Tag Archives: contemporary realistic middle-grade fiction

Reasons to be Cheerful

Whatever your political leaning, you probably agree that it’s been a bruising couple of weeks. So for my last post on this blog, I’d like to share a few things that have made me happy lately.

truth-or-dare_final1- A book club for girls at Forgan Middle School in Forgan, Oklahoma chose to read my latest middle grade novel, TRUTH OR DARE. For the club’s seventh and eighth grade girls, as well as their teachers, to be able to buy their own copies, they needed a sponsor. And you know who sponsored their purchase of 23 hardcover copies? Delbert, the school custodian. The idea that this lovely man stepped up to buy all those copies of TRUTH OR DARE for a group discussing girls’ body issues, self-esteem, and related topics–well, it makes my heart burst.

A lot of folks want to keep kids reading–and they’re not just teachers, librarians, and publishing world insiders. Let’s be sure to celebrate the Delberts of the world. They’re definitely out there.

star-crossed-jpeg-516kb2-My next middle grade novel, STAR-CROSSED, will be published by Aladdin/S&S in March 2017. It’s about a middle school production of Romeo & Juliet in which the girl playing Romeo realizes she has a crush on the girl playing Juliet. This book is very much a middle grade novel–positive, gentle, and, unlike Shakespeare’s play, a comedy. Despite its lightness and wholesomeness, STAR-CROSSED would surely have been deemed too edgy for mainstream publication just a few years ago. But when I proposed STAR-CROSSED to my publisher, Simon & Schuster, they embraced it immediately–in fact, they recently highlighted it in their Spring 2017 Library/Education newsletter as a book promoting diversity. I’m also delighted to report that Scholastic has just licensed STAR-CROSSED (with a specially designed cover) for sale through book fairs and book clubs.   

So yes: #weneeddiversebooks on middle grade shelves. And you know what? We’re getting them. Joining STAR-CROSSED, LILY AND DUNKIN, GRACEFULLY GRAYSON, DRAMA, GEORGE,  LUMBERJANES and others, there’s Jen Petro-Roy’s PS, I MISS YOU coming Fall, 2017.  For more middle grade titles with LGBTQ characters, click here.

3-A related development in middle grade fiction: tough topics explored with special sensitivity for the age of the reader–for example, Nora Raleigh Baskin’s NINE, TEN, A September 11 Story

 

and RUBY ON THE OUTSIDE,

and Kate Messner’s THE SEVENTH WISH.

 My other book launching next year, HALFWAY NORMAL (Aladdin/S&S Dec 2017), deals with a different sort of tough topic. It’s about a girl who, upon returning to middle school after two years away for pediatric cancer treatment, feels as if she can’t communicate her story–until the class begins its study of Greek mythology. Not once did my publisher fret about the subject matter being too dark for middle grade readers; they trusted me to write something age-appropriate and even (yes, really, I promise!!) fun.

Ultimately, what I think HALFWAY NORMAL and STAR-CROSSED are both about is how books give kids a language to express themselves, and connect to others. I’m truly encouraged by the way publishers have embraced stories like these, which promote empathy, inclusiveness, self-expression and self-esteem. We’re expanding the notion of what middle grade books should be–reaching more kids, touching more hearts, and opening more minds. We’re also making kids smile. As we give thanks this week, let’s remember that middle grade books are better, and more important, than ever. Cheers!        

BARBARA DEE is the author of six middle grade novels published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, including TRUTH OR DARE, which was published in September.  Next year Aladdin/S&S will publish STAR-CROSSED (March 2017) and HALFWAY NORMAL (December 2017). 

Middle Grade Farm Stories

I recently read Rebecca Petruck’s excellent STEERING TOWARD NORMAL, the story of a boy raising a prize steer for the state fair. Not long afterward, I went to my local county fair, where I fell in love with these beauties:

chicken-4 chicken-3 chicken-2

It’s possible I became briefly chicken-obsessed.

All of this got me thinking about the way that farm stories are so perfect for kids—the combination of hard work, a beautiful setting, and animals (with all the comic opportunities they provide), as well as the chance to explore big issues like life and death, as in CHARLOTTE’S WEB. I decided to go looking for more middle grade farm stories. Here is what I found. (All descriptions and images are from IndieBound, which is also linked.)

moo

MOO by Sharon Creech

Fans of Newbery Medal winner Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog and Hate That Cat will love her newest tween novel, Moo. This uplifting tale reminds us that if we’re open to new experiences, life is full of surprises. Following one family’s momentous move from the city to rural Maine, an unexpected bond develops between twelve-year-old Reena and one very ornery cow.

When Reena, her little brother, Luke, and their parents first move to Maine, Reena doesn t know what to expect. She’s ready for beaches, blueberries, and all the lobster she can eat. Instead, her parents volunteer Reena and Luke to work for an eccentric neighbor named Mrs. Falala, who has a pig named Paulie, a cat named China, a snake named Edna and that stubborn cow, Zora.

This heartwarming story, told in a blend of poetry and prose, reveals the bonds that emerge when we let others into our lives.

unusual-chickens

UNUSUAL CHICKENS FOR THE EXCEPTIONAL POULTRY FARMER by Kelly Jones

Fans of Polly Horvath or Roald Dahl will love this quirky story of a determined girl, and some extraordinary chickens.

Twelve-year-old Sophie Brown feels like a fish out of water when she and her parents move from Los Angeles to the farm they ve inherited from a great-uncle. But farm life gets more interesting when a cranky chicken appears and Sophie discovers the hen can move objects with the power of her little chicken brain: jam jars, the latch to her henhouse, the “entire” henhouse….

And then more of her great-uncle’s unusual chickens come home to roost. Determined, resourceful Sophie learns to care for her flock, earning money for chicken feed, collecting eggs. But when a respected local farmer tries to steal them, Sophie must find a way to keep them (and their superpowers) safe.
Told in letters to Sophie’s “abuela, ” quizzes, a chicken-care correspondence course, to-do lists, and more, “Unusual Chickens” is a quirky, clucky classic in the making.

roll-of-thunder-hear-my-cry

ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY by Mildred D. Taylor

Winner of the Newbery Medal, this remarkably moving novel has impressed the hearts and minds of millions of readers.

Set in Mississippi at the height of the Depression, this is the story of one family’s struggle to maintain their integrity, pride, and independence in the face of racism and social injustice. And it is also Cassie’s story – Cassie Logan, an independent girl who discovers over the course of an important year why having land of their own is so crucial to the Logan family, even as she learns to draw strength from her own sense of dignity and self-respect.

wolf-hollow

WOLF HOLLOW by Lauren Wolk

Growing up in the shadows cast by two world wars, Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Until the day new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks. While others have always seen Toby’s strangeness, Annabelle knows only kindness. She will soon need to find the courage to stand as a lone voice of justice as tensions mount.

Brilliantly crafted, Wolf Hollow is a haunting tale of America at a crossroads and a time when one girl’s resilience and strength help to illuminate the darkest corners of our history.

hattie-big-sky

HATTIE BIG SKY by Kirby Larson

This Newbery Honor winning, “New York Times” bestseller celebrates the true spirit of independence on the American frontier.

For most of her life, sixteen-year-old Hattie Brooks has been shuttled from one distant relative to another. Tired of being Hattie Here-and-There, she summons the courage to leave Iowa and move all by herself to Vida, Montana, to prove up on her late uncle’s homestead claim.

Under the big sky, Hattie braves hard weather, hard times, a cantankerous cow, and her own hopeless hand at the cookstove. Her quest to make a home is championed by new neighbors Perilee Mueller, her German husband, and their children. For the first time in her life, Hattie feels part of a family, finding the strength to stand up against Traft Martin’s schemes to buy her out and against increasing pressure to be a loyal American at a time when anything or anyone German is suspect. Despite daily trials, Hattie continues to work her uncle’s claim until an unforeseen tragedy causes her to search her soul for the real meaning of home.

This young pioneer’s story is lovingly stitched together from Kirby Larson’s own family history and the sights, sounds, and scents of homesteading life.

a-day-no-pigs-would-die

A DAY NO PIGS WOULD DIE by Robert Newton Peck

Originally published in hardcover in 1972, “A Day No Pigs Would Die “was one of the first young adult books, along with titles like “The Outsiders “and “The Chocolate War.” In it, author Robert Newton Peck weaves a story of
a Vermont boyhood that is part fiction, part memoir. The result is a moving coming-of-age story that still resonates with teens today.

orbiting-jupiter

ORBITING JUPITER by Gary D. Schmidt

The two-time Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt delivers the shattering story of Joseph, a father at thirteen, who has never seen his daughter, Jupiter. After spending time in a juvenile facility, he’s placed with a foster family on a farm in rural Maine. Here Joseph, damaged and withdrawn, meets twelve-year-old Jack, who narrates the account of the troubled, passionate teen who wants to find his baby at any cost. In this riveting novel, two boys discover the true meaning of family and the sacrifices it requires.

steering-toward-normal

STEERING TOWARD NORMAL by Rebecca Petruck

Eighth grade is set to be a good year for Diggy Lawson: He’s chosen a great calf to compete at the Minnesota State Fair, he’ll see a lot of July, the girl he secretly likes at 4-H, and he and his dad Pop have big plans for April Fool’s Day. But everything changes when classmate Wayne Graf’s mother dies, which brings to light the secret that Pop is Wayne’s father, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half brother, who moves in and messes up his life. Wayne threatens Diggy’s chances at the State Fair, horns in on his girl, and rattles his easy relationship with Pop.
What started out great quickly turns into the worst year ever, filled with jealousy, fighting, and several incidents involving cow poop. But as the boys care for their steers, pull pranks, and watch too many B movies, they learn what it means to be brothers and change their concept of family as they slowly steer toward a new kind of normal.

chicken-boy

CHICKEN BOY by Frances O. Dowell

Meet Tobin McCauley. He’s got a near-certifiable grandmother, a pack of juvenile-delinquent siblings, and a dad who’s not going to win father of the year any time soon. To top it off, Tobin’s only friend truly believes that the study of chickens will reveal…the meaning of life? Getting through seventh grade isn’t easy for anyone, but when the first day of school starts out with your granny’s arrest, you know you’ve got real problems. Throw on a five-day suspension, a chicken that lays green eggs, and a family feud that’s tearing everyone to pieces, and you’re in for one heck of a ride.

Katharine Manning hasn’t eaten lamb since she saw one born at her parents’ farm in West Virginia. She blogs here and at The Winged Pen, and is thrilled to be a 2016 CYBILS judge for poetry. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and at www.katharinemanning.com.

Great Books for New Middle Schoolers

bus

It’s August now, folks, and that means school is starting soon. (dun dun DUUUN) For no one is that more ominous, perhaps, than those starting middle school. What is it about middle school that makes grown men and women shudder?

I think it’s a combination of factors, any of which on their own would be challenging. First, it’s a new school, with the added small-fish-in-a-big-pond element. That can lead to trying on new identities, but all of your old friends (and enemies) are still with you, which can cause tension. The schoolwork is more challenging. It’s when puberty is at its most extreme poles, with some twelve-year-olds looking like they’re eight years old, and others looking like they’re eighteen. Some middle schoolers are starting to have crushes, and are craving more freedom than their parents are probably comfortable with. Oh, and braces. And pimples. To top it all off, it’s also the age when a lot of kids are getting cell phones, and exploring social media for the first time. (shudder)

Fortunately, there are a lot of wonderful middle grade books out there to help kids navigate this time, or at least make them laugh along the way. (All descriptions are from IndieBound, which is also linked for each book.)

Queen of Likes by Hillary Homzie: A tween social media queen is forced to give up her phone and learn that there’s more to life than likes in this M X novel from the author of “The Hot List.”

Karma Cooper is a seventh grader with thousands of followers on SnappyPic. Before Karma became a social media celebrity, she wasn’t part of the in-crowd at Merton Middle School. But thanks to one serendipitous photo, Karma has become a very popular poster on SnappyPic. Besides keeping up with all of her followers, like most kids at MMS, her smartphone a bejeweled pink number Karma nicknamed Floyd is like a body part she could never live without.

But after breaking some basic phone rules, Karma’s cruel, cruel parents take Floyd away, and for Karma, her world comes to a screeching halt. Can Karma, who can text, post photos, play soccer, and chew gum all at the same time, learn to go cold turkey and live her life fully unplugged?

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead: Bridge is an accident survivor who’s wondering why she’s still alive. Emily has new curves and an almost-boyfriend who wants a certain kind of picture. Tabitha sees through everybody’s games or so she tells the world. The three girls are best friends with one rule: No fighting. Can it get them through seventh grade?

This year everything is different for Sherm Russo as he gets to know Bridge Barsamian. What does it mean to fall for a girl as a friend?

On Valentine’s Day, an unnamed high school girl struggles with a betrayal. How long can she hide in plain sight?

Each memorable character navigates the challenges of love and change in this captivating novel.

Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur: Elise and Franklin have always been best friends. Elise has always lived in the big house with her loving Uncle and Aunt, because Elise’s parents died when she was too young to remember them. There’s always been a barn behind the house with eight locked doors on the second floor.

When Elise and Franklin start middle school, things feel all wrong. Bullying. Not fitting in. Franklin suddenly seems babyish. Then, soon after her 12th birthday, Elise receives a mysterious key left for her by her father. A key that unlocks one of the eight doors upstairs in the barn…

The Dirt Diary by Anna Staniszewski: Eighth grade never smelled so bad.

Rachel can’t believe she has to give up her Saturdays to scrubbing other people’s toilets. So. Gross. But she kinda, sorta stole $287.22 from her college fund that she’s got to pay back ASAP or her mom will ground her for life. Which is even worse than working for her mother’s new cleaning business. Maybe. After all, becoming a maid is definitely not going to help her already loserish reputation.

But Rachel picks up more than smelly socks on the job. As maid to some of the most popular kids in school, Rachel suddenly has all the dirt on the 8th grade in-crowd. Her formerly boring diary is now filled with juicy secrets. And when her crush offers to pay her to spy on his girlfriend, Rachel has to decide if she’s willing to get her hands dirty…

Smile by Reina Telgemeier: Raina just wants to be a normal sixth grader. But one night after Girl Scouts she trips and falls, severely injuring her two front teeth. What follows is a long and frustrating journey with on-again, off-again braces, surgery, embarrassing headgear, and even a retainer with fake teeth attached. And on top of all that, there’s still more to deal with: a major earthquake, boy confusion, and friends who turn out to be not so friendly.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander: 2015 Newbery Medal Winner, 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor Award Winner. “With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I m delivering,” announces dread-locked, 12-year-old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother, Jordan, are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood from Kwame Alexander.

Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story’s heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family.

My Seventh Grade Life in Tights by Brooks Benjamin: Football hero. Ninja freestyler. It’s seventh grade. Anything is possible.

All Dillon wants is to be a real dancer. And if he wins a summer scholarship at Dance-Splosion, he’s on his way. The problem? His dad wants him to play football. And Dillon’s freestyle crew, the Dizzee Freekz, says that dance studios are for sellouts. His friends want Dillon to kill it at the audition so he can turn around and tell the studio just how wrong their rules and creativity-strangling ways are.

At first, Dillon’s willing to go along with his crew’s plan, even convincing one of the snobbiest girls at school to work with him on his technique. But as Dillon’s dancing improves, he wonders: what if studios aren t the enemy? And what if he actually has a shot at winning the scholarship?

Dillon’s life is about to get crazy . . . on and off the dance floor in this kid-friendly humorous debut by Brooks Benjamin.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt: A “New York Times” Bestseller. The author of the beloved “One for the Murphys” gives readers an emotionally-charged, uplifting novel that will speak to anyone who’s ever thought there was something wrong with them because they didn t fit in.

Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.

Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions. She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her and to everyone than a label, and that great minds don t always think alike.

33 Minutes by Todd Hasak-Lowy: Sam Lewis is going to get his butt kicked in exactly thirty-three minutes. He knows this because yesterday his former best friend Morgan Sturtz told him, to his face and with three witnesses nearby, I am totally going to kick your butt tomorrow at recess.

All that’s standing between Sam and this unfortunate butt-kicking is the last few minutes of social studies and his lunch period. But how did Sam and Morgan end up here? How did this happen just a few months after TAMADE (The Absolutely Most Amazing Day Ever), when they became the greatest “Alien Wars” video game team in the history of great “Alien Wars” teams? And once the clock ticks down, will Morgan actually act on his threat?

Told with equal parts laugh-out-loud humor and achingly real emotional truth, “33 Minutes” shows how even the best of friendships can change forever.

Stealing Popular by Trudi Trueit: In middle school, popularity is power and in this modern spin on a Robin Hood tale, Coco Sherwood is bringing justice to the social scene.

At Briar Green Middle School, you are either a Somebody, a Sorta-body, or a Nobody. Twelve-year-old Coco Sherwood falls directly in the Nobody category – the kids who are considered the misfits and outcasts of the school. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And it’s time to even the score.

With clever planning and sneaky tactics, Coco becomes the Robin Hood of Briar Green. Girls who never thought they had a chance to be noticed are now making cheer squad and turning into beauty queens. But when Coco takes on the ultimate challenge taking down Popular Girl #1 Dijon Randle her dream of equality on the middle-school social ladder may turn into a nightmare. Can Coco and the rest of the Nobodies triumph in a world where popularity is power? Or will the Somebodies win again?

The Sleepover by Jen Malone: From the author of “At Your Service” and the coauthor of “You re Invited “comes a laugh-out-loud romp about three besties who must piece together what happened after an epic sleepover becomes more than just karaoke and sundaes.

Meghan, Paige, and Anna-Marie are super excited for the Best. Night. Ever. The sleepover they’re planning is going to be nothing short of EPIC. Not even the last-minute addition of Anna-Marie’s socially awkward, soon-to-be stepsister Veronica can dampen their spirits.

But nothing prepares them for the scene that greets them when they awaken the next morning: the basement is a disaster, Meghan’s left eyebrow has been shaved off and she is somehow in possession of the Class Bad Boy’s signature hoodie, and there’s a slew of baby chicks in the bathtub. Worst of all, Anna-Marie is missing.

Trouble is, none of them can remember anything beyond the hypnotism trick performed by the two-bit magician Veronica arranged in an effort to impress the other girls. Now, as the clock is ticking and the clues continue to get weirder, the remaining girls must figure out exactly what happened the night before. Can they find Anna-Marie and pull off the ultimate save-face before parent pick-up time?

I Funny, A Middle School Story by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein: Jamie Grimm is a middle schooler on a mission: he wants to become the world’s greatest standup comedian–even if he doesn’t have a lot to laugh about these days. He’s new in town and stuck living with his aunt, uncle, and their evil son Stevie, a bully who doesn’t let Jamie’s wheelchair stop him from messing with Jamie as much as possible. But Jamie doesn’t let his situation get him down. When his Uncle Frankie mentions a contest called The Planet’s Funniest Kid Comic, Jamie knows he has to enter. But are the judges only rewarding him out of pity because of his wheelchair, like Stevie suggests? Will Jamie ever share the secret of his troubled past instead of hiding behind his comedy act?

Following the bestselling success of the hilarious “Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life,” James Patterson continues to dish out the funnies in another highly-illustrated, heartfelt middle school story. (Includes more than 175 black-and-white illustrations.)

Awkward by Svetlana Chmokova: Cardinal rule #1 for surviving school: Don’t get noticed by the mean kids.

Cardinal rule #2 for surviving school: Seek out groups with similar interests and join them.

On her first day at her new school, Penelope–Peppi–Torres reminds herself of these basics. But when she trips into a quiet boy in the hall, Jaime Thompson, she’s already broken the first rule, and the mean kids start calling her the “nerder girlfriend.” How does she handle this crisis? By shoving poor Jaime and running away.

Falling back on rule two and surrounding herself with new friends in the art club, Peppi still can’t help feeling ashamed about the way she treated Jaime. Things are already awkward enough between the two, but to make matters worse, he’s a member of her own club’s archrivals–the science club. And when the two clubs go to war, Peppi realizes that sometimes you have to break the rules to survive middle school.

How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephart: Eleven-year-old David Greenberg dreams of becoming a YouTube sensation and spends all of his time making hilarious Top 6½ Lists and Talk Time videos. But before he can get famous, he has to figure out a way to deal with:

6. Middle school (much scarier than it sounds )
5. His best friend gone girl-crazy
4. A runaway mom who has no phone
3. The threat of a swirlie on his birthday
2. A terrifying cousin
1. His # 1 fan, Bubbe (his Jewish grandmother)
1/2. Did we mention Hammy, the hamster who’s determined to break David’s heart?

But when David’s new best friend, Sophie, starts sending out the links to everyone she knows and her friends tell their friends, thousands of people start viewing his videos.

Middle School is Worse than Meatloaf by Jennifer L Holm: Ginny has ten items on her big to-do list for seventh grade. None of them, however, include accidentally turning her hair pink. Or getting sent to detention for throwing frogs in class. Or losing the lead role in the ballet recital to her ex-best friend. Or the thousand other things that can go wrong between September and June. But it looks like it’s shaping up to be that kind of a year

As readers follow Ginny throughout the story of her year, told entirely through her stuff notes from classmates, school reports, emails, poems, receipts, and cartoons from her perpetually-in-trouble older brother Harry a portrait emerges of a funny, loveable, thoughtful girl struggling to be herself whoever that person turns out to be.

Katie Friedman Gives Up Texting! (And Lives to Tell About It.) by Tommy Greenwald: When a text goes wrong, Katie Friedman learns the hard way that sometimes you need to disconnect to connect.

Here are a few things you need to know about Katie Friedman:

  1. Katie is swearing off phones for life (No, seriously. She just sent the wrong text to the wrong person.)
  2. She wants to break up with her boyfriend. (Until, that is, he surprises her with front row tickets to her favorite band, Plain Jane. Now what?)
  3. She wants to be a rock star (It’s true. She has a band and everything.)
  4. Her best friend is Charlie Joe Jackson. (Yeah, you know the guy.)
  5. And most importantly, Katie’s been offered the deal of a lifetime get ten of her friends to give up their phones for one week and everyone can have backstage passes to Plain Jane. (A whole week? Is that even possible?)

How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes are Untied by Jess Keating: Ana Wright’s social life is now officially on the endangered list: she lives in a zoo (umm, elephant droppings ?), her best friend lives on the other side of the world, and the Sneerers are making junior high miserable. All Ana wants is to fade into the background.

Yeah, that’s not going to happen.

Creature File for Ana Wright:
Species Name: Anaphyta Normalis
Kingdom: The Zoo, Junior High
Phylum: Girls Whose Best Friend Just Moved To New Zealand; Girls Who Are Forced To Live In A Zoo With Their Weirdo Parents And Twin Brother
Weight: Classified
Feeds On: Daydreams about Zackardia Perfecticus and wish cupcakes
Life Span: Soon to become extinct due to social awkwardness

Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer still recovering from her middle school years. You can read more of her book recommendations at Kid Book List. You can also find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, and on Twitter