Each year, Cracking the Cover compiles a list of books that make great gifts. The following are middle grade books published in and/or reviewed by Jessica in 2021. Synopsis are written by Jessica unless otherwise noted. Scroll down for the complete list or click or tap the following links to directly visit a section. EARLY READER • CONTEMPORARY • FANTASY • ADVENTURE/MYSTERY • GRAPHIC NOVEL • HISTORICAL FICTION • NONFICTION • INTERACTIVE
TALLY TUTTLE TURNS INTO A TURTLE (CLASS CRITTERS #1), by Kathryn Holmes and Ariel Landy, Amulet Books, Aug. 31, 2021, Hardcover, $12.99 (ages 6-9)
It’s Tally Tuttle’s first day of second grade, and she’s so nervous that she feels like she ate butterflies for breakfast! She just wishes she could retreat into a shell . . . Then, all of a sudden, the desks and her classmates around her seem enormous, and Tally is shell-shocked to discover that she’s actually turned into a turtle! She’d heard that Mrs. Norrell’s class was special, but she hadn’t expected this. —Synopsis provided by Amulet Books
I handed Tally Tuttle Turns into a Turtle to my then-soon-to-be second-grader with instructions to read it and report back. Here’s what she had to say: “It’s about a girl who gets turned into a turtle on her first day of school, and then she ends up outside and has to figure out how to turn back into a kid! It’s a funny adventure, but the best part is at the end when she gets friends. It says it’s Book 1, and I want to read more.”
Barkus: The Most Fun by Patricia MacLachlan and Marc Boutavant, Chronicle Books, Sept. 21, 2021, Hardcover, $14.99 (ages 6-9)
A young girl and her dog, Barkus, never know exactly how their adventures will turn out, but they know they’ll have fun along the way. From camping and visiting the family farm to a parade of ambling claves and winter at the cabin, the two are never far apart.
Barkus: The Most Fun is actually the third book in this early chapter series, but the books can be read out of order. These full-color reads feature short chapters and simple — but entertaining — text perfect for emerging readers. And they’re fun enough that even kids who’ve advanced past them will still want to read them.
JUDY MOODY: IN A MONDAY MOOD, by Megan McDonald and Peter H. Reynolds, Candlewick, Sept. 14, 2021, Hardcover, $15.99 (ages 6-9)
Judy Moody is Monday-morning mopey. Another week in her same-old seat at her same-old desk in her same-old school. Even worse, there aren’t any days off from school for ages. But when she steps into Class 3T, Judy’s Monday frown turns upside down. Mr. Todd is making Monday special by celebrating Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day (no lie)! This gives Judy an idea that just-might-maybe turn her week around: why not make every day of the week a holiday? —Synopsis provided by Candlewick
My 7-year-old began reading the Judy Moody books when she was in kindergarten, and she was immediately impressed. She really connected with this spunky girl who honestly expressed herself and wasn’t afraid to fail. Though my daughter is moving into harder books, she begged me to read it. We’ve really come to enjoy this series at our house, and when people ask for recommendations, I always suggest Judy over Junie B. Jones.
BOOK BUDDIES: IVY LOST AND FOUND, by Cynthia Lord and Stephanie Graegin, Candlewick Press, Sept. 28, 2021, Hardcover, $12.99 (ages 6-9)
Ivy was Anne the librarian’s doll when she was a young girl. But now she has moved to Anne’s library to be its newest Book Buddy — a toy that can be checked out just like a book. Fern, a child who visits the library with her stepfamily, wishes things could go back to the way they were, when Fern had her dad all to herself. When Fern takes Ivy home, an unexpected outdoor adventure helps both of them find confidence and belonging in their changing worlds. —Synopsis provided by Candlewick Press
Ivy Lost and Found is the first in a chapter-book series that pairs friendly toys with child characters who need them. The book was an immediate hit with my 7-year-old, who was immediately drawn to the sweet cover. Ivy Lost and Found has a timeless feel to it. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, just a lot of heart. The publisher’s suggested age for it is 6-9, but I’d drop it to 5-8. Nine-year-olds are probably a little to “mature” for it, but I could definitely see 5-year-olds thumbing through with an adult or on their own.
THE SECRET OF THE MAGIC PEARL, by Elisa Sabatinelli and Iacopo Bruno, Red Comet Press, Oct. 12, 2021, Hardcover, $21.99 (ages 6-10)
Hector lives with his family at the Marina in an Italian coastal town where they organize tourist expeditions to explore the many wonders of the sea. Hector’s dream is to become a deep-sea diver, just like his father. Then, one day, an unscrupulous entrepreneur opens a much newer center next door, forcing them to close their business. This man has a single purpose, to find the legendary Pearl in order to sell it and make money. Hector decides to find a way to thwart the plan and save what matters most to him: the sea, his family, and his dream. —Synopsis provided by Red Comet Press
The Secret of the Magic Pearl is a picture/chapter book hybrid with full-color illustrations throughout. And. It. Is. Gorgeous. From the bold and magical illustrations to the eccentric characters, everything about The Secret of the Magic Pearl feels special. Short chapters are broken up by a mix of small, medium and full-page spreads that get to the heart of the story. The tale itself is charming and a bit quirky. I’ve never read/seen anything like it.
REAL, by Carol Cujec and Peyton Goddard, Shadow Mountain, Feb. 2, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8 and up)
Charity may have mad math skills and a near-perfect memory, but with a mouth that can’t speak and a body that jumps, rocks, and howls unpredictably, most people incorrectly assume she cannot learn. Charity’s brain works differently from most people’s because of her autism, but she’s still funny, determined, and kind. So why do people treat her like a disease or ignore her like she’s invisible? When Charity’s parents enroll her in a public junior high school, she faces her greatest fears. —Synopsis provided by Shadow Mountain
Real is inspired by co-author Peyton Goddard who spent 22 years trapped inside her own body. At the age of 6, Peyton was diagnosed as severely autistic. It wasn’t until she gained a dependable mode of communication some 16 years later that she was recognized as intelligent.
Charity’s journey goes beyond finding her voice. In fact, finding her voice is just the beginning. Themes of anti-bullying, friendship, civil rights, self-acceptance, and preconceived notions are threaded throughout.
THESE UNLUCKY STARS, by Gillian McDunn, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, March 2, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
Ever since her mother left a few years ago, Annie has felt like the odd one out in her family. Her dad and brother just don’t understand the way she thinks. Everywhere she turns, she feels like an outsider, even at school, so she’s been reluctant to get close to anyone. When a “Ding-Dong-Ditch” attempt goes wrong, Annie finds herself stuck making amends with Gloria, the eccentric elderly lady she disturbed. As she begins to connect with Gloria and her weird little dog, it becomes clear that Gloria won’t be able to live on her own for much longer. But it’s this brief and important friendship that gives Annie the confidence to let people in, and see how rich life can be when you decide to make your own luck and chart your own path to happiness. —Synopsis provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
These Unlucky Stars is a tender read that celebrates family and friendships of all shapes and sizes.
STELLA, by McCall Hoyle, Shadow Mountain, March 2, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
Ever since she was a puppy, Stella was trained to use her powerful beagle nose to sniff out dangerous chemicals and help her handler keep people safe. But during a routine security inspection, Stella misses the scent of an explosive. Unable to go back to work because of her anxiety, Stella is retired as a working dog. When a young girl name Cloe wants to adopt Stella, the beagle knows this is her last chance to prove her worth. But how? When the beagle smells a strange chemical inside Cloe’s body just before the girl has a seizure, Stella’s nose makes the connection. But how can Stella convince others that she can be a new kind of service dog and hopefully save Cloe’s life? —Synopsis provided by Shadow Mountain
Stella is a book that you’ll talk about after finishing it. It’s one you’ll think about, too. That’s because McCall Hoyle is an excellent storyteller. The book is told from the point of view of the title character. You get a real sense of what it’s like to be a dog. The behavior and thought process are spot on. But it’s when you read her tale within the context of conversations and observations that you truly understand how difficult it must have been for Hoyle to maintain a perfect balance.
RESCUE AT LAKE WILD, by Terry Lynn Johnson, HMH Books for Young Readers, April 27, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
Everyone knows that twelve-year-old Madison “Madi” Lewis is not allowed to bring home any more animals. But when Madi and her two best friends, Aaron and Jack, rescue beaver kits whose mother was killed, they find themselves at the center of a local conspiracy that’s putting the beavers and their habitats in danger. As Madi and her friends race to uncover the threat targeting the beavers, Madi must put her animal whisperer skills to the test in both raising the orphaned beaver kits and staying out of trouble long enough. —Synopsis provided by HMH Books for Young Readers
Madi, Aaron and Jack are a delightful trio who balance each other out. They’ve all got their quirks, and that, along with Jack’s dog, Lid, make for some great interactions, mishaps and discoveries. Rescue at Lake Wild celebrates friendship, ingenuity and nature. It will make an excellent addition to any reader’s growing library.
UNSETTLED, by Reem Faruqi, HarperCollins, May 11, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
When her family moves from Pakistan to Peachtree City, all Nurah wants is to blend in, yet she stands out for all the wrong reasons. Nurah’s accent, floral-print kurtas, and tea-colored skin make her feel excluded, until she meets Stahr at swimming tryouts. In the water Nurah doesn’t want to blend in. She wants to win medals like her star athlete brother, Owais — who is going through struggles of his own in the U.S. Yet when sibling rivalry gets in the way, she makes a split-second decision of betrayal that changes their fates. —Synopsis provided by HarperCollins
Written in verse, Unsettled is a fast moving, compelling read. Some chapters are a few pages, others a few sentences. Author Reem Faruqi takes advantage of the sparse language, allowing the spaces and silences to say as much as the words. The simplicity is eloquent and moving. Unsettled is a warm read that offers themes of empowerment, belonging and self-discovery.
THE LAST SUPER CHEF, by Chris Negron, HarperCollins, July 6, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
For as long as he can remember, Curtis Pith has been obsessed with becoming a chef like Lucas Taylor, host of Super Chef. And Curtis has a secret: Taylor is actually his long-absent father. So, when Taylor announces a kids-only season of Super Chef, Curtis finally sees his chance to meet his dad. But after Curtis wins a spot in the competition and arrives in New York to film the show, nothing goes as smoothly as he expected. —Synopsis provided by HarperCollins
The Last Super Chef reads like a behind-the-scenes expose of MasterChef/MasterChef Junior. Lucas Taylor is an easy stand-in for multi-Michelin starred chef Gordon Ramsay, and Curtis could be any of the contestants that have participated over the years. Obviously, there are some differences — the main one being the long-lost father storyline — but the overall passion, competition concept and cookery are not only similar, but feel true to the circumstances.
DOWN TO EARTH, by Betty Culley, Crown Books for Young Readers, August 24, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
Henry has always been fascinated by rocks. As a homeschooler, he pours through the R volume of the encyclopedia (to help him identify the rocks he finds). So, when a meteorite falls in his family’s field, who better to investigate than this rock enthusiast. But soon after the meteorite’s arrival, the water in Henry’s small Maine town starts drying up. It’s not long before news spreads that the space rock and Henry’s family might be to blame. Henry is determined to defend his newest discovery, but his knowledge of geology could not have prepared him for how much this stone from the sky would change his community, his family, and even himself. —Synopsis provided by Crown Books for Young Readers
The appeal of Down to Earth comes in its simplicity. Kids aren’t glued to cell phones; families work to support each other; and there’s a true sense of community, even when there are disagreements. Quite honestly, it’s this sort of wholesome background that really elevates the magic and joy of making a discovery and learning. Author Betty Culley’s writing is smooth and inviting. She seamlessly educates — lots of space and geological science facts — while painting a compelling story of friendship and family.
STARFISH, by Lisa Fipps, Nancy Paulsen Books, March 9, 2021, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 10 and up)
Ever since Ellie wore a whale swimsuit and made a big splash at her fifth birthday party, she’s been bullied about her weight. To cope, she tries to live by the Fat Girl Rules — like “no making waves,” “avoid eating in public,” and “don’t move so fast that your body jiggles.” And she’s found her safe space — her swimming pool. In the water, she can stretch herself out like a starfish and take up all the room she wants. It’s also where she can get away from her pushy mom, who thinks criticizing Ellie’s weight will motivate her to diet. Fortunately, Ellie has allies in her dad, her therapist, and her new neighbor, Catalina, who loves Ellie for who she is. With this support buoying her, Ellie might finally be able to cast aside the Fat Girl Rules and starfish in real life. —Synopsis provided by Nancy Paulsen Books
Starfish is an emotional read from beginning to end. Lisa Fipps’ prose is elegant, honest, and, at times, raw. It’s clear from the beginning that she hasn’t just written a story. Ellie’s experiences stem Fipps’ own life. There’s an authenticity there that you just can’t make up. Starfish is one of those books you pick up and don’t want to put down. Fipps’ writing packs an emotional punch that will make readers from all points of view question themselves and their actions. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.
THE ACCIDENTAL APPRENTICE, by Amanda Foody, Margaret K. McElderry Books, March 30, 2021, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
As an apprentice to the town’s mushroom farmer, Barclay need only work hard and follow the rules. But then Barclay accidentally strays into the Woods where magical Beasts lurk. To Barclay’s horror, he unwittingly bonds with a Beast and is run out of town by an angry mob. Determined to break this bond and return home, Barclay journeys to find the mysterious town of Lore Keepers, people who have also bonded with Beasts and share their powers. But after making new friends, entering a dangerous apprenticeship exam, and even facing the legendary Beast of the Woods, Barclay must make a difficult choice: return to the home and rules he’s always known, or embrace the adventure awaiting him. —Synopsis provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books
Author Amanda Foody does an excellent job setting up a world that feels both expansive and small at the same time. She mimics Barclay’s limited view to his immediate surroundings, but as he opens himself up to new possibilities, the world around him expands. This fast-moving fantasy adventure has broad appeal.
THE LAST WINDWITCH, by Jennifer Adam, HarperCollins, April 13, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
Many years ago, in the kingdom of Fenwood Reach, there was a powerful Windwitch who wove the seasons, keeping the land bountiful and the people happy. But then a dark magic drove her from the realm, and the world fell into chaos. Brida is content trying to convince her fickle magic to actually do what it’s meant to in her work as a hedgewitch’s apprentice—until she accidentally catches the attention of the wicked queen. On the run from the queen’s huntsman and her all-seeing Crow spies, Brida discovers the truth about her family, her magic, and who she is destined to be. —Synopsis provided by HarperCollins
One of the best things about The Last Windwitch is that it stands alone. Yes, author Jennifer Adam could return to the world she’s created — and I hope she does — but she doesn’t have to. At 448 pages, it’s probably too long for less advanced middle readers. However, it takes courage to contain the story to one novel, and I commend both author and editor for that choice. The book and overall reading experience are better because of it.
A DISCOVERY OF DRAGONS, by Lindsay Galvin, Chicken House, July 6, 2021, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 8-12)
It’s 1835. Cabin boy Simon Covington is on the voyage of a lifetime to the Galapagos Islands with the world-famous scientist, Charles Darwin. But when Simon falls overboard during a huge storm, he washes up on an unexplored island. Stranded there, he makes a discovery that could change the world. Now it’s not just his own survival at stake — the future of an undiscovered species is in his hands. But perhaps there’s one person who could help … —Synopsis provided by Chicken House
Author Lindsay Galvin does an excellent job setting the scene. You do feel as if you’re at the Galapagos. And though she adopts the more formal language of the time, it never feels stiff or stilted. A Discovery of Dragons isn’t high fantasy, but it asks you to imagine “what if?” which might be even better.
THE RAVEN HEIR, by Stephanie Burgis, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, Sept. 14, 2021, Hardcover, $6.99 (ages 8-12)
Deep within an enchanted forest lies a castle where a set of triplets and their sorceress mother have lived for years — safe from the decades-long war for the Raven Throne that rages in the kingdom. Cordelia, one of the triplets, has the power to become any animal with just a thought, and she yearns to discover more about the world outside her castle. But one day, the world comes to her, when the eldest of the triplets becomes the newest heir to the throne. Knowing that being named heir means certain death, Cordelia’s mother hid the truth about which child is the eldest when she hid them in the forest. When her family is captured, it’s up to Cordelia to use her powers to keep her siblings hidden and discover the truth about the Raven Heir — before it’s too late. —Synopsis provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
The Raven Heir is a fantasy novel full of magic, but at its heart, it’s about what truly makes a family whole. It’s a fast-moving adventure that’s heart-warming as well. It should appeal to a large cross-section of readers.
THE SHATTERED CASTLE, by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Scholastic Press, Oct. 19, 2021, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 8-12)
King Jaron has outwitted the Prozarians and returned to his own kingdom with one secret in his pocket that not even his friends know about. He’s hoping that secret will help him finally bring stability to Carthya. But a surprise attack on his own land reminds Jaron that nothing is easy. The Prozarian Monarch threatens to crumble Jaron’s entire kingdom. And that’s not the only thing in danger: With old enemies and new rumors circling around him, even Jaron’s relationship with Imogen is uncertain.—Synopsis provided by Scholastic Press
The Shattered Castle is full of plot twists of all sizes, including a big one that explains a lot of Jaron’s behavior. It’s a great read with lots of mystery and adventure. Nielsen’s writing is comfortable and inviting, making The Shattered Castle a welcome addition to any home library.
CHILDREN OF THE FOX, by Kevin Sands, Viking Books for Young Readers, Oct. 5, 2021, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
Lured by the promise of more money than they’ve ever dreamed of, five young criminals are hired to steal a heavily guarded treasure from the most powerful sorcerer in the city. There’s Callan the con artist, Meriel the expert at acrobatics (and knives!), Gareth the researcher, Lachlan who can obtain anything, and Foxtail, whose mysterious eyeless mask doesn’t hinder her ability to climb walls like a spider. Callan has been warned most of his life, it’s best to stay away from magic. It can turn on you at any moment, and make you think you’re the one running the con game, when in reality you’re the one being fooled. Faced with these unsurmountable odds, can the friends pull off this legendary heist, or has their luck finally run out? —Synopsis provided by Viking Books for Young readers
Children of the Fox is an exciting read from beginning to end. It’s fast-paced, full of magic and adventure, and it’s the first book in a planned series (Thieves of Shadow), so readers will have plenty to look forward to.
THE HATMAKERS, by Tamzin Merchant and Paola Escobar, Norton Young Readers, Feb. 2, 2021, Hardcover, $18.95 (ages 9-12)
When Cordelia Hatmaker’s beloved father fails to return from an ingredient-hunting expedition, Cordelia is the only member of the family who knows in her heart that he can’t be gone for good. Her grief-stricken aunt and uncle forge ahead to continue the work of their guild and to fulfill a crucial order from the King for a magical Peace Hat. But the enchantments woven into the carefully crafted goods of the Hatmaker, Bootmaker, Cloakmaker, Watchmaker, and Glovemaker guilds begin causing sudden inducements of rage and chaos. As war looms and the Peace objects backfire, Cordelia must find out who is using the Makers’ creations for dark purposes and uncover the truth about her father’s disappearance. —Synopsis provided by Norton Young Readers
The Hatmakers is a magical tale about family, friendship and believing in yourself. It is a quick-moving adventure that’s sure to appeal to a large cross-section of readers.
BLOOM, by Nicola Skinner and Flavia Sorrentino, HarperCollins Children’s Books, March 16, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 10 and up)
Sorrel Fallowfield is so good at being good that teachers come to her when they need help remembering the school rules — and there are LOTS. Luckily, Sorrel doesn’t have any trouble following them, until the day she discovers a faded packet of Surprising Seeds buried under a tree in her backyard. Now she’s hearing voices, seeing things, experiencing an almost unstoppable urge to plant the Seeds in some very unusual places… and completely failing to win her school’s competition to find The Most Obedient Child of the School. And all that’s before flowers start growing out of her head… —Synopsis provided by HarperCollins Children’s Books
Bloom has a distinctly Roald Dahl-esque feel to it. Nicola Skinner’s quirky, often tongue-in-cheek prose practically flies off the pages. And Flavia Sorrentino’s floral illustrations add an extra dimension that truly benefits the story. Bloom is one of those books you don’t know you needed to read until you’ve read it. It brings life and lightheartedness, as well as a positive message. It was fun to read to myself, and I can’t wait to read it aloud with my 7-year-old when she’s a bit older (I’d say more advanced 8- and 9-year-olds will get along just fine with this one).
WINTERBORNE HOME FOR MAYHEM AND MYSTERY, by Ally Carter, HMH Books for Young Readers, March 2, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
April thought she had her happy ending. After all, she has her new house and new friends and new guardian. But she also has a very big new secret. The kids of Winterborne House are the only ones who know that Gabriel Winterborne is really a sword-wielding vigilante. What they don’t know is that he’s not the only one. When a masked figure breaks in, looking for something, it’s clear that Gabriel has met his match, and now no one is safe. April and her friends will have to solve a decades-old mystery in order to hang on to the most important thing in the world: each other. —Synopsis provided by HMH Books for Young Readers
One year ago, I called Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor “awesome MG.” And its follow-up, Winterborne Home for Mayhem and Mystery, is just as good. Both books are cinematic and feel as if everything plays out on the big screen before you. Like its predecessor, this novel is adventure from beginning to end. This fast-moving book is full of twists and turns, and a few surprises.
STOWAWAY, by John David Anderson, Walden Pond Press, Aug. 3, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
When scientists discover a mineral buried in the Earth’s crust, they have no idea that it just happens to be the most valuable substance in the entire universe. It’s not long before aliens show up, offering a promise of protection, some fabulous new technology, and entry into their intergalactic coalition — all in exchange for this precious resource. A material so precious that other alien forces are willing to start a war over it. A war that soon makes its way to Earth.
Leo knows this all too well. His mother was killed in one such attack, and soon after, his father, a Coalition scientist, decides it would be best for them to leave Earth behind. It’s on this expedition that their ship is attacked, Leo’s father is kidnapped, and Leo and his brother are stranded in the middle of space. The only chance they have is for Leo to stow away on a strange ship of mercenary space pirates bound for who knows where and beg the captain to help him find his father. Leo must decide who to trust as he tries to stay alive and save his family, even as he comes to understand that there aren’t many people — human or alien — that he can count on in this brave new universe. —Synopsis provided by Walden Pond Press
Stowaway is one of those novels that swiftly sweeps you away. Author John David Anderson’s prose is nimble and engaging, drawing readers in from the first page. And then there’s sort of a sci-fi familiarity. Stowaway feels like a mashup of the television shows Firefly and Farscape. It’s not an exact mirror of them, but they both came to mind when considering different elements. The pirates have the same banter and character development fans of Firefly will appreciate and the wild and weird aliens definitely have a Farscape vibe.
JANE AUSTEN INVESTIGATES: THE ABBEY MYSTERY, by Julia Golding, Lion Fiction; New edition, April 23, 2021, Paperback, $10.99 (ages 9 and up)
It’s 1789 and a Jane Austen turns detective as she seeks to solve the mysterious happenings at Southmoor Abbey. When a carriage accident forces a change of plans, 13-year-old Jane is sent to be a companion to Lady Cromwell for a week as the household prepares to celebrate the eldest son’s coming-of-age party. While there, Jane vows to solve the mystery of the ghostly monk in the Abbey grounds — for she does not believe in such stories! But this is not the only strange occurrence for the adventurous young Jane to investigate. There are shivery night-time investigations, an Indian girl with secret talents, a library fire, two prize horses in danger, and friends to save from false accusations. — Synopsis provided by Lion Fiction
In The Abbey Mystery, readers are exposed to societal norms of the time through a sort of Nancy Drew lens. Golding’s prose meets somewhere in the middle — with sophisticated phrasing that feels reachable to more modern sensibilities. Her tone is clear and concise, providing equal attention to both Jane’s surroundings and the action at hand.
ALONE, by Megan E. Freeman, Aladdin, Jan. 12, 2021, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 10 and up)
When 12-year-old Maddie hatches a scheme for a secret sleepover with her two best friends, she ends up waking up to a nightmare. She’s alone — left behind in a town that has been mysteriously evacuated and abandoned. With no one to rely on, no power, and no working phone lines or internet access, Maddie slowly learns to survive on her own. As months pass, she escapes natural disasters, looters, and wild animals. But Maddie’s most formidable enemy is the crushing loneliness she faces every day. Can Maddie’s stubborn will to survive carry her through the most frightening experience of her life? —Synopsis provided by Aladdin
I’m not usually drawn to novels written in verse, but Alone quickly drew me in. Author Megan E. Freeman’s prose is natural and inviting, and it lends itself well to both the intense and quiet moments. Alone is a fast read, you won’t want to put down — I read it in one sitting. Alone rings true and will appeal to a wide variety of older (ages 10 and up) middle graders.
ASTRONUTS MISSION THREE: THE PERFECT PLANET, by Jon Scieszka and Steven Weinberg, Chronicle Books, Sept. 21, 2021, Hardcover, $14.99 (ages 8-12
Time is up for our friends the AstroNuts. In fact, time is up for you, too. If they don’t succeed on this mission, Earth is doomed! So when the team finds out they’re being sent to a place called “the perfect planet,” their mission sounds way too easy. Unfortunately, the second they land, they realize they’ll be dealing with the most dangerous species of all time . . . humans. Huh? Where in the universe is this supposedly perfect place? And how will the Nuts manage to convince the humans to risk death . . . for the sake of their lives?! —Synopsis provided by Chronicle Books
The AstroNuts series, in particular, is very visual. All of the books feature full-color illustrations throughout. Illustrator Steven Weinberg bases his collage-type art on public domain pieces from the Smithsonian Museum. And author Jon Scieszka utilizes word bubbles and text boxes that quickly move the story forward and feel accessible to readers if all levels. The AstroNuts series is a good option for fans of Dog Man, Big Nate, Wimpy Kid, and Captain Underpants, as well as visual learners, reluctant readers, and those who just want to go on an adventure.
COLD WAR CORRESPONDENT (NATHAN HALE’S HAZARDOUS TALES #11): A KOREAN WAR TALE, by Nathan Hale, Harry N. Abrams, Oct. 26, 2021, Hardcover, $14.99 (ages 8-12)
In 1950, Marguerite Higgins (1920–1966) was made bureau chief of the Far East Asia desk for the New York Herald Tribune. Tensions were high on the Korean peninsula, where a border drawn after WWII split the country into North and South. When the North Korean army crossed the border with Soviet tanks, it was war. Marguerite was there when the Communists captured Seoul. She fled with the refugees heading south, but when the bridges were blown over the Han River, she was trapped in enemy territory. Her eyewitness account of the invasion was a newspaper smash hit. She risked her life in one dangerous situation after another — all for the sake of good story. Then she was told that women didn’t belong on the frontlines. The United States Army officially ordered her out of Korea. She appealed to General Douglas MacArthur, and he personally lifted the ban on female war correspondents, which allowed her the chance to report on many of the major events of the Korean War. —Synopsis provided by Harry N. Abrams
Two years ago, my then-5-year-old picked up Nathan Hale’s Major Impossible, Book 9 in the Hazardous Tales series. I couldn’t pry it away from her. Now, 7, she’s been asking for more books in the series, and when Cold War Correspondent arrived, I had to hide it. This addictive series tells true stories of American history that middle-readers love. You don’t have to read the books in order, and they’re all full of adventure and shocking events.
DIARY OF A WIMPY KID (SPECIAL DISNEY+ COVER EDITION) (DIARY OF A WIMPY KID #1), by Jeff Kinney, Amulet Books; Media tie-in edition, Nov. 23, 2021, Hardcover, $14.99 (ages 8-12)
In 2007, Diary of a Wimpy Kid was published, introducing readers to Greg Heffley and his family, his best friend Rowley Jefferson, and the dreaded Cheese Touch. It’s a new school year, and Greg finds himself thrust into middle school, where undersized weaklings share the hallways with kids who are taller, meaner, and already shaving. The hazards of growing up before you’re ready are uniquely revealed through words and drawings as Greg records them in his diary. —Synopsis provided by Amulet Books
More than 250 million copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid have now been sold and the 16th book in the series, Big Shot, just came out. This new edition of the book that started it all is in honor of a new full-color, 3D animated production that premieres Dec. 3 on Disney+. If you’re new to the Wimpy Kid universe, this book is the place to start.
I Survived the Galveston Hurricane, 1900, by Lauren Tarshis, Scholastic Inc., Sept. 7, 2021, Paperback, 5.99 (ages 7-10)
I Survived: The Galveston Hurricane, 1900, by Lauren Tarshis, follows a child through America’s deadliest disaster.
Back matter provided by Lauren Tarshis not only explains why the author wrote about the Galveston hurricane, but provides facts about hurricanes and life in 1900. The historical photographs really helped my daughter visualize the time and place.
Tarshis’ writing is clear and exciting. She doesn’t overcomplicate things, and illustrations sprinkled throughout add interest. At 115 pages (plus approximately 20 pages of back matter) I Survived: The Galveston Hurricane, 1900 is a great length for readers of all abilities. This engaging read will appeal to readers ages 7-10.
RESCUE, by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Scholastic Press, March 2, 2021, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
Meg Kenyon’s father is supposed to be in France, fighting for the Allies in World War II. Recently, she heard he was being held prisoner by the Nazis. All she has left of him are the codes he placed in a jar for her to decipher. Suddenly, an impossible chance to save her father falls into Meg’s lap. After following a trail of blood in the snow, Meggie finds an injured British spy hiding in her grandmother’s barn. Captain Stewart tells her that a family of German refugees must be guided to Spain, whereupon one of them has promised to free Meg’s father. Captain Stewart asks Meg to take them and gives her a final code from Papa to help complete the mission. —Synopsis provided by Scholastic Press
Rescue stands out from other novels in its genre in a number of ways. The most intriguing — the use of codes. Not only are the codes used, but Meg has to decode them herself. And the way the author presents them, allows the reader to work on them as well. Meg is a smart, lively girl who makes mistakes and quickly learns from them. Her adventure is nail-biting to the final chapter.
THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY, by Kate DiCamillo and Sophie Blackall, Candlewick, Sept. 28, 2021, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 8-12)
In a time of war, a mysterious child appears at the monastery of the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. Gentle Brother Edik finds the girl, Beatryce, curled in a stall, wracked with fever, coated in dirt and blood, and holding fast to the ear of Answelica the goat. As the monk nurses Beatryce to health, he uncovers her dangerous secret, one that imperils them all — for the king of the land seeks just such a girl, and Brother Edik, who penned the prophecy himself, knows why. And so it is that a girl with a head full of stories ventures into a dark wood in search of the castle of one who wishes her dead. —Synopsis provided by Candlewick Press
The Beatryce Prophecy is one of those books you want to share with everyone you meet. Kate DiCamillo’s writing is clear and engaging, and Sophie Blackall’s detailed illustrations are lovely. The story is broken into 54 short and accessible chapters (only a few pages in length) that move the story forward and serve as natural stopping points for readers who need them.
FACELESS, by Kathryn Lasky, HarperCollins, Oct. 19, 2021, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
Over the centuries, a small clan of spies called the Tabula Rasa has worked ceaselessly to fight oppression. They can pass unseen through enemy lines and “become” other people without being recognized. They are, essentially, faceless. Alice and Louise Winfield are sisters and spies in the Tabula Rasa. They’re growing up in wartime England, where the threat of Nazi occupation is ever near. But Louise wants to live an ordinary life and leaves the agency. Now, as Alice faces her most dangerous assignment yet, she fears discovery, but, most of all, she fears losing her own sister. —Synopsis provided by HarperCollins
Faceless is the sort of story I would have loved as a middle-reader and that I still enjoy today. Her mix of espionage and historical drama make for a fast-paced and engaging adventure. I would recommend this for fourth- and fifth-graders.
GROUND ZERO, by Alan Gratz, Scholastic Press, Feb. 2, 2021, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 9-12)
September 11, 2001, New York City: Brandon is visiting his dad at work, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center. Out of nowhere, an airplane slams into the tower, creating a fiery nightmare of terror and confusion. And Brandon is in the middle of it all. Can he survive — and escape?
September 11, 2019, Afghanistan: Reshmina has grown up in the shadow of war, but she dreams of peace and progress. When a battle erupts in her village, Reshmina stumbles upon a wounded American soldier named Taz. Should she help Taz — and put herself and her family in mortal danger?
Two kids. One devastating day. Nothing will ever be the same. —Synopsis provided by Scholastic Press
One of the things I love about Alan Gratz’s writing, is his ability to look at events from different viewpoints over the span of time. As is often the case, things are not as clear-cut as we would like them to be. While each child’s story is heart-pounding and heart-breaking, its pairing with the other is what makes this book excellent. Gratz’s thoughtful insight is paired with questions not easily answered. He gives readers the framework, and then asks them to form their own beliefs.
GONE TO THE WOODS: SURVIVING A LOST CHILDHOOD, by Gary Paulsen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), Jan. 12, 2021, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
Gary Paulsen portrays a series of life-altering moments from his turbulent childhood as his own original survival story. If not for his summer escape from a shockingly neglectful Chicago upbringing to a North Woods homestead at age 5, there never would have been a Hatchet. Without the encouragement of the librarian who handed him his first book at age 13, he may never have become a reader. And without his desperate teenage enlistment in the Army, he would not have discovered his true calling as a storyteller. —Synopsis provided by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Paulsen’s prose is poignant and immersive, pulling you in further and further until you have to keep reading. You feel his joy, his sadness, his confusion and his pain. His experiences with his aunt and uncle are heartwarming and those with his parents, heartbreaking.
WE ARE EXPLORERS: EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN WHO DISCOVERED THE WORLD, by Kari Herbert, Thames & Hudson, March 16, 2021, Hardcover, $19.95 (ages 8 and up)
Women have always explored the globe, but their stories aren’t always well-known. In We Are Explorers, fourteen intrepid women and their incredible adventures finally get their due. These fearless explorers trekked across deserts in search of the source of the Nile, crept through jungles to discover rare butterflies, journeyed into the Arctic, and so much more. —Synopsis provided by Thames & Hudson
Though the publisher’s suggested age for We Are Explorers is 8 and up, I’ve caught my 7-year-old eyeing the book, and I’ve already passed it on to her. Each short chapter (less than 10 pages) focuses on an individual woman and her accomplishments. Paintings, illustrations and photographs accompany each person. Back matter includes a world map and short, paragraph-long biographies of each explorer. This is a great option for those looking to learn about extraordinary women from all walks of life.
THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY: UNCOVERING TUTANKHAMUN’S TOMB, by Candace Fleming, Scholastic Focus, Sept. 7, 2021, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 8-12)
During the reign of the New Kingdom of Egypt, the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun ruled and died tragically young. In order to send him on his way into the afterlife, his tomb was filled with every treasure he would need after death. And then, it was lost to time, buried in the sands of the Valley of the Kings. His tomb was also said to be cursed.
Centuries later, as Egypt-mania gripped Europe, two Brits — a rich earl with a habit for gambling and a disreputable, determined archeologist — worked for years to rediscover and open Tutankhamun’s tomb. But once it was uncovered, would ancient powers take their revenge for disturbing and even looting the pharaoh’s resting place? What else could explain the mysterious illnesses, accidents, and deaths that began once it was found? —Synopsis provided by Scholastic Focus
Everything about The Curse of the Mummy is great. Author Candace Fleming presents the true story of the search for, and discovery of, Tutankhamun’s tomb in a format that almost reads like a novel. Her conversational tone makes history come to life, and the “curse pages” sprinkled throughout add a sense of drama. What really helps take The Curse of the Mummy over the top is the wealth of photographs and illustrations throughout. There were far more than I was expecting, and they help break up the chapters for readers with shorter attention spans.
STOLEN SCIENCE, by Ella Schwartz and Gaby D’Alessandro, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, Aug. 31, 2021, Hardcover, $21.99 (ages 9 and up)
Over the centuries, women, people from underrepresented communities, and immigrants overcame prejudices and social obstacles to make remarkable discoveries in science — but they weren’t the ones to receive credit in history books. People with more power, money, and prestige were remembered as the inventor of the telephone, the scientists who decoded the structure of DNA, and the doctor who discovered the cause of yellow fever. This book aims to set the record straight and celebrate the nearly forgotten inventors and scientists who shaped our world today. —Synopsis provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Each chapter spans only a few pages but features a wealth of information. Not only is there an interesting and engaging biography for each person, but a section that further explains “What’s the science?” Beautifully intricate images by Gaby D’Alessandro go beyond simple portraits, with each hinting at the discoveries in store. Stolen Science is fascinating look at some of the movers and shakers overlooked by history. Though intended for middle-readers, it’s a book that should appeal to young adults and adults, too.
J.R.R. TOLKIEN FOR KIDS: HIS LIFE AND WRITINGS, WITH 21 ACTIVITIES, by Simonetta Carr, Chicago Review Press, Aug. 3, 2021, Paperback, $16.99 (ages 9-12)
R. R. Tolkien for Kids takes young readers through the exciting life of the man who created amazing new worlds and helps kids discover how he could see them. Explore the personal experiences and subjects that inspired Tolkien’s stories through hands-on activities, and learn how he influenced his contemporaries as well as later writers. —Synopsis provided by Chicago Review Press
We own a number of “for kids” books from Chicago Review Press, and all of them are excellent. J. R. R. Tolkien for Kids is no exception. Each chapter is divided into manageable sections, giving readers natural spots for taking breaks. The book is full of photographs, illustrations, maps and fact boxes — all of which also break up the text. The text itself is clear and accessible. Extensive backmatter includes a glossary, a list of resources, notes, a selected bibliography and index.
THREADS OF PEACE: HOW MOHANDAS GANDHI AND MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. CHANGED THE WORLD, by Uma Krishnaswami, Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, Aug. 17, 2021, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 9 and up)
Born more than a half-century apart, with seemingly little in common except one shared wish, a lawyer and activist from India and a minister from Georgia would go on to be icons of peaceful resistance and human decency. Both preached love for all human beings, regardless of race or religion. Both believed that freedom and justice were won by not one, but many. Both met their ends in the most unpeaceful of ways — assassination.
But what led them down the path of peace? How did their experiences parallel… and diverge? Threads of Peace keenly examines and celebrates these extraordinary activists’ lives, the threads that connect them, and the threads of peace they laid throughout the world, for us to pick up, and weave together. —Synopsis provided by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Threads of Peace is a dual biography that shows that ideas of freedom and equality are universal and how each step forward builds upon the past. I left the book with a greater respect for and understanding of both these men.
THE ILLUSTRATED ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE ELEMENTS: THE POWERS, USES, AND HISTORIES OF EVERY ATOM IN THE UNIVERSE, by Lisa Congdon, Chronicle Books; Illustrated edition, July 13, 2021, Hardcover, $22.99 (ages 10 and up)
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Elements leads young readers in an exploration of all 118 known elements. From their discoveries to their uses to their special properties, this book explores all things elements. It features: a tour of the periodic table; profiles of notable scientists; infographics, and an illustrated history of the periodic table’s origins. —Synopsis provided by Chronicle Books
While the suggested age for The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Elements is 10 and up, I think you can go younger. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Elements is a fantastic resource for young readers. With science, history, trivia, and much more, it has the making of a great gift for budding scientists and kids who just want to know more about the world around them.
BLACK BALLERINAS: MY JOURNEY TO OUR LEGACY, by Misty Copeland and Salena Barnes, Aladdin, Nov. 2, 2021, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 10 and up)
As a young girl living in a motel with her mother and her five siblings, Misty Copeland didn’t have a lot of exposure to ballet or prominent dancers. She was sixteen when she saw a black ballerina on a magazine cover for the first time. The experience emboldened Misty and told her that she wasn’t alone — and her dream wasn’t impossible. In the years since, Misty has only learned more about the trailblazing women who made her own success possible by pushing back against repression and racism with their talent and tenacity. Misty brings these women’s stories to a new generation of readers and gives them the recognition they deserve. This book delves into the lives and careers of women of color who fundamentally changed the landscape of American ballet from the early 20th century to today. —Synopsis provided by Aladdin
While Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy may look like a picture book, it’s much more. A two-page spread is dedicated to each ballerina. One page features a beautiful dance portrait and the other is full text. The print size is what you would find in a typical middle-grade novel, and the text difficulty mirrors that as well. Not only are the mini-biographies heartfelt and inspiring. But the illustrations show a true understanding of movement and technique. Budding ballerinas and ballet fans alike will be drawn to this excellent book.
WELCOME TO STONEYBROOK: A GUIDED JOURNAL (BABY-SITTERS CLUB TV), by Jenna Ballard, Scholastic Inc., May 4, 2021, Paperback, $12.99 (ages 8-12)
Say hello to your friends from the new Baby-sitters Club show on Netflix! Kristy, Mary Anne, Claudia, Stacey, Dawn, and the rest of the BSC gang have taken their hometown of Stoneybrook and the world by storm. This guided journal is full of quotes, activities, and in-world content, including doodles and notes from the girls in the BSC and full-color photos from the show. Plus, lined pages leave plenty of room for notes from your own baby-sitting adventures and space to plan your own version of the BSC! —Synopsis provided by Scholastic Inc.
This guided journal is less about creating your own baby-sitters club and more about using BSC members’ experiences as prompts to write about your own. Keep in mind, this fun journal is based on the Netflix show and not the original books. If you’ve got a fan in your house, this is a no-brainer.