(Some of the) Best Middle Grade Books of 2017: Books Between, Episode 39

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(Some of the) Best Middle Grade Books of 2017

Episode Transcript:

This year has been another strong reading year for me so far. I read a lot more picture books thanks to participating in #ClassroomBookaDay but I still kept up with my middle grade reads. And as I look at my book list and genre tracker, I notice I read fewer fantasy books compared to last year and way more graphic novels thanks to the CYBILS. And also my plans to boost my nonfiction reading... failed. So this is an all fiction list.  And I decided to separate out the graphic novels this year since I read so many more of them so be on the lookout for another best of podcast very soon featuring just the middle grade graphic novels.   

So, last year at this time,  I read 75 total books including 60 middle grade books with  31 of those published in in 2016. And my top three books last year were Booked, Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, and The Wild Robot as my favorite read last year. (You can find that list here.)

This year (2017), as of December 20th - I have read 91 books, not including picture books. 79 of those were middle grade with 55 of those published in 2017.

A quick word before I begin. Picking JUST 20 was excruciating. And they are not necessarily the most “literary”. I read some beautifully written books this year, ones that are bound to get some top awards, but these are the ones I felt were both well-written and had that special spark that would appeal to young readers.  Even with that - I could easily share with you another 20 (or more!) fabulous books, but then we’d be here all night.

Alright here we go - these are my Top 20 middle grade novels of 2017:

Top 20 middle grade novels of 2017

#20 - This Is Just a Test
by Madelyn Rosenberg & Wendy Wan Long Shang
Scholastic Press

This novel is about a boy named David who is preparing for his bar mitzvah while trying to please both his Chinese and Jewish grandmothers. (Not a small feat!)  Oh - and building a nuclear fallout shelter just in case things get out of hand with the Soviets. I loved this book because of its warmth and humor AND because it’s set in 1984. And I am all about that 80s nostalgia lately. If you want to hear more about this book, check out episode 28 to hear an interview with Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Shang.

#19 - Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker
by Shelley Johannes

This book is about zany (and flexible!) 3rd grader Beatrice whose first day of school plans get derailed when her best friend, Lenny, shows up to school NOT wearing the matching ninja outfit they both agreed on. AND Lenny shows up with a new friend. I loved this book for it’s playful language, fun orange-tinted illustrations, and Beatrice’s great attitude. And since I have my own ninja-clad wall-climbing 8 year old gal at home, I have a special place in my heart for Beatrice.

#18 - EngiNerds
by Jarrett Lerner

Speaking of playful books - what is not to love about a robot that blasts cubes out of its butt? But don’t be fooled by the humor - this is one smart book that celebrates the engineering spirit. It’s about a kid named Kennedy who discovers a mysterious box on his front step that assembles itself into a rather demanding robot. And Kennedy and the rest of his enginerd friends have to figure out how to contain this band of rogue robots who have escaped into their town.  Last week I had the honor of chatting with Jarrett Lerner  about Enginerds - and lots of other things - so watch for that episode in January!

#17 - A Rambler Steals Home
by Carter Higgins
Houghton Mifflin

This debut middle grade book by Carter Higgins is about Derby Clark who, along with her dad and younger brother, travel around in their Rambler car, selling Christmas trees in the winter. And hot chocolate and gingersnaps and cinnamon sugar donuts out of an old concession stand trailer. In the summers, they make their home in Ridge Creek, Virginia where they set up their concession stand in the parking lot of a minor league baseball team. But this year when they arrive - Derby discovers that her minor league family is different - with mysteries to solve, people to help, and wrongs to make right. This is ones of those books with characters that stay in your heart - and for me, reading so so many books - it’s a rare find when they’re this memorable.

#16 - A Boy Called Bat
by Elana Arnold, Charles Santoso (Illustrator)
Walden Pond Press

One of my great reading pleasures this year was getting to know the sweet and quirky Bixby Alexander Tam - or BAT for short. And I was excited to hear that there is at least one more book coming!  In this first one, Bat’s mother, who is a Vet, brings home an orphaned baby skunk to take care of and all Bat can think about is how to find a way to prove his responsibility and get to keep him. This book is adorable and poignant and a great fit for younger middle grade readers.

#15 - Scar Island
by Dan Gemeinhart
Scholastic Press

This incredible adventure is like Lord of the Flies meets Holes with a hint of The Ethan I Was Before.  It’s about a kid named Jonathan who has been sent to an island prison for kids for a crime he admits to committing but does not reveal until the end. On the island he encounters this tough group of 14 misfit boys - all imprisoned on this Alcatraz-type reformatory school for their crimes. Then suddenly, an incident occurs and the adults are all gone and the boys have to figure out what to do. If this one passed you by this year - definitely check it out! It’s got adventure and cool literary references and secret tunnels and oh it keeps you turning those pages!!

#14 - Beyond the Bright Sea
by Lauren Wolk
Dutton Books for Young Readers

This is Lauren Wolk’s second novel after her 2017 Newbery Honor book Wolf Hollow. And oh is this a masterful follow up! And one of those books that had me constantly pausing to research the historical details referenced.  Beyond the Bright Sea is about a young girl called Crow who as an infant washed ashore in an old boat on one of the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts. Other than the reclusive fisherman who is raising her, the other people on the island shun her because they think she came from Penikese Island - the nearby leper colony. When one night Crow spots a campfire on that supposedly abandoned island, she decides to find out for herself what answers that place may hold. This book enveloped me in that world and was full of surprises.

#13 - Midnight Without a Moon
by Linda Williams Jackson
Houghton Mifflin

This incredible, important, and beautifully written historical fiction novel takes place in rural Mississippi in the summer of 1955 right after the brutal murder of Emmett Till. That event and its aftermath has shifted the world of the main character -  Rose Lee Carter, her family, and her community.  But this isn’t just a Civil Rights story but the story of young girl dealing with self-doubt and family complications, and trying to decide how to balance making a better life for herself and making a better world for everyone to live in. And in a society that is asking us all to make those same calculations and bringing to light prejudices that some thought were on their way out, this is must read to understand our country and ourselves. I’d probably recommend this one for maybe ages 12 and up or perhaps a little younger with the understanding that the n-word is used. So some readers might need some context for that  - which would be a fantastic opportunity for much-needed conversation. And the sequel, A Sky Full of Stars, is coming out on January 2nd - a perfect time to read or reread the first book and have the second one ready to go!

#12 - Forget Me Not
by Ellie Terry  
Feiwel & Friends

This is a novel told in alternating chapters of prose and poetry. The poetry sections are told from the point of view of Calli who is smart, sensitive, and into astronomy. She also has Tourette syndrome (TS) and was advised by her doctor and mom to hide that fact from people. But since she’s just moved to Utah with her mom, Calli is in this stressful position of starting a new school and trying to mask her tics and noises. The other chapters are from the point of view of her classmate and neighbor Jinsong. He is the student body president and the two of them form a fragile friendship that seems like it might be doomed when his friends start to target her. I adored this book and I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by it’s cover (but we all do) - and Forget Me Not has such a gorgeous and meaningful cover. Kudos to Anna Booth for the cover design.

#11 - Funny Girl
by Betsy Bird
Viking Books for Young Readers

This collection of short stories is truly laugh-out-loud hilarious. Every one is written by women and about experiences young girls in particular can relate to. But - the boys in my class are loving this book, too!  It’s a great mix of personal narratives, poetry, comics, quizzes, and all kinds of cool formats. Some of my favorites are “One Hot Mess by Carmon Agra Deedy, “Bad Hair Day” by Kelly DiPucchio and “Brown Girl Pop Quiz” by Mitali Perkins. You really can’t go wrong with this book. And if you want to hear more about it, check out my interview with Betsy Bird on episode 32.

#10 - Amina’s Voice
by Hena Khan  
Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for You

This is a lovely and heartfelt story about a Pakistani-American Muslim girl, Amina, who is trying to navigate the complicated tides of middle school friendship where old friends are changing and old adversaries might be changing, too. Amina also has to deal with her rather traditional and more religiously strict uncle visiting their family and figuring out for herself how to express her beliefs and culture and voice in a way that feels right to her. This was Hena Khan’s debut middle grade, and I’m excited to see what else she has in store for us.

#9 - The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street
by Lindsay Currie

This book has taken my class by storm!  I read it in one weekend and loved how much it creeped me the heck out. Every sentence - every detail in that first chapter ratchets up the tension as Tessa arrives at her new (possible haunted?) home in Chicago where things start to disappear, and mysterious figures are drawn in her sketchpad, and her brother’s ventriloquist dummy is… acting strangely.  And I haven’t even told you about the cemetery part yet!! If you have young kids who love a scary mystery - get this book in their hands!

#8 - Patina  
by Jason Reynolds
Atheneum Books

This is Book 2 in the Track series and the follow up to Ghost. Here we the story of Patina “Patty” Jones - one of the new and fastest kids on the Defenders Track team. A girl who is running away from a lot - the taunts of the girls at her fancy new school. But also a girl who is running for a lot - for her mom who lost her legs to diabetes and won’t ever run again. And those stresses can sometimes manifest themselves in what looks like a bad attitude toward others and her teammates. So of course, her coach challenges her to run the event that requires the most cooperation - the relay.  It’s a rare sequel captures my heart as much as the first book but this one absolutely did it. And that first chapter about false starts and false finishes is one that has stayed on my mind a lot this year.

#7 - Wishtree
by Katherine Applegate  
Feiwel & Friends

Did we have any doubt that this book would be wonderful? I have loved seeing how much my students are enjoyed this story about a brave and wise tree named Red and its loyal band of oddly-named tenants. The more subtle themes of immigration and racism take some coaxing and explaining and rereading to bring forth for them, but the the ideas about friendship are at the forefront of their minds. In a time when we all could use a dose of empathy and hope, Wishtree is the book we need.

#6 - The First Rule of Punk
by Celia C. Perez 
Viking Books for Young Readers

I really fell hard for this story about a Mexican-American girl reluctantly moving to Chicago with her mom and trying to both fit in and stand out and figure out who she is and what’s worth standing up for. Her fashion choices put her at odds with both her new school and her mother who wishes she could be more “senorita” and less punk rock. But the oh how I loved Malú and her parents and her friends, and I just wanted to go hang out with them in Chicago coffee shops and record stores. And the many zine sections in this book add a uniqueness that makes this book really stand out. (If you want to hear more about The First Rule of Punk, check out episode 33 to hear an interview with Celia.)

#5 - Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus
by Dusti Bowling
Sterling Children's Books

This is a book that I came a little late to but when just about every single one of my middle grade Twitter friends are raving about a book, you know it’s something special. And they were right! And I’ll be honest with you - the moment I was sold on this book was the moment I took off the cover and saw the glorious undies - the cover underneath. But - I should tell you about the plot, too - right? This is a mystery centered around Aven - a girl with a fabulous (and sorta sick) sense of humor who likes to tell people that she lost her arms in a wildfire or an alligator attack. In reality, she was born without them and due to her adoptive parents’ vigilance - she can do just about anything that any other kid can do. But - when they all move so her parents can take over running the Stagecoach Pass theme park, Aven has to start a new school and deal with all that entails. Along the way, she meets a couple other “outcasts” who help her start to solve a major mystery at Stagecoach Pass. I loved this book because of how funny it was and how much research the author did to tell Aven’s story.

#4 - Ban This Book 
by Alan Gratz  
Starscape Books

I wish I had the guts that this main character has. But - she doesn’t start off so confident. Amy Anne is a shy, sweet fourth grader who loves the library, who loves to read, and who loves From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s her favorite book - and one of my childhood favorites, too. But - when her favorite is banned from the school library - along with more and more books, she forms a secret banned book library that she runs out of her locker. Until…. well, I won’t tell you but it’s fantastic! With twists along the way, references to so many other books, and a special (cameo?) by Dav Pilkey who visits her school. Please get this book and has a great message that might be different than what you think.

#3 - Posted
by John David Anderson  
Walden Pond Press

As I’ve mentioned before, when you get a new book by an author whose previous work blew you away (Ms. Bixby’s Last Day), you’re almost expecting to be let down.But Posted is incredible. It’s the story of four middle school friends whose equilibrium is shifted when two things happen. One - a new girl comes to school (Rose) and some of them want her in their group and some don’t. Two - cell phones have been banned due to a recent ‘incident” and one of the four main friends, DeeDee, inadvertently starts a trend of posting sticky notes on lockers to communicate instead. Those two catalysts jump start this series of events that lead to a bike. And a hill. And a post-it. And so much more that threatens to fracture their friendship forever. I loved this book and how the author structured it - how it brought forward past information in a flashback but then withheld the next step and then brought everything together at the end. It just was so well crafted.  

#2 - Refugee
by Alan Gratz  
Scholastic Press

This book was the most powerful, most emotional I read all year. And I’ll admit that it left me a bit of a mess, and there were times I needed to pause. But how Alan Gratz braided the three stories of Josef and Isobel and Mahmoud together was brilliant and beautiful and raw.  Bringing forward one strand and then another and another, binding them together.  The three stories are - Josef a young Jewish boy, who is traveling with his family from 1930s Germany to Cuba on the infamous ship called the St. Louis. Then there is Isobel and her family who are traveling on a tiny makeshift raft from 1980s Cuba to Florida. And finally Mahmoud and his family who are making their way from war-torn Syria in 2015 to Austria. Since I read this book last summer, there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by where I haven’t thought of the courage and resilience of these characters and their brave parents in the face of the harshest realities. And… you know, it’s easy to be judgemental when reading about tragedies from the past, thinking to yourself, “Well, I would have done things differently - I would have stood up for those refugees.”  We often talk about books that encourage empathy - well, to me, this book helped me move beyond just empathy to some action. And if you’re looking to do more as well, please read Gratz’s suggestions at the end of the book about how you can help refugees around the world today. And I’ll link to those resources in the show notes if you want to check those out as well. (Alan recommends donating to UNICEF and Save the Children.)    

#1 - Orphan Island  
by Laurel Snyder  
Walden Pond Press

If you have spent any time with me over the past year, you have heard about this book. And if you’ve read it, I’ve probably cornered you for a long conversation to compare theories. And because I can’t stop thinking about it and talking about, and dwelling in the glorious uncertainty of it - my favorite book of 2017 is Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder!  On this mysterious eden-like island there live nine children - no more and no less. And every year when the green boat arrives bearing a new young arrival, the eldest child goes. This year, Jinny is now the Eldest and charged with teaching her young Care, Ess, all the rules she needs to follow to survive on the island and maintain that balance. But…  but.  This is a beautiful and compelling novel about goodbyes and childhood and innocence, and so so much more. I was really honored have the chance to chat with Laurel Snyder on the podcast last May when this book was released and if you want in on that conversation, take a listen to episode 25.

Alright there it is. And this list, just like any other, is flawed. It reflects my own preferences and biases and I know there is just no possible way that I could read all the fabulousness in middle grade that was published in 2017. So there will be some of your favorites that I missed. In fact, one of my loves of last year - The Girl Who Drank the Moon - you know, the winner of the Newbery - wasn’t even on my 2016 list.  Because I didn’t finish it until after the episode aired.

Right now, I am almost finished with The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish and the audio version of Jack Cheng’s See You in the Cosmos and both are turning out to be incredible! So a quick shout out to some 2017 middle grade releases that are on my To Be Read list:

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Bradley (but first I need to read The War Saved My Life)

Me and Marvin Gardens by A.S. King

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams Garcia

Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman

The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla

Annnd…. lots more that I know I’m missing! So - I want to hear from YOU - what were your favorite 2017 reads and which ones should I prioritize in the new year? You can drop me an email at booksbetween@gmail.com or connect with me on Twitter or Instagram with the handle @Books_Between.


Thank You

Alright, that’s a wrap! Look for our next episode featuring the top middle grade graphic novels of 2017.

And, If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or an idea about a topic we should cover, I really would love to hear from you. 

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get a full transcript of this show and all of our previous episodes at AlltheWonders.com. And, if you are liking the show, please leave us some love on iTunes or Stitcher.

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!

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