I finished off this year, reading some terrific terrific 2020 novels for middle years readers. I have a hunch a few of these titles will appear on many end-of-the-year top ten lists. I have a hunch there are awards awaiting some titles within this list. I’ve highlighted some SHOUT-OUTs in pink font.  I have a pile of YA novels staring at me.. .but I am eager to dig into some grown-up reads to start of 2021. 


FIGHTING WORDS by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Life for ten-year old Della and her teenager sister has not been good. Their mother is now in jail after blowing up a hotel room making meth. They have been tormented by a man their mother has left behind. Both girls end up living in a Foster Home. They take nothing for granted and  hope that one day life will get better.  Della has always relied on Suki for care, protection and hope. Suki has dark secrets that demonize her. When Suki tries to commit suicide the girls lives turn upside down. It’s time to take stand up and speak up.. To have a middle age novel about child sexual abuse is brave and important. This compassionate novel serves as a guide to what it means to be resilient and how we can overcome dark times. The author’s note: “The first thing I want you to know is, it happened to me.” 

A PLACE AT THE TABLE by Sadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan.

Sara is a Pakistani girl who arrives at a new middle school and is uncomfortable about meeting making friends. Elizabeth, Jewish girl,  has friendship problems, the fickleness of girl loyalties. Sara’s mother is struggling to make ends meet and establishes a cooking business. Elizabeth’s mother is saddened by the recent death of her mother in the United Kingdom. Both Sara’s  mother and Elizabeth’s mother need to pass the test to become American citizens. An after-school cooking class (led by Sara’s mother) bring the two girls together and a friendship is strengthened by the possibility of winning a spot ona local food show. by creating a cross cultural dish together (Halwa Cuppa Tea (Pakistani Halwa and British Earl Grey tea).  This is an engaging story about friendships, family, and food. It is also about story about cultures joining together amidst the shadows of racism. A worthy contribution to books about cultural diversity that many students will likely identify with. The novel, written by two authors is presented in chapters that alternate the voices of the two main characters, Elizabeth and Sara.

THE SILVER ARROW by Lev Grossman

Kate is bored and writes a note to her uncle – her very rich uncle – asking for a birthday present. Careful what you wish for, Kate, cuz she finds herself the recipient of a train – a real train, The Silver Arrow. Kate and her brother hop aboard the train which takes them on thrilling adventures through forests, under the ocean, up in the sky. Along the way, the passengers who join in the travesl are animals from around the world: a porcupine, a mangrove snake, a heron, a polar bear and a pangolin (the only mammal with scales).  In the end (or about 3/4 way through) we learn the reason for the gathering of this menagerie… to protect animals from extinction brought on by human behaviour.  Lev Grossman tells a great story that holds a terrific appeal for readers, ages 9-11 who like fantasy adventures., books with fairly short chapters and black and white illustrations that help to bring reality to fantasy.   Spoiler: although there is a ‘no place like home’ endingI don’t think this is the last of ,Kate,Tom and The Silver Arrow

LUPE WONG WON’T DANCE by Donna Barba Higuera

7th Grader, Lupe Wong is a fighter. And an activist. Her mission is to eliminate Square Dancing from the Physical Education program because it’s archaic, discriminatory, and embarrassing. Lupe’s daily problems are part of the world of young adolescents, especially the fickle loyalty of friendships. But Lupe is determined to raise her voice for what she believes is right and throughout the book finds ways to convince her gym teacher and her principal that things need to change.  She also has her eyes set on a goal on becoming a the famous pitcher in the Major Leagues, just like Fu LI Hernandez, who like her is Chinacan/ Mexinese.  Spoiler alert: tall gets well-solved with a happy ending. Readers will root for – and perhaps identify with – this feisty, funny character.

SHOW ME A SIGN by Ann Clare LeZotte

From 1640 through the late 1800’s, hereditary deafness was common on Martha’s Vineyard, especially in the town of Chilimark, where at one time, one in twenty-five residents was born deaf.  Le Zotte is a deaf librarian and with this novel she describes a world of the past (1805)  set on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. Mary is grieving for the loss of her older brother who was killed in an accident. When a stranger arrives in the community, Mary’s world shifts. The young scientist hopes to learn more about the mystery of the island’s prevalent deafness. The book is divided into two parts and the second half is brings danger to Mary’s life after she has been kidnapped to be used as a research specimen. This is a story that illuminates the deaf experience for readers. Many Deaf readers will likely identify with Mary’s plight. LeZotte has strong storytelling skills as she examines grief, cultural clashes, racism and intolerance. This is a special book. 

CHIRP By Kate Messner

This one is about a cricket farm (and sexual harassment). Mia and her family return to live in Vermont and she is determined to saver her grandma’s cricket busy (they’re delicious and healthy too) and when she learns that there is a plot underway she gets the help of her new friends to find out who is trying to destroy the farm.  After 100 pages, we learn that Mia is also keeping a secret about a former gymnastic trainer who gave her inappropriate hugs and massages.  The cricket story is intriguing, the makerspace camp that Mia attends is very current, and the harassment story is drawn from contemporary news stories.  A good read. 

THE MAGIC FISH by Trung Le Nguyen (graphic novel)

Tien’s parents are refugees and he can’t seem to find the right words to tell them that he is gay.  Three fairy tales (The German “Allerleiruah” and the Vietnamese “Ta m Cam”, two versions of Cinderella and a version of “The Little Mermaid” )help Tien to navigate the world. The author is a remarkable artist and this is his first graphic novel. Graphic stories stimulate readers to make inferences (the narrative between the panels, the reliaistie on narrative captions, making-meaning through visuals) and for me this book falls short on clear storytelling. I wasn’t wasn’t always sure who the characters were (and how old they were), and I there seemed to be gaps in what was happening in each of the three folktales. Stronger use of narrative captions might have helped. But as a coming-out story of a Vietnamese boy, The Magic Fish is autographical and might help some young adolescents contemplate their own sexual identities. 

BECOMING MUHAMMAD ALI by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander (biographical novel) 

Before he was Muhammad Ali, he was Cassius Clay and two mighty authors have joined together to create this astonishing fictional biography. Recount from Cassius Clay’s early life is told in the first person as poetry (Alexander) and in third person narratives from the point of view of Clay’s best friend, Lucas,  Lucky for short (Patterson).  Full page black and white illustrations are interspersed throughout the book, which is divided into ten sections (ten rounds). But there is something more to this fine book than the story of perseverance and confidence of this athletic hero who knew he would become The Greatest. This is a story that celebrates Blackness and heightens awareness that Blackness means going through the world differently from white counterparts. From the New York Times review, November 8, 2020, “It is my hope that Black children read this book, see themselves in young Clay and know that they too are poetry made flesh.”  This is a fantastic book and it is my hope that readers of all races immerse themselves in Cassius Clay’s growing-up tale of family and friends and school and infatuation and a tale of fierce determination to rise against all odds.  James Patterson is a  great author, Kwame Alexander is a great poet  who pay tribute to Muhammad Ali, The Greatest. This is one of the greatest books for middle years readers this year.

LORETTA LITTLE LOOKS BACK: Three Voices Go Tell it by Andrea Davis Pinkney; illus. Brian Pinkney

What a mighty mighty book this is! The story spans three generations from the cotton fields (1927) to the presidential election (1968). Andrea’s brilliant text includes first-person narratives, spoken-word poems, folk myths and gospel rhythms and her husband’s rhythmic, dream-like black and white illustrations introducing each section throughout add extra power to powerful narratives. Each of the three young members of the Little Family tell the story of their generation through monologues that  together paint a vivid tapestry of Americas struggle for civil rights. In the afterward, Andrea Pinkney writes “It is a novel with the intention of inviting readers to step in the shoes of characters and to experience history through the eyes of those whose life and time represent the resilience of people.” (p. 256). This is exquisite, deep writing of history, injustice, perseverance – and racism and certainly at the top  of the list of great books for the year 2020 – and not just those written in the children’s literature cannon. The preface to this novel advises us “How To Read This Book”.  With conviction/ With attitude / With feeling / With friends.


It is 1984 and Ebony-Grace Norfleet is obsessed with, consumed with outer-space adventures. She is determined that she will be an astronaut when she grows up.  The story takes place in Harlem where Ebony-Grace comes to life with her divorced father while her mother back in Alabama deals with troubles with Ebony-Grace’s grandfather, who was once of the first Black engineers to integrate NASA in the 1960’s. Urban life in Harlem opens the daughters eyes  and ears to Hip-Hop, break dancing competitions, graffiti and the fickleness of friendships and the attitudes of ‘nefarious minions’. Devoted to all things Star Trek, Ebony Grace believes that she is really Cadet E-Grace Starfleet of theMothership Uhura. Ebony-Grace lives in her ‘imagination location’. Why can’t the rest of the world join in her believing in the world beyond? Realistic fiction blends with sci-fantasy in a book that shines a light on a strong black girl who wants “to boldly go where no girl has gone before.”Graphic pages appear throughout the book. 


THE MISSING: The True Story of My Family in World War II by Michael Rosen 

British author, Michael Rosen knew nothing about his six great-aunts and great uncles who presumedly died in concentration camps. Rosen embarks on an investigative journey (online searches, books, interviews) to gain some truths about his family who had been living in Poland and France at the beginning of the war. Slowly, slowly the author learns of his family history and details emerge. More than a memoir, this book provides readers with a concise history of European Jews caught within Nazi terror. Poems excerpts from Rosen’s previously published anthologies  are spread throughout the book.  (‘People run away from war. Sometimes they get away. /Sometimes we don’t. / Sometimes were’ helped. /Sometimes we aren’t/’ (from People Run).This 94-page book is a gem.