Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Best Middle Grade Fiction Read in 2020

Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom by Louis Sachar (2020). This book came out right as the pandemic hit the US, so the title alone made it seem perfect. I loved Wayside School as a kid, and have read it with book clubs and school groups a lot recently. I was so excited to see a new title being released but was also a little nervous that it wouldn’t be as good as the originals after so long. I was so surprised when it was better than I remembered the others being! It’s so humorous and dry and I loved it so much, I can’t wait to read it again! Re-reading this whole series might be a 2021 goal...

The Canyon's Edge by Dusti Bowling (2020). Nora and her father go on a hike for Nora’s birthday. They’re trying to get away from it all, to forget what happened last year on Nora’s birthday, when her mother died. The whole family has always loved hiking and rock climbing, and Nora wants them to keep it up even though they’re a family of two instead of three. After climbing down into a slot canyon, Nora and her father are caught in a flash flood. Her father pushes her to safety, but as Nora watches, her father and all their supplies are swept away.
    This is a verse novel bookended by a straightforward narrative, which totally immerses the reader into the action. Nora is impressive in her fight for survival, but the book is very realistic about her situation, which adds some great suspense. This is so powerful and so emotional, and I can’t recommend it enough for middle-grade readers and up.

The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane by Kate O'Shaughnessy (2020). Maybelle Lane uses a tape recorder as a journal. She records quiet sounds that other people don't notice, sounds that say a lot to Maybelle. Maybelle's momma is a musician and is about to go away on tour for one long month. Mrs. Boggs, a neighbor in the trailer park, will be watching Maybelle while her mother's away. But Mrs. Boggs doesn't realize that Maybelle has plans to travel from Louisiana to Nashville.
    There's a singing contest in Nashville, and Maybelle not only entered but is determined to win. She hasn't sung for a long time, but she wants to impress the judges. One of them is her father, a man she's never met. A man she only recognizes by his laugh, which she heard on the radio one day, just by chance.
    Maybelle's momma told her not to go looking for her dad because she'd only end up getting her heart broken. But when Maybelle listens to him on the radio, he sounds kind, and Maybelle already has a lot in common with him. She knows if she can make it to Nashville and meet him, he'll want to be involved in her life.
    Mrs. Boggs is surprisingly eager to take Maybelle on a road trip. The trip is full of trouble and adventure, and even a stowaway! Maybelle learns a lot about herself and her travel companions along the way, but she can't stop worrying about what's at stake when she gets to Nashville.
    This book was beautifully written and very touching. The details about sounds Maybelle noticed and recorded inspired me to start listening more than I typically do. I love the idea of keeping a journal of sounds, and I love the library activities this brings to mind! This book is great for middle-grade readers and up, and I think it would be an excellent book club pick for small groups in classes.

Rick by Alex Gino (2020). Rick is starting middle school with one friend, but he’s starting to realize Jeff might not be the best friend. Jeff is judgmental and teases Rick for everything he is or isn’t. But when Rick decides he wants to join the school’s Rainbow Spectrum club to figure out who he really is, he realizes that Jeff is flat-out hateful. While Rick learns to accept others as they are, his relationship with his grandfather blossoms in a beautiful way. This is a wonderful middle-grade book about acceptance, questioning who you are, and finding yourself.

BenBee and the Teacher Griefer by K.A. Holt (2020). I love K.A. Holt's verse novels, but this one is a whole new ball game! Four students, Ben B, Ben Y, Jordan J, and Javier, are in summer school because they failed their state assessment, and Ms. J is the teacher who's tasked with bringing them up to speed. These four students don't know it at first, but they have a lot in common. They hate to read. They have never finished reading a book on their own. And, most importantly, they all love the game Sandbox. After making an agreement with Ms. J, the students are allowed to read a Sandbox-themed Choose Your Own Adventure-type book, and even earn time to play Sandbox at school if they meet their time quota for reading aloud. The four students start to become friends as they open up about their struggles in the Sandbox game, along with their real lives.
    This is billed as a verse novel, but I'm excited at how many students it will appeal to because one character's chapter is told in drawings. I've known many students like this - hate reading, hate writing, but have so much to express if you let them draw. I think most middle-grade readers will be able to see themselves in at least one of these four characters while feeling empathy for them all. The characters and their struggles are real, relatable, and most of all - incredibly interesting to read about! This is definitely one to get for your home, classroom, school library, or middle-grade section of the public library - it's going to be a hit!

I can't let a middle-grade post go by without also recommending some graphic novels. These two series were big hits in the school library this year - including the Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels. The Mr. Wolf series is set in a classroom with diverse students and is a quick and engaging read. Like the Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels, the Baby-Sitters Little Sister series is a graphic novel adaptation of the chapter books, so it's a great way to hook readers and then transition them into chapter books if they want to read "ahead" of when the graphic versions are released.

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