Best Middle Grade Books 2021 | SLJ Best Books

The 2021 list of best middle grade books counts with 26 novels, including unforgettable works by Joseph Bruchac, Jasmine Warga, and Kate DiCamillo.


Middle Grade

Alston, B.B. Amari and the Night Brothers.
HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. ISBN 9780062975164.
Gr 3-7 –Amari’s older brother has mysteriously disappeared, and the only clue to his whereabouts is a ticking briefcase in his closet. This leads Amari on an adventure to the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, where she encounters a plethora of fantastical creatures, as well as many friends and foes. This action-packed adventure story brimming with magical creatures, friendship, and a healthy dose of #BlackGirlMagic is guaranteed to thrill fantasy fans.

Baron, Chris. The Magical Imperfect.
Feiwel & Friends. ISBN 9781250767820.
Gr 3-7 –Etan has become selectively mute since his mother left. He spends most of his time with his grandfather in his jewelry shop. Delivering a package outside of his San Francisco neighborhood, Etan befriends Malia, known by kids as “the Creature” because of her eczema. This novel in verse depicts a beautiful friendship, a dose of history, and a pinch of magical realism set against the backdrop of the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that devastated the area in 1989.

Bourne, Shakirah. Josephine Against the Sea.
Scholastic. ISBN 9781338642087.
Gr 3-7 –Josephine had always successfully scared off her father’s girlfriends by pranking them, but this newest one, Mariss, is not going to be dispatched so easily. Turns out, Mariss is a River Mumma (whom Josephine accidentally summoned), and now Josephine must defeat her before her father pays the price. Featuring a determined heroine and filled with references to creatures from Caribbean mythology, this novel is guaranteed to delight.

Bruchac, Joseph. Rez Dogs.
Dial. ISBN 9780593326213.
Gr 3-8 –While her parents are sheltering in place in Boston, Malian, an eighth grade Penacook girl, tries to keep herself and her grandparents safe from COVID-19 on their reservation. In this novel in verse, Bruchac takes a look at life in lockdown through the eyes of a girl coping with boredom, isolation, and the need to find her place. The text addresses residential schools, relocation, and forced sterilization, as well as racial justice and the disproportionate way that COVID-19 spread in marginalized communities.

Currie, Lindsay. What Lives in the Woods.
Sourcebooks. ISBN 9781728209753.
Gr 4-7 –Amateur sleuth Ginny is disappointed when her summer plans are quashed in favor of her father’s monthlong renovation project of a huge, spooky mansion in Michigan. There’s plenty of lore about Woodmoor Manor, and when Ginny experiences these terrifying supernatural events for herself, she’s plunged into a mystery deeper than she ever imagined. Currie provides thrills and chills in this fast-paced supernatural detective tale.

Day, Christine. The Sea in Winter.
HarperCollins/Heartdrum. ISBN 9780062872043.
Gr 3-7 –Maisie’s life has been in a tailspin ever since she tore her ACL and had to stop dancing ballet. But with the support of her family, and through a trip to her mother’s Makah community, Maisie works toward rediscovering herself. Day’s second novel deftly explores coping with depression, healing, and learning more about one’s Indigenous heritage when everything else feels adrift.

DEE, Barbara. Violets Are Blue.
S.&S./Aladdin. ISBN 9781534469181.
Gr 4-8 –Wren is going through some difficult changes: Her father left and started a new family, and she and her mother have moved to a new city. She fills her time watching and trying to recreate the special effects makeup of a popular YouTuber. While Wren navigates tween life, her mother is also increasingly secretive. These mysterious actions elegantly unfold in Dee’s well-crafted story, which deftly addresses heavy topics such as parental separation and opioid addiction.

DiCamillo, Kate. The Beatryce Prophecy.
illus. by Sophie Blackall. Candlewick. ISBN 9781536213614.
Gr 3-6 –The prophecy foretold of a girl who would “unseat a king and bring about a great change.” With the help of a demon goat and the ability to read and write (skills considered illegal for women in this world), Beatryce is poised to do just that. In an impressively slim 250 pages, this gorgeous epic is primed for read-aloud shares. Powerhouses DiCamillo and Blackall weave a medieval tapestry fit for a queen.

Ewing, Eve L. Maya and the Robot.
illus. by Christine Almeda. Penguin/Kokila. ISBN 9781984814630.
Gr 3-7 –Science-loving Maya is facing challenges at school: Her best friends aren’t in her class, and she has the strictest teacher in the fifth grade. Maya soon encounters Ralph, a half-finished robot in her corner store’s back room, which she builds into a friend. Ralph makes life easier—until sabotage throws a wrench into things, literally and figuratively. Ewing’s heartwarming novel blends STEM, social-emotional learning, and the importance of community.

Faruqi, Saadia. Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero.
HarperCollins/Quill Tree. ISBN 9780062943255.
Gr 5 Up –Twenty years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Yusuf Azeem is entering sixth grade in his small Texas town. He begins drawing connections between how his Muslim American community was treated then and the growing hate in his town stemming from a vocal white nationalist group. Inspired by real events, this novel is a gripping tale of justice, patriotism, and Islamophobia.

Fipps, Lisa. Starfish.
Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. ISBN 9781984814500.
Gr 5-8 –Eleven-year-old Ellie has been bullied most of her life for being fat. The mean girls are bad enough, but her weight-obsessed mother might be her worst critic. With the encouragement of a new therapist, Ellie learns to confront her attackers. As she breaks down her restrictive, self-imposed rules, Ellie begins to accept the unconditional love she deserves. Fipps’s empowering, feel-good novel in verse shines, especially given the dearth of body-positive examples for young readers.

Giles, Chrystal D. Take Back the Block.
Random. ISBN 9780593175170.
Gr 3-7 –Eleven-year-old Wes Henderson would rather be doing anything else for his birthday than going to a protest. He is ambivalent about the issues his community activist mother holds dear until gentrification causes changes in his own neighborhood of Kensington Oaks, dividing his friend group and the community as a whole. Giles’s debut is a timely coming-of-age story of a Black boy grappling with personal growth and enacting change on a micro and macro level.

Haydu, Corey Ann. One Jar of Magic.
HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen. ISBN 9780062689856.
Gr 4-7 –Expectations are high for 12-year-old Rose Anders, whose father, Wendell, is the most successful magic-catcher in Belling Bright. When magic-catching day does not go as planned for Rose, she suffers an embarrassing letdown. Haydu’s work of magical realism evokes fraught emotions boiling just below the surface of Rose’s “perfect” life. Her first-person narration begins with a confident arrogance that slowly dissipates along with her father’s public geniality.

Higuera, Donna Barba. The Last Cuentista.
Levine Querido. ISBN 9781646140893.
Gr 5 Up –It’s 2061 when 12-year-old Petra Peña and her family board the last spaceship before Earth is destroyed. Petra awakes from her 400-year stasis to find that a group of zealots seeking homogeneity and equality via the eradication of heritage have overtaken the ship. Petra is the only original traveler who retains her memory, and she proves a protector of both people and history. This powerful sci-fi saga boasts massive appeal across age groups.

Kuzki, Shaw. Soul Lanterns.
Delacorte. ISBN 9780593174340.
Gr 4-7 –Twelve-year-old Nozomi was born after the bombing that changed the city of Hiroshima forever, but she witnesses its tragic effects in her community during the annual lantern-floating ceremony to honor the dead. This prompts an intergenerational school art project that opens the students’ eyes to the scope of their city’s loss. This potent novel explores the long-lasting effects of grief and centers a Japanese perspective that is rarely present in American literature about World War II.

LaRocca, Rajani. Red, White, and Whole.
HarperCollins/Quill Tree. ISBN 9780063047426.
Gr 3-8 –Thirteen-year-old Reha feels conflicted over her Indian American identity because of the expectations of her family, the predominantly white spaces she inhabits during the week, and how to fit into both. When Reha’s mother falls seriously ill, the family must come together for an unimaginable future. With tragedy looming, Reha figures out how to unite these parts of herself. This historical fiction novel in verse set in 1983 is a timely, heartrending tale.

Lucas, Chad. Thanks a Lot, Universe.
Abrams. ISBN 9781419751028.
Gr 5-8 –Newfound friends Brian and Ezra roll with some serious punches at the end of their seventh grade year. Brian’s family traumatically fractures, and his anxiety becomes overwhelming. Ezra navigates rapidly changing friendships and struggles to share his sexuality with those close to him. As their bond grows, they see and uplift each other, demonstrating the importance of honest friendships. At times heartbreaking and other times laugh-out-loud funny, this deeply empathetic story radiates hope.

Lukoff, Kyle. Too Bright to See.
Dial. ISBN 9780593111154.
Gr 4-7 –Living in an old house in Vermont, Bug has always known ghosts. Now, beloved Uncle Roderick may be among them, sending Bug important messages from beyond. Bug also has to deal with the growing distance from best friend Moira, who has decided they both need to shift their focus to boys and makeup, things that Bug just can’t relate to. This queer ghost story is a haunting exploration of gender identity and grief that will linger with readers long after the final page.

Mbalia, Kwame, ed. Black Boy Joy:
17 Stories Celebrating Black Boyhood.

Delacorte. ISBN 9780593379936.
Gr 3-7 –With contributions from authors such as Jerry Craft, Varian Johnson, and Jason Reynolds, this collection features stories that cover a wide range of topics, from starting school to winning a space race to embracing who you are. A glowing testament to the joy of Black boyhood.

Parks, Amy Noelle. Summer of Brave.
Albert Whitman. ISBN 9780807576601.
Gr 5-8 –The summer between seventh and eighth grade challenges Lilla and her friends to be brave. For Lilla, that means speaking up even when sharing her truth is terrifying. As she tries to be honest with her friends and family, she struggles with sexism and harassment in horrible but all-too-common ways. This powerful narrative centering female experiences and #MeToo conversations is essential.

Royce, Eden. Root Magic.
HarperCollins/Walden Pond. ISBN 9780062899576.
Gr 3 Up –After her grandmother passes away, Jez and her twin brother, Jay, get the opportunity to learn the root magic that their family is famous for. These lessons come in handy as Jez is faced with opposition in many forms, from the racist deputy who harasses her family to the dangerous spirits that live nearby. This story’s focus on family traditions, friendship, and being true to oneself will both delight and inspire.

Siddiqui, Maleeha. Barakah Beats.
Scholastic. ISBN 9781338702064.
Gr 4-8 –When Nimra switches from her small religious school to a public one, her new classmates make assumptions about her faith and she struggles to make friends. She agrees to sing with Barakah Beats, the popular Muslim boy band at school, even though performing goes against her beliefs. In this powerful story of identity and independence, Nimra eventually learns that just as there is no one right way to be a teenager, there is no one right way to practice faith—she must be true to herself.

Venkatraman, Padma. Born Behind Bars.
Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. ISBN 9780593112472.
Gr 4-7 –Nine-year-old Kabir was born in a Chennai jail but is forced to leave his mother behind when he “ages out” of the women’s prison. Nearly sold into labor, Kabir escapes and joins Rani, a young girl who lives on the streets. Together they embark on a quest to find members of Kabir’s family in another Indian state. Kabir’s story is densely packed with examinations of injustice, caste systems, housing insecurity, and more, but is masterfully balanced with epic adventure and a hopeful conclusion.

Walker, Angharad. The Ash House.
Scholastic/Chicken House. ISBN 9781338636314.
Gr 5 Up –Eleven-year-old Sol, who has chronic pain, finds himself at the imposing Ash House with little memory of his previous life. The school is devoid of adults, and the young students are inexplicably dedicated to a headmaster who deserted them three years ago and a deep-seated fear of The Doctor. Blending suspense and pervasive dread, this tale stands out from the scary-story crowd. With a cover that delivers on its promise, this is for readers clamoring for “the scariest book you have.”

Wang, Andrea. The Many Meanings of Meilan.
Penguin/Kokila. ISBN 9780593111284.
Gr 4-7 –Meilan’s extended family’s recent fracturing causes her, her parents, and her grandfather to move to the small town of Rosebud. She attempts to adopt different personalities inspired by the other meanings of her name to adapt to her new environment. This timely middle grade novel about embracing identity regardless of approval and standing up for oneself is a must-read.

Warga, Jasmine. The Shape of Thunder.
HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. ISBN 9780062956675.
Gr 4-8 –Cora’s older sister Mabel was killed in a school shooting perpetrated by the older brother of Cora’s best friend, Quinn. Both girls are desperate to travel back in time to prevent the terrible event from happening. In attempting to do so, they start coming to terms with what has transpired. In this deeply resonant work, Warga expertly tackles grief, trauma, and gun violence.

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