Kids Contemporary Fiction

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

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.

#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.

THE SWAG IS IN THE SOCKS by Kelly J. Baptist

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

Xavier’s great uncle Frankie Bell is a legend. The man is seriously old, but he hasn’t slowed down one bit. He’s still traveling the country with his jazz band, making music and making history. And apparently, he’s decided it’s time for Xavier to step up his sock game.

The socks Frankie Bell sends are crazy–bright colors, wild patterns, the kind of socks that call attention to a person. And with his stutter, Xavier doesn’t usually like calling more attention to himself. But lucky things happen every time Xavier wears Frankie Bell’s socks. He finds money on the street, gets free ice cream, even catches the attention of eighth graders. That’s a really good thing because some of those eighth graders are members of the Scepter League, an elite group of young men built on the pillars of leadership, education, service, and character, and it’s Xavier’s goal to get inducted this year. But once school starts, the sock luck seems to run out. First, Xavier’s art elective gets canceled, and he winds up in sewing class where he is the one and only boy. Then, there’s the usual embarrassment of being pulled out of class for speech therapy. But when isn’t invited to join the League, Xavier finally realizes that the socks aren’t the problem. If he wants to catch the attention of the League, he’s going to have to step up more than just his sock game. He’s going to have to stop hanging back and start speaking up–start living Frankie Bell’s legacy. And socks are a great place to start…

A powerful story with a humorous and authentic narrative voice, THE SWAG IS IN THE SOCKS is a wonderful pick for middle grade readers and book clubs. Baptist challenges readers to stop putting people in boxes and to search for their own “thing,” even if that talent or interest isn’t socially acceptable. Between the humor and Xavier’s quest to join the League, there is plenty to keep young readers engaged and turning pages. A great addition to any middle grade collection!

A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

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

Addie’s school year is off to a bad start. Her teacher accuses her of being sloppy and lazy and tears up her story in front of the entire class. Addie’s older sister warned her about this teacher–about how she doesn’t like autistic kids–but Addie had hoped it wasn’t true. Making matters worse, Addie’s old best friend has stopped hanging out with her and is instead spending time with the class bully who has it out for Addie.

And then Addie learns about the witches.

They weren’t really witches. They were just women who were different–like Addie–but the people in their Scottish town killed them for it. Addie knows it isn’t right that nothing has been done to apologize to these women and honor them, so she starts a campaign to build a memorial for them. Because maybe if she can make her town care about this injustice of the past, they might start to realize that “different” people aren’t as scary or dangerous as people seem to think.

From the feeling of electricity that comes with sensory overload to the exhaustion of masking to the sense of pride and identity and unique strengths of being autistic–this middle grade novel captures the reality of one autistic girl’s voice in a way that was entirely relatable to me as an autistic reader–and (I believe) accessible to neurotypical readers as well. Although it is in many ways a book about what it is like to be autistic, it is never overly explanatory, making it as much a story for autistic children as about them. I felt an enormous sense of connection with this text–I felt seen–and I’m an adult; I can only imagine that the experience is more poignant for those neurodivergent readers at the same stage of life as the protagonist. Add to this wonderful autistic representation the compelling plot, horrifying villain (the bullying teacher), and underdog heroine you can’t help but fall in love with, and you have a perfect title for any middle grade contemporary collection or book club. I’m so glad this novel finally made it over to the US. I highly recommend it!

THE STARS OF WHISTLING RIDGE by Cindy Baldwin

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Ivy and her two sisters have spent their whole lives on the road, living out of an RV and watching their mom grant other people’s wishes. But it’s because her mom is a fallen star with the ability to grant wishes that Ivy’s own dearest wish will never come true: to have a forever home, a place to put down roots.

As her thirteenth birthday approaches, Ivy takes a desperate chance, stealing nine wish jars from her mother and opening them all at once. Making so many simultaneous wishes gives Ivy pneumonia, but when her fever breaks, the RV is parked–broken down, actually– in her mother’s star sister’s town of Whistling Ridge. Pneumonia aside, Ivy is ecstatic; the town is a perfect place for a forever home! But all is not well in Whistling Ridge. Something is draining the magic and making Aunt Agatha sicker and sicker. And as Ivy researches the town’s history to try to convince her family to stay, she starts to realize that finding a cure for her aunt might require a sacrifice Ivy isn’t sure she can make.

This imaginative, immersive middle grade fantasy gripped me from page one. I’m a sucker for a well-intentioned protagonist who makes terrible choices! Every character is well-developed and authentic, and the problems are relatable even in their fantasy. I highly recommend this one to fans of contemporary magical realism and to middle school book clubs!

The Stars of Whistling Ridge: Baldwin, Cindy: 9780063006416: Amazon.com:  Books

KEEPING IT REAL by Paula Chase

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

Mari can’t believe her parents didn’t tell her that their company was running a summer internship for aspiring fashion designers. The program was practically made for her! And her best friend (and secret crush) Justice is one of the three lucky kids who were accepted. When Mari confronts her parents, they explain that it was their intention to give opportunities to kids from less privileged backgrounds than her own, but Mari can’t let it go. She’s tired of being one of the only Black kids at her elite prep school, tired of all the code switching she’s required to do just to fit in. A hip-hop style internship will be a perfect opportunity to be herself–and spend some extra time with Justice.

But her plans go awry as soon as the internship starts. The two other girls see her as the boss’s daughter instead of a fellow intern. Even Justice is treating her differently and spending all his time with Kara, who for some reason seems to hate Mari’s guts. Kara doesn’t even seem enthusiastic about the program, and Mari can’t understand why she’s even there. But as the internship progresses and Mari struggles for acceptance, a long-buried secret will come to light, one that will test Mari’s world-view, her resilience, and her capacity for forgiveness.

This hard-hitting (but fun) middle grade novel explores the complex dynamics of privilege and class within a Black community. Mari’s authentic and realistic pre-teen voice will be accessible to middle school readers, who will see their own struggles to fit in reflected through her experiences. I highly recommend this novel to fans of contemporary realistic fiction and to middle school book clubs!

FRANKIE AND BUG by Gayle Forman

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

Bug’s older brother is growing up and he’s leaving her behind. For years, they’ve spent the summers together on Venice Beach while their mom works her busy job as the mayor’s press secretary. But this summer, Danny needs “space.” He doesn’t even want to be called Danny anymore. Daniel is too busy hanging out with his skateboarding, weight lifting, soon-to-be high schooler friends to hang out with a fourth-grade baby. And now Bug is stuck with her neighbor’s weird nephew, Frankie.

But it turns out that Frankie is more interesting than Bug first thought. For one thing, he’s determined to track down LA’s most notorious serial killer and he’s willing to let Bug help him. As their friendship deepens, Frankie shares his transgender identity with Bug, and Bug shares her fears about the skinheads that target her family–especially her brother who is just as Salvadoran as she is, but has darker skin. When their investigations into the murders get overshadowed by a hate crime much closer to home, Frankie and Bug abandon their search for the serial killer and try instead to bring a little bit of justice to the lives of those closest to them.

Set in the 1980s against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic (and related spike in homophobia) and a serial killer reminiscent of LA’s Night Stalker murders, this middle grade novel had the potential to be heavy and disturbing. But it is the innocent voices of Bug and Frankie and the hopeful worldview of Bug’s mom that keep the story buoyant enough for a middle grade audience. Through their encounters with diverse people over the course of the summer, both Bug and Frankie learn things about themselves and about tolerance and compassion for others. I’d recommend this one to upper elementary readers who enjoy contemporary and historical fiction.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DAD by Gary Paulsen

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

Carl’s dad is a rescue-dog-loving, environment-saving, just-generally-really nice guy. And Carl can’t take it anymore.

When his dad inadvertently ruins Carl’s chances to impress the girl he likes, Carl decides to take a leaf out of a puppy training book and try using positive reinforcement to nudge his dad toward behavior that is more, well, normal. Things don’t go well at first (the pink overalls and garage sale incident, for instance) but the family pit bull, Carol, seems to get exactly what Carl wants to do and starts to guide him in the right direction. But as positive training results blend with the hilarious, spectacular fails, will Carl’s new and improved dad be all he’s cracked up to be? Or is it possible that teaching an old dad new tricks will lead to the loss of the old dad altogether?

This spirited narrator had me laughing from page one. In addition to hilarious descriptions and zany situations, strong themes of family and identity give the novel the kind of depth you expect from Gary Paulsen. As a dog lover, I especially appreciated how much of a pivotal character rescue-pup Carol ended up being. Any fan of middle grade contemporary fiction will love this new title, especially those looking for an unrelenting comedy. This is also a great candidate for classroom use since the humor will appeal to even the most reluctant readers while the thematic content will allow for meaningful discussion.