16 Realistic Middle Grade Novels That Reflect the Lives & Triumphs of Tweens | Summer Reading 2020

The young people featured in these middle grade novels are intrepid, confronting racism, grief, queer identity, and more. They’re relatable teens and tweens, making mistakes and stumbling as they find themselves. Looking for more summer reading recommendations? SLJ is publishing lists all summer long—from family stories to mysteries to teen reads. 

The young people featured in these middle grade novels are intrepid, confronting racism, grief, queer identity, and more. They’re relatable teens and tweens, making mistakes and stumbling as they find themselves. Looking for more summer reading recommendations? SLJ is publishing lists all summer long—from family stories to mysteries to teen reads. 

The Line Tender by Kate Allen. Dutton. ISBN 9780735231603.

Five years after her mother, a shark expert, dies, Lucy loses her best friend Fred but emerges from her grief through a project that fuses her artistic talent with an interest in sharks. Lucy is a grounded, relatable character, and her path through her grief is believable. Allen skillfully tackles difficult issues without becoming didactic or morose.

The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316380881.

New student Caitlyn’s classmates are devastated to learn that legendary class prankster Paulie Fink won’t be returning to school, so they hold a reality TV–type competition for the next great Paulie Fink—and appoint Caitlyn the arbiter. She uses oral histories and interviews to get to know her classmates as they demythologize this larger-than-life figure and learns a great deal about her own strengths, in this witty, tender, engaging school story.

I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day. HarperCollins/Harper. ISBN 9780062871992.

Edie has always known that her mother, who is Suquamish and Duwamish, was adopted into a white family, but never knew the details. Readers follow Edie on a path of discovery and heartache, in this gracefully told, insightful story. Day (tribally enrolled, Upper Skagit) captures the angst, embarrassment, and uncertainty of many Indigenous people whose parents or grandparents were separated from their communities by adoption or residential school placement.

The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemenhart. Holt. ISBN 9781250196705.

Coyote Sunrise and her father, Rodeo, have traversed the country in a school bus for five years since the death of Coyote’s mother and sisters, collecting a quirky ensemble of companions. The imminent destruction of a park in her old neighborhood sends her on a mission to return in time to collect treasured mementos. Coyote is a unique character whose authentic voice shines.

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington. Farrar. ISBN 9780374308049.

Makeda, 12, is a transracial adoptee who’s having trouble adjusting to life in a new town. She endures racist microaggressions from classmates, teachers, and even her own white parents. Her mom might be on the brink of another bipolar episode while her dad is away on tour. In hauntingly beautiful prose and verse, Lockington offers an unflinching look at racism and the experiences of having a parent with a mental illness.

Rick by Alex Gino. Scholastic. ISBN 9781338048100.

In Gino’s companion novel to George, readers meet Rick Ramsey, who lives to impress his best friend Jeff. But when he befriends Melissa Mitchell, he remembers that Jeff bullied her for years, and as he starts attending his school’s Rainbow Spectrum club, he begins to understand his asexual identity. An enlightening and important novel about a young person’s experience with asexuality.

Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! by Sarah Kapit. Dial. ISBN 9780525554189.

Vivy wants to be a baseball pitcher more than anything, and when a baseball coach scouts her, she’s ecstatic. But Vivy will be the only girl and the only autistic child on the team, and her mother is concerned. Kapit’s portrayal of a girl with autism and a love for baseball rings true, and the storytelling format—Vivy’s letters to major league pitcher VJ Capello—will have even the most reluctant of readers turning the pages quickly.

What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Bks. ISBN 9780525518433.

Caught between his best friend Dan and Dan’s racist cousin Chad; straddling the line between his overprotective, naive white mother and his realist, all-too-aware Black father; and doing his best to integrate his middle school friend group, biracial Stephen is finding it tricky to “stay wide in all lanes.” Maldonado uses a biracial adolescent boy’s perspective to draw his readers into an engaging story of identity and tough choices.

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Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. ISBN 9780062473073.

Sweet Pea’s neighbor, the town’s advice columnist, goes out of town and entrusts the girl with sending her mail. Sweet Pea finds herself moonlighting as Miss Flora whenever inspiration strikes, but some letters hit too close to home for Sweet Pea, leading to advice that’s not always in the letter writers’ best interest. Sweet Pea is a delightfully astute young teenager, and Murphy has crafted a touching coming-of-age story that explores divorce, crushes, queerness, and more.

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. ISBN 9780062836687.

Middle schooler Shayla finds her voice and shares in the power of peaceful political protest in her school. Exploring issues of racial identity, racial violence, and Black Lives Matter, Ramée illustrates what it’s like to navigate the harrowing experience of seventh grade—and what young people can do to stand up for what they believe is right.

Any Day with You by Mae Respicio. Random/Wendy Lamb Bks. ISBN 9780525707578.

Kaia and her family are devastated when her great-grandfather, Tatang, announces he is leaving California and returning to the Philippines for good. Yet, when Kaia, a budding makeup effects artist, and her talented friends, Abby and Trey, learn of a local film contest, Kaia is sure she can get Tatang to stay. This tender #OwnVoices tale that is a must-purchase for all school and public library collections.

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds. Atheneum/Caitlin Dlouhy Bks. ISBN 9781481438285.

Raconteur Reynolds weaves together the disparate voices of 10 young people as they walk home from the same school. Through the students’ physical proximity to one another and their overlapping lives, each tale provides an imaginative and moving look at the joys and sorrows shaping their personal journeys.

The Moon Within by Aida Salazar. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. ISBN 9781338283372.

Celi Rivera, 11, is struggling with puberty and the onset of her period. Her mother is pushing her to celebrate with a “moon ceremony” as part of their Mexican heritage. Meanwhile, Celi’s best friend Marco is transitioning as middle school rages around them. This lightly illustrated novel in verse is an honest and empowering story, perfect for readers on the cusp of adolescence, exploring gender identity, or looking to better understand their peers.

Summer at Meadow Wood by Amy Rebecca Tan. HarperCollins/Harper. ISBN 9780062795458.

Meadow Wood used to be a place Vic looked forward to returning to every summer, but this year is different because Vic knows the real reason she is at camp—her mother needed the kids out of the house to deal with her “big secret.” This exceptional summer read is a true middle school novel—gentle enough for preteens and layered enough for teens through eighth grade.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. ISBN 9780062747808.

Jude must leave half of her family behind in Syria for relative safety in America with her pregnant mother. Though she dreams of being an actress, Jude isn’t expecting the type of attention she receives in her new school, including the label of “Middle Eastern” and the stigma it can bring. Warga’s gorgeous novel in verse explores prejudice, xenophobia, and the effects of war alongside emerging friendships and questions of belonging.

Ways To Make Sunshine by Renée Watson. illus. by Nina Mata. Bloomsbury. ISBN 9781547600564.

In this first installment in a contemporary realistic African American middle grade series, Ryan Hart’s family must relocate to another part of Portland, OR, because her dad isn’t making as much money as he once did. Watson deftly weaves the faith of her characters into her work. From Easter speeches to African American hair care, this book will give those whose lives are like Ryan’s an opportunity to feel seen.

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams. Atheneum/Caitlin Dlouhy Bks. ISBN 9781481465809.

When her family is evicted, again, Genesis’s father scores them a too-good-to-be-true home in a largely white neighborhood where he swears things will be different. Genesis hates many things about herself, including the darkness of her skin, a sentiment echoed by her father in his worst moments. Williams deftly explores the realities of colorism and alcoholism in this evocative narrative. Not a comfortable read, but a relevant and necessary one.

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