In many ways, 2018 was a tough year. But when it came to middle grade books, it was something of a stand out. You don’t have to take our word for it though. Here, twelve amazing kidlit authors you love share their favorite middle grade reads of 2018.
The DarkDeep, by Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs
I loved THE DARKDEEP by Ally Condie & Brendan Reichs because there are so few books like it—at once scary, funny, imaginative, and the kind of book that’ll satisfy any middle-grade reader. The story of a group of kids who discover an island that forces them to confront their greatest fears, THE DARKDEEP makes any young reader think about their own vulnerabilities… and the lengths they’d go to in order to get past them. A truly thrilling start to a new series.
—Soman Chainani, author of the School for Good and Evil series
Hurricane Child, by Kheryn Callender
My favorite title of 2018 (which is so tough to choose, aaaah!) is Hurricane Child, by Kheryn Callender. It tells the story of Caroline, a young girl growing up in the US Virgin Islands. While investigating the truth of her mother’s mysterious disappearance, Caroline deals with bullying at school, the ghostly apparitions she sees in the corners of her eyes, and an unexpected friendship with the new girl in her class that turns into an intense first crush. It’s the kind of book that sticks in your brain as much for its beauty as for its painfully accurate description of middle-school cruelty. Both the emotions and the magic in the novel were subtle and nuanced, but I still felt Caroline’s experiences in my gut and rooted for her with my whole heart. The writing was vibrant and the story stayed with me, making it an absolute favorite for the year.
—Anna Meriano, author of Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble and Love Sugar Magic: A Sprinkle of Secrets
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The Serpent’s Secret, by Sayantani DasGupta
It’s pretty hard to resist a book that starts, “The day my parents got swallowed by a rakkosh and whisked away to another galactic dimension was a pretty craptastic day.” And there’s nothing craptastic about the book that follows. DasGupta’s debut demonstrates a rare facility with voice and humor as it marshals enticing characters from Bengali folklore into this delightful, fresh fantasy adventure. From the goo-drooling, murderously-rhyming rakkosh to the adorably sardonic punster bird Tuntuni to the truly terrifying Serpent King, each magical being our heroine Kiranmala encounters tickles our imaginations as they tantalize us to keep turning the pages. But it is the brave, funny Kiranmala herself that ultimately makes the story linger. Underlying her journey from New Jersey sixth grader to intergalactic demon slayer is a lovely, resonant story about a daughter of immigrants finding her identity and her own way home. The Serpent’s Secret is the beginning of a series that should be much-loved by readers and marks DasGupta as a writer to watch.
—Anne Ursu, author of the National Book Award nominee The Real Boy and the forthcoming The Lost Girl
Betty Before X, by Ilyash Shabazz and Renée Watson
Confession: you won’t see me reading a book for enjoyment if I can’t feel it. It has to feel real. This is why I was drawn like metal to magnet to Betty Before X, one of the most enjoyable, rejuvenating, and gripping culturally responsive books I’ve read in a while. It’s well-woven and a story for EVERY kind of reader. In it, Ilyasah Shabazz, the third daughter of Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz, and Renée Watson team up to share a coming of age story of Ilyasah’s mom, the civil and human rights activist Betty Shabazz. Betty Before X takes you into the heart and mind of an iconic figure, humanizing her journey as a tween who longs for family, beauty, and dignity as a Black girl. This book effortlessly swerves from the lane of innocent girl tweendom issues into a lane of social, political, and economic problems that have plagued the U.S. and Black citizens for generations. In one breath, you experience the downs of her feeling that her mom doesn’t love her and the ups of playing tag and having her nails painted for the first time. In the next breath, you are Betty grappling with understanding the importance of supporting Black businesses and seeing the brutalities of racism, lynching, and police violence vis-à-vis Black people. As a reluctant reader, as a teacher, and as an author, I applaud Betty Before X. Fans who love ‘feel good’ picture books by Matt de la Peña and Jacqueline Woodson (and her stellar novels, too) will have an affinity for Betty Before X.
—Torrey Maldonado, author Secret Saturdays and Tight
The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani is my favorite middle-grade read of 2018. Like the best works of historical fiction, The Night Diary illuminates a moment in history—India’s partition in 1947—and makes it real to the reader through rich characterization, descriptive settings, and an edge-of-your-seat plot. Through poignant diary entries to her mother, who died when she and her twin brother, Amil, were babies, Nisha first tells the story of her happy life and home in what is now Pakistan. Her descriptions of cooking are a particular delight to read! But conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in the newly divided India abruptly force Nisha’s family to travel, by foot and by train, to a new, faraway home. Along the way they encounter both loss and friendship, and acts of compassion and violence. Hiranandani expertly weaves in themes of family, survival, and identity—Nisha’s father is Hindu and her mother was Muslim, and I was moved by Nisha’s struggle to know where she now belongs. The parallels to current news about refugees makes her story all the more powerful and timely. The Night Diary is harrowing and heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful as Nisha finds her voice in the midst of a divided country.
—Rebecca Behrens, author of The Last Grand Adventure
I’ll admit I’m biased because I’m a Desi author myself, but I was greatly impressed by this nuanced look at an incredibly violent period of Indian history. Nisha, the first person narrator, is a half-Hindu, half-Muslim girl who is forced to flee her home after the British partition India and Pakistan – and her search for identity and home are believable, poignant and memorable.
—Padma Venkatraman, author of The Bridge Home
The Storm Runner, by J.C. Cervantes
It’s so hard to choose which book to spotlight, because I read a ton of incredible middle grade books in 2018. But one of my favorites was The Storm Runner. It’s the kind of funny, action-packed adventure that fans of Percy Jackson will naturally devour, but with Mayan mythology this time. And I think what I loved best were the characters—especially Zane and Brooks—because they felt so authentic. The plot was also filled with brilliant twists and turns and the monsters were just the right amount of scary. Plus, any book with magical hot-chocolate is a guaranteed win. 🙂
—Shannon Messenger, author of the Keeper of the Lost Cities series and Sky Fall trilogy
Denis Ever After, by Tony Abbott
Denis Egan died violently when he was seven-years-old. He’s twelve now, sort of (it’s complicated), and ready to move on from Port Haven, which is a peaceful way station in the afterlife—but his twin brother won’t let him. Matt Egan is still alive, and the grief-laden questions surrounding Denis’s untimely death are consuming him and tearing his small family apart. And Denis can’t leave until they let go: in a way, you could say they’re haunting him. Even though returning to the world takes its own painful toll, Denis appears as a ghost to Matt, and together the brothers, with Matt’s new best friend Trey, set out to solve the crime. This is heavy, sometimes scary stuff more appropriate for tweens than younger middle-grade readers, but it’s also wonderfully conceived, beautifully written, truly propulsive, often funny, and genuinely moving. Details of life and afterlife are deftly sketched and the twisty mystery is a genuine puzzler. I picked up Denis Ever After because I also wrote a book about twelve-year-old twins and death and came away amazed at Abbott’s take on the topic—something I would have never conceived. Hand this one to older kids puzzling through life’s ultimate mystery and those seeking the solace of letting go.
—Keir Graff, author of The Phantom Tower, The Matchstick Castle, The Other Felix
Where the Watermelons Grow, by Cindy Baldwin
With a strong sense of place and a narrator who turns everything around her vivid, Where the Watermelons Grow is a beautiful and sometimes heartrending exploration of what it’s like when someone you love is chronically ill. Much of this novel is very quiet, with a slow-rumbling build like a Southern storm. The story richly rewards those who want to sit with Della and learn what she has to say. This book left me warm and aglow and happy-sad—exactly how I like to leave a fabulous MG read. A gorgeous debut!
—Alyssa Hollingsworth, author of The Eleventh Trade
Journey of the Pale Bear, by Susan Fletcher
Reading was good in 2018! And wonderful middle-grade books truly rose to the top of my stack. Among those that spoke to me were Varian Johnson’s The Parker Inheritance; Kelly Yang’s Front Desk; and Samantha Clark’s The Boy, the Boat and the Beast. But the book that stole my heart was Susan Fletcher’s stunningly beautiful Journey of the Pale Bear. After all, you take a polar bear, a boy who needs a friend, a daunting ocean crossing, a king and a castle, base them all on real historic events, then infuse the story with the barest hint of magical realism—well, what’s not to love? It’s a story for everyone. When it comes to non-fiction, hands down, the book I’m most impressed with is Unpresidented: A Biography of Donald Trump, by Martha Brockenbrough. Meticulously researched and documented, this is an unvarnished look at the forty-fifth president. It’s the kind of solid, honest writing that young readers deserve. There’s no magical realism here. Just up-front truth, as hard as it is to see.
—Kathi Appelt, author of the upcoming Angel Thieves
Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster, by Jonathan Auxier
My favorite middle grade of 2018 is Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep. Set in Nineteenth-century London, the novel evokes the richness of Dickens with the wry fantastical perspective that establishes Auxier as one of our time’s truly great authors for children. It’s the story of Nan Sparrow, an orphaned chimney sweep who is indentured to a cruel Sweep named Wilkie Crudd, and saved from certain death by a soot golem named Charlie. Sweep is beautifully written, subtle yet exquisitely detailed, funny, uplifting, and heartbreaking. Be prepared to fall in love with Auxier’s characters, and brace yourself for a good cry here and there, too.
—Andrew Smith, author of The Size of the Truth
Be Prepared, by Vera Brosgol
Both my daughter and I fell in love with Vera Brosgol’s Be Prepared in 2018. I was already a huge fan of her previous middle grade graphic novel, Anya’s Ghost, which was both funny and terrifying in all the right ways. Be Prepared might not have supernatural creeps but the horror of outhouses in the woods shows itself in full force in this ode to summer camp woes. Besides being a tremendous artist, Vera has an enviable knack for writing universal loneliness. At age eleven I was, just like Vera, a homesick wreck and the anecdotes in these pages speak far beyond the specifics of her plight at Russian camp. Any kid or grownup should be able to relate to the difficulty of finding true friends. If you’ve missed this winner, pack your bags, hop on the bus and revisit camp with Be Prepared.
—Adam Jay Epstein, author of Snared: Escape to the Above and Snared: Lair of the Beast
The Length of a String, by Elissa Brent Weissman
There’s no reason to beat around the bush. Elissa Brent Weissman’s The Length of a String is by far my favorite middle grade book of 2018. This thought-provoking exploration of family ties had me sniffling and turning pages late into the night. It wasn’t just the novel’s emotional impact that hooked me—it was its surprising relevance. Let’s face it. Everyone seems to be searching for his or her roots these days. Why else the popularity of 23andMe and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Finding Your Roots? Imani Mandel, the book’s twelve-year-old main character, is searching for hers, too. And she has special reason. The adopted daughter of Jewish parents, Imani is one of the few African Americans in her neighborhood. What’s her heritage? Who is she? Imani wants answers. But the discovery of her great-grandmother Anna’s diary, written in 1941, complicates her search. Imani’s hunt for her roots soon intertwines with her search for clues to the fate of the family her great-grandmother left behind in Nazi-occupied Luxembourg. Imani’s conclusions, poignant and stunning, surpass even Dr. Gates’s best episodes. Put this one on your reading list today.
—Candace Fleming, author of Eleanor Roosevelt’s In My Garage