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2021 Middle Grade Books to Have on Your Radar (part one)

Someday, maybe, the pandemic will end, schools will resume having children in them, I will go back to work, and then I’ll get to hand actual books to actual kids again. Someday. That’s the dream, anyway. Until then, I’ll keep reading and turning to excitedly talk to someone about a book only to be greeted by my sleeping dogs and my teenager who definitely does not want to listen to me talk about books. Sigh.

This list is heavy on the contemporary fiction. It’s what I like best. I’m not saying there are no good fantasy or sci-fi or whatever books—this is just my personal list of anticipated reads. I scrolled through various lists for a looong time and eventually decided I had to stop adding things to my list and seeking out more information. I’m sure I missed plenty of things that I, personally, would be very excited about. Thank goodness the internet and publishers will make sure I don’t overlook great books as release dates get closer! I’ll have to do another list in a few months as these all fall into the first half of the year.

Hop in the comments or catch me on Twitter @CiteSomething and tell me what you are excited to read in 2021!

All descriptions from the publishers or Goodreads summaries.

Amari and the Night Brothers

Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston (ISBN-13: 9780062975164 Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Publication date: 01/19/2021 Series: Supernatural Investigations, #1, Ages 8-12)

Artemis Fowl meets Men in Black in this exhilarating debut middle grade fantasy, the first in a trilogy filled with #blackgirlmagic. Perfect for fans of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the Percy Jackson series, and Nevermoor.

Amari Peters has never stopped believing her missing brother, Quinton, is alive. Not even when the police told her otherwise, or when she got in trouble for standing up to bullies who said he was gone for good.

So when she finds a ticking briefcase in his closet, containing a nomination for a summer tryout at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she’s certain the secretive organization holds the key to locating Quinton—if only she can wrap her head around the idea of magicians, fairies, aliens, and other supernatural creatures all being real.

Now she must compete for a spot against kids who’ve known about magic their whole lives. No matter how hard she tries, Amari can’t seem to escape their intense doubt and scrutiny—especially once her supernaturally enhanced talent is deemed “illegal.” With an evil magician threatening the supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she’s an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t stick it out and pass the tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton.

Take Back the Block

Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles (ISBN-13: 9780593175170 Publisher: Random House Children’s Books Publication date: 01/26/2021, Ages 8-12)

Brand-new kicks, ripped denim shorts, Supreme tee

Wes Henderson has the best style in sixth grade. That—and hanging out with his crew (his best friends since little-kid days) and playing video games—is what he wants to be thinking about at the start of the school year, not the protests his parents are always dragging him to.

But when a real estate developer makes an offer to buy Kensington Oaks, the neighborhood Wes has lived his whole life, everything changes. The grownups are supposed to have all the answers, but all they’re doing is arguing. Even Wes’s best friends are fighting. And some of them may be moving. Wes isn’t about to give up the only home he’s ever known. Wes has always been good at puzzles, and he knows there has to be a missing piece that will solve this puzzle and save the Oaks. But can he find it . . . before it’s too late?

Exploring community, gentrification, justice, and friendship, Take Back the Block introduces an irresistible 6th grader and asks what it means to belong—to a place and a movement—and to fight for what you believe in.

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Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca (ISBN-13: 9780063047426 Publisher: Quill Tree Books date: 02/02/2021, Ages 10-14)

A heartbreakingly hopeful #ownvoices novel in verse about an Indian American girl whose life is turned upside down when her mother is diagnosed with leukemia.

Reha feels torn between two worlds: school, where she’s the only Indian American student, and home, with her family’s traditions and holidays. But Reha’s parents don’t understand why she’s conflicted—they only notice when Reha doesn’t meet their strict expectations. Reha feels disconnected from her mother, or Amma, although their names are linked—Reha means “star” and Punam means “moon”—but they are a universe apart.

Then Reha finds out that her Amma is sick. Really sick.

Reha, who dreams of becoming a doctor even though she can’t stomach the sight of blood, is determined to make her Amma well again. She’ll be the perfect daughter, if it means saving her Amma’s life.

From Indies Introduce author Rajani LaRocca comes a radiant story about the ties that bind and how to go on in the face of unthinkable loss. This is the perfect next read for fans of Jasmine Warga and Thanhhà Lại. 

Life in the Balance

Life in the Balance by Jen Petro-Roy (ISBN-13: 9781250619730 Publisher: Feiwel & Friends Publication date: 02/16/2021, Ages 8-12)

Veronica struggles to balance softball, friends, and family turmoil in this new honest and heartfelt middle grade novel by Jen Petro-Roy, Life in the Balance.

Veronica Conway has been looking forward to trying out for the All-Star softball team for years. She’s practically been playing the game since she was a baby. She should have this tryout on lock.

Except right before tryouts, Veronica’s mom announces that she’s entering rehab for alcoholism, and her dad tells her that they may not be able to afford the fees needed to be on the team.

Veronica decides to enter the town talent show in an effort to make her own money, but along the way discovers a new hobby that leads her to doubt her feelings for the game she thought she loved so much.

Is her mom the only one learning balance, or can Veronica find a way to discover what she really wants to do with her life?

Delicates

Delicates by Brenna Thummler (ISBN-13: 9781620107881 Publisher: Oni Press Publication date: 03/16/2021 Series: Sheets, #2, Ages 10+)

Following the events of the bestselling graphic novel, SheetsDelicates brings Brenna Thummler’s beloved characters, artwork, and charm back to life. 

Marjorie Glatt’s life hasn’t been the same ever since she discovered a group of ghosts hiding in her family’s laundromat. Wendell, who died young and now must wander Earth as a ghost with nothing more than a sheet for a body, soon became one of Marjorie’s only friends. But when Marjorie finally gets accepted by the popular kids at school, she begins to worry that if anyone learns about her secret ghost friends, she’ll be labeled as a freak who sees dead people. With Marjorie’s insistence on keeping Wendell’s ghost identity a secret from her new friends, Wendell begins to feel even more invisible than he already is.

Eliza Duncan feels invisible too. She’s an avid photographer, and her zealous interest in finding and photographing ghosts gets her labeled as “different” by all the other kids in school. Constantly feeling on the outside, Eliza begins to feel like a ghost herself. Marjorie must soon come to terms with the price she pays to be accepted by the popular kids. Is it worth losing her friend, Wendell? Is she partially to blame for the bullying Eliza endures?

Delicates tells a powerful story about what it means to fit in, and those left on the outside. It shows what it’s like to feel invisible, and the importance of feeling seen. Above all, it is a story of asking for help when all seems dark, and bringing help and light to those who need it most.

We Belong

We Belong by Cookie Hiponia Everman (ISBN-13: 9780593112205 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 03/30/2021, Ages 10-12)

An extraordinarily beautiful novel-in-verse, this important debut weaves a dramatic immigrant story together with Pilipino mythology to create something wholly new.

Stella and Luna know that their mama, Elsie, came from the Philippines when she was a child, but they don’t know much else. So one night they ask her to tell them her story. As they get ready for bed, their mama spins two tales: that of her youth as a strong-willed middle child and immigrant; and that of the young life of Mayari, the mythical daughter of a god. Both are tales of sisterhood and motherhood, and of the difficult experience of trying to fit into a new culture, and having to fight for a home and acceptance. Glorious and layered, this is a portrait of family and strength for the ages.

Thanks a Lot, Universe

Thanks a Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas (ISBN-13: 9781419751028 Publisher: Amulet Books Publication date: 05/11/2021, Ages 10-14)

A moving middle-grade debut for anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t belong

Brian has always been anxious, whether at home, or in class, or on the basketball court. His dad tries to get him to stand up for himself and his mom helps as much as she can, but after he and his brother are placed in foster care, Brian starts having panic attacks. And he doesn’t know if things will ever be “normal” again . . . Ezra’s always been popular. He’s friends with most of the kids on his basketball team—even Brian, who usually keeps to himself. But now, some of his friends have been acting differently, and Brian seems to be pulling away. Ezra wants to help, but he worries if he’s too nice to Brian, his friends will realize that he has a crush on him . . .
But when Brian and his brother run away, Ezra has no choice but to take the leap and reach out. Both boys have to decide if they’re willing to risk sharing parts of themselves they’d rather hide. But if they can be brave, they might just find the best in themselves—and each other.

Saint Ivy: Kind at All Costs

Saint Ivy: Kind at All Costs by Laurie Morrison (ISBN-13: 9781419741258 Publisher: Amulet Books Publication date: 05/18/2021, Ages 10-14)

A thoughtful middle-grade novel about caring for others and for yourself––and what it truly means to be kind and vulnerable

Thirteen-year-old Ivy Campbell has always been a good kid: She supports her soccer-star brother, bakes with her nana, and puts her friends’ needs before her own. So of course, Ivy is 100 percent supportive when her mom decides to be a gestational surrogate, carrying and giving birth to her friends’ baby. But when Ivy finds out the surrogacy treatment worked and her mom is pregnant—and has been for weeks—she’s shocked that she’s jealous and worried about what others will think. And most of all, she’s ashamed that she isn’t reacting to this news in the right way. The Ivy way. Ivy is determined to prove to herself that she’s just as unselfish as she’s always believed, and she gets the chance to do that when she receives an anonymous email from someone who needs her help. But the more Ivy dives into helping this anonymous person, the further she gets from the people she loves—and from the person who she wants to be.

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That Thing about Bollywood by Supriya Kelkar (ISBN-13: 9781534466739 Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers Publication date: 05/18/2021, Ages 8-12)

Bollywood takes over in this contemporary, magical middle grade novel about an Indian American girl whose world turns upside down when she involuntarily starts bursting into glamorous song-and-dance routines during everyday life.

You know how in Bollywood when people are in love, they sing and dance from the mountaintops? Eleven-year-old Sonali wonders if they do the same when they’re breaking up. The truth is, Sonali’s parents don’t get along, and it looks like they might be separating.

Sonali’s little brother, Ronak, is not taking the news well, constantly crying. Sonali would never do that. It’s embarrassing to let out so many feelings, to show the world how not okay you are. But then something strange happens, something magical, maybe. When Sonali gets upset during a field trip, she can’t bury her feelings like usual—instead, she suddenly bursts into a Bollywood song-and-dance routine about why she’s upset!

The next morning, much to her dismay, Sonali’s reality has shifted. Things seem brighter, almost too bright. Her parents have had Bollywood makeovers. Her friends are also breaking out into song and dance. And somehow, everyone is acting as if this is totally normal.

Sonali knows something has gone wrong, and she suspects it has something to do with her own mismanaged emotions. Can she figure it out before it’s too late?

Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea

Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea by Ashley Herring Blake (ISBN-13: 9780316535458 Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers Publication date: 05/25/2021, Ages 8-12)

For fans of Erin Entrada Kelly and Ali Benjamin comes a poignant yet hopeful novel about a girl navigating grief, trauma, and friendship, from Ashley Herring Blake, the award-winning author of Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World.

Hazel Bly used to live in the perfect house with the perfect family in sunny California. But when a kayaking trip goes horribly wrong, Mum is suddenly gone forever and Hazel is left with crippling anxiety and a jagged scar on her face. After Mum’s death, Hazel, her other mother, Mama, and her little sister, Peach, needed a fresh start. So for the last two years, the Bly girls have lived all over the country, never settling anywhere for more than a few months. 

When the family arrives in Rose Harbor, Maine, there’s a wildness to the small town that feels like magic. But when Mama runs into an old childhood friend — Claire — suddenly Hazel’s tight-knit world is infiltrated. To make it worse, she has a daughter Hazel’s age, Lemon, who can’t stop rambling on and on about the Rose Maid, a local 150-year-old mermaid myth.

Soon, Hazel finds herself just as obsessed with the Rose Maid as Lemon is — because what if magic were real? What if grief really could change you so much, you weren’t even yourself anymore? And what if instead you emerged from the darkness stronger than before?

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