Kids Fiction

SHOW US WHO YOU ARE by Elle McNicoll

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Cora didn’t want to go to her older brother’s boss’s son’s birthday party. For one thing, she doesn’t know these people, and for another thing, parties are always awkward for Cora who struggles with small talk and sensory and emotional overwhelm in some social situations. But when she meets Adrien, her night becomes anything but awkward. Adrien is her age and they understand each other better than Cora and her classmates, maybe in part because they are both neurodivergent. The one thing they don’t see eye to eye on is Adrien’s father’s company, Pomegranate, which she learns studies living people to create accurate, holographic representations of them so that when they die, their loved ones can still interact with them. Cora would give anything to have another conversation with her late mother, even a simulated one, but Adrien insists that it wouldn’t be real and that the company is preying on grieving people’s emotions–and their wallets.

When tragedy strikes, Cora can no longer resist the lure of being interviewed by Pomegranate, not when they could offer her a chance to talk with a loved one she’s lost. But Adrien was right: Pomegranate has ulterior motives, and Cora may be the only one capable of unraveling the mystery and stopping them from turning society down a sinister road.

Grief and disability acceptance take a front row seat in McNicoll’s compelling foray into middle grade suspense. McNicoll demonstrates Cora and Adrien’s unique strengths without shying away from their weaknesses, some of them linked to her particular collection of neurodivergent traits, and in doing so provides readers with positive, realistic neurodivergent heroes–a boon for neurodivergent readers looking to find positive reflections of themselves in the books they read and non-neurodivergent readers who need opportunities to better understand people of all neurotypes. On top of the wonderful neurodiverse representation, McNicoll delivers a thrilling borderline dystopian plot that becomes difficult to put down in the second half. I’d recommend this one to fans of middle grade contemporary and/or middle grade thrillers.

If you liked SHOW US WHO YOU ARE, you might like TREX by Christyne Morrell

SHAD HADID AND THE ALCHEMISTS OF ALEXANDRIA by George Jreije

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Shad Hadid excels at cooking up new recipes, whether they’re baked goods from his Lebanese heritage or magic charms like the stink bomb that never fails to disperse the bullies. But when a confrontation with queen of the bullies Sarah Decker attracts a shadowy ghost-like necromancer, Shad learns that his family’s magical recipes are actually works of alchemy and that he is one of the few alchemists left in the world, a legacy left him by his late parents.

Shad receives an invitation to study alchemy at Alexandria Academy, an overseas boarding school, and not a moment too soon since the necromancers who recently discovered his existence are circling closer. Unfortunately, Sarah Decker somehow got an invitation, too, along with Shad’s nightmare of a stepbrother, and even more unfortunately when he arrives at boarding school, no one else seems to have heard of alchemy, believing they’re all there to study advanced science. The presence of math whizzes and almost magical tech is enough to make Shad doubt his own sanity. But the necromancers have found their way into Alexandria Academy, and if Shad wants to protect his friends (and maybe even his bullies) he’s going to need to trust all of his outlandish skills and accept the role he was always meant to fill.

A fresh, funny voice and rich backdrop of Arabic culture elevate classic middle grade fantasy tropes in a wild, thrilling, and unique adventure. Fans of magical boarding school fantasies and intrepid groups of teens battling mystical evil won’t want to miss this stellar debut.

THE CURSE ON SPECTACLE KEY by Chantel Acevedo

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Frank Fern√°ndez was looking forward to finally spending a second year at the same school. As fifth grade ended, he had plans with his best friend and the prospect of a cool summer internship at the public library. But then his parents blow his plans to smithereens: they finished their renovation job early, so they will all be moving. Again.

The only consolation is that this time, the historic landmark they’ll be living in and fixing up won’t be a place they plan to sell. It will be their forever home, a lighthouse in the Florida Keys, close to Frank’s grandfather and more connected to his dad’s Cuban culture. But when the family arrives on Spectacle Key, things immediately start to go wrong. The local historical society is protesting their renovations, the dilapidated lighthouse itself seems to be trying to drive them away, Frank’s parents are always arguing, and to top it all off, Frank stumbles upon an old ruin inhabited by a scared, lonely girl who can’t remember who she is or where she came from and who no one but Frank can see. As strange happenings multiply, Frank and his invisible friend suspect that the key to breaking the Spectacle Key curse must be to discover the girl’s true identity–even if it means facing the unpleasant possibility that she might be a ghost.

Atmospheric and spooky, Acevedo’s speculative mystery focuses on uncomfortable truths in personal and community histories and the importance of confronting them to bring about healing and growth. Although creepy, the story stops short of being a truly terrifying horror, keeping friendship and hope in the forefront throughout. I’d recommend this one to fans of middle grade ghost stories and eerie mysteries. It could also suit for a middle grade book club.

IF YOU READ THIS by Kereen Getten

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Since her mother’s death three years ago, Brie has felt forgotten by her family. Her Nana and aunt and uncle try to be there for her, but they never take her on the kind of adventures her vivacious mother used to imagine up. And her father is always working.

On her twelfth birthday, Brie receives a surprising gift: three letters from her mother, inviting her on one last adventure to her grandfather’s house on the rocky coast of their Caribbean island home. The only problem is that the letter insists that her father join her, and he’s never willing to take the time off work. Starting the journey with her extended family and two best friends, Brie feels her father’s absence keenly. But before the summer is over, her mother’s secret treasure might unlock a deeper connection, not only with her spirit but with all those who love Brie.

Once again, Getten has delivered a deeply moving, community-driven story with a genuine, authentic middle grade voice. The mystery keeps readers turning pages while Brie’s love for her family and longing for a relationship with her dad forges deep emotional connections. This is a must-read for middle grade fans of contemporary fiction!

TREX by Christyne Morrell

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The new boy has a superpower. Mellie was watching from her bedroom window–the perfect spot for a detective to sit and observe–and she saw the blue lightning streak from his fingertips. It’s the first big mystery she’s ever encountered in the neighborhood, and even though she usually avoids school and the crippling stomachaches she often gets when she leaves her house, Mellie knows she has to take the risk. If she’s going to solve the mystery, she has to make contact with Lightning Boy.

All Trex has ever wanted to do is go to school like a normal kid. Unfortunately, the electric charge built up by his mechanical brain can lead to mishaps. For example, accidentally shooting blue lightning from his hands when he touches a metal statue. The lightning is new, and kind of alarming. Trex knows he should tell his mom, but she’ll just insist they move. Again. They’ve been on the run from the mysterious company that gave him his bionic brain after the catastrophic car accident that killed his father (and almost killed him) and she’d never let him go to school if she knew about the lightning. So Trex decides to keep his secret. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one with secrets. There’s a prowler in the neighborhood, and a gang of bullies at the school, and if Trex wants to keep his secret safe, he might have to team up with the girl who has come the closest to exposing him.

This extraordinary middle-grade sci-fi thriller is a page-turner from beginning to end. Though action and danger sometimes rise to the forefront, Morrell never neglects the character depth that drives the story and uses the sci-fi adventure as a vehicle to explore mental health issues and bullying. With a message of “you are not broken,” she creates a therapy-positive storyline for her character with an anxiety disorder and addresses the issue of mental health medication with sensitivity and nuance. I stayed up way too late reading this one because I couldn’t put it down! I highly recommend it to middle grade fans of sci-fi and/or thrillers and to book clubs.

THE HOLE STORY by Kelly Canby

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When a boy finds a hole in the ground he is delighted to put it in his pocket. But he soon discovers that a hole in your pocket is not as wonderful as he thought. In fact, holes don’t seem to be very useful anywhere. But there is one creature eager to get the hole back in the ground…

This adorable, punny picture book will delight parents as much (or more) than their children. Ideal for older preschool or kindergarten audiences, the story hinges on knowledge of common expressions involving “holes” and will get kids thinking about the flexibility of language. The simple, colorful illustrations with ample white space are eye-catching and easy to follow–with added bonus puns in shop names in illustrations of the town. Released in Australia in 2018, the charming book will be coming to the U.S. in August.

JENNIFER CHAN IS NOT ALONE by Tae Keller

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Mallory doesn’t believe her friends’ stories about the new girl. I mean, there’s no way she could have karate-chopped a kid into a full body cast. And if her mom were really a murderer, would they have been allowed to move into her nice, quiet neighborhood? But when Mal’s mom makes her go across the street to introduce herself, she learns that Jennifer Chan might not be the karate-expert daughter of a murderer, but she is definitely weird. Jennifer Chan believes in aliens, and Mallory knows two things: 1) middle school is going to eat her alive, and 2) if Mallory is Jennifer’s friend, she’ll be going down with her.

Then, a few months into the school year, Jennifer Chan disappears, and Mallory is the only one who seems willing to consider the possibility that Jennifer found the aliens she was so desperately searching for. She doesn’t dare bring up the possibility to her popular friends, and the science nerds that might be able to help her aren’t even willing to talk to her. Not after what she did. But Mal isn’t going to give up. She needs to prove that the aliens took Jennifer.

Because if it wasn’t aliens, then Jennifer Chan’s disappearance is all Mallory’s fault.

Through a cast of nuanced characters and a protagonist who won’t give up hope for finding her friend–or the goodness inside herself–Keller tackles the complexity of the middle school social hierarchy and the bullying that can leave the targets frightened and isolated and the bullies themselves empty and hurting. By taking the perspective of one of the bullies, Keller truly explores the why behind middle school social cliques and the power dynamics of bullying without being didactic or moralistic, and by making the bullies’ target honest, forthright, and outspoken, she ensures that her perspective gets heard. Readers will likely be able to identify with both Mallory and Jennifer at different moments in their lives–and the added perspectives of targets like Kath and Ingrid and bullies like Pete and Rachel add even more depth and nuance to the narrative. I could not put this emotional and ultimately hopeful story down, and I highly recommend it to readers of middle grade contemporary fiction and to all upper-elementary and middle school book clubs!

JUST HARRIET by Elana K. Arnold

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Harriet’s dad promised that the new baby wouldn’t change anything. But the baby isn’t even born yet, and things have already changed. A lot. Harriet’s mom isn’t allowed to leave her bed for two whole months, and Harriet will be spending the summer after third grade far away from her parents at her grandmother’s bed and breakfast on an island. At first, Harriet is determined not to enjoy herself during her island summer. But when she finds an old key in the basement, she begins an investigation that will bring her closer to not only the eccentric island community but to the dad she left behind.

This sweet early middle grade story is bursting with personality and family love. A dash of mystery and a colorful cast of characters (plus cat and dog frenemies) keep the plot engaging as Harriet wrestles with her feelings of abandonment and disappointment over the unexpected changes in her family. Ultimately, Harriet will realize that no matter how many things change, the love of her parents is always a constant. I’d recommend this story to readers in grades 2-4 who enjoy contemporary fiction.

WISHING UPON THE SAME STARS by Jacquetta Nammar Feldman

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Yasmeen is devastated to be leaving Detroit and the large community of Palestinian and Lebanese¬† immigrants where she fit in so easily. San Antonio may have a great job for her dad, but there aren’t a lot of Arabs there. The kids at school can barely pronounce her name, and no one looks like her. Except the girl across the street, Ayelet Cohen, but she is definitely not Palestinian. In fact, she is an Israeli immigrant, the worst possible neighbor in her parents’ opinion.

But when Yasmeen meets Ayelet at school, she doesn’t seem hateful. They actually have a lot in common. And when Yasmeen’s math skills land her on a team of Mathletes (coached by Ayelet’s dad), Yasmeen realizes that her happiness at school might depend on keeping her association with the Cohen’s a secret from her parents. Unfortunately, not all secrets can be kept. With bullying increasing at school and tensions mounting in Palestine, Yasmeen’s own fragile peace might be about to explode.

Feldman tackles the complex and weighty topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the innocent and optimistic lens of a child’s budding friendship. She includes some of the political nuance of the real-world situation and pairs it with a subplot of middle school bullies which helps ground the Middle East conflict in the reality of her young American readers. A well-crafted, emotional middle grade novel for fans of contemporary fiction and for middle school book clubs and social studies classrooms.

PAY ATTENTION, CARTER JONES by Gary D. Schmidt

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When Carter tells his mom about the stranger on the doorstep, she panics, wondering if it’s a representative from the army bringing terrible news about Carter’s dad. But when Carter assures her that the guy isn’t in a uniform (or at least not a military uniform, though the tux and bowler hat combo is a bit much) and that also the guy is definitely British (like, really, really British), she returns to the chaos of preparing Carter’s little sisters for school and tells Carter to send the stranger away.

But the stranger has no intention of going away, not even when Carter’s dachshund pukes right in front of his shoes (it’s a dachshund thing). In fact, the stranger is there because of the chaos. Apparently, Carter’s grandfather assigned his butler to move to America and help out during their dad’s deployment–even if “helping out” means cleaning up dachshund puke on Carter’s first day of sixth grade. Unfortunately, cleaning up after dogs isn’t the main part of the butler’s job description. He seems bent on turning Carter into “a gentleman,” educating him in the arts, and even teaching him how to play Cricket, which is apparently “the most gentlemanly” of all sports even though no one has ever heard of it. Carter initially resists the changes the butler brings to his life, but when unexpected news from his father makes him confront some difficult truths about his family’s past, Carter realizes that some changes can’t be stopped–and others might be exactly what he needs.

Snarky, whimsical, and heart-wrenching, PAY ATTENTION, CARTER JONES is a story of how love and community can bring a family through a tragedy. The humor kept me laughing even as the story took its more serious turns while Schmidt’s poetic storytelling created emotional swells, ultimately lifting the reader up in hope. I highly recommend this novel to upper-elementary and middle school readers who enjoy contemporary fiction.