Book Lists · Reading

Top Middle Grade Reads of 2020

Part 3 (of 3)

Delightfully for me, reading middle grade books is part of my job. I suppose reading as many as I do is not *actually* part of my job description. But after reading about how one teacher knows all the books in her classroom library so she can better recommend books to different types of readers, I have been making it a personal/professional mission of mine to get to know more of the recent, and not-so-recent middle grade books out there.

I find that middle grade, and some young adult, literature out there can deal with all sorts of big topics, but in a way that is accessible, and developmentally appropriate, for kids. Sometimes, that is much more welcoming than the way adult literature approaches things.

In any case, here are my top middle grade reads for this year. (See Part 1’s post for my top reads criteria and caveats, if you haven’t already.)

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The Book Thief – Apparently World War II literature is a huge theme for me this year. But this one bowled me over in the best, heart-wrenching way. I can’t quite believe that I never read it before this year. It mainly deals with an orphaned Jewish child who is hidden in plain sight with a crotchety foster mom and a tender-hearted foster dad and painstakingly learns to read in the midst of the war. I’ll be honest, I cried, even though the event that made me cry was heavily foreshadowed. I’m actually not sure this should be classified as a middle-grade novel, though some people do. Perhaps it’s a legitimate PG rating: parental/adult guidance would be highly recommended.

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Fish in a Tree – in the words of a fellow reader and teacher: “Every teacher should read this!” I read it twice this year: Once on my own this summer, and once to my class. It was astounding and affirming to watch so many of my students who struggle to read connect to a main character. I’m not sure many of them have related to a protagonist in such a profound way. I can’t sing the praises of this book enough! Thanks, Ms. Hunt for such an incredible book!

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Becoming Naomi León – This is another book I think any teacher who has students from other cultures/languages should read. Or kids being cared for by an adult other than a parent. Or who have a siblings with special needs. And kids will be able to relate to the main characters if they have absent parents or feel torn between two cultures. They’ll also like the bits of Spanish that Ms. Ryan includes, if that’s their first language. This was a heart-warming story of hope and fierce love, all wrapped up in beautiful prose.

The Lions of Little Rock: Levine, Kristin: 8601400314746: Amazon.com: Books

The Lions of Little Rock – One of my students last school year introduced me to this, and I’m so glad I read it. It’s the story of a black girl and a white girl who become friends – and stay friends, even when everyone tells them not to be. I loved learning about the lesser-known history of Little Rock after the year of the Little Rock Nine. Learning through story is the best part of historical fiction. 🙂

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A Handful of Stars – Cynthia Lord is talented at taking tough subjects and making them accessible for kids. Her book Rules is another example of that. This one is appropriate for any kid, certainly fourth grade and up, and brings to light the humanity of migrant workers through the friendship of the two main characters.

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Merci Suárez Changes Gears hit especially close to home, since my family cared for my grandma throughout eight years of her struggle with Alzheimer’s. I found the author’s portrayal of Merci’s school life, and her embarrassment at what she didn’t understand in her grandfather particularly poignant and true. This is a book that will either help kids (and adults) learn empathy, if they haven’t experienced a loved one with dementia, or give them the relief of a “You too? I thought I was the only one!” moment.


It seems I loved books with all female protagonists this year. Did any of you read any particularly well-written books with boys as the protagonists? I definitely need to expand my arsenal of great books to include boys as the main characters too! Did you or a child in your life read a great middle-grade book this year?

Tell me and our other readers some titles in the comments below!

A little slice of (the) heaven(s)

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