Kids Fiction

PREMEDITATED MYRTLE by Elizabeth C. Bunce

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Myrtle Hardcastle is not at all surprised to see the constable at the manor across the road. After all, she was the one who phoned the police after noting that the science-minded spinster next door, Miss Wodehouse, and her cat had not undertaken their usual morning routine (a future detective must be Observant of such things if she hopes to uncover Crimes-in-Progress). Alas, Myrtle was too late to help Miss Wodehouse, who was dead in her bathtub when the police arrived, but she is determined to solve the murder–for it is a murder no matter what the police might say to the contrary. No obstacle will stop the intrepid young detective–not the inexplicable vanishing of Miss Wodehouse’s life’s work, not the weary attempts of her prosecutor father to reign in his unconventional daughter, and certainly not the fact that the only witness to the supposed murder is a runaway cat.

Funny, quirky, and thrilling in exactly the right balance, the Myrtle Hardcastle mysteries will delight middle grade fans of Enola Holmes, Flavia de Luce, and even more modern girl detectives. A deserved Edgar Award-winner, PREMEDITATED MYRTLE is an excellent mystery with an even more excellent protagonist and the promise of thrilling series to come.

THE BEATRYCE PROPHECY by Kate DiCamillo

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Answelica the Goat is a demon. At least, that’s what the monks believe. She’s certainly given them enough bites and bruises over the years. So when Answelica takes a liking to a mysterious girl who showed up at the monastery with no memories, the monks can hardly turn her away–even when they find out that she can read and write, a pastime forbidden to the common people and especially to all girls. But when the girl’s memories start to come back, she realizes that the king’s soldiers are searching for her, and she can endanger the monks no longer. Accompanied by Answelica, a prophetic monk, and a village boy who is eager to learn to read, Beatryce embarks on a journey to uncover her past and change the world.

This medieval adventure story is funny, suspenseful, and heartfelt with the classic feel of a folktale. It is a quick read, and I loved every minute of it. I highly recommend it to upper-elementary aged fantasy fans.

AHMED AZIZ’S EPIC YEAR by Nina Hamza

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Ahmed can’t believe his parents are making them move all the way from Hawaii to Minnesota. Even though his dad will have better treatments for his cirrhosis there, getting a liver transplant is still a long shot. And his dad’s childhood home might be full of memories, but not all of them will be good. After all, Minnesota is where Ahmed’s uncle died.

As soon as they arrive, another problem rushes to join Ahmed’s long list of epic disasters. His name is Jack, and he’s the biggest bully in Ahmed’s neighborhood. And his bus. And his school. And his Advanced Language Arts class. Further complicating matters, Ahmed’s Language Arts teacher is an old friend of his dad’s. If Ahmed told her what was going on with Jack, she’d probably intervene, but then he’d be a tattletale, which would be even worse than being the new kid and the only brown kid in school. As he reads the classic books that his teacher assigns, though, Ahmed starts to better understand the other kids in his school and his own family. And as new friendships develop and Jack’s bullying worsens, Ahmed realizes he might have a way to turn his year from an epic disaster to an epic victory.

This is a novel for any middle schooler who’s ever been the new kid or felt like they didn’t fit in (so … every middle schooler…). Ahmed’s voice balances humor and sincerity, and the ways that he applies lessons from HOLES, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, and FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS BASIL E FRANKWEILER to his daily life will make every English teacher and librarian swoon. A good pick for fans of middle grade contemporary friendship stories!

Ahmed Aziz's Epic Year: Hamza, Nina: 9780063024892: Amazon.com: Books

THE SMASHED MAN OF DREAD END by J.W. Ocker

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Noe wasn’t particularly upset about moving to a new neighborhood. It’s not like there was anything left for her in her old neighborhood or her old school–not since her sleepwalking cost her her best friend. But the new neighborhood (Dread End, as its street sign proclaims) isn’t exactly full of friend potential. In fact there are just a couple of mopey, creepy girls, and all they seem interested in doing is telling Noe to stay out of her basement.

So of course, that’s the first place Noe goes.

It doesn’t seem like anything special. A dirt floor. A washing machine. A few cracks in the walls. But when Noe sleepwalks downstairs at night, she discovers the dark secret her neighborhood hides: a paper thin man with a grotesquely smashed face who oozes out of the cracks in the basement walls of all the houses on Dread End. Only children can see him, and the Dread Enders have pretty much accepted that there’s nothing they can do to get rid of him, especially since the last girl who tried to fight him wound up in a coma. But Noe knows that all monsters have rules, and all monsters can be beaten. She just needs to figure out how–before she sleepwalks into his clutches.

I am in love with this inventive middle grade horror novel! The monster was as original as it was thoroughly blood-chilling, and the heroines wouldn’t give up, even in the face of terror and the possibility of bodily harm. What a fabulous ride! I highly recommend this one to upper elementary and middle school fans of the genre.

CARRY ME HOME by Janet Fox

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Lulu doesn’t know where her father has gone or when he’s coming back. He left once before, for a whole month, shortly after Lulu’s mother died. But that was back in Texas and they had Aunt Ruth to take care of them. Now Lulu and Serena are on their own in Montana in the car where they’ve been living. Lulu knows she can’t let anyone know where they live or that her dad is gone. She’s heard of social services and knows the first thing they’ll do is separate her from her sister, and taking care of Serena is her responsibility. She promised her mom. But with teachers getting suspicious and lunch money running low, Lulu’s secrets are ready to burst out, especially once a budding friendship leads her to form the kinds of connections she’d promised herself to avoid.

This sweet story about community and hope shows the humanity and agency of a homeless family. The writing style is beautiful, powerfully communicating Lulu’s grief and anxieties as her desire to take on the responsibilities of a parent conflict with her need to be a kid. I’d highly recommend this title to upper elementary and middle school fans of contemporary fiction and to middle grade book clubs.

THE SECRET STARLING by Judith Eagle

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Clara has lived with her uncle her whole life–well, her uncle and the servants who staff their manor home. Truthfully, she sees far more of the servants than of her uncle, who would prefer to have nothing to do with her. But everything changes when her uncle goes bankrupt, abandoning her in the manor house with a bit of cash and no one to care for her. When Clara meets another orphan named Peter, the two decide to turn the manor into a suitable house for unsupervised children–a place for them to live and for their eccentric friends to come and play. But when they discover a ballet slipper that once belonged to Clara’s mother, Clara realizes she doesn’t want to just create a new routine in the same old house. She wants to uncover the truth of her mother’s past that her uncle never told her–and maybe wind up on an adventure!

This middle grade novel, originally published in England, has an old-fashioned vibe that will appeal to fans of books as varied as THE PENDERWICKS, ESCAPE FROM MR LIMONCELLO’S LIBRARY, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS BASIL E FRANKWEILER, and THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY. It is part mystery, part historical fiction, and part adventure, but mostly the story of a quirky cast of young people making their way in the world.

The Secret Starling: Eagle, Judith, Rioux, Jo: 9781536213652: Amazon.com:  Books

HOLLOW CHEST by Brita Sandstrom

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Charlie can’t wait for his brother Theo to come home from the war. Since losing his father when the German’s bombed London, Charlie has been trying to fill the absence in his family, to help his mother around the house and especially to care for his grandfather who has dementia, but terrible nightmares of falling bombs and wolves clawing at his chest leave him exhausted. Once Theo returns, things will finally feel more normal.

But Theo comes home changed–no longer the supportive big brother, but irritable and closed off. Charlie’s grandfather assures him that Theo just needs time to heal, but Charlie soon discovers the truth: the wolves from his nightmares are real and one of them ate Theo’s heart. Despite the danger that lies ahead, Charlie is determined to find the war wolves and do whatever it takes to get his brother’s heart back.

This historical fantasy novel is really an extended metaphor about the effects of war on mental health and the ways that love can help families heal. Though the premise may sound frightening, this novel is a far cry from horror; the fantasy elements are introduced and resolved gently, the focus always on real-world character relationships. I’d recommend this book to fans of Anne Ursu and similar “metaphorical folklore” middle grade stories.

Hollow Chest: Sandstrom, Brita: 9780062870742: Amazon.com: Books

ARROW by Samantha M. Clark

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Arrow has spent his entire life living in the rainforest, raised by the Guardian Tree and at peace with the creatures who live there. But the curtain that hides the rainforest from the desolate human world is beginning to tear and the Anima, the magic at the core of the forest’s spirit, is fading. And then the humans begin to arrive.

First a plane crashes, leaking gasoline into the earth, and then a herd of human children stumble in through one of the tears in the curtain. Though the Guardian Tree fears the humans, Arrow is intrigued to finally see creatures of his own kind. And when a baby human is sick with a rash, Arrow disobeys the Guardian Tree’s orders to stay hidden and emerges to help. Arrow and the human children soon become friends. But the children aren’t the only humans to stumble on the forest, and when the forest is threatened with destruction, Arrow will have to figure out where his loyalties lie and whether he has the strength to protect the Anima himself.

Told in first person narration by the Guardian Tree, this inventive middle grade fantasy is charming and inspiring. Readers will love the adventure and teachers and librarians will find plenty of fuel for book club discussion in the environmental message and the coming-of-age story. This book will be best suited for readers in grades 4-6.

Arrow by Samantha M. Clark

#12DaysOfKidlit 2021

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Happy November!

I know, I know. It’s basically still Halloween. But with supply chain issues and paper shortages, we’ve got to think about the holidays early if we’re gifting books to the kids in our lives. That’s why I’m celebrating the #12DaysOfKidlit. I’m choosing my 12 favorite titles from 2021–6 YA and 6 Middle Grade to highlight (in no particular order). Think of this as a gift guide for the young reader in your lives. I’ll update daily for the next 12 days, adding a new title each time.

But (tragically) even though I read 160+ books this year (!), that doesn’t even come close to the number of books that came out. And since everyone’s reading interests are different, my favorites might not be right for you or the kids on your list.

So…you should play too!

On Twitter and Instagram, use #12DaysOfKidlit to throw up your favorite kids/teen books of the year and see what books others loved! The celebration runs from November 1-12.

Let’s fill everyone’s holiday lists with the best Kidlit of the year!


Today’s Picks:

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING by Nicola Yoon –and– LIKE A LOVE SONG by Gabriela Martins

I received Advance Reader Copies of these books.

I couldn’t pick just one of these because I can’t get either one of them out of my head–and for different reasons. 

INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING is a sublime exploration of that eternal human question: is love worth the risk of heartbreak? It’s a romance, so we know the answer has to be yes, but the journey to that answer is raw, complex, and beautiful. 

LIKE A LOVE SONG, on the other hand, is pure fun–a teen pop star and teen actor fake dating RomCom with perfectly executed tropes. The story is grounded by the MC’s struggle with her identity in a racist society–trying to find balance between her place in a community of artists pursuing a dream career and her place in her family and Brazilian community. 

But what these books have in common is that both of the romances were mature and realistic enough that even I–an old(ish) married lady–connected with them in a powerful way, and I think that’s why I loved them both so much. These are romances I will read as a pick me up again and again.


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CANDIDLY CLINE by Kathryn Ormsbee

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

I loved this book because I loved Cline. She is such a believable, lovable 13 year old kid, and as much as she’s been put through some difficult stuff (in the story and before it begins) she bounces back, she keeps going, and she finds supportive friends and adults who help her through. Her voice is so honest and hopeful as she navigates her first crush, coming out to family and friends, and protecting herself when people are hateful to her because of who she loves. And of course the main thrust of her story is how she chases down her dream of becoming a singer, so there’s lots of opportunities to cheer this wonderful heroine on.


SIX CRIMSON CRANES by Elizabeth Lim

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

Not only was this novel woven skillfully from many, many folklore threads, but it surprised me again and again. Even thinking back on the story now, I’m smiling remembering some of the twists. Some of the folklore was new to me, which was fun. Some was familiar but subverted, which was also fun. And throughout the whole story shone family devotion and the perseverance of the young heroine–no matter how annoying her brothers got.


THE THING I’M MOST AFRAID OF by Kristin Levine

Reading this book felt like taking a vacation (which in 2021, was much appreciated!). The detail of the Austrian setting–not just the landscape, but the culture and community–immersed me entirely in that world. And on top of that, the character’s experience with her panic disorder as she figured out how to accept help and develop more effective coping strategies rang so true to me. I don’t usually see that experience represented in the books I read–or if it is represented, it’s in books that are overall soul-crushingly intense–so to see a character with severe anxiety in an uplifting book about family and hope was incredible.


EAT YOUR HEART OUT by Kelly deVos

As a fan of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I was grinning all the way through this satirical sci-fi/horror. It delivered on humor, on social commentary, on scares–and because there were so many first person narrators (something I don’t usually like), I had no idea who would live and who would die. As long as one kid made it, there would be someone to tell the story. The question was: who?…


FAST PITCH by Nic Stone

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

When it comes to flawless middle grade fiction, this book is it. It tackles the huge and important topic of racism in sports (and other areas of life), features a group of girls kicking butt on and off the field, and has a thrilling mystery that is impossible to stop reading. It is a winner on so many levels, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.


SAY IT OUT LOUD by Allison Varnes

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

As a musical theater-obsessed former-tween myself, I am always a sucker for stories about kids finding their voices through the arts. But this one had me particularly excited when the tweens take their voices off the stage to fight for something they believe in. Add the fun, heartwarming friendships and representation of a main character who stutters and you have a book that has stuck with me all year.


THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS by June Hur

I read so many YA mystery/thrillers this year, so why has this historical mystery stuck with me? Part of it was the history. Part of it was the feminism. But I think most of it was the atmospheric quality of the novel. There were no cheap scares here, no gimmicks to draw out suspense. The setting of the village, the disappearances, the murky past, and the untrustworthy community members kept my spine tingling the whole way through.  


A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

It is possible that this one violates the spirit of #12DaysOfKidlit since it wasn’t technically released this year. But I am U.S. based, and it was released here in 2021, and I loved it too much to leave it off my list. The authenticity of the autistic representation was probably the reason I connected with this book so deeply, although the novel has so many strengths. I love middle grade books where children are the moral compass and agents of change in their communities, and the way this particular child forces her community to process the uncomfortable immorality of their pasts and present to move toward a better future…*chef’s kiss* 


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ME (MOTH) by Amber McBride

I think the reason this poetic literary novel is still haunting me is the rich soil of history, culture, and spirituality that supports the characters. The emotions are deep and intense, but they are so rooted in the exquisite world-building that the narrative never feels heavy, even when the subject matter is. The characters are always growing up and out from their experience of loss, both in their recent pasts and in their ancestral histories, always climbing toward hope. I am not at all surprised this book is on the National Book Award’s Finalists list.


SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA by Cynthia Leitich Smith

PETER PAN is one of those books I haven’t read my kids because as much as I loved it as a child, every time I pick it up as an adult I’m horrified–partly by the racism on the page but perhaps more by the fact that I had no idea it was there when I was a kid. Those were just things I internalized that contributed to my unconscious prejudices. And maybe that’s why Cynthia Leitich Smith’s SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA blew me away. Because it isn’t a scathing dismantling of Barrie’s classic. It’s a reimagining of the enchanting world that both holds Peter Pan accountable for the racism and other problematic aspects of the original story and somehow recaptures and preserves the spirit, tone, and even narrative style of the original. This is the novel I want to read my children.


THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer

I haven’t been shy about my deep and abiding love of Eliot Schrefer’s sci-fi romance. I think one of the reasons it’s stuck with me so many months after I first read it is the way he perfectly captures the spirit of both genres. I would read this if I were in the mood for sci-fi, and I would read it if I were in the mood for romance. It has all of those little melty moments and relationship tensions I want in a love story plus the edge-of-your-seat, cannot-stop-turning-pages, omg-are-they-about-to-die?! moments I love in YA sci-fi. I can’t get this book out of my head, and I couldn’t think of a better title to start off the 12 Days of Kidlit.

CANDIDLY CLINE by Kathryn Ormsbee

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

As soon as Cline finds out about the singer-songwriter workshop for young people, she knows she has to do it. Unfortunately, two things stand in her way. First, the workshop costs $300, money her family definitely does not have. And second, her mom said no–not just no to the workshop, but no to Cline pursuing a future in the music business, period.

But when a job opportunity falls into Cline’s lap and her grandmother (who is just as much a guardian as her mom, really) offers to advance her the application fee and sign her permission form, Cline takes it as a sign. She is meant to do this workshop. As the honesty of her songwriting leads to Cline write a love song to a girl, however, her world begins to shift. It turns out not everyone is willing to accept Cline for who she is, even people she thought really cared for her. As Cline moves closer to the public debut of her song, and closer to her songwriting partner, Sylvie, will she have the courage to be true to herself?

From the plucky protagonist who won’t give up on her dreams, to the complex mother-daughter relationship, to the sweet glimpse of puppy love between two queer young people–there is a lot to love in this middle grade novel. At the start of the book, Cline already knows she likes girls romantically–and that’s just who she is–but questions of tolerance, how and when to come out (and to whom), and emotional safety run throughout the story. Queer tweens will resonate with and take courage from Cline’s experiences, especially the encouragement she gets from allies to take care of her own mental health and take the distance she needs from hateful people and institutions, and all readers will root for her in her relentless pursuit of her artistic dreams. A must-buy for library collections, I highly recommend this novel to all middle grade contemporary fiction fans and to middle grade book clubs.