March 22, 2018

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Out Now: YA Titles Great for Middle Schoolers

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Tween patrons looking for great YA reads over the long summer vacation? Our latest roundup of YA titles for middle schoolers feature light romance, comedy, sports, friendship, and adventure.

Birchall, Katy. The It Girl. 352p. ebook available. S. & S./Aladdin. Jun. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481463621.
Gr 5-8–In this witty British import, a middle schooler must face her own insecurity after her social 000 It Girlstatus gets an unexpected boost. Anna Huntley, 12, is most comfortable at home with her journalist single dad, watching old movies and communing with her pet/soulmate, Dog. She’s terrified she’ll embarrass her only friends, Jess and Danny, into abandoning her. Anna’s quirky personality and frequent misreading of situations are bemusing, even to Jess. When Anna’s father starts dating a superstar, the potential for public humiliation is high. For naive Anna, navigating the limelight as well as normal adolescence (crushes! field trips!) is a test for her already shaky social instincts. After she imperils both her sweet fledgling romance with a fellow nerd and, worse, her friendship with Jess, she must rely on her new blended family’s support to scheme her way back to happiness. Smart plotting has the well-developed adult characters and Marianne, Anna’s surprisingly nice celebutante sister, demonstrate that anyone worth knowing is a little dorky. Birchall’s debut is appropriate for younger readers yet sharp enough to keep older middle schoolers rooting for a well-earned happy ending. There are flaws: a slightly slow start, some culturally insensitive asides—Anna’s goals include feeding rice to African children, and unlikely tween email habits. VERDICT Though not nearly as nuanced and authentic, this is in the vein of Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger; its juicy premise gives way to supportive female friendship and realistic self-discovery, without losing its teen appeal.–Miriam DesHarnais, Towson University, MD

Carter, Caela. Tumbling. 432p. ebook available. glossary. Viking. Jun. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780451473004.
Gr 6-10–Five gymnasts. Five Olympic dreams. Two days to make those dreams into reality. Grace is000 Tumbling the coach’s daughter and a perfectionist with no other choice but to be the best. With her mother out of the picture and her dad acting more like a coach than her father, she struggles to cope with the pressure and expectations that come along with being the best. Leigh is the powerhouse, Grace’s best friend and biggest competition. Underneath her smile and easy laugh, she hides a huge secret. Wilhelmina is an “old-timer” at 20, out to prove that she is still among the elite after missing out on the Olympics four years ago. Camille is back for a second chance at the Olympics after her dream was cut short the first time. But are the Olympics really her dream, or are they her mother’s? Monica usually blends into the background but finds herself thrust into the spotlight—and Grace’s crosshairs—as she surges through the competition. Who will make it? Who will crack? Told in alternating voices, this work brings the cutthroat world of elite gymnastics to life. Rotations and breaks in competition mark the end of each chapter. A glossary at the end of the book explains frequently used technical gymnastics terms, making the jargon accessible to gymnastics novices. Carter has created five memorable characters whose voices resonate long after the story ends and whose lives outside of the gym (or lack thereof) make them relatable to readers. VERDICT Purchase for middle and high schools where realistic fiction is in demand.–Carli Worthman, Carmel Middle School, Carmel, IN

Falksen, G.D. The Transatlantic Conspiracy. illus. by Nat Iwata. 280p. ebook available. Soho Teen. Jun. 2016. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781616954178.
Gr 7 Up–In this fast-paced murder mystery, Rosalind Wallace and her friend Cecily are on an 000 Conspiracyunderwater transatlantic train’s maiden voyage between Germany and the United States. Cecily’s brother Charles disappears during boarding, and Cecily is found stabbed to death; Rosalind is the prime suspect in Cecily’s death. In an effort to clear her name, Rosalind tries to identify her friend’s killer. As she delves deeper into the investigation, the truth behind the train’s mission and her own father’s sinister plans unfolds. Readers will be immersed in the underlying political issues of the pre–World War I period in this steampunk offering. Discerning readers will be able to determine hints of communist and democratic tendencies in some of the characters, as well as socioeconomic class distinctions. Of particular interest is how servants interact with old money employers in comparison to how they interact with new money employers. Sketches of mechanical parts for the chapter headings and scattered illustrated spreads will help teens gain a better grasp of Falksen’s world. The richness of the environment, great world-building, and fast-paced action at times seem to overshadow the characters’ complexity. At the story’s conclusion, a buildup in action leads to the big reveal of some of the characters’ motivations, bringing to mind Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. However, there are enough loose ends to ensure room for a sequel. VERDICT Purchase where there are avid fans of steampunk mysteries.–Sabrina Carnesi, Crittenden Middle School, Newport News, VA

Griffin, Paul. When Friendship Followed Me Home. 256p. Dial. Jun. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780803738164.
Gr 5-8–Twelve-year-old Ben, a science fiction fan with low self-esteem after years of foster care, 000 Friendshipmeets a stray dog outside the Coney Island Public Library. Flip, with his big eyes and propensity to lick everyone’s mouth, in turn helps Ben get to know a girl who is fighting cancer, and her family. When Ben’s life gets turned upside down again, Flip remains. This is a “kitchen sink” book; it has bullying, adoption, homelessness, death, abuse, and cancer. However, the optimism of the protagonist combined with the positivity lent by the presence of this loving canine makes this book somehow less hard-hitting than the author’s usual YA dramas. Griffin never throws too much at readers at once, taking his protagonist through each successive challenge, and the dialogue remains consistently light and free of overt emotion. References to science fiction and middle grade literature abound, and there’s some serious admiration for dogs, librarians, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Feathers. The weakest part of this novel is the convoluted science fiction story Ben and the aforementioned girl unspool throughout. The plot-within-a-plot is written by these two imaginative kids with unfettered fancy, with the same quality of a child’s writing. If readers can get past those sections, however, the relentless pull of Ben’s slow character growth through his drama and the big loving doggy presence will pull misty-eyed readers to the very end. VERDICT If you have middle schoolers who are too young to fully grasp John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and love dogs, give them this sweet tearjerker.–Rhona Campbell, Georgetown Day School, Washington, DC

Hartley, A.J. Steeplejack. 336p. (Alternative Detective: Bk. 1). ebook available. Tor Teen. Jun. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780765383426.
Gr 6 Up–Anglet left her humble and poor childhood for the not so glamorous life of a steeplejack. 000 SteeplejackShe spends her days climbing high above Bar-Salem’s smog to fix the broken bricks of chimneys and towers. When the city’s beacon—a stone that shines a bright, everlasting light—is stolen the same day her young apprentice dies, Ang is swept into the folds of the mystery. Torn between family and cultural obligations, she has to decide whom she can trust and depend on to stay alive. Hartley creates a vivid world with wildlife and landscapes reminiscent of those of South Africa in this alternative 19th-century fantasy. Ang is a character readers will care about, even if her persistent adventures (and ensuing injuries) are unbelievable. Extraneous and convenient secondary characters help to create the multicultural world in which Ang lives. The race relations and political atmosphere in Bar-Salem are great catalysts for discussion. Hartley uses a large vocabulary, but the lack of romance and gratuitous violence makes this story a good option for younger teens. VERDICT A versatile work, appealing to all kinds of readers, especially alternative history and fantasy fans.–Stephanie DeVincentis, Downers Grove North High School, IL

Holmes, Kathryn. How It Feels To Fly. 368p. ebook available. HarperCollins/HarperTeen. Jun. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062387349.
Gr 7 Up–Summer camp gets a whole new spin in this tale about the denizens of a performance 000 Flycamp. Samantha’s physical development threatens to destroy her love of and future in ballet. She considers herself fat, and food is her enemy. Holmes uses flashbacks to give background information on Samantha’s family’s dynamics, and the protagonist’s overbearing mother is at the root of her problems. Constant negative self-talk becomes less present as Sam learns to make her own choices at the camp for artists with anxiety issues. The well-developed characters attending the session are talented and highly skilled in their areas of performance. Some of the other campers include a celebrated football player, an ice-skating champion, and a tennis star. The internal challenges they face are varied and universal. Readers will recognize their speed bumps and find a character to identify with. Realistic dialogue and descriptions make it possible for teens to become flies on the wall as the fast-paced plot unfolds. The protagonists grow through their struggles individually and eventually learn to support one another. The author adeptly shows even the camp counselors as works in progress. A gentle, misunderstood romance between Sam and one of her counselors develops only as far as a forbidden kiss. Throughout the camp experiences, Holmes plants themes of self-worth, empathy, and persistence. VERDICT An empowering story for middle and high school readers searching for acceptance from themselves as well as others. A great choice for summer reading.–Elizabeth Swartz, Warrior Run School District, PA

Johnson, Shawn. The Flip Side. 288p. ebook available. S. & S. Jun. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481460217.
Gr 7 Up–Olympic medalist Johnson makes her YA debut with a romance novel about a young000 Flip gymnast trying to balance her dream of obtaining an Olympic gold medal with her burning desire to be a “normal” teenager. Charlie Ryland lives a double life—as Charlie, she’s a serious contender, just one trial away from making the Olympic team. As Charlotte, she attends classes at a high school where no one knows who she is. She’s been doing this for four years, but things come to a head right before her final Olympic qualifier, when she winds up serving as temporary secretary in the student government alongside champion wrestler and all-around good guy Bobby Singh. Johnson gives readers a sweet, conventional romance—one predictably heavy on high school drama and surprisingly light on the gymnastics. Details about training, moves, and the basic routines of an elite gymnast are frequently skimmed over, robbing the story of what could have been something special. Charlotte is a likable narrator, though, and her strong desire for privacy and normalcy in a far from normal existence makes her sympathetic. This work, despite its occasional lapses into some noticeably wooden prose and dialogue, moves well, and romance fans seeking a quick fix will speed right through. VERDICT A good addition to any library looking to expand its romance section.–Bobbi Parry, East Baton Rouge Parish School System, LA

Jones, Harmony. Girl vs. Boy Band: The Right Track. 240p. (Girl vs. Boy Band). Bloomsbury. Jun. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781619639478.
Gr 5-8–When 12-year-old Lark’s parents separate, it makes sense for her to join her mother Donna 000 Bandin Los Angeles, as her session musician father is constantly on tour. Donna’s attention is on building her business, a record label she has launched herself. While Lark has one good friend in L.A., she misses Nashville and her dad. She throws herself into her music, playing guitar and composing songs she won’t sing in public—Lark suffers from terrible stage fright. But everything changes when Donna signs a British boy band called Abbey Road to her label—and invites them to live with her and Lark. Young, cheeky, and good-looking, the boys add a level of upheaval and change to the household. Family, friendships, and dreams are all themes within the novel that will appeal to the intended age group. The boy band lingo, accented with British slang, is usually explained within the context of conversations. Both Lark and the Abbey Road boys share their backgrounds, and a few cultural insights are gained by the characters and readers. There is some banter from one of the boys that has mild sexual overtones, but that aside, the book could be given to most upper middle graders wanting a light, pleasant read, rather than a more issues-driven and complex title. VERDICT The plot is swiftly paced, and while there are few surprises, the work is satisfying and easily readable.–Michelle Anderson, Tauranga City Libraries, New Zealand

Khorana, Aditi. Mirror in the Sky. 352p. ebook available. Penguin/Razorbill. Jun. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781595148568. Pop
Gr 7-10–As Tara prepares to start her junior year without her best friend, who will be studying 000 Mirrorabroad, a new, Earth-like planet is discovered, throwing the world into a mild chaos. Besides the temporary loss of her best friend, Tara must also deal with the departure of her mother, who has left for California to join a cultish organization that hopes to make contact with inhabitants of the new planet. After attention from a popular boy gets Tara invited to a big party, she spends her year infiltrating the popular circle of her posh Connecticut prep school. Khorana focuses on how social groups take shape and thrive as she compares the friendship circles that develop in high school with the various groups forming because of the potential existence of life beyond Earth. Readers won’t necessarily learn hard science, but they will be encouraged to ponder the vast expansiveness of the universe. The writing style is eloquent, and the characters are well developed, particularly Tara, who is struggling as the only Indian girl in an all-white school. VERDICT Although this work is grounded in the premise of life beyond Earth, the main focus here on teen social interactions will appeal to readers who enjoy realistic fiction with a splash of sci-fi.–Carrie Shaurette, Dwight-Englewood School, Englewood, NJ

Lee, J.M. Shadows of the Dark Crystal. illus. by Brian Froud. 272p. (Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal). ebook available. Grosset & Dunlap. Jun. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780448482897.
Gr 6-9–Journey to Thra, a deeply magical world where one young gelfling woman is about to begin 000 Crystalan epic quest that will shake Thra to its roots. Naia yearns to see the world beyond the swampland she calls home, yet she knows her role is to remain and become the matriarch of her people. However, when word comes that her twin brother has been accused of treason, Naia is the only one who can make the arduous journey to the Castle of Crystal. Determined to clear her brother’s name and set things right, Naia finds all that she knows thrown into question. What is the dark and malevolent force that is creeping through the land? What connection does it have to the great crystal and the Skeksis Lords in the castle? What she learns will put her very life at risk and set in motion events that will determine the fate of her world. With deft nods to the original Dark Crystal movie and a passionate attention to detail, the author has fashioned an impressive prequel. Fans (who will instantly recognize certain elements) and newcomers alike will find themselves immersed in a new narrative, with new protagonists and dangers to face. Pencil sketch interior illustrations will help readers visualize uncommon characters. This author’s debut fantasy title is the first of four that chronicle the early history of the Dark Crystal, but it remains to be seen if he can pull off an upbeat adventure when the dark future is already established. VERDICT Readers who crave otherworld fantasy such as Jaleigh Johnson’s The Mark of the Dragonfly and Paul Durham’s The Luck Uglies will enjoy discovering this new series.–Stephanie Whelan, New York Public Library

Luurtsema, Nat. Goldfish. 240p. ebook available. Feiwel & Friends. Jun. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781250089182.
Gr 7 Up–Fifteen-year-old Louise has been a competitive swimmer for most of her life, and she’s 000 Goldfishgood at it—so good that she is up for a spot in a high-performance training camp that may just pave her way to the Olympics. Imagine Lou’s mortification when not only does she come in dead last at the tryouts but the spot goes to her best friend, Hannah. Lou heads back to school after the summer break, shunned by her ex-teammates, sans friends, and without the focus that swimming gave her. When she is approached by three guys from her school who want her to choreograph and coach an underwater dance routine for their Britain’s Hidden Talent audition, Lou doesn’t know if she should accept or run away screaming. Accepting the offer turns out to be just the beginning of a new adventure and perhaps a different kind of fame. Luurtsema excels at creating multidimensional characters whom readers will care about. Lou is a swimmer first and foremost, but readers get to know her as a sister, friend, daughter, and student. Lou’s sister, her dad, and the swim boys are equally developed, giving this story a true-to-life feel. Only the mean girl, Cammie, and Lou’s mom are not as fleshed out. VERDICT A fun story with well-rounded characters whom readers will root for; purchase where YA sports fiction is needed.–Heather Webb, Worthington Libraries, OH

McDowell, Nigel. The Black North. 432p. ebook available. Hot Keys. Jun. 2016. pap. $11.99. ISBN 9781471400674.
Gr 6 Up–Thirteen-year-old twins Oona and Morris Kavanaugh live on the Divided Island in Ireland 000 Northwith their grandmother. All is quiet in the County of Drumbroken, but the invaders threaten to come and create ruin just as they did in the North. Morris is kidnapped by the Briar Witches, and Oona, who has only Evelyn Merigutt, a jackdaw with special powers, and a stone that reveals truths and nightmares to help her, must venture into the Black North to find him. Protecting the stone that Evelyn carries is key to safeguarding her hometown from war. The duo meet a cast of characters along the way who attempt to halt them in their tracks. Although the narrative is confusing at times, there is never a dull moment in this adventure with frightening characters. This historical fantasy will be best suited for readers who can appreciate magic and other unimaginable mishaps. Whenever it seems that nothing is likely to work out, Oona takes her skills to a new level and presses on. Readers who understand the history of war in Ireland will have a better appreciation for the author’s tale. VERDICT This novel will appeal to those who enjoy adventure and strong characters. Purchase where historical fantasies are popular.–Karen Alexander, Lake Fenton High School, Linden, MI

Maizel, Rebecca. A Season for Fireflies. 256p. ebook available. HarperCollins/HarperTeen. Jun. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062327642.
Gr 7 Up–Penny Berne’s life seems idyllic. At home, she is the daughter of a successful inventor and000 Fireflies event planner. At school, she is surrounded by a close-knit group of drama department friends. She is even cast as the lead in the school play opposite her close friend, for whom she harbors romantic feelings. However, Penny’s life is far from ideal. Her mother has a mental illness and struggles with addiction. In an attempt to hide her problems at home, Penny quits the school play and develops an icy indifference toward her friends. For a year, the teen leads a very different life than she did sophomore year—when she wasn’t consumed with her mother’s problems. When disaster and lightning strike, the past year is completely wiped from her memory, and Penny must figure out who she really is. This book starts slowly, but it picks up after a few chapters, becoming a more engaging read. Descriptions of Penny’s mother’s mental illness and addiction are vague enough for sensitive and middle school readers. Maizel adeptly weaves facts about lightning strike victims into the story. They are absolutely fascinating and are well placed within the narrative. VERDICT A sweet and sour tale that would make a good addition to YA romance fans’ summer reading lists. Give to teens who enjoy books by Katie Cotugno or Robin Constantine.–Ellen Fitzgerald, White Oak Library, Lockport, IL

Rivers, Karen. Before We Go Extinct. 256p. ebook available. Farrar. Jun. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780374302405.
Gr 7 Up–JC (aka Sharky) stopped speaking after he witnessed the death of his best friend, The King,000 Extinct in what may have been a suicide or an accidental fall off the 42nd story of his father’s unfinished Manhattan high-rise. Sent to live with his distant hippie father on a mostly deserted Vancouver island for the summer, JC continues to withdraw, texting his dead best friend and attempting to ignore the entreaties of their other best friend, Daff; Daff’s and The King’s mutual growing attraction may have been an impetus for The King’s death. JC turns to diving, exploring the underwater world among the islands, prompting him to want to talk again. Ruminating on his grief and reliving the events leading up to The King’s death, the protagonist begins to open himself up to others with the help of the enigmatic Kelby, his father’s girlfriend’s daughter, and her younger brother Charlie. While the plot feels familiar, the story’s strength lies in JC’s thoughtful, honest contemplation of his grief. Secondary characters also add emotional depth to his story, if not their own subplots. VERDICT Purchase for collections in need of realistic fiction, especially involving death or suicide.–Hillary St. George, Los Angeles Public Library

Thorne, Jenn Marie. The Inside of Out. 400p. ebook available. Dial. Jun. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780803740587. POP
Gr 7 Up–High school juniors Daisy and Hannah are best friends. When Hannah comes out as gay, 000 Outthe last thing Daisy expects is for Hannah to start dating Natalie, Daisy’s long-standing archenemy. While Daisy is still processing this unforeseen twist of events, she finds out that their school has a strict policy banning same-sex dates at dances. Daisy decides to end this antiquated rule by challenging the school board. What she thought was a symbolic gesture on behalf of her friend’s rights becomes a convoluted crusade in which Daisy takes on the school board, her friends and fellow students, and eventually the whole country. Thorne expertly drops plot twists like bread crumbs for her readers to follow. Set in Charleston, SC, this story begins with a classic conflict between friends. The simple narrative becomes thick with thorns when Daisy acts before thinking, bringing a complexity to her situation. Although it takes on some heavy subjects, the work remains light through its humorous and somewhat self-obsessed teenage characters. Ultimately, teens will enjoy reading about Daisy’s good intentions gone wrong as well as the bumpy love stories that accompany all good teenage drama. VERDICT Recommend to fans of John Green and David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson and Kris Dinnison’s You and Me and Him.–Jaclyn Anderson, Madison County Library System, MS

Tracy, Kristen. Project (Un)Popular. 336p. Delacorte. Jun. 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780553510485; lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 9780553510492; ebk. ISBN 9780553510508.
Gr 5-8–Cursed orange hoodies, toxic triangles, and conspiracy theories infiltrate Perry’s world when 000 Unpopularshe begins sixth grade. As junior photographers for the yearbook, Perry and her best friend, Venice, quickly discover shooting pictures is not about focusing, framing, and capturing the best moments, but, rather, about posing the popular kids. Determined to take a stand, they decide to photograph only “nerds,” but when Venice starts falling for Leo and an increasingly complex plan evolves, Perry questions her motive. The popular eighth-grade yearbook editor, Anya, preys on Perry’s vulnerability, sending her spying and scheming. Perry gets behind in her schoolwork, worries that her friendship with Venice is “dunzo,” and ultimately ends up in the principal’s office. Middle grade readers will relate to the complexities of friendship showcased in this novel. Taking on everything from first boyfriends to the lure of popular older students, author Tracy successfully captures Perry’s struggle to weigh options and choose sides. Perry’s panicked phone calls to her older sister, her deleted and revised text messages, and her narration throughout reveal her character as a typical middle schooler—confident at times and completely uncertain at others. Despite her struggles, in the end, readers will be satisfied that Perry begins to find her way, and they will be eager to learn how she moves forward in the sequel. VERDICT Fans of Tracy’s tween books will be excited to read the first installment in this new series.–Beth Parmer, New Albany Elementary Library, OH




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Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.



  1. Tatiana Guyer says:

    Another amazing list of recommended books for middle grade, Kiera! I will keep busy this summer with all of these cool titles.

  2. Georgi Sandgren says:

    These all sound great, but I did notice that there are only 3 titles with male protagonists. A little more balance would have been preferred.

  3. Would Tumbling work for younger – say down to 4th grade? I have some really gymnastics obsessed girls that would love it, but any hints of sex or bad language will be a deal-breaker.