Kids Contemporary Fiction

A KIND OF SPARK by Elle McNicoll

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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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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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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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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.

TO TELL YOU THE TRUTH by Beth Vrabel

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Trixy’s excellent storytelling ability came from her grandmother. While her grandma was alive, Trixy spent hours just soaking up her stories. She knows them all by heart. But in the six months since the traumatic accident that took her grandma’s life, the stories have been causing nothing but trouble. Trixy isn’t listening to her teacher, isn’t even getting her homework done, because she can’t stop telling stories. When her teacher suggests that she start writing down memoirs to get the storytelling out of her system, it’s her grandmother’s stories that pour out onto the page. The stories are so captivating and inspirational that they start changing people’s lives–not just Trixy’s, but her classmates’ and even her teacher’s. It seems like a no-brainer that Trixy should submit the stories to the library’s nonfiction writing competition. The only problem is that the judges can’t believe that the stories could possibly be true. Trixy is certain that all of her grandma’s stories are based in fact–after all, her grandmother hated liars–and she intends to prove it. But to do that, she’s going to have to stow away on the adventure of a lifetime…

This spirited, heartfelt middle grade novel has a strong, memorable voice and an exciting plot that make it hard to put down. But the core of the story is family and the life-changing power of story. Recommend to readers in grades 4-6 who enjoy contemporary fiction with humorous, quirky narrators.

Featured Booklist: Book Club Titles for Kids and Teens

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The school year is underway, and whether you’re a teacher or librarian running a book club or a parent stockpiling good reading material for those inevitable Covid-exposure quarantines, I have a book list for you!

This list includes titles for upper elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. All of the books were released within the last year, and they have a blend of unputdownable storytelling and though-provoking thematic content. As always, you will need to evaluate the individual titles to be sure they fit within the specific parameters and needs of your students/children, but think of this list as your launchpad.

I will continue to curate this list throughout the year, but titles include:

FAST PITCH by Nic Stone, a middle grade sports story about a girl combatting racial injustice while vying for a softball championship.

NIGHTINGALE by Deva Fagan, a middle-grade fantasy about an orphan thief, a reluctant prince, a magic sword, and worker’s rights in a racially diverse, Victorian-London-esque fantasy world.

GENERATION MISFITS by Akemi Dawn Bowman, a middle grade contemporary novel about four social outcasts and one popular girl who find friendship and the courage to express themselves through their mutual love of J-Pop.

ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE by Sabina Khan, a YA contemporary novel about a Pakistani Muslim immigrant wrestling questions of home, identity, and belonging after a bigot targets her family with hateful vandalism.

VIOLET GHOSTS by Leah Thomas, a YA historical fantasy about a transgender boy in the ’90s coming to terms with his identity as he helps restless ghosts find justice and a safe haven in the afterlife.

THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US by Eliot Schrefer, a YA sci-fi about two young men from rival countries on a mission to rescue a fellow spacefarer aboard a ship that may or may not be trying to kill them.

Check out the full list on Bookshop.org. (Don’t worry if you’re not looking to buy; just see what titles look good to you, then find them at your local or school library!)

HOW TO WIN A SLIME WAR by Mae Respicio

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Alex is thrilled to be moving the summer before sixth grade, and not just because he’s going to get to help his dad take over the Filipino grocery store after his grandparents’ retirement. At his new school hell finally have the chance to be a popular kid–to reinvent himself as something other than the weird kid who makes slime.

But Alex never imagined that at his new school, the popular kids are the kids who make slime. In fact, slime is so popular among the sixth graders that the teachers have forbidden it on school property, leading to a thriving illicit some trade on the playground. When Alex accidentally sells in someone else’s territory, there’s only one remedy: a slime war, Alex vs. the monopoly-holder, Meadow. Winner has exclusive rights to sell in the neighborhood. But winning isn’t going to be easy. With his dad on his case to give up slime and join a soccer team, trouble at the family store, and friendship drama on the horizon, it will take all of Alex’s entrepreneurial spirit to keep his slime dreams alive.

A funny and heartwarming story that middle grade readers will all relate to. Alex struggles to find his place in his new school, his family, and the complex social dynamics of his neighborhood, but the message of the story is to understand those who have different perspectives, including his father, his slime rival, and the school tough kids. Ultimately, Alex figures out that much of the tension in his life can be resolved by sharing his feelings with the people in his life and he finds the courage to both expand his horizons and and be true to himself. I’d recommend this one to middle grade readers in grades 4-6.

IT ALL BEGINS WITH JELLY BEANS by Nova Weetman

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Since her dad dies, the nurse’s office has been Meg’s haven while at school. She can just sit alone, listening to the refrigerator hum and breathing into her paper bag to stave off a panic attack. Sometimes the nurse even gives her food to eat, which is good because Meg doesn’t always have breakfast. Or dinner. Or even real shoes since she outgrew her old ones and her mom hasn’t been in any condition to take her shopping for new ones. She doesn’t think anyone noticed she wears slippers to school every day until the newest 6th grade girl shows up in the nurse’s office with a bag of jelly beans.

Riley hasn’t been keeping her Type 1 Diabetes a secret really. She’s been testing during the day, just probably not as often as she should. And if the nurse calls her mom, her life will be officially over. Her mom is already insanely overprotective, never letting her do anything on her own. It’s one of the reasons she has such a hard time fitting in with her new friends. But at least she has friends, unlike Meg, the weird girl who always wears the same shirt and slippers to school. Riley doesn’t mean to give Meg the nickname “Slipper Girl.” It’s just something that slips out when she’s back in class with her popular friends. But as Riley’s friends’ bullying of Meg intensifies, Riley and Meg keep encountering each other in the nurse’s office and start to wonder if they might be kindred spirits after all.

This sweet friendship story has a beautiful blend of humor and sincerity, heartbreak and hope. The extreme opposite behaviors of the two moms allow Riley and Meg to each understand and appreciate their families more, and the way the school community (bullies excepted) supports both girls as they struggle for safety and acceptance made me smile more than a little. I highly recommend this one to middle grade fans of contemporary fiction.

It All Begins with Jelly Beans | Book by Nova Weetman | Official Publisher  Page | Simon & Schuster

AFTER/MATH by Emily Barth Isler

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Ever since her little brother died of a heart defect, there has been a line dividing Lucy’s family. Her parents are broken, grieving in different ways but both unable to talk about Theo. In fact, even their house and the town where they live is too painful for them to handle, so without even asking for Lucy’s input, they move to another state and into the former home of a dead girl.

Everyone in Lucy’s new town has lost someone. The school shooting that took place four years ago claimed the lives of many children, all of them in Lucy’s grade, one of them who used to live in Lucy’s new bedroom. Even though Lucy has experienced a loss of her own, it seems impossible to befriend these kids, whose lives are defined by a shared trauma. But when Lucy happens to sit at a lunch table with the the shooter’s younger sister, a social pariah because of her brother’s actions, she really connects with someone for the first time since Theo’s death. And when she and her new friend join an after school drama club run by their math teacher, Lucy begins to work through her feelings about Theo, her relationship with her parents, and the infinite journey of grief and love.

As a middle grade book about a school shooting, this book will be challenged (as many great books are) by adults who feel the content is inappropriate for upper-elementary and middle school students. As with any book about trauma and violence, there will be individual children who would find it unduly upsetting and won’t be ready for it. But I believe AFTER/MATH is developmentally appropriate and relevant for readers in grades 5-8–children who, like the book’s protagonist, have been getting glimpses of school shootings and gun violence in the news or through overhearing adult conversations. Although the characters bluntly share deeply disturbing (but realistic) memories of the shooting, because the novel is set years later and told through the eyes of a girl who experienced a different, less violent loss, the focus throughout the novel is not on violence but on grief, healing, and community. I would recommend this novel to mature middle grade readers, especially those in middle school.