#12DaysOfKidlit 2022

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I received Advance Reader Copies of most of these books from the publishers in order to write my initial reviews.

Happy December! The holiday buying season is well under way and I fervently, devoutly, fanatically believe there is no greater gift than a good book. For the next twelve days I’ll be celebrating the 12 Days Of Kidlit, posting a book a day to add up to my six favorite Middle Grade and six favorite Young Adult novels released this year.

Of course, this list will be limited by a) Books I Happened to Read and b) Books I Happened to Like. So…I need your help! Hop on your favorite social media platform and post your favorite titles of 2022 with #12DaysOfKidlit. I’m excited to check out your recommendations.

Now, let’s dive in with today’s pick…

Day 12: YA Mysteries

As usual, I really struggled to narrow down my list of YAs. So I decided to share two today, both mysteries, but oh so different!

THE RED PALACE by June Hur

What it’s about:

Set in 1758 Korea (Joseon), this mystery follows a young nurse who gets assigned to treat a prince with a dark and secretive past (and present) and winds up getting embroiled in an investigation of a murder that the prince may or may not have committed while dodging the suspicions of an attractive young detective on the police force.

Who it’s for:

Teens and 20-somethings (and on up!). Great for book clubs for all ages. Historical mystery fans and historical romance fans (yes, Romancelandia, this will satisfy you).

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

I love how atmospheric June Hur’s writing is. I get sucked into this world and I never want to leave. The mystery is suspenseful, the subplots gripping, and by now you know I’m a sucker for enemies-to-lovers storylines, so…

QUEEN OF THE TILES by Hanna Alkaf

What it’s about:

They Wish They Were Us meets The Queen’s Gambit in this “stunning…unforgettable” (Publishers Weekly) thriller set in the world of competitive Scrabble, where a teen girl is forced to investigate the mysterious death of her best friend when her Instagram comes back to life with cryptic posts and messages.” Salaam Reads/Simon and Schuster

Who it’s for:

Teen (ages 12 & up) fans of mysteries and competition dramas (“The Queen’s Gambit”is an apt comparison title). It’s not really a thriller, but it is a murder mystery so there’s plenty of suspense from both the investigation and the Scrabble tournament as it ramps up in intensity.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

What set this one apart for me was the setting—not just that it was set in cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and representing competitors from a variety of Asian cultures and religious backgrounds, but also the competitive Scrabble world which I’d not seen before in Kidlit. It was so intense—just as intense as the suspicious death, threatening social media messages, and suspected poisonings of the mystery plot, and plenty cutthroat enough to prompt a murder…


Day 11: THE DOOR OF NO RETURN by Kwame Alexander

What it’s about:

“From the Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award winning author Kwame Alexander, comes the first book in a searing, breathtaking trilogy that tells the story of a boy, a village, and the epic odyssey of an African family.” Little, Brown & Company

Who it’s for:

4th-8th graders who like historical fiction, epic adventures, and/or novels-in-verse. In fact, this is a great “gateway” novel-in-verse due to the smooth, transparent language. It flows beautifully and is easy to understand. It is also a phenomenal choice for MG book clubs, especially at the middle school level due to darker subject matter and the potential for mature discussions of colonization in West Africa and its lingering impacts.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

Set in the Asante Kingdom (modern Ghana) in 1860, this is literary middle grade at its best—the language worming its way into my heart, the characters jumping off the page like real people, the world enveloping me from the first page, and the adventure so gripping I couldn’t put it down. Sublime. And despite the maturity of the writing that will speak to even adult readers, Alexander perfectly captures an 11-year-old’s point of view and emotions as he experiences the life shattering hardships of white colonization in his homeland.


Day 10: VIOLET MADE OF THORNS by Gina Chen

What it’s about:

“A darkly enchanting fantasy about a lying witch, a cursed prince, and a sinister prophecy that ignites their doomed destinies—perfect for fans of The Cruel Prince.” Delacorte Press

Who it’s for:

YA high fantasy people! Especially fans of Holly Black, Marisa Meyer, Heather Walter, Melissa Bashardoust, and similar.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

I’m still stunned this is a debut. It is absolutely everything I want in a dark high fantasy. Politics that shape the story but aren’t excessive and don’t require tons of backstory/explanation. Interweaving of fairytales without it feeling derivative. All Of The Morally Gray Characters! Enemies-to-lovers romance! And TWISTS!! It was just intense, addictive FUN in fantasy form.


Day 9: JENNIFER CHAN IS NOT ALONE by Tae Keller

What it’s about:

“In her first novel since winning the Newbery Medal for When You Trap a Tiger, Tae Keller offers a gripping and emotional story about friendship, bullying, and the possibility that there’s more in the universe than just us.” Random House Books for Young Readers

Who it’s for:

4th-7th grade fans of contemporary fiction with sci-fi vibes. And book clubs! There is a great exploration of the nuances of bullying culture in middle schools that could fuel some excellent conversations.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

What sticks in my mind about this book is how much Keller focused on the possibilities: all the little choices that added up to the ultimate disaster, how what each character did and did not do created their school culture, and of course the big possibility—are the aliens in the book real?? I love books where there are no easy answers and books where the characters have fallen into the crevice between two aspects of their identity and are struggling to see themselves. Plus, Keller perfectly captures middle school clique culture in all of its nuances without writing off a single character as a lost cause, however bad their choices at one time or another. This book is just perfection in so many ways.


Day 8: HOW TO EXCAVATE A HEART by Jake Maia Arlow

What it’s about:

“Stonewall Honor author Jake Maia Arlow delivers a sapphic Jewish twist on the classic Christmas rom-com in a read perfect for fans of Kelly Quindlen and Casey McQuiston.” HarperTeen

Who it’s for:

This is YA/NA Rom Com gold!! Set during freshman year of college, this would also make a great pick for college and 20-something women’s book clubs.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

Enemies to lovers!! A meet-cute where one hits the other with a car!! But what really set this one apart for me was the humor. This voice had me cracking up from the first page. It was such a fast, smooth read and I was having so much fun with the characters, I didn’t want it to end. Plus, Arlow works in some lovely layers of thematic depth as the characters and their relationship evolve.


Day 7: HUMMINGBIRD by Natalie Lloyd

The cover of HUMMINGBIRD by Natalie Lloyd

What it’s about:

Tired of being treated as “fragile,” a twelve-year-old girl with a brittle bone disease convinces her parents to let her go to a real middle school and gets her heart set on playing the lead in a school play—until rumors of a magical wish-granting hummingbird sends her off on a mission to solve a riddle and (maybe) ask for normal bones.

Who it’s for:

4th-6th graders who like contemporary fiction set in small towns and “light” fantasy where the magic is real but almost a metaphor for the main themes of the story (think: Savvy by Ingrid Law, The Stars of Whistling Ridge by Cindy Baldwin, or Lloyd’s A Snicker of Magic.) This one is also an excellent candidate for book clubs, chock full of the kind of humor and suspense that makes it hard to resist but plenty of meat for discussion, too.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

SO many reasons. First, voice (a theme of my MG faves this year). The main character’s voice not only immediately hooked me on who she was as a person, it threw me headlong into this small Appalachian town—and that setting is another thing that has stuck with me. A small town, full of colorful characters supporting one another, with some little bits of literal magic more bits of community growth that feels as magical as the fantasy. And then there’s the disability representation in this book. Lloyd doesn’t shy away from the prickliest issues and uncertainties and struggles of developing your identity when you have a disability and how you see yourself and your disability as part of yourself but not your who self but also a key component of your identity and not a negative but also sometimes painful and… well, you’ll have to read the book. But even though the main character (and Lloyd) has a different disability from me, everything she’s going through psychologically resonated so strongly and authentically with me that this story hasn’t let go of my heart.


Day 6: THE ONE TRUE ME AND YOU by Remi K. England

The cover of THE ONE TRUE ME AND YOU by Remi K. England

What it’s about:

One small fandom convention. One teen beauty pageant. One meet cute waiting to happen.A big-hearted, joyful romance and a love letter to all things geek, Remi K. England’s The One True Me and You is a *witness me* celebration of standing up for, and being, yourself.” Wednesday Books

Who it’s for:

Teens 12 & up. Rom Com fans! Comic-con fans! Comic-Rom-Com-Con Fans! It’s solidly in the LGBTQ+ Rom Com genre, BUT there is so much going on in each of the character’s lives that readers who like YA contemporary coming-of-age stories will find lots to love, even if they’re not typically into romance.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

What I loved about this one is first and foremost the geeky joy—and how this was like my teenage self’s DREAM! I mean, I remember staying in hotels with fellow teens on band trips, which was exciting enough, but if there had been a nerd con in the same hotel? With my favorite fandom?! Beyond the geeky joy, I loved the exploration of having different interests that feel like different worlds—the tension that can create in forming your identity and the beauty and complexity it can add to your life. Plus, those thorny questions of how much of yourself you should share with your crush and when that crush becomes falling in love… and a spotlight on homophobic and transphobic bullying, authentic conversations and interiority surrounding sexual identity and gender identity, and a cheerful, triumphant, fist-pumping ending that would make John Hughes proud.


Day 5: YONDER by Ali Standish

Cover of YONDER by Ali Standish

What it’s about:

“From Ali Standish, award-winning author of The Ethan I Was Before, August Isle, How to Disappear Completely, and The Mending Summer, comes a captivating historical fiction middle grade novel about a boy on the home front in World War II who must solve the mystery of the disappearance of his best friend.” HarperCollins 

Who it’s for:

This one is a stunner for book clubs, overflowing with substance for group discussions and an immediate hook that will convince even reluctant participants to keep reading. It will snag 4th-7th grade fans of character-driven mysteries, character-driven historical fiction (think Okay for Now) or both!

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

This book has one of those perfect first chapters that serve as a microcosm for the book as a whole: the killer voice that roots you in the character and the Appalachian world you’ll be inhabiting, a glimpse of the theme that will be explored in depth going forward (What is heroism? And what does it mean to be a hero—or to be labeled a hero?), and a suspenseful hook at the end, setting up the mystery to come and making it impossible for me to put the book down. The book delivered on every promise the prologue made, and then some; I’m an absolute sucker for books that don’t give me any easy answers but still somehow give me hope.


Day 4: THE WORDS WE KEEP by Erin Stewart

What it’s about:

Struggling to balance her own mental health when her sister returns home after receiving treatment for bipolar disorder after a near-fatal experience with self-harm, overachiever Lily reluctantly teams up with a boy from her sister’s treatment program and goes all in on a school project, leaving subversive poetry around the school and community.

Who it’s for:

Mature teen readers who like darker contemporary and book clubs that can handle themes of suicide and self-harm. The primary access points are mental health, art, and creative writing.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

I’m a sucker for writing about writing, and this book took it to the next level by making the poetry into a form of performance art that has the power to transform a community as well as helping the main character explore her own identity and come to terms with her mental illness. Also, therapy positivity is a must for me in mental health-themed books, and this depiction was extremely nuanced, showing a character going through the process of frustration, failure, and struggle to find the right therapy and right treatment for her. Not just a gripping read, but so hopeful and necessary!


Day 3: SIR FIG NEWTON AND THE SCIENCE OF PERSISTENCE by Sonja Thomas

Book cover of Sir Fig Newton and the Science of Persistence

What it’s about:

From the Desk of Zoe Washington meets Ways to Make Sunshine in this “noteworthy” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) middle grade novel about a determined young girl who must rely on her ingenuity and scientific know-how to save her beloved cat.” Simon and Schuster

Who it’s for:

4th-6th graders (can definitely skew younger for advanced readers), especially STEM lovers and animal lovers.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

Mostly, the voice. I fell for Mira on page one because she made me laugh, feel for her not fitting in (and oh, did my inner 12-year-old relate!), and admire her scientific motivation and tenacity–not to mention that she has a “nemesis” (who should obviously be her BFF). This book executed everything I love in a voicey, character-driven contemporary and hooked me by the heart with the protagonist’s desperation to save her pet. (I was rooting for a nemeses-to-besties transformation, too!)


Day 2: RUST IN THE ROOT by Justina Ireland

Cover of RUST IN THE ROOT by Justina Ireland

What it’s about:

In 1937, mage Laura Ann Langston adopts the moniker the Peregrine and joins a corps of Black government operatives to find the source of a deadly magical blight in the Midwest, only to discover that the government hasn’t been honest about the waiting dangers and their sinister source.

Who it’s for:

Teen (YA) and young adult (NA) fans of immersive, grounded fantasies—especially historical fantasy, but honestly, the historical setting is so integrated into the world building and magical politics that I think it could pull fans of contemporary and secondary world fantasies, too. It also has the perfect blend of unputdownable drive and meaty themes for YA and 20-something book clubs (and tbh, I’ve pitched it to my book club of 30- and 40-somethings, too).

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

Justina Ireland’s world building is always off the hook, and this one is my new favorite. She takes history, adds fantasy, and somehow makes it more real, more relevant to what I’m witnessing and experiencing in my contemporary, non-magical life. And boy do I love a meticulously constructed, well-founded, logical yet novel magic system. Add the unbelievable stakes, nuanced characters, and ever-increasing suspense from snippets of future news clippings… *chef’s kiss* Absolute exquisite perfection. 10/10. 11/10, actually.


Day 1: TREX by Christyne Morrell

Cover of TREX by Christyne Morrell

What it’s about:

“This middle grade mystery follows the adventures of a boy with an experimental brain implant, and a reclusive girl training to be a spy, as they’re pitted against school bullies, their own parents, and an evil, brain-hacking corporation.” Penguin Random House

Who it’s for:

Compared by the publisher to Stranger Things, this is for middle grade readers who like sci-fi with big mystery-thriller energy and resilient underdog characters. It also has the perfect blend of unputdownable drive and meaty themes for MG book clubs.

Why I can’t get it out of my head:

This one was right up my alley genre-wise (I’m all about big mystery-thriller energy in my speculative middle grade!) but it stood out from the pack because of how well Morrell balances agency between her two protagonists, because of the realistic and ultimately therapy-positive depiction of a character with an anxiety disorder, and because I genuinely did not see one of the twists coming. It’s rare for me to be surprised by a well-founded twist for this age group, but Morrell pulled it off in a big way. The character interactions were authentic, the stakes high, and the suspense driving. What a ride!

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