AHH, the end of year lists continue — this time with my list of best middle-grade books in 2020! As you’ll notice in the post title, these are MY favorites out of the limited selection I read this year. Out of the 87 books I’ve read at this time, 57 were excellent middle-grade books. These 13 picks rose to the top for me. They were the books I could still remember vividly, books whose covers still evoke a warm feeling because the stories are so dear to my heart. Many of these books were stories I’ve never seen told in middle-grade literature, featured underrepresented themes in the genre or strong, unforgettable protagonists.
I debated making this list of picture books and chapter books releasing in 2021, but this year, I’ve enjoyed several exceptional picture books and chapter books. 2021 is shaping up to be even better. Happily, this list seems to be a more diverse selection and having read several of the picture books on this list, I can wholeheartedly recommend these books.
It’s finally list season and I’m kicking things off with this list of 91 middle-grade books to read in 2021. But before we get started, I’d like to mention the obvious: this is not an exhaustive list. When I make these anticipated lists, I only include books that I am particularly interested in. Essentially, a wish list of sorts. As you may already know, I’m not a big fantasy reader, so I’ll leave the fantasy picks for other bloggers (whose lists I’m happy to link to in this post when they’re published). 2021 promises to be an exceptional year in kidlit publishing, although I am disappointed in the relatively small number of books featuring Black, Asian, and Latino protagonists.
As usual, I have organized the books by publication date, and yes, the list includes a whopping 91 books with dates ranging from January 5 to October 26.
14-year-old David is a quintessential middle child. His sister Bridgette is in college and the family’s academic success story. Mal, his younger brother is on the autism spectrum, although his family prefers not to use the autism label. Mal is almost non-verbal and only says the word “okay.” David has always has a large appetite and an interest in competitive eating, but after he accidentally leaves a $2000 bill on his mother’s credit card, he’s forced to join a pizza eating contest to win the grand prize of $5000.
In between finding his place in the family and trying not to ruin his internal organs by overeating, David also has to navigate the fact that his two oldest friends Cyn and HeyMan might be dating each other. Where does that leave him? As the third musketeer still, or an unwanted third wheel?
Recommending readalikes can be a tricky process, but as I said in the first post in this series, I enjoy the process of finding similar threads running through even books that appear different on the surface. Today’s pick is Yaa Gyasi’s sweeping debut novel about two sisters separated by events during the African slave trade and the ripple effects throughout their families spanning over several decades.
I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read a ton of Native American middle-grade or YA literature. I think part of the reason is that they’re just not as widely publicized and are still marginalized in publishing. November is Native American Heritage Month, or as it is usually called, American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. I made it a point to learn a bit more about Native American literature, and to read more of it, not just during this month, but in general.
On this list, I’ve tried to include OwnVoices selections from Native American authors or authors of Native American descent. You will find middle-grade and young adult books.
Measuring Up follows 12-year-old Cici who moves from Taiwan to the US with her parents, leaving behind her beloved A-ma (her grandmother). Thankfully, the adjustment period isn’t too hard on her. She makes friends quickly and her English is already pretty good. However, she and her parents struggle with American culture, like sleepovers, fireplaces, and she quickly stops bring Taiwanese food to lunch, preferring instead to learn to make American food, so she can blend in.
Although Cici and her parents want to bring her grandmother over for a visit at least, they can’t afford to yet. Cici misses her A-ma with whom she used to go to the market and cook. So when she stumbles upon a kid cooking contest, it feels like the perfect opportunity to earn $1000. The only problem is that Cici can only cook Taiwanese dishes. Fortunately, she’s paired up with an Italian-American girl, Miranda, whose father runs a restaurant (and who practically grew up working in a restaurant). Halfway through the contest though, each contestant has to compete alone.
I’ve recently been reminded how important OwnVoices stories are, especially where disability and neurodiversity are involved. I already have an older list of books with autistic characters (for kids and adults) on this blog, but I wanted to broaden the scope a bit to include other kinds of neurodiversity, including sensory processing disorder (SPD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), dyslexia, ADHD, learning difficulties, synesthesia, and autism spectrum disorder in general (ASD).
You’ll find books by OwnVoices and non OwnVoices authors, as well as books in which the neurodivergent person is the main character, and others with “neurodiversity rep.”
Serena Says was high on my list of anticipated middle-grade books this fall. It was also the first time I read anything by author Tanita Davis. Serena’s best friend JC has to take a break from school for a kidney transplant, and Serena is looking forward to visiting her in the hospital after the surgery, as school ambassador. But when she catches a cold, her hopes are deflated as another girl Lani is sent instead of her. After the visit, Serena notices that Lani and JC have developed a friendship, and her relationship with JC seems to have diminished in intensity.
Throughout the story, Serena works on finding a good place in her friendship with JC while balancing working with Lani, Harrison, Cameron, and the other kids in her school and senate.
You’ll notice that the best books for seventh graders tend to veer into upper middle-grade territory. That’s the case with the books on this list. I have so many beloved upper middle-grade books and I’ll link to the full list at the bottom of this post, but this list also has several books I have never recommended on the blog before.
Seventh graders are on the brink of teenage life, and may relate most strongly to books about body image, crushes, and things like that. They’re also more able to tolerate tastefully done stories about sexual harassment, domestic violence, addiction, serious mental illness and other harsh, unpleasant realities of life. On this list, you’ll find books that hit all of these themes.
Today’s pick is a popular (and loved) book about a gorilla, that is also now a movie. If you love middle-grade books about animals, you’ll likely enjoy the books on this list. If you or your kids loved this book, here are more books like The One and Only Ivan.
One Last Shot follows 12-year-old Malcolm who has an anxious streak and never feels good enough, especially for his dad. It doesn’t help that his parents are always arguing, and Malcolm is typically caught in the middle. Malcolm’s father loves competitive sports (especially baseball) and is disappointed when Malcolm decides to stop playing because he isn’t good at it and does not enjoy it. But he finds some respite when Malcolm becomes interested in miniature golf — and actually enjoys it.
As usual, Malcolm’s father goes overboard, hiring a coach called Frank and signs Malcolm up for a tournament. The book alternates between the events of the tournament day and past events leading up to the tournament as Malcolm and Frank forge a sweet friendship, Malcolm befriends a smart girl named Lex, and his parents relationship deteriorates.