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Take 5: 5 of the Best Books I’ve Read in 2020, Middle Grade Edition

Today I’m continuing my countdown of the Top 20 books I’ve read in 2020 with a look at middle grade fiction. We started with YA. Last week I dove into nonfiction. And today is all about Middle Grade.

Ghost Squad by Claribel Ortega

Publisher’s Book Description:

Coco meets Stranger Things with a hint of Ghostbusters in this action-packed supernatural fantasy.For Lucely Luna, ghosts are more than just the family business. Shortly before Halloween, Lucely and her best friend, Syd, cast a spell that accidentally awakens malicious spirits, wreaking havoc throughout St. Augustine. Together, they must join forces with Syd’s witch grandmother, Babette, and her tubby tabby, Chunk, to fight the haunting head-on and reverse the curse to save the town and Lucely’s firefly spirits before it’s too late. With the family dynamics of Coco and action-packed adventure of Ghostbusters, Claribel A. Ortega delivers both a thrillingly spooky and delightfully sweet debut novel.

Karen’s Thoughts: This book was long on my radar because, believe it or not, I loved the cover. Let’s be honest, sometimes we are drawn to a book by it’s cover. I picked up a copy of the book at BEA, back when there was still a BEA, and loved everything about this. I love a good story about family and friendship, which you will find in this book. Plus, there are ghosts and cats! It’s a heartwarming story that is chuck full of sense of both place and culture and you can’t go wrong sharing this with the youth in your life.

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

Publisher’s Book Description:

Seventh-grader Tristan Strong feels anything but strong ever since he failed to save his best friend when they were in a bus accident together. All he has left of Eddie is the journal his friend wrote stories in. Tristan is dreading the month he’s going to spend on his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, where he’s being sent to heal from the tragedy. But on his first night there, a sticky creature shows up in his bedroom and steals Eddie’s journal. Tristan chases after it — is that a doll? — and a tug-of-war ensues between them underneath a Bottle Tree. In a last attempt to wrestle the journal out of the creature’s hands, Tristan punches the tree, accidentally ripping open a chasm into the MidPass, a volatile place with a burning sea, haunted bone ships, and iron monsters that are hunting the inhabitants of this world. Tristan finds himself in the middle of a battle that has left black American gods John Henry and Brer Rabbit exhausted. In order to get back home, Tristan and these new allies will need to entice the god Anansi, the Weaver, to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster Anansi always comes at a price. Can Tristan save this world before he loses more of the things he loves?

Karen’s Thoughts: This book technically came out at the end of 2019, but its sequel, Tristan Strong Destroys the World, came out in 2020 so I’m including them both on this list. These are great books for those middle grade readers who love the ancient mythology of the Rick Riordan books and ask you what to read next. The characters are well written, complex and endearing – you will root for Tristan Strong. And it introduces a lot of readers to mythologies that we don’t often hear a lot about in mainstream culture. It’s a really great story that entertains, enlightens, and uplifts.

Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valor by Ally Carter

Publisher’s Book Description:

April didn’t mean to start the fire. She wasn’t even the one who broke the vase. 

She had absolutely no intention of becoming the only person who knows that Gabriel Winterborne, the missing-and-presumed-dead billionaire, is neither missing nor dead and is actually living in the basement of Winterborne House, sharpening his swords and looking for vengeance. 

Now that April knows Gabriel Winterborne is alive, it’s up to her to keep him that way. But there’s only so much a twelve-year-old girl can do, so April must turn to the other orphans for help. Together, they’ll have to unravel the riddle of a missing heir and a creepy legend, and find a secret key, before the only home they’ve ever known is lost to them forever.

Karen’s Thoughts: I love a good mystery/adventure and find that you can’t go wrong with Ally Carter in this particular category. In a year when I needed some escapist fun, this fit the bill nicely.

Twins by Varian Johnson

Publisher’s Book Description:

Coretta Scott King Honor author Varian Johnson teams up with rising cartoonist Shannon Wright for a delightful middle-grade graphic novel!

Maureen and Francine Carter are twins and best friends. They participate in the same clubs, enjoy the same foods, and are partners on all their school projects. But just before the girls start sixth grade, Francine becomes Fran — a girl who wants to join the chorus, run for class president, and dress in fashionable outfits that set her apart from Maureen. A girl who seems happy to share only two classes with her sister!

Maureen and Francine are growing apart and there’s nothing Maureen can do to stop it. Are sisters really forever? Or will middle school change things for good?

Karen’s Thoughts: I asked Thing 2 what book she would include on this list, and Twins was her enthusiastic recommendation. This graphic novel is fun and has heart.

Ways to Make Sunshine by Renee Watson

Publisher’s Book Description:

Ryan Hart loves to spend time with her friends, loves to invent recipes, and has a lot on her mind—school, self-image, and family. Her dad finally has a new job, but money is tight. That means changes like selling their second car and moving into a new (old) house. But Ryan is a girl who knows how to make sunshine out of setbacks. Because Ryan is all about trying to see the best. Even when things aren’t all she would wish for—her brother is infuriating, her parents don’t understand, when her recipes don’t turn out right, and when the unexpected occurs—she can find a way forward, with wit and plenty of sunshine.

Karen’s Thoughts: I love a feel good middle grade book, and definitely needed this more than anything in 2020. This is a great family read aloud that will remind us all that life can be challenging, but sometimes you can find ways to make sunshine. You will not be disappointed.

Join me next Monday as we wrap up the list how we began, with another Top 5 YA books. What were your favorite middle grade reads of 2020? Leave us a comment and let us know.

Book Review: Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake

Publisher’s description

girl made ofFor readers of Girl in Pieces and The Way I Used to Be comes an emotionally gripping story about facing hard truths in the aftermath of sexual assault.

Mara and Owen are as close as twins can get, so when Mara’s friend Hannah accuses Owen of rape, Mara doesn’t know what to think. Can her brother really be guilty of such a violent act? Torn between her family and her sense of right and wrong, Mara feels lost, and it doesn’t help that things are strained with her ex-girlfriend, Charlie. As Mara, Hannah, and Charlie come together in the aftermath of this terrible crime, Mara must face a trauma from her own past and decide where Charlie fits into her future. With sensitivity and openness, this timely novel confronts the difficult questions surrounding consent, victim blaming, and sexual assault.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

BILLY STARS

There’s what I tweeted after I finished this book. What a powerful and memorable read. I read a LOT of books. Often, as the weeks and months pass, the details get lost to me. I’ll remember I liked something, but not necessarily all of the reasons why. Or I’ll forget characters’ names or how the book made me feel. But this book? This book will stay with me. All of it.

 

Relationships in twins Mara and Owen’s world are closely-knit. They attend an arts magnet program with all the most important people in their lives. Hannah, Owen’s girlfriend, is one of Mara’s best friends. Charlie, Mara’s very best friend, is also her ex-girlfriend (Mara is bisexual; Charlie is nonbinary). And Owen’s best friend, Alex, has always been there, but Mara finds herself turning to him more and in new, unexpected ways. When Hannah says that Owen raped her at a party they all were at, Mara is devastated. She knows her brother would never do that. But she also knows Hannah would never lie about that. She turns to their small group of friends, including both Hannah and Owen, as she tries to process what happened. Mara has her own reasons for fiercely thinking that “believe girls and women” is a good policy (beyond it just being a good policy). She’s held on to a secret for years, a secret that ruined her relationship with Charlie. Mara and Owen’s parents believe Owen when he says he didn’t rape Hannah. They urge Mara to understand the need to be united on this, to not talk to anyone about it, to make sure they all have the story straight. But Mara is sick of not talking about things. She stands by Hannah, especially when Hannah comes back to school and is repeatedly greeted with, “Hey, slut, welcome back.” Mara, Charlie, and Hannah all have truths to tell. They rely on each other, and the support of girls (particularly in their feminist group at school, Empower) to find the strength to not be silenced. 

 

This masterpiece is gutting. It’s not just the characters, the dialogue, and the writing are all wonderful—they are—but that the story is so real. So true. So common. Maybe not the specifics, but the general story. This is in incredibly important read about the aftermath of a sexual assault, about consent, rape culture, family, friendship, and feminism. A powerful, heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting read. 

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781328778239
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/15/2018

 

 

Book Review: You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Publisher’s description

you'll missA moving, lyrical debut novel about twins who navigate first love, their Jewish identity, and opposite results from a genetic test that determines their fate—whether they inherited their mother’s Huntington’s disease.

Eighteen-year-old twins Adina and Tovah have little in common besides their ambitious nature. Viola prodigy Adina yearns to become a soloist—and to convince her music teacher he wants her the way she wants him. Overachiever Tovah awaits her acceptance to Johns Hopkins, the first step on her path toward med school and a career as a surgeon.

But one thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, a rare degenerative disease that slowly steals control of the body and mind. It’s turned their Israeli mother into a near stranger and fractured the sisters’ own bond in ways they’ll never admit. While Tovah finds comfort in their Jewish religion, Adina rebels against its rules.

When the results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s, and the other tests positive.

These opposite outcomes push them farther apart as they wrestle with guilt, betrayal, and the unexpected thrill of first love. How can they repair their relationship, and is it even worth saving?

From debut author Rachel Lynn Solomon comes a luminous, heartbreaking tale of life, death, and the fragile bond between sisters.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

The novel opens with Adina and Tovah on the brink of turning 18. 18 may feel significant for many teenagers, but for these girls, it has a special significance: they’re old enough now to undergo the genetic testing that will determine if they will eventually develop Huntington’s disease, like their mother. They have a 50/50 chance they will. Adina and Tovah haven’t been close for a long time, thanks to an act of betrayal in their past, so they’re going into the test without the support of each other. Adina doesn’t even want to do the test–why she does/has to do it is complicated. When Adina tests positive, everything begins to fall apart. Their already strained relationship is further tested by guilt, anger, frustration, and revenge, all brought on by this diagnosis.

For Adina, a conservatory-bound viola player, the diagnosis pushes her to seize the moment, scared of just how many good moment she may have left. She also actively makes the rift between the sisters greater, figuring it will be easier on everyone if, when she gets sick and begins to deteriorate, they aren’t close—the loss won’t hurt so much (she thinks).

For Tovah, she’s left in the wake of her sister’s destructive impulses, but also struggling to adjust to her own life-changing news. A tightly-wound type A student who has been meticulously crafting the perfect resume her whole life, Tovah suddenly begins to see that there is life beyond grades and goals. She begins her first relationship and, while she has to adjust to new thoughts about what her future may now hold, it’s not on the same level as what Adina is adjusting to—something both sisters are constantly aware of.

I burned through this book, riveted by the girls’ relationship, which is constantly in flux. The alternate narration really lets us get in the heads of both girls and see them both really struggle with all the new things that they are dealing with. Let’s not forget that in the middle of all this there is their mother, whose symptoms are getting rapidly worse. They have to witness her decline, worry about what her future holds, and that’s a constant very real reminder for everyone of what will be ahead of Adina at some point.

I loved the large role religion plays in this family’s life. They are Jewish and often speak Hebrew. Their mother grew up in Tel Aviv and their father is American. Tovah is quite religious and Adina is not. Both speak and think about their religion and culture a lot—whether that’s because they are embracing it or rebelling against it.

This book is heartbreaking in all the best ways. The girls are not always likable (and we all know I hate that word as a judgment, right? That it’s OKAY to be unlikable, because being humans and containing multitudes means we’re not always the best version of ourselves?), they make hurtful choices, they keep things to themselves when what they really need is to lean on each other. This is a complex look at identity, futures, faith, family, and what it means to truly live your life. A brilliant and provocative debut. I look forward to more from Solomon. 

FYI, this novel includes self-harm, suicidal ideation, and a discussion of death with dignity.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781481497732
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 01/02/2018