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 2023. Books are listed in order of publication, January through December. All synopsizes are italicized in blue and provided by respective publishers. Scroll down for the complete list or click or tap the following links to directly visit a section. EARLY READER • AGES 6 AND UP • AGES 7 AND UP • AGES 8 AND UP • AGES 9 AND UP • AGES 10 AND UP
THE SKULL: A Tyrolean Folktale, by Jon Klassen, Candlewick, July 11, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 4-10)
Jon Klassen’s signature wry humor takes a turn for the ghostly in this thrilling retelling of a traditional Tyrolean folktale. In a big abandoned house, on a barren hill, lives a skull. A brave girl named Otilla has escaped from terrible danger and run away, and when she finds herself lost in the dark forest, the lonely house beckons. Her host, the skull, is afraid of something too, something that comes every night. Can brave Otilla save them both? —Synopsis provided by Candlewick
I recently passed this book on to a friend whose son needed to read a “fairy tale” book and do a report on it. He’s not a confident reader, but The Skull had immediate appeal. Klassen’s monochromatic artwork is an immediate draw. There’s a subtlety to Klassen’s humor that really resonates with kids.
AGES 6 AND UP
A KID’S GUIDE TO BACKYARD BIRDS, by Eliza Berkowitz and Nicole LaRue, Gibbs Smith, March 7, 2023, Paperback, $12.99 (ages 6-8)
A Kid’s Guide to Backyard Birds is filled with facts about the most common birds, including where they live, what they eat, and how they sound when they sing. How did the Brown-Headed Cowbird get its name? Which bird can fly up to 40 miles per hour? Packed with over 80 full-color, illustrations, this portable field guide will have burgeoning bird lovers excited about exploring the amazing world just outside their door.
The frontmatter contains a hands-on DIY project, info on how to identify birds, and what are absolute essentials to take in your bag as a beginner birdwatcher. The backmatter contains a bird log to keep track of all the birds spotted, information on how we can protect our birds, and a glossary of important terms found bolded throughout the book. —Synopsis provided by Gibbs Smith
Each of the birds get a two-page spread, including a full-page illustration, and information about habitats, food and fun facts. Illustrations offer distinct features of each bird and are charming in an of itself.
A KID’S GUIDE TO BACKYARD BUGS, by Eliza Berkowitz and Nicole LaRue, Gibbs Smith, March 7, 2023, Paperback, $12.99 (ages 6-8)
A Kid’s Guide to Backyard Bugs is filled with facts about the United States’ most common insects, including where they live, what they eat, and how they move. Which insect can live without food for up to a whole year? Which insect grows up to almost 2 feet in length? The front matter contains a hands-on DIY project, info on how to identify bugs, and the essentials to take in your bag as a beginner bug-finder. The back matter contains a bug log to keep track of all the bugs spotted, information on how we can protect our bugs by protecting our planet, and a glossary of important terms bolded throughout the book. —Synopsis provided by Gibbs Smith
This nonfiction bug book has more than 80 detailed full-color illustrations. It’s a portable guide features habitats and food for each bug.
FRANKIE AND FRIENDS: BREAKING NEWS, by Christine Platt and Alea Marley, Walker Books US, Oct. 10, 2023, Hardcover, $15.99 (ages 6 and up)
Frankie’s mama is leaving to cover a breaking news story. Frankie, Papa, and Frankie’s teenage sister, Raven, are all proud of Mama, even though they miss her when she’s away. But Frankie has a great idea: she can make her own news show! After all, Mama has told her that news is happening around her all the time. With a little assistance from her friends—including her doll Farrah, Robert the toy robot, and her tabby cat, Nina Simone—Frankie prepares for her first “broadcast.” And when she hears someone crying in the house, she knows that’s the developing story she must cover. With humor, empathy, and imagination, Frankie gets the scoop—and learns that even mature older sisters can miss Mama sometimes. —Synopsis provided by Walker Books
Frankie and Friends: Breaking News is the first book in a new chapter-book series. It goes deeper than a lot of chapter-book series, focusing on compassion and communication. Full-color illustrations are featured throughout.
AGES 7 AND UP
THE GUARDIAN TEST (Legends of Lotus Island #1), by Christina Soontornvat and Kevin Hong, Scholastic Press, March 7, 2023, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 7-11)
Young Plum is shocked to discover that she’s been accepted to the Guardian Academy on Lotus Island, an elite school where kids learn how to transform into Guardians, magical creatures who are sworn to protect the natural world. The Guardian masters teach Plum and her friends how to communicate with animals and how to use meditation to strengthen their minds and bodies. All the kids also learn to fight, so they can protect the defenseless if needed.
To her dismay, Plum struggles at school. While her classmates begin to transform into amazing creatures, Plum can’t even seem to magic up a single feather! If she can’t embrace her inner animal form soon, she’ll have to leave school ― and lose the first group of real friends she’s ever known. —Synopsis provided by Scholastic Press
At 160 pages and sprinkled with illustrations throughout, The Guardian Test is perfect for readers who are moving out of beginning chapter books but want a grander story. Soontornvat’s prose is not overly complicated, and, yet, she provides an expansive world with complex characters that readers can really sink their teeth into. The Guardian Test is a fast-moving story of growth and friendship. It’s a great first book in the Legends of Lotus Island series.
THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX DELUXE ANNIVERSARY EDITION: BEING THE STORY OF A MOUSE, A PRINCESS, SOME SOUP, AND A SPOOL OF THREAD, by Kate DiCamillo and Timothy Basil Ering, Candlewick, Sept. 19, 2023, Hardcover, $24.99 (ages 7-10)
Celebrate twenty years of Despereaux with a splendid anniversary edition—including a bonus original short story from Kate DiCamillo and a new piece of art by Timothy Basil Ering.
Welcome to the story of Despereaux Tilling, a mouse who is in love with music, stories, and a princess named Pea. It is also the story of a rat called Roscuro, who lives in the darkness and covets a world filled with light. And it is the story of Miggery Sow, a slow-witted serving girl who harbors a simple, impossible wish. These three characters are about to embark on a journey that will lead them down into a horrible dungeon, up into a glittering castle, and, ultimately, into one another’s lives. And what happens then? As Kate DiCamillo would say: Reader, it is your destiny to find out. —Synopsis provided by Candlewick
THE PUPPETS OF SPELHORST, by Kate DiCamillo and Julie Morstad, Candlewick, Oct. 10, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 7-10)
Shut up in a trunk by a taciturn old sea captain with a secret, five friends—a king, a wolf, a girl, a boy, and an owl—bicker, boast, and comfort one another in the dark. Individually, they dream of song and light, freedom and flight, purpose and glory, but they all agree they are part of a larger story, bound each to each by chance, bonded by the heart’s mysteries.
When at last their shared fate arrives, landing them on a mantel in a blue room in the home of two little girls, the truth is more astonishing than any of them could have imagined. —Synopsis provided by Candlewick
Sometimes you pick up a book and you know immediately that there’s something special about it. That’s the case with The Puppets of Spelhorst. The Puppets of Spelhorst is an original fairy tale set in three acts that oozes with magic and charm. From Kate DiCamillo’s lyrical prose to Julie Morstad’s are masterfully rendered pencil drawings. At 160 pages The Puppets of Spelhorst is the perfect size for middle readers. Most of the chapters are only a few pages, and the font is slightly larger. And illustrations appear with most turns of the page.
AGES 8 AND UP
PRINCESS OF THE WILD SEA, by Megan Frazer Blakemore, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, Jan. 24, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
Princess Harbor Rose is cursed. She’s lived her whole life hidden away on a remote island with her magical aunts, following all the rules for being a princess. Now it is only one more year until thirteenth birthday, when a hero will finally arrive to save her from her curse.
But as with any story, there are two sides . . . and the curse told of much more than a single princess’s uncertain fate. It told of a dangerous foe rooted in powerful magic. It told of a terrible war that could destroy everything if a young hero didn’t arrive in time. It told of a magic imbued with hope that could save everyone, but only if they believe.
With her beloved kingdom and island at grave risk, Harbor Rose has a choice: Should she wait for the hero, or take matters into her own hands? —Synopsis provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Harbor is exactly the sort of protagonist you’d want at the middle of such a tale. She’s clever and adventurous and has to work through some of her own flaws. Her surrounding cast of characters are equally as flawed in delightfully warm and understandable ways.
Even though there’s a curse at the center of Princess of the Wild Sea, author Megan Frazer Blakemore’s warm prose creates a comforting undercurrent throughout even the more dangerous, darker moments. And — without giving too much away — her use of the “real world” combined with a fantastical one is a great twist.
THE MANY FORTUNES OF MAYA, by Nicole D. Collier, Versify, Jan. 24, 2023, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
Maya J. Jenkins is bursting with questions. For answers, 12-year-old Maya turns to her Wheel of Fortunes, a cardboard circle covered with the small slips of wisdom she’s collected from fortune cookies.
But can the fortunes answer her deep-down questions? The ones she’s too scared to ask out loud? Like, where did Mama’s smile go, the real one that lit up everything around her? When will Daddy move back home? And most of all, does she have enough courage to truly listen to the voice in her heart? —Synopsis provided by Versify
The Many Fortunes of Maya explores real-life issues that face kids every day. Her parents aren’t happy. Add to that, Maya desperately wants to make her dad proud. Soccer is “their thing,” and she loves it, but she’s not sure it’s her passion.
The highlights of The Many Fortunes of Maya are the familial interactions. Maya with her parents and Maya with her uncle. It’s lovely to see them work through things alone and together. It’s authentic and beautiful and full of hope and promise.
RARE BIRDS, by Jeff Miller, Union Square Kids, Jan. 31, 2023, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
Twelve-year-old Graham Dodds is no stranger to hospital waiting rooms. Sometimes, he feels like his entire life is one big waiting room. Waiting for the next doctor to tell them what’s wrong with his mom. Waiting to find out what city they’re moving to next. Waiting to see if they will finally get their miracle — a heart transplant to save his mom’s life.
When Graham gets stuck in Florida for the summer, he meets a girl named Lou at the hospital, and he finds a friend who needs a distraction as much as he does. She tells him about a contest to find the endangered Snail Kite, which resides in the local gator-filled swamps. Together they embark on an adventure, searching for the rare bird . . . and along the way, Graham might just find something else — himself. —Synopsis provided by Union Square Kids
Rare Birds is one of those gut-punchingly beautiful reads that resonates long after finishing it. Rare Birds isn’t exactly a happy book, but there’s a brightness that runs through it that offers a sense of hope even when things are going wrong.
This comes, in part, because of the quality of author Jeff Miller’s writing. There’s an underlying warmth to it that feels familiar while the story itself is fresh. Strength comes, too, in the form of Graham and Lou who are exceptionally realized. The two balance each other well and the exploration of their friendship is a delight.
THE PEARL HUNTER, by Miya T. Beck, Balzer + Bray, Feb. 7, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
Kai and Kishi share the same futon, the same face, and the same talent for pearl diving. But Kishi is the obedient daughter, while Kai tries to push the rules, and sometimes they fight. Still, when Kishi is stolen and killed by the legendary Ghost Whale, nothing will stop Kai from searching for her, deep in the ocean, hoping for a way to bring her back to life.
But such a rescue is beyond the power of an ordinary mortal. Kai strikes a deal with the gods: she’ll steal a magic pearl in exchange for her sister’s soul. As she journeys across treacherous land scape, Kai must navigate encounters with scheming bandits, a power-hungry war lord, and a legion of conniving fox spirits. And when a new friendship becomes something almost as powerful as her love for her sister, Kai must make impossible choices and risk everything just to get home again. —Synopsis provided by Batlzer + Bray
Set in a world inspired by pre-Shogun era Japan, The Pearl Hunter is a magical read. Author Miya T. Beck’s world-building skills are lovely. She transports readers to the bottom of the ocean, the top of a mountain and everywhere in between. From the first page, she sets the tone and doesn’t stray from it once.
The Pearl Hunter is an engaging adventure along the lines of Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, When the Sea Turned to Silver). It captures the imagination and leaves you wanting more — especially Beck’s ending, which turns the entire book on its head.
THE GRACE OF WILD THINGS, by Heather Fawcett, Balzer + Bray, Feb. 14, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
Grace has never been good at anything except magic — not that anyone believes her. While other children are adopted from the orphanage, nobody wants Grace. So, she decides to make a home for herself by running away and offering herself as an apprentice to the witch in the nearby woods.
But the witch is bad. So, Grace offers a deal: If she can learn all 100½ spells in the witch’s grimoire, the witch will make Grace her apprentice. But if Grace fails, the witch can take her magic. The witch agrees, and soon an unexpected bond develops between them.
But the spells are much harder than Grace expected, and when a monster from the witch’s past threatens the home Grace has built, she may have to sacrifice more than her magic to save it. —Synopsis provided by Balzer + Bray
The Grace of Wild Things is a lovely reimagining of Anne of Green Gables that captures the spirit of the classic and essence of “Anne” while becoming something that stands fantastically on its own.
The best things about The Grace of Wild Things are the feelings it evokes. Picking it up is like visiting with an old friend. Fawcett’s writing is warm and inviting, full of wit and emotion. The Grace of Wild Things is a fine update to a beloved classic.
FINALLY SEEN, by Kelly Yang, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Feb. 28, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
When ten-year-old Lina Gao steps off the plane in Los Angeles, it’s her first time in America and the first time seeing her parents and her little sister in five years! She’s been waiting for this moment every day while she lived with her grandmother in Beijing. Finally, her parents are ready for her to join their fabulous life in America! Except, it’s not exactly like in the postcards: 1) School’s a lot harder than she thought. 2) Her chatty little sister has no problem with English. And seems to do everything better than Lina. 3)They live in an apartment, not a house like in Mom’s letters, and they owe a lot of back rent from the pandemic.
As she reckons with her hurt, Lina tries to keep a lid on her feelings, both at home and at school. When her teacher starts facing challenges for her latest book selection, a book that deeply resonates with Lina, it will take all of Lina’s courage and resilience to get over her fear in order to choose a future where she’s finally seen. —Synopsis provided by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Author Kelly Yang (Front Desk) has become one of the best-known Asian-American voices in middle-grade literature. And for good reason. Yang’s writing stems from her own childhood and adult experiences. Her voice is clear and authentic and heartfelt.
Multiple plot lines intersect throughout Finally Seen, ranging from immigration and family to bullying and climate change. There’s a lot going on, but the elements play off each other, creating a cohesive read. Yang’s writing is warm and familiar. She captures Lina’s true essence, and captures readers’ hearts in the process.
LEEVA AT LAST, by Sara Pennypacker and Matthew Cordell, Balzer + Bray, March 7, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 8-12)
What are people for? That’s the burning question on the mind of Leeva Spayce Thornblossom. Fame! says Leeva’s mom, the mayor of Nutsmore. Money! says her dad, the town treasurer.
With the help of an orphaned badger, a risk-averse boy in a hazmat suit, and the town’s librarians, Leeva sets off to discover her own answer—setting off a chain of events that will change Nutsmore forever. —Synopsis provided by Balzer + Bray
Leeva At Last has a very Roald Dahl-esque feel to it. From the quirky characters to the adventurous spirit to the suspension of norms that just fit inside the world Sara Pennypacker has created.
Leeva At Last is just plain charming. There’s a lightness to Pennpacker’s writing that just resonates. Her pacing is spot on and you want to know more about her characters. Illustrator Mathew Cordell’s drawings add humor and personality throughout. Even at 300 pages, this one is a fast read.
YOU ARE HERE: CONNECTING FLIGHTS, by Ellen Oh, Allida, March 7, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 8-12)
An incident at a TSA security check point sows chaos and rumors, creating a chain of events that impacts twelve young Asian Americans in a crowded and restless airport. As their disrupted journeys crisscross and collide, they encounter fellow travelers — some helpful, some hostile — as they discover the challenges of friendship, the power of courage, the importance of the right word at the right time, and the unexpected significance of a blue Stratocaster electric guitar.
Twelve powerhouse Asian American authors explore themes of identity and belonging in the entwined experiences of young people whose family roots may extend to East and Southeast Asia, but who are themselves distinctly American. —Synopsis provided by Allida
You Are Here is one of those books that just kind of sticks with you. It’s a compilation of twelve one-chapter short stories. The magic comes where the stories overlap. A look of solidarity in passing, a small smile, an inspiring act of bravery. Those moments bring the stories together into what is a compelling and moving look at the lives of young Asian Americans.
Each writer’s own style embodies the character they portray, giving them a strong sense of individuality in such a short space. Ellen Oh’s expert editing, makes the entire collaboration seamless. And Oh’s note at the end answers questions that those not of Asian descent may have.
SKYRIDERS, by Polly Holyoke, Viking Books for Young Readers, March 7, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 8-12)
Thirteen-year-old Kiesandra’s best friend isn’t human, but that doesn’t stop her from sharing jokes and secrets with her winged horse, N’Rah. She, like every other person with a skysteed, can communicate with N’Rah through her mind. Their bond is critical when one day, monsters from long ago reemerge to ravage a nearby village. No one knows how to fight the fearsome chimerae except Kie’s uncle . . . and now Kie.
Injured in the battle, Uncle Dug makes her promise to bring his attack plan and weapons to the capital. Kie reluctantly agrees. At the palace, she and N’Rah attempt to gain the trust of the royals and train the army in Dug’s lessons. But how can a young girl and her skysteed convince anyone that only they know how to defeat the deadly monsters? —Synopsis provided by Viking Books for Young Readers
Buzzing with action, Skyriders is a heart pounding fantasy adventure that you won’t want to put down. While Skyriders is definitely a page-turning adventure, author Polly Holyoke has also included themes of communication, empathy and equity. It’s done so naturally that readers won’t feel as though they’ve been “taught a lesson.” It seamlessly lives within the plot’s framework and Holyoke’s prose.
Skyriders does feature a fair amount of violence and gore —there are a number of battles — but it’s written in such a way that it never feels gratuitous. It’s a fun read and a great start to a new series.
SQUISHED: A GRAPHIC NOVEL, by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter, Graphix, March 7, 2023, Paperback, $12.99 (ages 8-12)
Eleven-year-old Avery Lee loves living in Hickory Valley, Maryland. She loves her neighborhood, school, and the end-of-summer fair she always goes to with her two best friends. But she’s tired of feeling squished by her six siblings! They’re noisy and chaotic and the younger kids love her a little too much.
All Avery wants is her own room. So, she’s furious when Theo, her grumpy older brother, gets his own room instead, and her wild baby brother, Max, moves into the room she already shares with her clinging sister Pearl! Avery hatches a plan to finally get her own room, all while trying to get Max to sleep at night, navigating changes in her friendships, and working on an art entry for the fair. And when Avery finds out that her family might move across the country, things get even more complicated. —Synopsis provided by Graphix
The definition of what constitutes a “large” family varies depending on your community. Where I live, having six or seven siblings isn’t unheard of. There are five kids in my own family. And if you’ve ever lived in such a family, Squished will definitely resonate.
In Squished, Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter have created a charming story of a family facing change. It’s lovely to see the disfunction that happens in even the most loving families play across the pages. The dynamics between siblings are spot on. And the expectations and judgements from a social perspective ring true. Inviting artwork and well-thought-out text really bring this story to life.
ICEBERG, by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Scholastic Press, March 7, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
Hazel Rothbury is traveling all alone from her home in England aboard the celebrated ship Titanic. Following the untimely death of her father, Hazel’s mother is sending her to the US to work in a factory.
But Hazel harbors a secret dream: She wants to be a journalist, and she just knows that if she can write and sell a story about the Titanic’s maiden voyage, she could earn enough money to support her family and not have to go to a sweatshop. When Hazel discovers that mother didn’t send her with enough money for a ticket, she decides she must stow away onboard the storied ship.
With the help of a porter named Charlie and a sweet first-class passenger named Sylvia, Hazel explores the opulent ship in secret, but a haunting mystery quickly finds her. The danger only intensifies when calamity strikes, and readers will be caught up in the terror and suspense alongside Hazel as she fights to save her friends and herself. —Synopsis provided by Scholastic Press
Nielsen’s writing is warm and practiced. She writes to her audience, challenging them to solve Hazel’s mystery alongside her. Nielsen’s pacing, too, is spot-on, echoing the experiences — both languid and immediate — of the passengers.
Iceberg is a fast-paced survival story that will appeal to a wide cross-section of readers. It works well as an individual read or as a read-aloud in a classroom setting. It’s thrilling and suspenseful and will have readers on the edge of their seats.
HOOPS: A GRAPHIC NOVEL, by Matt Tavares, Candlewick, March 14, 2023, Paperback, $12.99 (ages 8-12)
It is 1975 in Indiana, and the Wilkins Regional High School girls’ basketball team is in their rookie season. Despite being undefeated, they practice at night in the elementary school and play to empty bleachers. Unlike the boys’ team, the Lady Bears have no buses to deliver them to away games and no uniforms, much less a laundry service. They make their own uniforms out of T-shirts and electrical tape. And with help from a committed female coach, they push through to improbable victory after improbable victory. —Synopsis provided by Candlewick
Illustrated in full color, Hoops helps readers understand women’s ongoing fight for equality in all fields. Quickly paced and full of energetic images, it’s not hard to see why kids would be drawn to it. Tavares does an excellent job balancing text and art, creating a cohesive whole.
My 9-year-old got to my review copy of Hoops before me, and I had to promise to return it once I finished writing this review. “Would you like to read this again?” I asked her. With big eyes and a huge smile, she emphatically stated, “YES!” I can’t think of a better recommendation.
A SKY FULL OF SONG, by Susan Lynn Meyer, Union Square Kids, April 11, 2023, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
North Dakota, 1905. After fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire, 11-year-old Shoshana and her family, Jewish immigrants, start a new life on the prairie. Shoshana takes fierce joy in the wild beauty of the plains and the thrill of forging a new, American identity. But it’s not as simple for her older sister, Libke, who misses their Ukrainian village and doesn’t pick up English as quickly or make new friends as easily. Desperate to fit in, Shoshana finds herself hiding her Jewish identity in the face of prejudice, just as Libke insists they preserve it.
For the first time, Shoshana is at odds with her beloved sister, and has to look deep inside herself to realize that her family’s difference is their greatest strength. By listening to the music that’s lived in her heart all along, Shoshana finds new meaning in the Jewish expression all beginnings are difficult, as well as in the resilience and traditions her people have brought all the way to the North Dakota prairie. —Synopsis provided by Union Square Kids
Shoshana is a wonderful character to grow with. As she tries to marry her new American life with her old Ukrainian one, she faces bigotry and bullying. Readers will immediately recognize parallels to issues in today’s society and realize the fight for acceptance goes back long before they were born.
A Sky Full of Song is a fast-moving historical fiction novel with a lot of heart. It’s beautifully written and a joy to read.
THE GREATEST KID IN THE WORLD, by John David Anderson, Walden Pond Press, May 9, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 8-12)
Zeke Stahls is not the best kid in the world. Some days he struggles just to be good. Which is why Zeke and his entire family are shocked when they receive word that he has been selected as a contestant in an online competition to find the World’s Greatest Kid.
Zeke has no idea how he was chosen for this, and he knows that measuring up to the other nominees is hopeless. Still, with a $10,000 cash prize on the line, and Zeke decides to give it his best shot.
As Zeke concocts various plots to show the world just how “great” he is, he finds himself wondering what that word even means, and who gets to decide. And what kind of kid he wants—and needs—to be. —Synopsis provided by Walden Pond Press
The Greatest Kid in the World is one of those books that starts off innocuously but quickly turns into something much more. It’s an unassuming novel that will knock your socks off. It’s exactly the sort of contemporary middle grade that has appeal for everyone. It will make you laugh. It may even make you cry. It definitely will stick with you long after you finish it. I highly recommend it.
THE MUSEUM OF LOST AND FOUND, by Leila Sales and Jacqueline Li, Harry N. Abrams, May 16, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 8-12)
Vanessa isn’t sure which happened first: finding the abandoned museum or losing her best friend Bailey. She doesn’t know what to do with herself now that Bailey has left her behind — but when she stumbles upon an empty, forgotten museum, her purpose becomes clear. Vanessa starts filling the museum with her own artifacts and memories.
As Vanessa’s museum grows, it seems like the place might have the answers to other questions, too. Like why a mysterious work of art was left behind. Or how to deal with a military dad who’s trying to parent from thousands of miles away. Or why Vanessa’s bad habit is getting harder and harder to quit. Or even, maybe, how to set the past to rest and find a way to move forward. —Synopsis provided by Harry N. Abrams
The Museum of Lost and Found is a story of friendships and self-reflection. As Vanessa curates her exhibit, she is forced to look at her own behavior. That’s when she realizes that she might be at least partially to blame for her friendship with Bailey falling apart. Vanessa’s growth is energizing and makes her interesting as a character. There’s growth among a strong cast of supporting characters, as well, which really fills things out.
What sets The Museum of Lost and Found apart is the museum itself. The exhibits the kids put together are fascinating. The thought that goes into their pieces and the descriptions of them make for a lovely piece of writing.
THE LABORS OF HERCULES BEAL, by Gary D. Schmidt, Clarion Books, May 23, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 8-12)
Herc Beal knows who he’s named after — a mythical hero — but he’s no superhero. He’s the smallest kid in his class. So, when his homeroom teacher at his new middle school gives him the assignment of duplicating the mythical Hercules’s amazing feats in real life, he’s skeptical. After all, there are no Nemean Lions on Cape Cod — and not a single Hydra in sight.
Missing his parents terribly and wishing his older brother wasn’t working all the time, Herc figures out how to take his first steps along the road that the great Hercules himself once walked. Soon, new friends, human and animal, are helping him. And though his mythical role model performed his twelve labors by himself, Herc begins to see that he may not have to go it alone. —Synopsis provided by Clarion Books
The hero of this tale is Herc — a kid whose voice rings true from Page 1. Herc’s life isn’t what he expected it to be, but he’s learning there’s more to it than he thought. And he’s got friends to help him along the way.
From the start, it’s clear that Schmidt knows his audience. He writes to them, not down to them, creating a sense of respect for the reader. Schmidt’s writing is lively with short sentences sprinkled throughout for emphasis. And though his book is about healing and empathy, you never feel like you’re “learning” a lesson.
HALF MOON SUMMER, by Elaine Vickers, Peachtree, June 6, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
Drew was never much of a runner. Until his dad’s unexpected diagnosis. Mia has nothing better to do. Until she realizes entering Half Moon Bay’s half-marathon could solve her family’s housing problems.
And just like that they decide to spend their entire summer training to run 13.1 miles. Drew and Mia have very different reasons for running, but these two 12-year-olds have one crucial thing in common (besides sharing a birthday): Hope. For the future. For their families. And for each other. —Synopsis provided by Peachtree
Half Moon Summer unfolds from the alternating viewpoints of Drew (prose) and Mia (verse). This mixture of styles not only sets the two voices apart, but really encompasses their personalities.
Author Elain Vickers’ writing feels comfortable and assured as she follows her protagonists through the hardest summer of their young lives. She captures their emotions with an earnestness that is rooted in authenticity. Everything about Half Moon Summer rings true. It’s a warm book about friendship and family that’s definitely worth reading.
LAND OF BROKEN PROMISES, by Jane Kuo, Quill Tree Books, June 6, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 8-12)
After a rocky first year, Anna’s family have settled into life in California — their small restaurant is even turning a profit. Then her parents make a shattering discovery: their visas have expired.
Anna’s world is quickly overwhelmed by unfamiliar words like “undocumented” and “inequality.” She longs to share the towering secret that looms over every aspect of her life with a friend, but her parents strictly forbid her from telling anyone.
As Anna grapples with the complexities of being undocumented, the strain that it places on her family, and the loneliness of keeping it all to herself, she has to wonder — if America is the promised land, why does everything she’s hoped for feel like a lie? —Synopsis provided by Quill Tree Books
Written in verse, Land of Broken Promises is a beautiful mix of detail and sparsity. Kuo balances the two, providing needed structure in some places and room for imagination in others.
Though set in the 1980s, Land of Broken Promises gives young readers a broad introduction to immigration and citizenship and the very real struggles surrounding them. And at the center of everything is Anna, a girl who just wants to live like her classmates. Land of Broken Promises is a heartfelt novel loosely based on the author’s real-life experiences. I highly recommend it.
LET’S FILL THIS WORLD WITH KINDNESS: TRUE TALES OF GOODWILL IN ACTION, by Alexandra Stewart and Jake Alexander, Thames & Hudson, June 27, 2023, Hardcover, $19.95 (ages 8-12)
In this uplifting collection of true stories, readers are introduced to real-life heroes and heroines who have chosen to act in kindness, even when they have faced terrible persecution, prejudice, disaster, and illness. These stories are designed to empower children to make positive choices in their own lives by embracing kindness as their superpower.
Stories include Harriet Tubman’s remarkable rescue missions to free enslaved African Americans, the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon’s protection of Jewish refugees under Nazi persecution during WWII, and the brave people who volunteered to clean up after the nuclear crisis in Japan. Also included are everyday examples of acts of kindness to protect nature and lift up others, even complete strangers. —Synopsis provided by Thames & Hudson
THE PROBABILITY OF EVERYTHING, by Sarah Everett, Clarion Books, June 27, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 8-12)
Eleven-year-old Kemi Carter loves scientific facts, specifically probability. It’s how she understands the world and her place in it. But everything Kemi thought she knew changes when she sees an asteroid hover in the sky. Amplus-68 has an 84.7% chance of colliding with earth in four days, and with that collision, Kemi’s life as she knows it will end.
With the days numbered, Kemi decides to put together a time capsule that will capture her family’s truth: how creative her mother is, how inquisitive her little sister can be, and how much Kemi’s whole world revolves around her father. But no time capsule can change the truth behind all of it, that Kemi must face the most inevitable and hardest part of life: saying goodbye. —Synopsis provided by Clarion Books
The Probability of Everything is an end-of-the-world book. But it’s not the end-of-the-world book you’re expecting. It’s one of those books that you should NOT read out of order. Do NOT read the ending first. Start at the beginning and enjoy the ride.
The Probability of Everything is not an easy read. And, as I’ve alluded to before, it turns out to be about something more. But, oh, how gut-wrenchingly beautiful it is. It’s sprinkled with love and hope and heartbreak. As a parent, I’d want to read it prior to my child, just because I know there would be questions and conversations. It’s a transformative read.
CLARA POOLE AND THE LONG WAY ROUND, by Taylor Tyng, Pixel+Ink, July 4, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
When an unintended flight over Michigan in her class science project—a lawn chair held aloft by balloons—brings her instant celebrity, Clara Poole is invited to be the spokesperson for a round-the-world adventure race. But when her overprotective father refuses, Clara forges his signature in a moment of defiance and runs away to Paris to take her place in the skies.
Partnered with a veteran aeronaut who wants nothing to do with her, Clara faces down ten treacherous stages in a race around the world all while learning the ropes alongside a colorful cast of international competitors.
But there are more dangers ahead. Someone is trying to sabotage the competition. And surviving this race means Clara must come to terms with the tragedy that set her fleeing to the skies in the first place, and accepting that forgiving herself isn’t a process she has to undertake alone. —Synopsis provided by Pixel+Ink
If you’re looking for a high-flying adventure , then look no further. Clara Poole and the Long Way Round is a fantastic middle-grade novel that will sweep you away. Clara is a spunky main character that seems downright normal compared to the quirky characters that cross her path. She’s well-realized, as are some of the more important supporting characters, adding depth to this charming tale.
Clara Poole and the Long Way Round is the first book in a planned series, and I am really excited to see where Tyng takes it. That said, the first book is completely standalone and can be read that way.
LIGHT COMES TO SHADOW MOUNTAIN, by Toni Buzzeo, Holiday House, July 11, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
It’s 1937 and the government is pushing to bring electricity to the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. It’s all Cora can think of, and Cora figures she can help spread the word by starting a school newspaper and convincing her neighbors to support the Rural Electrification Act.
But resistance to change isn’t easy to overcome, especially when it starts at home. Cora’s mother is a fierce opponent of electrification. She argues that protecting the landscape is their responsibility. But Cora just can’t let go of wanting more.
Back matter includes an Author’s Note; further information on the Rural Electrification Act, the herbs and plants of Appalachia, the Pack Horse Library Project, and more; and a “Quick Questions” historical trivia section for readers. —Synopsis provided by Holiday House
Cora is bright and driven. She looks forward to change while her mother fears it. These opposing views drive Buzzeo’s story forward, forcing Cora — and readers — to consider the pros and cons of progress. Both Cora and her mother are well conceived, as are Buzzeo’s supporting characters. Light Comes to Shadow Mountain is a fascinating historical fiction read. Buzzeo has clearly done her research. It’s a compelling backdrop on which her story of family, friendship and loss are explored. Many a daughter will relate to the mother/daughter dynamic that plays out here.
BORN READING: 20 STORIES OF WOMEN READING THEIR WAY INTO HISTORY, by Kathleen Krull , Virginia Loh-Hagan, Aura Lewis (Illustrator), Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, Aug. 1, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 8-12)
This collection of short-form biographies tells the story of twenty groundbreaking women and how their childhood reading habits empowered them to change the world. From Cleopatra to Sally Ride to Amanda Gorman, the women featured in this collection are from all throughout history and all kinds of backgrounds.
For some, reading was forbidden, but they taught themselves to read anyway. For some, reading was a struggle, but they practiced and grew to love it. For some, reading was an escape from difficult realities. For all, reading was empowering. —Synopsis provided by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books
I’ve seen with my own eyes how important it is for girls to see, read and learn about what women can accomplish. Born Reading allows them to see these accomplishments through a different lens. Reading is universal. It’s attainable. It makes doing hard things seem just a little bit easier.
Born Reading is divided into an introduction; 20 chapters; an epilogue; feminist fun facts; shorter writing on more girls with books; activities to keep reading; resources; references; and an index. It sounds like a lot, but the book is only 134 pages, and with fairly short chapters and illustrations, it moves very quickly. It can be read from beginning to end or a chapter at a time. The writing is smooth and conversational. And the illustrations/portraits are bright and inviting.
THE GREAT TEXAS DRAGON RACE, by Kacy Ritter, Clarion Books, Aug. 1, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 8-12)
Thirteen-year-old Cassidy Drake wants nothing more than to race with her best dragon, Ranga, in the annual Great Texas Dragon Race. Her mother was a racing legacy, and growing up on her family’s dragon sanctuary ranch, Cassidy lives and breathes dragons. She knows she could win against the exploitative FireCorp team that cares more about corporate greed than caring for the dragons.
Cassidy is so determined to race that she sneaks out of her house against her father’s wishes and enters the competition. But with five grueling tasks ahead of her, dangerous dragon challenges waiting at each one, and more enemies than allies on the course, Cassidy will need to know more than just dragons to survive. —Synopsis provided by Clarion Books
The Great Texas Dragon Race is 400 pages. But it doesn’t read like that. Author Kacy Ritter has created a world and story that are so encompassing that you feel as if you’re watching a movie as the story unfolds. This would be a fun book to read or listen to aloud as a class.
The Great Texas Dragon Race is a contemporary middle-grade fantasy that’s full of excitement adventure and heart. Though it’s a stand-alone novel, and everything is resolved, there’s definitely room in the world Ritter has created to explore more stories.
FORGET-ME-NOT BLUE, by Sharelle Byars Moranville, Holiday House, Aug. 8, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
Siblings Con and Sofie’s mom promised that nothing would ever come between them — but when she disappears without any warning, she becomes the one who’s tearing them apart.
With no one else to rely on, inseparable siblings Con and Sofie must decide who they can trust, and whether or not it’s safe to share their hearts with family members who have the power to hurt them. Sofie has always turned to Con — and to books — during times of upheaval in their unstable lives. But as their mother is arrested and their guardianship becomes uncertain, Sofie will have to find hope in the most important story of all: her own. —Synopsis provided by Holiday House
Author Sharelle Byars Moranville expertly explores how addiction ripples through generations through prose that is both gentle and vulnerable. Sofie and her family are weighted in authenticity. And Moranville’s study of family bonds is beautifully rendered. Though there are some really tough moments to read in Forget-Me-Not Blue, Moranville tempers them with themes of resilience and strength.
While Forget-Me-Not Blue is written at an age-appropriate level, I suggest reading together with your middle-grader or prior to handing it to them. There’s some heaviness to it that they will most likely want to talk about. Forget-Me-Not Blue is a worthwhile read that with beautifully realized characters you won’t soon forget.
THE WILD JOURNEY OF JUNIPER BERRY, by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown, Shadow Mountain, Aug. 15, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 8-12)
Eleven-year-old Juniper Berry lives with her family deep in the wild woods. Living off the grid is pretty exciting, but her happy life in the wild ends abruptly when her younger brother gets sick, and they move to the city to be closer to the hospital. Juniper and her older sister end up living with cousins they hardly know and attending public school for the first time, which is harder to navigate than the wild woods ever were. Juniper feels like a wolf cub separated from her pack.
As the hospital bills for her brother start piling up, Juniper knows they’ll need to be paid before the family can go back to the woods, so she decides to make enough money to help out. With her cousin Alayna’s support, Juniper starts posting videos filled with her wisdom from the woods, hoping to get a following. But what if it doesn’t work? What if the bills never get paid? Not going home to the wild is Juniper’s worst nightmare. While she’s stuck in the city, she might as well make the most of it, like sticking up for Alayna, who’s being bullied by her supposed friends, for starters. —Synopsis provided by Shadow Mountain
Juniper is a force to be reckoned with. She’s clever, resourceful, athletic and speaks her own mind. Having been raised away from society, she doesn’t understand social cues, why people wear the clothes they wear or the lack of interest in how things work. Juniper can’t figure out why there’s a pecking order for people and why people adhere to it.
This sets up situations that help readers eliminate the noise surrounding social situations. It’s pretty marvelous, and it comes across naturally without feeling like a lesson. The Wild Journey of Juniper Berry is a quick-moving read with short chapters and engaging characters. This would make a great classroom read-aloud but it’s also perfectly lovely reading it on your own.
SPLAT!: THE MOST EXCITING ARTISTS OF ALL TIME, by Mary Richards, Thames & Hudson, Aug. 15, 2023, Paperback, $14.95 (ages 8-12)
Splat! is the history of art at its most exciting and outrageous. Organized by artist and covering key events and major movements such as the Renaissance and impressionism to surrealism and contemporary art, it is a valuable resource for young art lovers.
Each artist is introduced with bulleted facts including their country of origin, most famous works, the movement they belonged to, techniques they employed, and the greatest challenges they faced in creating their art. This overview offers further insight into who these artists were and how they changed the course of art history. Illustrated in color throughout. —Synopsis provided by Thames & Hudson
Splat! is a great introduction to art through the ages. The book is ordered chronologically, helping readers to see how art has evolved through time. Author Mary Richards begins with a colorful timeline and a brief section on art in the beginning (cave paintings to painted churches), and then really gets started with Michelangelo. From there, she highlights 19 more artists and ends with a section on how artists are continuing now to push the boundaries.
My kid loves Splat! and enjoys flipping to her favorite sections. It’s a great option for kids who already love art or are new to the subject. It’s one of those books that you won’t mind having out when company is around. It’s lots of fun for all ages.
THE LOST LIBRARY, by Rebecca Stead and Wendy Mass, Feiwel & Friends, Aug. 29, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
When a mysterious little free library (guarded by a large orange cat) appears overnight in the small town of Martinville, 11-year-old Evan plucks two weathered books from its shelves, never suspecting that his life is about to change.
Evan and his best friend Rafe quickly discover a link between one of the old books and a long-ago event that none of the grown-ups want to talk about. The two boys start asking questions whose answers will transform not only their own futures, but the town itself. —Synopsis provided by Feiwel & Friends
Sometimes books have a charm to them that you can’t quite put your finger on but the book fairly radiates. That’s The Lost Library. The book unfolds through multi-points-of-view — from a ghost librarian named Al, an aging cat named Mortimer, and Evan. These unique voices move the story quickly forward while simultaneously making you pause to consider each new revelation.
Authors Rebecca Stead and Wendy Mass have crafted a magical read with smooth and inviting prose and characters that you really care about. The book is a celebration of family, friendship, choosing your path and a love of reading.
THE A&A DETECTIVE AGENCY: THE FAIRFLEET AFFAIR, by K. H. Saxton, Union Square Kids, Sept. 19, 2023, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
The celebrated museums of the Fairfleet Institute are known for curating the mysteries of humanity. But they don’t solve mysteries. Luckily, twelve-year-old friends Alex Foster and Asha Singh of the A&A Detective Agency do. Or they will . . . once they get a real case to test their skills as sleuths.
When Dr. Alistair Fairfleet, the institute’s eccentric chairman, disappears on the first day of Alex and Asha’s summer vacation, they receive a letter written by the missing millionaire himself inviting them to a game involving complicated clues and puzzles. It is just the sort of case they’ve been waiting to tackle. But nothing in the Fairfleet case has a simple solution. As the kids track down clues, they uncover art forgeries, archaeological crimes, and Fairfleet family secrets. All of this tests their partnership and forces them to confront the complicated legacies of the people and places they admire most. —Synopsis provided by Union Square Kids
This delightful detective story is smart, funny and full of heart. Debut author K. H. Saxton tells the story with the confidence and cadence of a seasoned writer. Her knack for combining an intricate plot, dynamic characters and compelling information into a novel that is perfectly suited to middle readers is commendable. The backdrop of art, theater and natural history provides depth and added interest.
The A&A Detective Agency: The Fairfleet Affair is a fast-moving mystery that’s got wide appeal. It’s one of my top middle-grade reads of the year, and I can’t wait to read more stories from the author.
THREE TASKS FOR A DRAGON, by Eoin Colfer and P.J. Lynch, Candlewick, Oct. 3, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 8-12)
Studious Prince Lir is next in line to become the Wolfhound King, but he can’t ride a horse, lift a sword, or summon the fabled wolfhounds. So, his stepmother decrees that her own son will inherit the crown instead, sending Lir away on a seemingly impossible—and assuredly fatal—quest: to rescue the maiden Cethlenn from the once-fearsome dragon Lasvarg.
Rather than wage battle, Lir insists that Lasvarg, now decidedly past his prime, honor tradition by setting him three tasks to perform—starting with tackling the mold encrusting the dragon’s cave (and his feet!). As Lir improves Lasvarg’s life, he also grows closer to Cethlenn . . . as well as the wolfhound puppy strangely devoted to her. In time, they learn more of the dark magic that may be making pawns of them all—and how Cethlenn herself could be the key to breaking a spell that clouds the entire kingdom. —Synopsis provided by Candlewick
Three Tasks for a Dragon reads like a fairy tale/adventure of old. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s kind of epic. There’s a power to Eoin Colfer’s lyrical prose that draws you in and pushes the story forward. His characters are nuanced and unexpected and everything else you’d want them to be.
P.J. Lynch’s mood-filled watercolor illustrations set in tones of oranges and blues add an extra dimension to this sweeping fantasy. Three Tasks for a Dragon is a magical tale that feels fresh and familiar at the same time. It’s a beautiful tale that children and grownups alike will enjoy.
THE SONG OF THE SWAN, by Karah Sutton and Pauliina Hannuniemi, Knopf Books for Young Readers, Oct. 24, 2023, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
Olga is an orphan and a thief, relying on trickery and sleight of hand to make her way in the world. But it’s magic, not thievery, that could get her into trouble.
When Olga and her partner-in-crime Pavel learn of a valuable jewel kept in a secluded castle, Olga sees an opportunity to change their lives: a prize so big, they’d never have to steal again. But the castle is not as it seems, ruled by an enchanter who hosts grand balls every night, only for the guests to disappear each morning, replaced by swans. Guided by cryptic clues from the palace spiders, Olga soon realizes she’s in over her head—torn between a bargain with the enchanter, loyalty to Pavel, and determination to understand how the enchanted swans are linked to her own fate.
One thing is certain: there is dark magic behind the castle’s mysteries, and Olga will stop at nothing to unmask it. —Synopsis provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers
This fast-moving retelling of Swan Lake reads like a fairy tale. Author Karah Sutton’s writing is smooth and accessible and illustrator Pauliina Hannuniemi’s images are charming.
Keeper of the Lost Cities The Graphic Novel Part 1: Volume 1, by Celina Frenn, Shannon Messenger, Gabriella Chianello, Aladdin, Nov. 7, 2023, Hardcover, $27.99, Paperback, $17.99 (ages 8-12)
Twelve-year-old Sophie Foster has never quite fit into her life. She’s skipped multiple grades and doesn’t really connect with the older kids at school, but she’s not comfortable with her family, either. The reason? Sophie’s a Telepath, someone who can read minds. No one knows her secret—at least, that’s what she thinks…
But the day Sophie meets Fitz, a mysterious (and adorable) boy, she learns she’s not alone. He’s a Telepath too, and it turns out the reason she has never felt at home is that, well…she isn’t. Fitz opens Sophie’s eyes to a shocking truth, and she is forced to leave behind her family for a new life in a place that is vastly different from what she has ever known. —Synopsis provided by Aladdin
The first book in the bestselling Keeper of the Lost Cities series is being reimagined as a graphic novel. This is the first half of the epic novel, and, wow, it’s impressive. This full-color adaptation gets to the heart of source material.
ABOVE THE TRENCHES, by Nathan Hale, Amulet Books, Nov. 14, 2023, Hardcover, $14.99 (ages 8-12)
When the Great War began in 1914, America had plans to stay out of it. But some young men were so eager to fight, they joined the French Foreign Legion. From deep in the mud and blood of the Western Front, these young volunteers looked to the sky and saw the future—the airplane.
The first American pilots to fight in World War One flew for the French military. France created a squadron of volunteer Americans called the Lafayette Escadrille (named after the great Marquis de Lafayette).
This book is about that volunteer squadron: How they got into the French military. How they learned to fly. How they fought—and died. And how these American pilots would go down in history with other legendary flying aces like the Red Baron and his Flying Circus. —Synopsis provided by Amulet Books
Above the Trenches is the 12th book in Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series, graphic novels that tell true stories of American history. My kid loves these books. They’re entertaining while being educational.
AGES 9 AND UP
PARACHUTE KIDS: A GRAPHIC NOVEL, by Betty C. Tang, Graphix, April 4, 2023, Paperback, $12.99 (ages 9-12)
Feng-Li can’t wait to discover America with her family! But after an action-packed vacation, her parents deliver shocking news: They are returning to Taiwan and leaving Feng-Li and her older siblings in California on their own.
Suddenly, the three kids must fend for themselves in a strange new world ― and get along. Starting a new school, learning a new language, and trying to make new friends while managing a household is hard enough, but Bro and Sis’s constant bickering makes everything worse. Thankfully, there are some hilarious moments to balance the stress and loneliness. But as tensions escalate ― and all three kids get tangled in a web of bad choices ― can Feng-Li keep her family together? —Synopsis provided by Graphix
Author Betty C. Tang is one such kid. She was 10-years-old in 1979 when she and her siblings arrived in the US. Though Parachute Kids is not a memoir, it does draw from her family’s experiences as well as those of other immigrants she’s met throughout her life.
And that’s why Parachute Kids works so well. Tang tells her truth through text and illustrations that are a mix of thoughtful and humorous. There’s joy and there’s pain and everything in between. Her illustrations are full of energy — expressive and detailed. The pacing is spot on, and the flow makes you want to keep turning the pages. Tang doesn’t shy away from complicated family and social dynamics, providing a narrative that’s moving and entertaining at the same time. It’s an excellent option for kids who are drawn to graphic novels and newbies alike.
RACE AGAINST DEATH: THE GREATEST POW RESCUE OF WORLD WAR II, by Deborah Hopkinson, Scholastic Focus, April 18, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 9-12)
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, America entered World War II, and a new theater of battle opened up in the Pacific. But US troops, along with thousands of Filipino soldiers who fought alongside them, were overtaken in the Philippines by a fiercely determined Japanese navy, and many Americans and Filipino fighters were killed or captured.
These American and Filipino prisoners of war were forced to endure the most horrific conditions on the deadly trek known as the Bataan Death March. Then, the American servicemen who were held captive by the Japanese military in Cabanatuan Camp and others in the Philippines, faced beatings, starvation, and tropical diseases, and lived constantly under the threat of death.
Unable to forget their comrades’ fate and concerned that these POWs would be brutally murdered as the tides of war shifted in the Pacific, the US Army Rangers undertook one of the most daring and dangerous rescue missions of all time. Aided by the “Angels of the Underground,” the Sixth Ranger Battalion and courageous Filipino guerrilla soldiers set out on an uncertain and treacherous assignment. Often called the Great Raid, this remarkable story remains largely forgotten. —Synopsis provided by Scholastic Focus
Author Deborah Hopkinson is no stranger to nonfiction, having written more than 70 books for young readers including picture books, middle grade historical fiction, Little Golden Book biographies, and long form nonfiction.
That experience shows in her meticulously written Race Against Death. Though nonfiction, Hopkinson’s writing is almost conversational — it reads like a novel — immediately making it accessible to readers ages 9 and up.
BARELY FLOATING, by Lilliam Rivera, Kokila, Aug. 29, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 9-12)
Natalia De La Cruz Rivera y Santiago was swimming neighborhood kids out of their money at the local Inglewood pool when her life changed. The LA Mermaids performed, emerging out of the water with matching sequined swimsuits, and it was then that synchronized swimming stole her heart.
The problem? Her activist mom and professor dad think it’s a sport with too much emphasis on looks — on being thin and white. Nat grew up the youngest in a house full of boys, so she knows how to fight for what she wants, often using her anger to fuel her. People often underestimate her swimming skills when they see her stomach rolls, but she knows better than to worry about what people think. Still, she feels more like a submarine than a mermaid, but she wonders if she might be both. —Synopsis provided by Kokila
Barely Floating is more than just a swimming story. It’s the exploration of body image, community, family, building community and finding your voice.
Nat is a vibrant character who grabs your attention from the start. She’s not ashamed of her size, but struggles when other people make it important. She loves sequins and sparkles and beauty magazines, even though she’s not supposed to like them. Her bold personality resonates throughout the novel, daring you not to follow her journey.
Barely Floating is one of those books that’s going to resonate with readers from all walks of life — swimmers or not.
NO BRAINER (DIARY OF A WIMPY KID BOOK 18), by Jeff Kinney, Harry N. Abrams, Oct. 24, 2023, Hardcover, $14.99 (ages 9-10)
Up until now, middle school hasn’t exactly been a joyride for Greg Heffley. So when the town threatens to close the crumbling building, he’s not too broken up about it.
But when Greg realizes this means he’s going to be sent to a different school than his best friend, Rowley Jefferson, he changes his tune. Can Greg and his classmates save their school before it’s shuttered for good? Or is this the start of a whole new chapter for Greg? —Synopsis provided by Harry N. Abrams
No Brainer is the 18th book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and it’s just as fun for readers as the previous books. My kid loves this series, and has read some books in order and others out, and has had no complaints, other than she wants more. Author Jeff Kinney knows his audience and gives them exactly what they want.
AGES 10 AND UP
THE LOST YEAR: A SURVIVAL STORY OF THE UKRAINIAN FAMINE, by Katherine Marsh, Roaring Brook Press, Jan. 17, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 10-14)
Thirteen-year-old Matthew is miserable. His journalist dad is stuck overseas indefinitely, and his mom has moved in his 100-year-old great-grandmother to ride out the pandemic, adding to his stress and isolation.
But when Matthew finds a tattered black-and-white photo in his great-grandmother’s belongings, he discovers a clue to a hidden chapter of her past, one that will lead to a life-shattering family secret. Set in alternating timelines that connect the present-day to the 1930s and the US to the USSR, Katherine Marsh’s latest novel sheds fresh light on the Holodomor – the horrific famine that killed millions of Ukrainians, and which the Soviet government covered up for decades. —Synopsis provided by Roaring Brook Press
Told through dual timelines, The Lost Year explores the Holodomor — a man-made famine that killed millions. In it, Author Katherine Marsh expertly explores both a historical event and the people who lived through it. And by setting one of the timelines during the COVID-19 pandemic, Marsh gives readers a relatable place to start from.
The Lost Year unfolds from the alternating points of view of Matthew and cousins Helen and Mila. The three stories perfectly interweave to keep readers interested and the book moving forward. Marsh pulls from her family’s own past, adding authenticity throughout.
Everything about The Lost Year is impeccable. From Marsh’s inviting prose and compelling characters to accessible history and gripping storyline, readers won’t want to put it down. It should especially appeal to fans of Alan Gratz (Refugee, Ground Zero) and those who enjoy contemporary and historical fiction.
HANDS, by Torrey Maldonado, Nancy Paulsen Books, Jan. 24, 2023, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 10 and up)
Trev would do anything to protect his mom and sisters, especially from his stepdad. But his stepdad’s return stresses Trev—because when he left, he threatened Trev’s mom.
Rather than live scared, Trev takes matters into his own hands, literally. He starts learning to box to handle his stepdad. But everyone isn’t a fan of his plan, because Trev’s a talented artist, and his hands could actually help him build a better future.
Ultimately, Trev knows his future is in his hands, and his hands are his own, and he has to choose how to use them. —Synopsis provided by Nancy Paulsen Books
At less than 150 pages, Hands is a relatively short book for middle readers, but it certainly packs a punch. In fact, the book is better for its brevity with author Torrey Maldonado perfectly capturing the voice his audience wants to hear.
From the first page, it is as if Trev is talking directly to you. His tone, his body language, his emotion. They’re all there. Hands is a fast-paced read with short chapters that’s full of energy. For many, it will be a one-sitting read.
CHILDREN OF THE BLACK GLASS, by Anthony Peckham, Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, March 7, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 10-14)
In an unkind alternate past, somewhere between the Stone Age and a Metal Age, Tell and his sister Wren live in a small mountain village that makes its living off black glass mines and runs on brutal laws. When their father is blinded in a mining accident, the law dictates he has thirty days to regain his sight and be capable of working at the same level as before or be put to death.
Faced with this dire future, Tell and Wren make the forbidden treacherous journey to the legendary city of Halfway, halfway down the mountain, to trade their father’s haul of the valuable black glass for the medicine to cure him. The city, ruled by five powerful female sorcerers, at first dazzles the siblings. But beneath Halfway’s glittery surface seethes ambition, violence, prejudice, blackmail, and impending chaos.
Without knowing it, Tell and Wren have walked straight into a sorcerers’ coup. Over the next twelve days they must scramble first to save themselves, then their new friends, as allegiances shift and prejudices crack open to show who has true power. —Synopsis provided by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Children of the Black Glass is a darker middle-grade novel. Tell and Wren come from a harsh place, and Halfway isn’t any better, just different. The mood of the novel is echoed perfectly in its cover, which truly captures its essence. The overall tone and themes — death, violence, betrayal and revenge — are better suited to older, more mature middle readers, ages 10 and up.
Peckham gives readers a morally gray world with morally gray characters that’s compelling. There are moments of hope and happiness sprinkled here and there that feel natural and help lighten the tone. It’s a well-paced novel, and I look forward to reading it’s sequel.
WILD BIRD, by Diane Zahler, Roaring Brook Press, March 21, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 10 and up)
Her name was Rype. That wasn’t really her name. It was what the strangers called her. She didn’t remember her real name. She didn’t remember anything at all. Rype was hiding in the hollow of a tree trunk when they found her. She was hungry, small, cold, alone. She did not speak their language, or understand their mannerisms. But she knew this: To survive, she would have to go with them.
In fourteenth-century Norway, the plague has destroyed the entire village of Skeviga. To stay alive, Rype, the only one left, must embark on a sweeping adventure across Europe with the son of an English ship captain and a band of troubadours in search of a brighter future and a new home. —Synopsis provided by Roaring Brook Press
Wild Bird is one of those books that you want to reread almost as soon as you finish it. Author Diane Zahler’s ability to show scope while remaining intimate is excellent, and her prose and pacing are comfortable and well-suited to her story.
While the publisher’s suggested age range for Wild Bird is 8-12, the book reads older. LGBTQ+ issues, sexual innuendo in sea shanties and implied sexual abuse of a character push it a bit older — ages 10 and up — or at least warrant a parent-child discussion.
Wild Bird is a fast, compelling read that will appeal to older middle readers, young adults and even adults.
ARTHUR, THE ALWAYS KING, by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Chris Riddell, Candlewick Studio, April 11, 2023, Hardcover, $29.99 (ages 10 and up)
Translated, adapted, told, and retold, the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table have captivated imaginations across time. Now comes an illustrated, retelling sure to enthrall a new generation of readers.
From the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the quest for the Holy Grail, stories both familiar and unfamiliar are woven into a vivid tapestry of Arthurian lore that spans from the king’s conception to his final battle. —Synopsis provided by Candlewick Studio
Arthur, The Always King is the type of book written for children (ages 10 and up), but grownups will buy for themselves as well. Especially those who have a hankering for Arthurian legend.
Arthur, The Always King begins with Arthur’s childhood; Merlin and the Sword in the Stone; and the Round Table. Next comes the seven trials the knights must complete. This setup creates a series of sections that feel like short stories or interludes. This provides natural breaking points for readers and feel appropriate for this narrative.
Arthur, The Always King is a good option for those who are already enticed by Arthurian mythology. It’s a beautiful book that has a lot to offer.
GLOBAL: ONE FRAGILE WORLD. AN EPIC FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL. by Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin, Giovanni Rigano, Sourcebooks Young Readers, April 11, 2023, Paperback, $14.99 (ages 10-14)
Time is running out for Sami and Yuki. Sami and his grandfather live in a village along the Indian Ocean. They earn their living by fishing. But the ocean is rising and each day they bring back fewer and fewer fish.
Yuki lives in the far north of Canada where warming temperature are melting the ice. Polar bears have less food to hunt and are wandering into town looking for something to eat. Yuki is determined to do something to help the bears. —Synopsis provided by Sourcebooks Young Readers
Authors Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin have expertly crafted text that not only provides first-person narration, but dialogue, too. The well-thought-out text may be sparse, but readers immediately get a sense of who both Sam and Yuki are. They are complex and wonderfully crafted.
Colfer and Donkin’s text is perfectly paired with Giovanni Rigano’s stunning illustrations. Each panel is full of detail, emotion and color. His bold work truly brings this graphic novel to life.
THE ASTRONAUT’S GUIDE TO LEAVING THE PLANET: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW, FROM TRAINING TO RE-ENTRY, by Terry Virts, Workman Publishing Company, April 11, 2023, Paperback, $14.99 (ages 10 and up)
A kid’s guide to leaving the planet from someone who’s done it! Former astronaut Terry Virts guides readers through the practical elements of becoming an astronaut, along with the wonders (and challenges) of space travel.
With insider information, readers and aspiring astronauts will be inspired to start their own journey to the stars. This practical guide is full of valuable wisdom and insight that will guide the astronaut candidates of tomorrow! —Synopsis provided by Workman Publishing Company
The Astronaut’s Guide to Leaving the Planet is divided into chapters that feature subheadings, fact boxes, illustrations and photographs. Terry Virts’ writing is clear and conversational. He covers timely topics and doesn’t shy away from the “gross” stuff.
The publisher’s suggested age range for this book is 10 and up, but I would go as young as 8, especially if your young reader is more advanced. There’s nothing that’s objectionable content wise for a younger audience. The Astronaut’s Guide to Leaving the Planet is an informative read that should appeal to space fanatics young and old.
OPINIONS AND OPOSSUMS, by Ann Braden, Nancy Paulsen Books, May 2, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 10 and up)
Agnes has been encouraged not to question authority by her mom—but that’s especially hard in religion class, where it bugs her that so much gets blamed on Eve and that God’s always pictured one way.
Fortunately, Agnes’ anthropologist neighbor, Gracy, gets Agnes thinking after they rescue an opossum together. Playing dead didn’t serve the opossum well, so maybe it’s time for Agnes to start thinking for herself. And when Agnes learns that some cultures picture God as a female, she feels freed to think—and write—about things from new perspectives. —Synopsis provided by Nancy Paulsen Books
Ann Braden takes a big topic like God and breaks it down into thought-provoking questions and observations. Some people will see this book as an attack on religion, but in truth, it’s a celebration of faith. And Braden begins with a simple, but profound, quote from Maya Angelou, “Tell the truth. To yourself first.”
Opinions and Opossums is a book that makes you think. It’s the kind of book that would have changed the world for me as a youth. So much so that I bought a copy for my 9-year-old to read. Braden’s prose is warm and inviting and Agnes is a character that will challenge and excite you. This is an excellent read.
THE FIRE, THE WATER, AND MAUDIE MCGINN, by Sally J. Pla, Quill Tree Books, July 11, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 10 and up)
Maudie always looks forward to the summers she spends in California with her dad. But this year, she must keep a troubling secret about her home life—one that her mom warned her never to tell. Maudie wants to confide in her dad about her stepdad’s anger, but she’s scared.
When a wildfire strikes, Maudie and her dad are forced to evacuate to the beach town where he grew up. It’s another turbulent wave of change. But now, every morning, from their camper, Maudie can see surfers bobbing in the water. She desperately wants to learn, but could she ever be brave enough?
As Maudie navigates unfamiliar waters, she makes friends—and her autism no longer feels like the big deal her mom makes it out to be. But her secret is still threatening to sink her. Will Maudie find the strength to reveal the awful truth—and maybe even find some way to stay with Dad—before summer is over? —Synopsis provided by Quill Tree Books
The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn is the kind of book that sticks with you. Author Sally J. Pla’s elegant prose draws you in and makes you want to stay. She creates a sense of space that feels warm and familiar. And the parallels between the ocean and Maudie are spot on.
One of the central plot lines in The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn is the way Maudie’s stepfather treats her. It turns out that Maudie is being physically abused. Pla addresses this topic with care, and the few descriptions of Maudie being hurt are quick and not gratuitous. But it’s still a hard topic, and it will be slightly jarring for readers. I suggest parents read the book ahead of time or at least be prepared to discuss it with their children.
The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn is one of the best middle-grade novels I’ve read this year. Maudie’s growth and journey toward defining herself rather than letting her autism define her is beautiful.
MEXIKID, by Pedro Martín, Dial Books, Aug. 1, 2023, Hardcover, $24.99, Paperback, $14.99 (ages 10 and up), Graphic Novel
Pedro Martin has grown up hearing stories about his abuelito — his legendary crime-fighting, grandfather who was once a part of the Mexican Revolution! But that doesn’t mean Pedro is excited at the news that Abuelito is coming to live with their family. After all, Pedro has eight brothers and sisters and the house is crowded enough! Still, Pedro piles into the Winnebago with his family for a road trip to Mexico to bring Abuelito home, and what follows is the trip of a lifetime, one filled with laughs and heartache. Along the way, Pedro finally connects with his abuelito and learns what it means to grow up and find his grito. —Synopsis provided by Dial Books
Mexikid is a road trip like no other. From laugh-out-loud hijinks to gross-out moments and everything in between, it’s a journey that readers won’t soon forget. The story rings with authenticity. It almost feels like you’re at a family gathering listening to the story around the dinner table.
The story unfolds through a blend of cartoon, comic-style illustrations that are bold and full of exuberance. Mexikid is the story of a multi-generational, immigrant family that’s full of love, laughter and bigger-than-life lore. It’s a heartwarming read that readers will gobble up.
TIGER DAUGHTER, by Rebecca Lim, Delacorte Press, Aug. 15, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 10 and up)
Wen Zhou is a first-generation daughter of Chinese migrant parents. She has high expectations from her parents to succeed in school, especially her father whose strict rules leave her feeling trapped. Then she befriends a boy named Henry who is also a first-generation immigrant. He is the smartest boy at school despite struggling with his English and understands her in a way nobody has lately. Both of them dream of escaping and together they come up with a plan to take an entrance exam for a selective school far from home.
But when tragedy strikes, it will take all of Wen’s resilience and tiger strength to get herself and Henry through the storm that follows. —Synopsis provided by Delacorte Press
At 192 pages, Tiger Daughter is in the sweet spot for middle readers who want a big punch in a not-so-long book. And, boy, does Tiger Daughter make a statement.
Author Rebecca Lim’s prose is smooth and thoughtful. She deftly touches on racism, sexism and emotional domestic violence. Her care and attention to detail is evident from beginning to end, making Tiger Daughter a transformative read.
FARTHER THAN THE MOON, by Lindsay Lackey, Roaring Brook Press, Sept. 19, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99 9 (ages 10 and up)
All Houston Stewart has ever wanted is to become an astronaut. His dreams feel like they’re finally coming true when he’s accepted to the Junior Astronaut Recruitment Program – if only he could bring his little brother, Robbie, with him. Ever since their dad left, Houston and Robbie have been inseparable. But Robbie’s cerebral palsy and epilepsy mean he needs medical attention at home, so Houston has to go on his own.
At camp, Houston is quickly drawn into the orbit of new friends, cosmic adventures, and a long-lost grandfather. Houston is determined to honor Robbie’s dream, even if it seems like an impossible mission. So, like a good astronaut, he dares to make a new plan ― one that shoots for the stars. —Synopsis provided by Roaring Brook Press
Farther Than the Moon is a fabulous story of two brothers — Houston and Robbie — and the bond they share. Beyond the sibling relationship, Lackey also focuses on friendship and teamwork within the setting of the Junior Astronaut Recruitment Program. Here, it’s great to see teens in their element while still very much themselves. Houston’s team is full of wonderfully flawed characters who are continually working to better themselves academically and personally. Farther Than the Moon is a great upper-middle-grade novel that has multiple educational tie-ins as well as being just a good book to read.
KIN: Rooted in Hope, by Carole Boston Weatherford and Jeffery Boston Weatherford, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Sept. 19, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 10 and up)
Carole and Jeffery Boston Weatherford’s ancestors are among the founders of Maryland. Their family history there extends more than three hundred years, but as with the genealogical searches of many African Americans with roots in slavery, their family tree can only be traced back five generations before going dark. And so from scraps of history, Carole and Jeffery have conjured the voices of their kin, creating an often painful but ultimately empowering story of who their people were in a breathtaking book that is at once deeply personal yet all too universal.
Carole’s poems capture voices ranging from her ancestors to Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman to the plantation house and land itself that connects them all, and Jeffery’s illustrations help carry the story from the first mention of a forebear listed as property in a 1781 ledger to he and his mother’s homegoing trip to Africa in 2016. Shaped by loss, erasure, and ultimate reclamation, this is the story of not only Carole and Jeffery’s family, but of countless other Black families in America. —Synopsis provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Kin: Rooted in Hope is one of those books that sticks with you long after you read it. It’s a striking work that combines both poetry and illustration. Carole’s beautiful prose is moving in its cadence. The pauses and words left unsaid serve to strengthen her narrative, which spans five centuries and is told in multiple voices. It’s a book that begs to be read aloud.
Jeffery’s scratchboard art is stunning. His ability to capture emotion through line is superb. His work is raw, bold and beautiful. He matches Carole’s tone while adding even more depth to her words.
SUSIE KING TAYLOR: NURSE, TEACHER & FREEDOM FIGHTER (Rise. Risk. Remember. Incredible Stories of Courageous Black Women), by Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Candace Buford, Aladdin, Sept. 26, 2023, Hardcover, $19.99 (ages 10 and up)
A groundbreaking figure in every sense of the word, Susie King Taylor (1848–1912) was one of the first Black nurses during the Civil War, tending to the wounded soldiers of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Afterward, she was a key figure in establishing a postbellum educational system for formerly bonded Black people, opening several dedicated schools in Georgia. Taylor was also one of the first Black women to publish her memoirs.
Even as her country was at war with itself, Taylor valiantly fought for the rights of her people and demonstrated true heroism. —Synopsis provided by Aladdin
Susie King Taylor: Nurse Teacher & Freedom Fighter is as compelling a biography as any that I’ve read. The first-person narrative immediately draws you in, and makes you feel as if you’re right there with Taylor. The biography is full of harrowing moments, but it is the addition of the simplest of details that add depth.
The authors capture Taylor’s voice in prose that is both accessible for the intended audience and engaging for those who are older. It’s an excellent biography.
REMEMBER US, by Jacqueline Woodson, Nancy Paulsen Books, Oct. 10, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (ages 10 and up)
It seems like Sage’s whole world is on fire the summer before she starts seventh grade. As house after house burns down, her Bushwick neighborhood gets referred to as “The Matchbox” in the local newspaper. And while Sage prefers to spend her time shooting hoops with the guys, she’s also still trying to figure out her place inside the circle of girls she’s known since childhood.
But it’s also the summer of Freddy, a new kid who truly gets Sage. Together, they reckon with the pain of missing the things that get left behind as time moves on, savor what’s good in the present, and buoy each other up in the face of destruction. And when the future comes, it is Sage’s memories of the past that show her the way forward. Remember Us speaks to the power of both letting go . . . and holding on. —Synopsis provided by Nancy Paulsen Books
Jacqueline Woodson is a masterful storyteller. Her prose has a richness to it that feels as if she’s in the room talking to you herself. Her style is tight, carefully selecting narrative and dialogue. Never giving too much or too little. At the center of Remember Us is Sage. A teen who lost her own firefighter father to a blaze. Her relationship with fire is complicated, but her dreams for the future — becoming a pro basketball player — are not. Until they are, too. Sage’s heart is on the page for all to see — her pain, triumphs, her memories.
Remember Us is a captivating, fast-moving read. With 77 chapters and less than 200 pages, it’s approachable for all middle-readers.
THE NIGHT RAVEN (The Moonwind Mysteries), by Johan Rundberg and A. A. Prime, Amazon Crossing Kids, Nov. 1, 2023, Hardcover, $17.99, Paperback, $9.99 (ages 10 and up)
It’s 1880, and in the frigid city of Stockholm, 12-year-old Mika knows that everyone in her orphanage will struggle to survive this winter. But at least the notorious serial killer the Night Raven is finally off the streets…or is he?
Mika is shocked when a newborn baby is left at the orphanage in the middle of the night, by a boy with a cryptic message. When a detective shows up, Mika senses something even more sinister is going on.
Drawn in by Mika’s unique ability to notice small details, the detective unwittingly recruits her to help him with his investigation into a gruesome murder. Mika knows she should stay far, far away, but maybe, this is Mika’s chance to be someone who matters. —Synopsis provided by Amazon Crossing Kids
The Night Raven is a smart page-turner that’s a bit dark and full of mystery. At just under 200 pages, it’s the perfect length for Rundberg’s intended audience. But the intrigue is strong enough that older audiences will appreciate it as well.
The Night Raven is a fast-moving read that’s suitable for older, more mature middle-readers. Some topics — death, dead bodies, murder, violence— might be a little scary for younger readers. These are all explored tastefully and are not graphic, but are there nonetheless. I look forward to reading more in this series.
Copyright © 2023 Cracking the Cover. Unless otherwise noted, all books — digital and physical — have been provided by publishers in exchange for honest and unbiased reviews. All thoughts and opinions are those of the reviewer.