Kids Contemporary Fiction

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

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

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.

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!