heart. For the last couple of years, my 5th graders and I have read Home of the Brave together as the first read aloud. This year I decided to have their book clubs centered around refugee and immigrant stories – with a focus on #ownvoices novels. And Escape from Aleppo was the only book club choice I hadn’t yet read – and so I read along with the kids in that club and followed their reading schedule and joined their discussions. And I completely agree with their assessment – this book is fabulous. It’s about 14-year-old Nadia, who we meet as her family is evacuating their home in Syria in an attempt to flee to Turkey. But in the carnage, Nadia ends up separated from her family and has to make her way through the city of Aleppo in a dangerous effort to reunite with them and to figure out who in the war-torn city she should trust to help her. What stands out to me most is the searing depiction of modern-day war and how much my students saw themselves in Nadia’s flashbacks to pre-Arab Spring Aleppo. Scenes were everything seems stable and Nadia is all about the latest episode of her favorite reality TV singing show and what color she should paint her nails. If you are looking for a companion book to Alan Gratz’s Refugee, this is an excellent choice. And one that will stay with you for a long, long time.
#11: Rebound by Kwame Alexander
This is the much-awaited prequel to the much-loved and much-awarded, novel-in-verse The Crossover. This book is all about Josh & Jordan’s father – Chuck “Da Man” Bell. But – this is an origin story. So when we first meet him, he is just Charlie – an 80’s kid reeling from a family tragedy and trying to find his way forward and trying to find his smile again. When home becomes tense, he is involuntarily shipped off to his grandparent’s house for the summer where he starts to find that path forward. I loved this book for it’s awesome illustratations and all those great 80s references.
#10: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
Esteban, Tiago, Holly, Amari, Ashton, Haley – these six kids are brought to an abandoned art room each Friday, left on their own, and allowed to simply talk. And eventually – their stories unfold. Stories of deportation, of harassment, of parent death and incarceration. Of hope and of despair. And by the end of that year, they have formed a bond and a vow to harbor each other. It’s Jacqueline Woodson so you know it’s gorgeously written, but it also speaks to a great need for empathy in our country right now. And I can attest that it’s not just one of those “important” books that kids don’t really like. It was one of the top requested book club selections and currently has a huge waiting list in my room, so I can vouch for it’s kid appeal.
#9: Small Spaces by Katherine Arden
Okay – this book creeped me the heck out! And it was glorious! This paranormal horror story is about a young girl named Ollie whose mom tragically died last year, and understandably – Ollie is withdrawn and rather raw. One fall day, Ollie disovers this strange book that tells the legend of two local brothers who come under the influence of The Smiling Man – with horrific results. When Ollie takes a field trip to a nearby farm, she and her friends Coco and Brian end up in an other-wordly battle to survive the lure of those mysterious forces. This book is so immersive and atmospheric and has one brilliant twist at the end that has me shuddering just thinking about it! Oh – and if you’re the type of person that isn’t at all freaked out by scarecrows – read this book and that will change.
#8: Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed
There has been sooo much love for this book this year – and if you haven’t yet read it, I will add my voice to all the others telling you…. it’s incredible. This novel is about a young Pakistani girl whose dream is to finish her education and to become a teacher. But when her mother is struggling with depression after having her fifth baby – another girl – Amal ends up staying home to take of the household. And then, to make matters far worse, she ends up insulting a poweful man in her village and be forced into indentured servitude to work off her family’s debt to him. It was this section of the book and Amal’s complicated relationship with man’s family and other servants that was the most compelling to me. Amal Unbound was the middle grade pick for the 2018 Global Read Aloud and is worthy of a spot in any middle grade collection.
#7: Blended by Sharon Draper
As 2018 came to a close, I started scouring the social media feeds of readers whose taste I rely on to see what books from the previous year I may have missed. And by far the one that I kept bumping into… was Blended. And oh were they right to push me to read it! And…confession time – this is the first Sharon Draper book I have read! You may already know her work from Out of My Mind or Copper Sun. This novel is about an 11-year-old girl – Izzy to her mom but Isabella to her Dad. Her parents are divorced and every week Isabella has to switch – switch households, switch bedrooms, switch backpacks, switch expectations…. and sometimes feels like she has to switch identities. Her father is black and and lives a far more swanky lifestyle now and Isabella’s mother is white and their home definitely has a more casual vibe. I loved this book because I know how many students can relate to Izzy’s frustrations with parental tug-of-war and that awkwardness with people coming into their lives. But this book had so many more themes that will definitely strike a chord with kids today – racial profiling, school threats, micro-agressions, police shootings, and the myriad other things that make up children’s day-to-day experiences.
#6: The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden
Ahhh – this book! I just…. Okay – plot first. This is the story of Zoey – a seventh-grader whose primary goals in life are to keep her two young siblings quiet and out of the way of her mom’s boyfriend and his father, to scrounge up enough for them to eat, and to stay completely invisible at school. But all of those things become tricky when her teacher pushes her to join the Debate Club after school. This book is about rural poverty, the nuances of the gun debate, domestic vioience… but the way those threads play out are not at all what I had expected – and so much better. This is the novel I wish I had read as a young middle school teacher when I thought that giving an hour’s worth of homework that required colored pencils, a ruler, and internet access was a perfectly acceptable thing to do.
#5: Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Another stand-out debut! And every time I see another starred review or another reader gush about this book, it just makes me heart a little more happy. Front Desk is about Mia Tang whose family – recent immigrants from China – wind up running a motel under less than ideal circumstances. Mia’s expectations of life in America – juicy burgers, a pet dog, a yard, and big pool – differ A LOT from her true life, which she keeps hidden from her classmates. Her life is tough. But once she starts to harness the power of her writing, Mia starts to realize that even the big injustices in life can start to change. Front Desk was another fall favorite of my students and a perfect book club book. And the last time I checked, it was offered through Scholastic for a great price.
#4: The Wild Robot Escapes by Peter Brown
When a sequel comes out to a book that you adored – characters who have found a home in your heart – it’s with trepidation that you crack open that cover and start a new journey with them. Oh but thank you Peter Brown because you did not disappoint and in fact…. I may love this story even more than the first. It’s hard to say anything without giving away the first book if you haven’t read it yet. (And if that’s the case – get on that!) But I will say that this sequel has more action, more human interactions, and therefore – more personal connections that kids can latch onto. And it deals with some big moral and ethical questions! It’a a brilliant story with a touch of the Iron Giant, a sprinkle of The Odyssey, and a little dash of The Good Place.
#3: Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
This is the story of Jermone – a young black boy playing outside his home with a small toy gun. A black boy who gets shot and killed by a police officer in the first pages and whose presence haunts the rest of the pages – and whose story – along with the other boys – haunts me still. And I can see in my classroom the impact it makes on the young kids who read it. There are instantly caught by that first title page – “Dead” – and those first words – “How small I look. Laid out flat, my stomach touching the ground. My right knee bent and my brand-new Nikes stained with blood.” Jerome is the first ghost boy we meet, but later there will be Emmett Till and others who get to tell parts of their stories. This book was both completely immersive and has that quality of staying with you long after you’ve read it. And it’s a rare book that deals honestly with racism and police violence in a way that is age appropriate and clear. And so many people have said, “This is an important book.” It IS – but don’t get it just because of that – get it and read it with kids because it’s an excellent book.
#2: Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo
This is, I believe, the first sequel that Kate DiCamillo has ever written. And if this is the quality of a DiCamillo sequel then I hope she writes a TON more – because this book ripped me apart and put me back together again. And I mean that in the best possible way! This book is the follow-up to Raymie Nightingale and focuses on Raymie’s quirky friend – Louisiana Elefante. Lousiana’s grandmother wakes her up in the middle of the night, piles her into the car, and is off to face her reckoning with the curse that has hung over their family’s head. Well, they end up in a Georgia Motel run by a cranky lady – where Louisiana has to take on more than anyone her age should have to. But also learns a lot about grace and the goodness of humankind as well. Raymie Nightingale was a book I liked pretty well, but nothing compared to this. It’s like this story sat in a rock tumbler until all the extra grit fell away and this sparkling gem emerged at the end.
#1: Tight by Torrey Maldonado
This book was fast-paced, fresh, and had such a…. bite to it! It’s the story of 6th grader, Bryan, who loves comics, who loves drawing superheroes, and who loves his mother and a life of no drama. His dad brings enough of that into their life. Money in their family is… tight. So he worries about that and worries about being perceived as “soft” – not tough enough. But then his parents, sort of… set him up with a friend – this neighborhood kid named Mike. And at first, Bryan resists. He gets weird vibe from this kid. But then the boys bond over comics and Netflix shows and spend more and more time together. They’re tight. But that friendship turns toxic when Mike starts luring Bryan into skipping school, hopping the turnstiles in the subway…and worse. Tight is an exceptional books – raw and real. If you have kids who like Jason Reynold’s Ghost and who liked the Miles Morales Spiderman – this is the book for them!
Alright – those are my top 25 middle grades books of 2018. Now – I want to hear from YOU! What were your favorite reads of the last year and which ones should I make sure to read in the year ahead?
Alright, that wraps up our show this week! If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at email@example.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.
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Thanks and see you soon! Bye!
Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.