Diane’s Picks: Best Middle Grade Books of 2013 (so far)

Now that we are almost ¾ of the way through 2013 and approaching the holidays, I want to provide interested readers with my favorite middle grade (ages 8 to 12) books that have been published so far this year. As always, this is a difficult job. I have read so many great books, but when I sit back, these are the ones that stand out the most.

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool was the first book I read this year that I thought could be a 2013 Newbery contender. Two 13 year old boys, damaged by World War 2, connect with each other at a boys boarding school in New England and join in a quest to find the legendary great bear on the Appalachian Trail. Jack, a loner, is struggling with his mother’s recent death and trying to reestablish a relationship with his long absent soldier father. Early Auden, also a loner, is extremely odd. When Early studies the number, pi, he sees colors, characters and a story. Against all evidence and reason, Early refuses to believe that the school’s soldier hero, nicknamed Fish, died in battle during the War. Jack reluctantly joins Early on his quest, hoping to “navigate Early” to a safe return. Along the way, the boys meet several strange, and sometimes dangerous, characters, each lost in some way and each a part of the “pi” story that Early tells to Jack. This is a wonderful book about love, loss, and the redeeming power of family and friendship. Random House

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan is this year’s new “must read” book for ages 9+. If you lovedWonder, then you will want to read this quirky story about Willow Chance,a brilliant but unusual 11 year-old. A multi-racial child, Willow was adopted by parents who have provided her with a warm, loving home. But when Willow’s parents die in an automobile crash, Willow is left alone, with no extended family, in a world she doesn’t understand and a community that doesn’t understand her.Counting by 7s tells a heartwarming story about love, loss, and how families can be created in the most unusual ways. Penguin

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is another great book by Newbery Honor winner, Kathi Apfelt (The Underneath). Apfelt ‘s books are modern folk tales, meant to be read aloud. True Blue Scouts is a story about two young raccoon brothers who rescue their swamplands from a marauding gang of wild hogs and a developer intent on turning their home into a theme park. The raccoons don’t do this on their own–they need the help of a 12 year old boy, Chap Brayburn, and the Sugar Man. If you loved last year ‘s Newbery winner, The One and Only Ivan, you can’t miss The True Blue Scouts of Sugar
Man Swamp! Ages 8 to 12. Simon and Schuster


Like Pie by Sarah Weeks, which was interlaced with yummy pie recipeszom yjod by Lisa Graff is filled with wonderful cake recipes that made my mouth water when I read them. The first chapter of the book is set in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where a young man with a powder blue suitcase meets a very large man in a gray suit with a Talent for tying knots while waiting in line for a bus. The man admires his suitcase and cautions him to hang on to it. Of course, the suitcase mysteriously disappears. The book then fast forwards 53 years, and, after a delicious recipe for Miss Mallory’s Peach Cake, Chapter 2 introduces us to Cady, an 11 year-old orphan with a special Talent for cake baking. The rest of the book is a tangle of stories—Cady’s, Miss Mallory’s, the young man’s, and many others, knotted together like a puzzle, which then slowly unfolds, leaving readers delighted with the results. With just the right parts of fate, magic, cake recipes, and mystery, this is a book that readers ages 8 to 12 will love to read, and it is filled with cake recipes that everyone will enjoy baking and eating! Penguin


Although I was put off by its title, The Bully Book by Eric Kahn Gale is a book worth reading, especially for (or better yet, with) middle grade students who may be experiencing social problems at school. The book has two voices in alternating chapters. The first voice is that of Eric Haskins, an ordinary elementary school kid who starts to experience verbal, physical, and even online harassment when he enters the 6th grade. The second voice is the unknown author of “The Bully Book,” a manual that tells 6th graders how to move to the head of the social order by choosing a “grunt” to tease and humiliate. The Bully Book has a positive message, telling bullying victims not to allow themselves to be defined by the kids who are picking on them. Eric decides that he needs to find the author of The Bully Book in order to discover how to move beyond being the class grunt, and solving this mystery is an engaging part of the story. It also reminds these kids that they need to report their experiences to their parents, their friends, and to sympathetic teachers. This is a good book for students aged 10 to 12 who may be experiencing (or witnessing) acts of bullying in their own school. HarperCollins

Twerp by Mark Goldblatt is a wonderful addition to the growing collection of recent books on bullying. The year is 1969; the place is Queens, New York, and Julian Twerski has just returned from a one week suspension from school. Julian’s English teacher, Mr. Selkirk, offers Julian a deal: if Julian keeps a journal and writes about the incident that caused him to be suspended, he does not have to write a report on Shakespeare. And so the journal (and the story) begins. Julian’s first story is about the day he hits a pigeon with a rock—he doesn’t want to do it, but he succumbs to pressure from his best friend, Lonnie, to “chuck the rock.” The incident, which ends poorly , sets the stage for the rest of Julian’s story—a story that emerges as he recounts his action-filled (and often hilarious) days as a part of a group of boys who rule the neighborhood—homemade fireworks, high wire injuries from walking the fence behind an old apartment building in the neighborhood, middle school crushes and first dates, and footraces with kids and cars. Twerp will keep you laughing until the very end—when Julian finally discloses what happened on the fateful day that led to his suspension. This is a great book for kids, ages 11 to 14, who love the Wimpy Kid series. Random House

I loved Dana Reinhardt’s last YA novel, The Summer I Learned to Fly, so I was eager to read Odessa Again, her first book for middle readers. The book reminded me of the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day. 4th grader Odessa’s mom and dad are divorced and her dad is getting remarried. Odessa and her younger brother Oliver both like dad’s fiancé, Jennifer, but what they really want is for their parents to get back together. When mom and the kids move into a new house, Odessa discovers that when she jumps on the floor of her attic bedroom, she travels back in time 24 hours and can repeat her day. Each time, however, she travels back one hour less (the chapters are therefore number 24, 23, 22, etc.). With her newfound magical power, Odessa is able to right a number of wrongs, but is there anything she can do to reunite her parents? This is a great book for readers, 8 to 12, especially (but not exclusively) those whose families may be in transition like Odessa’s. Random House

From the moment Barnaby was born, he floated – literally — he couldn’t keep his feet on the ground. Barnaby ‘s parents despised his floating because they didn’t like anything that made a person stand out. Eight years later, Barnaby’s mom “loses” Barnaby on a walk, when he floats away. As Barnaby meets all kinds of people on his travels, he begins to realize that being different is what makes us special. In The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket
by John Boyle the reader joins Barnaby on his travels around the world, as he comes to realize that being different is also what makes each of us special. It’s a perfect book for anyone who loves the wit and wisdom of Roald Dahl. And, like Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Barnaby celebrates our differences and encourages us to treat those who may
not look, speak or behave like us with respect, not fear or ridicule.


Sugar is another amazing book about a strong young girl who rises above her circumstances by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the author of Coretta Scott King Honor Book Ninth Ward. Sugar, a 10-year old African American, lives and works on the River Road sugar plantation in post-Civil War Louisiana. Most of the former slaves have left, headed north, and Sugar is the last child left among a handful of older African Americans who can’t contemplate life anywhere else. When Sugar’s mother died, she told Sugar to wait for her father (who was sold when she was a baby) to return for her, but Sugar fears he is no longer alive. Naturally curious, Sugar sees her chance to learn more about the world beyond River Road when Chinese workers, including a young man named Bo, are brought in to help harvest the cane. Rhodes paints a starkly grim picture of life in the post-war South while the beautifully drawn characters of Sugar, Bo, and Billy (the plantation owner’s young son) provide inspiration and hope as they reach out to form friendships that are based on character, not skin color. I recommend this for anyone ages 8 to 12 who loves history. Little, Brown

If you are looking for a book dealing with John F. Kennedy this year, the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I recommend The President Has Been Shot! By bestselling author of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, James L. Swanson. In an action-packed narrative, Swanson tells the minute-by-minute story of the days leading up and immediately after the assassination—alternating between Kennedy’s and Oswald’s stories. The book is a page-turner, full of rich details and suspense. It is an honest account of the story that has shocked and horrified our nation for a half century. The book is illustrated with archival photos and has diagrams, source notes, places to visit and a comprehensive index and will be released on September 24. Scholastic

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