2016 produced a bumper crop of great middle grade novels. Here’s a list of my personal favorites, both realistic and fantasy, that I think will appeal to young readers. They’re especially good for those who, like me, enjoy books about friendship with characters to love, though there’s excitement and adventure too (sorry sports fans—I’ve got nothing for you).
Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman
12 year old Nick has run away from his unpleasant uncle’s home into the middle of a Maine blizzard. Chance takes him to the estate of the Evil Wizard Smallbone, who takes him in (and turns him into a spider almost immediately). When he’s a boy again, Nick finds that he’s the wizard’s minion, cooking and looking after the animals. Smallbone appears to have no interest in teaching him magic, but Smallbone’s home is a bookstore (Evil Wizard Books), with just the right books Nick needs show up to awaken his own gifts of magic. And it’s a good thing the bookstore does this, because Smallbone’s enemies, led by a formidable ancient werewolf, are pressing hard against the magical boundaries of the very peculiar town that Smallbone is sworn to protect. The boundaries are weakening, the wizard isn’t getting any younger, and finally Nick must throw the weight of his own magic into the fight. It’s as imaginative and captivating as any young reader could ask for, with magical duels and encroaching enemies and spells going off in unexpected ways, and a beautifully twisty ending.
Like Magic, by Elaine Vickers
Three diverse ten-year-old girls are brought together by something like magic just when they most need to find each other. Painfully shy Grace’s best friend has moved away, and she’s worried she’ll spend fifth grade alone. Jada is a new kid in town, who hopes fiercely that she’ll someday find the mother who left her. And Malia worries that the new baby sister who’s about to be born will push her aside. Each girl in turn finds a mysterious treasure box at the local library, and leaves something personal and precious in it for the next to find. Though they don’t know each other in real life for much of the story, they begin to feel connected by the treasures, and end up true friends. Each girl is a vivid, interesting character, and as the story progress, they find confidence in themselves, along with friendship.
Voyage to Magical North, by Claire Fayers
Magic and monsters abound in Voyage to Magical North. When Brine, servant to a grumpy wizard, and Peter, the wizard’s apprentice, escape from the wizard only to end up captured by pirates, they find themselves on a quest to reach Magical North, a legendary place full of extraordinary dangers and enchantments. It’s a quest made more dangerous by the evil wizard also taken on board the pirate ship, whose help they need but who can’t be trusted one bit. The voyage is a life-changing adventure for Peter and Brine, who have to put aside their dislike for each other and use all the magic and courage they have to make it to Magical North and back.
Summerlost, by Ally Condie
The summer after her dad and brother Ben are killed in a car accident, Cedar’s mom buys a beat-up old house in her small home town. The town is famous for Summerlost, its annual Shakespeare festival, and while her mom throws herself into the work of house fixing, Cedar finds herself a job selling programs at Summerlost. There she becomes fast friends with a boy named Leo, and joins him in creating an unauthorized tour of the town’s own famous actress, who died in mysterious circumstances. Though there’s a mystery to solve, this is primarily a story of friendship and coming to terms with sadness. Introspective readers, theatre fans in particular, who enjoy books with very real characters and very meaningful connections, will love this one.
When the Sea Turned to Silver, by Grace Lin
The Tiger Emperor of long-ago China is forcing all the able-bodied men in the land to build a vast wall around his empire. When his soldiers come to Pinmei’s village, her grandmother, the Storyteller, hides her, but is herself taken away. Pinmei and her friend Yishan set off to find the one treasure the Tiger Emperor might take in exchange for her grandmother. Their journey takes them through a magical China locked into a seemingly endless winter, where stories become real and magic ties the past and the present together. Scattered through the main story are tales told by the characters that prove to be interconnected with the story they are living, giving background information and hints of what is to come. Lin’s beautiful full-page paintings and chapter decorations make this book even more magical.
Of Mice and Magic, by Ursula Vernon
This second tale of Harriet, a Hamster princesses who seeks out adventure, is entertaining as all get out. Harriet’s first outing, Harriet the Invincible, was a reimagining of Sleeping Beauty; in this adventure, Harriet sets of on her trusty riding quail to tackle the enchantment afflicting the twelve dancing princesses. But the enchantment is a tricky one, and Harriet can’t just jump in and save the day; solving the mystery and bringing the lives of the twelve princesses to a hopeful place will require all the confidence she can muster, which is considerable. Boys and girls both will find Harriet an appealing and funny heroine, and the many illustrations are utterly charming.
Mayday, by Karen Harrington
Wayne’s way of coping with the regular awkwardness of middle school, and with the more particular awkwardness of his divorced parents, is to throw interesting facts into any silence; it makes his mom and his sort-of almost-girlfriend smile. But on the way home from his soldier uncle’s burial at National Cemetery, Wayne and his mom’s plane falls from the sky. Wayne’s throat is injured, and he can’t talk. Stuck in silence, and stuck with his Grandfather moving in after the crash (he’s an ex-sergeant who treats Wayne like a rather feeble new recruit), he starts to really think about his family and himself for the first time. It’s a moving story of family, identity, and survival, with plenty to chuckle at along the way.
Cloud and Wallfish, by Anne Nesbet
Noah’s life is totally upended when his parents whisk him out of school, change his name to Jonah, and take him to communist East Germany, ostensibly for the purposes of his mother’s research on children with speech impediments like Noah’s own severe stutter. In Berlin, he must learn to live by strange rules—always smile, don’t talk about the past, and keep your head down. They are under constant surveillance, and careless talk could get them kicked out of the country, or put others in danger. The year is 1989, and change is coming. The Iron Curtain is about to fall. But for Claudia, the girl Noah’s age who lives in the apartment below them, change might not come soon enough. She’s been told her parents died in a car crash, but the truth is very different, and more dangerous. And Noah’s parents are keeping secrets that might put him in danger too. Kids who like history and espionage will love watching the tension grow, and kids who love to read about friendships based on shared imagination will embrace it with equal enthusiasm.
Space Hostages, by Sophia McDougall
Space Hostages is the sequel to Mars Evacuees, and these books are my default recommendation for anyone who wants stories of kids adventuring in space. In the first book, a group of super smart kids stop a war between Earth and an alien species, and in Space Hostages, the kids head out on an almost sentient spaceship to visit the new home world that’s been found for the aliens. The trip goes badly when they are captured by a second alien race, one determined to colonize all of known space; some of the kids end up hostages, others end up trapped on a planet that’s already been conquered…and they’ll need all their intelligence (and some help from the space ship and from their robotic flying goldfish tutor) to foil the alien’s plans to conquer Earth and get themselves home again. Lots of interesting characters and thought-provoking situations make Space Hostages a truly engaging read.
Two Naomis, by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick
You can pick your friends, but you can’t always pick your family. Two ten-year-old New York city girls named Naomi (one black, one white) are thrown together when their parents start dating. They have nothing in common but their names, and neither has much desire to make friends. But Naomi Marie’s mother and Naomi Edith’s dad are relentlessly moving closer to each other, and their daughters have no choice but to do the same. A computer game design class forces them to work together, and though it doesn’t go smoothly, by the end of the summer it’s become clear that they’ll make fine sisters. Going from being the one and only Naomi to one of two is hard, and the issues of becoming a blended family are not dismissed; both kids worry about not replacing their other parent, and worry about losing the place they’d had in their existing families before this new thing started happening. And both have to compromise about their favorite baked goods (this is definitely one to read with treats close to hand!). It’s a sweet, smart story that’s lots of fun.
What middle grade novels did you love in 2016?