Thursday, January 8, 2015

BEST OF 2014: Favorite Middle-Grade/Tween Books

Five stunning works in verse and two unforgettable graphic memoirs are just the beginning of 2014's wonderful offerings from middle-grade authors. My personal favorite so far? I don't think I can choose, although I might just love Hello, I'm Johnny Cash a tiny bit more than the others. I personally read and adored each of the books on the list except for one, which I haven't yet read and was submitted by another staff member (thanks, Kirsten!).

So, without further ado, our favorite middle-grade titles of 2014 are:

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Far more than "a basketball novel in verse," The Crossover is an emotionally rich tale of  two twin brothers—middle school basketball stars—facing the first real challenge to their close relationship. As they struggle with their diverging interests and jealousy over a new girl, Josh also begins to worry about the secrets his parents may be keeping. The novel is told from the point of view of Josh, who is funny, talented, slightly immature, and wholly believable.  The Crossover is a kinetic tour de force that will leave readers cheering and probably a little teary eyed.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul by Jeff Kinney
In this ninth installment in the ever-popular Wimpy Kid series, Gregg Heffley and family hit the road for a trip that promises to be wild, crazy, and laugh-out-loud funny.

The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage
Mo LoBeau and the crazy, loveable residents of Tupelo Landing are back, and I couldn't be happier. The Newbery Honor–winning Three Times Lucky was one of my absolute  favorite books of 2012, and this book is a worthy follow up. Mo still has the same irrepressible charm as ever, and she and Dale have a new mystery to solve. The question is... Can the inn impulsively bought by Miss Lana really be haunted? And if so... Whose ghost is it and how can the new paranormal division of Desperado Detective Agency prove it?

Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
A sixth-grader who appears to be male but who identifies with "girl" behaviors and , Grayson Sender believes it is safest to remain a friendless loner.  Grayson secretly pretends that basketball pants are a lovely flowing skirt and quietly doodles castles and princesses in class, disguising his drawings as abstract shapes only he can decode. Grayson doesn't really know what all this means but just wants to be comfortable and quit repressing the inner feelings that are becoming increasingly persistent. Finally, with the help of a teacher and a few older classmates, Grayson finds the courage to finally be Grayson. This is an important, triumphant novel told respectfully and gracefully from Grayson's point of view.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford
When a troop of unexpected visitors descend on the family inn, 12-year-old Milo is not pleased with the interruption to his winter holiday plans. But soon Milo and his new friend Meddy discover that the guests have secrets worth uncovering and launch a secret investigation. Woven throughout is the rich history of the inn—a haven for smugglers—and bits of folklore that may reveal more than anyone suspects. This is a rich, layered story with a bit of the fantastic. It's a near- perfect  winter read.

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
Twelve-year-old Rose is besieged by storms. There's a literal hurricane headed her way and even with her difficulty gauging emotions, she can sense her father's growing tension. Diagnosed with Asperger's, Rose finds joy in prime numbers and homonyms and can talk about them endlessly. While her uncle Weldon and her dog Rain don't seem to mind, her father and classmates easily grow tired of her obsession. But when Rain is lost in storm, Rose must step out of her comfort zone of rules and routines in order to locate her beloved dog. This is a nuanced story of devotion and bravery made memorable by a earnest, unique narrative voice.

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney
In this powerful and moving novel told through poems and pictures, a young Sudanese girl has her hopes shattered by armed militants who attack her village. Heartbroken after the attack, Amira loses her ability to speak until a simple gift helps her find joy and purpose.

Revolution by Deborah Wiles
In small-town Mississippi during the summer of 1964, 12-year-old Sunny's life is turned upside down by "agitators" and "invaders" who are encouraging African Americans to register for the vote. Her peaceful community is suddenly full of fear and violence, and Sunny becomes a witness to events she can barely understand. Revolution is a powerful novel that gives young readers an intimate glimpse into important history, but it is personalized by the everyday struggles of Sunny as navigates relationships with her new stepfamily and copes with feelings about the mother who abandoned her. The book appears thick an intimidating, but a number of the pages offer up a series of photographs, quotes, song lyrics, and news stories which provide context and enrich the story.

A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
When Felicity Juniper Pickle arrives in her mother's hometown of Midnight Gulch, she hopes that their small family can finally stay put in one place. Her secret hope is that a trace of the magic that once made Midnight Gulch famous will finally cure her mother's need to travel. What Felicity finds is far more than she ever hoped—her first true friend, a family larger than she knew, and the secrets that just might lead to a renewal of magic in the town  if only she can find the key. Overflowing with lovable, eccentric characters and a folksy tone reminiscent of Ingrid Law's Savvy, A Snicker of Magic is an exuberant, heartwarming novel that is magical indeed.

The Thickety: A Path Begins by J.A. White
In a closed off community where magic is forbidden, 12-year-old Kara toils to care for her sickly brother and depressed father. Her mother was killed as a witch, and now that she has discovered that she has magic as well, Kara is terrified. And intrigued. With the discovery a magic book in the dangerous, forbidden forest, Kara turns her life—and then the village—upside down. Creepy and thrilling and a little bit scary, this is a truly engaging read about good and evil and belief in oneself. I already can't wait for the promised sequel!

West of the Moon by Margi Preus
Gripping storytelling weaves elements of folklore and fairy tales in with the tale of two sisters in 19th century Norway who are determined to find a better life together. When 13-year-old Astri is sold by her aunt to a villainous goat farmer, she vows to escape and reunite with her younger sister Greta. Astri is a compelling, resourceful heroine willing to do anything for her sister, and she refuses to regret the morally questionable choices she is forces to make.


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Through her own recollections and the scattered memories of family members, a celebrated author shares her own childhood and her path to becoming a storyteller (or liar, as her mother called her as a child) and author. This is a lucid and eloquent memoir in poems that speaks to experiences both universal and personal.

El Deafo by Cece Bell
In this funny and heartwarming memoir, the author shares her personal experiences of growing up deaf. The artwork is expressive and engaging, brilliant in concept. As a character, CeCe is irrepressible and someone readers will root for all the way. 

Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis
Brief, anecdotal poems introduce readers to the story of the Harlem Hellfighters, two thousand black New Yorkers who served as musicians and legendarily brave soldiers in World War I France. While the text is engaging and frequently poignant, it is the haunting illustrations that truly make this work shine.

Hello, I'm Johnny Cash by G, Neri
In this stirring biography, Neri (Ghetto Cowboy) presents the life story of Johnny Cash as Johnny himself might tell it. That is, if Johnny Cash were to speak in vivid, powerful free verse. Gorgeously rendered illustrations and explanatory back matter round out a truly special work.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Christian Robinson
Free-spirited verse, dynamic typography, and stunning acrylic illustrations celebrate a truly fascinating woman in this beautifully designed picture book biography.

The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin
An important piece of World War II history is related in a very personal way in this story of 50 men—mostly African Americans—who refused to load more ammunition onto ships after over 200 were killed in an explosion. It's a powerful story of injustice, told accessibly and compellingly by the author of Bomb, one of our Best of 2012 picks.

Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat by Gail Jarrow
In this fascinating tale of scientific discovery, Jarrow uses engaging text and striking archival photographs to tell the story of how a fatal illness that became disconcertingly prevalent in the South during the first half of the 19th century was identified and eventually eradicated. The the black, white, and deep red layout of text and images adds visual appeal to help sustain interest.

Sisters by Raine Telgemeier
In her follow-up to Smile, Telgemeier focuses on the ups and downs of her childhood relationship with her younger sister. The two are wildly different and have frequent battles, and yet they have one very important thing in common. Though there are frequent flashbacks to key moments, the narrative centers on a family road trip to attend a family reunion. The pacing, text, and expressive art are top-notch.

The Story of Buildings by Patrick Dillon
David Maccauley fans and aspiring architects will rejoice to discover this comprehensive, gorgeously illustrated history of buildings. The text is informative yet conversational, engaging readers from the first line and addressing everything from historical building practices across the world to notable buildings, past and present.

Strike! by Larry Dane Brimner
Compelling text, presented along with striking images and colorful sidebars, tells story of the American labor movement and creation of the United Farm Workers (UFW). It's a tale of bravery and determination that begins not with Cesar Chávez but with the little-known story of  Filipino-American farm workers who jumpstarted the movement.

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