Recommending readalikes can be a tricky process, but as I said in the first post in this series, I enjoy the process of finding similar threads running through even books that appear different on the surface. Today’s pick is Yaa Gyasi's sweeping debut novel about two sisters separated by events during the African slave trade and the ripple effects throughout their families spanning over several decades.
I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't read a ton of Native American middle-grade or YA literature. I think part of the reason is that they're just not as widely publicized and are still marginalized in publishing. November is Native American Heritage Month, or as it is usually called, American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. I made it a point to learn a bit more about Native American literature, and to read more of it, not just during this month, but in general. On this list, I've tried to include OwnVoices selections from Native American authors or authors of Native American descent. You will find middle-grade and young adult books.
Measuring Up follows 12-year-old Cici who moves from Taiwan to the US with her parents, leaving behind her beloved A-ma (her grandmother). Thankfully, the adjustment period isn't too hard on her. She makes friends quickly and her English is already pretty good. However, she and her parents struggle with American culture, like sleepovers, fireplaces, and she quickly stops bring Taiwanese food to lunch, preferring instead to learn to make American food, so she can blend in. Although Cici and her parents want to bring her grandmother over for a visit at least, they can't afford to yet. Cici misses her A-ma with whom she used to go to the market and cook. So when she stumbles upon a kid cooking contest, it feels like the perfect opportunity to earn $1000. The only problem is that Cici can only cook Taiwanese dishes. Fortunately, she's paired up with an Italian-American girl, Miranda, whose father runs a restaurant (and who practically grew up working in a restaurant). Halfway through the contest though, each contestant has to compete alone.
I've recently been reminded how important OwnVoices stories are, especially where disability and neurodiversity are involved. I already have an older list of books with autistic characters (for kids and adults) on this blog, but I wanted to broaden the scope a bit to include other kinds of neurodiversity, including sensory processing disorder (SPD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), dyslexia, ADHD, learning difficulties, synesthesia, and autism spectrum disorder in general (ASD). You'll find books by OwnVoices and non OwnVoices authors, as well as books in which the neurodivergent person is the main character, and others with "neurodiversity rep."
Serena Says was high on my list of anticipated middle-grade books this fall. It was also the first time I read anything by author Tanita Davis. Serena's best friend JC has to take a break from school for a kidney transplant, and Serena is looking forward to visiting her in the hospital after the surgery, as school ambassador. But when she catches a cold, her hopes are deflated as another girl Lani is sent instead of her. After the visit, Serena notices that Lani and JC have developed a friendship, and her relationship with JC seems to have diminished in intensity. Throughout the story, Serena works on finding a good place in her friendship with JC while balancing working with Lani, Harrison, Cameron, and the other kids in her school and senate.
You'll notice that the best books for seventh graders tend to veer into upper middle-grade territory. That's the case with the books on this list. I have so many beloved upper middle-grade books and I'll link to the full list at the bottom of this post, but this list also has several books I have never recommended on the blog before. Seventh graders are on the brink of teenage life, and may relate most strongly to books about body image, crushes, and things like that. They're also more able to tolerate tastefully done stories about sexual harassment, domestic violence, addiction, serious mental illness and other harsh, unpleasant realities of life. On this list, you'll find books that hit all of these themes.
One Last Shot follows 12-year-old Malcolm who has an anxious streak and never feels good enough, especially for his dad. It doesn't help that his parents are always arguing, and Malcolm is typically caught in the middle. Malcolm's father loves competitive sports (especially baseball) and is disappointed when Malcolm decides to stop playing because he isn't good at it and does not enjoy it. But he finds some respite when Malcolm becomes interested in miniature golf -- and actually enjoys it. As usual, Malcolm's father goes overboard, hiring a coach called Frank and signs Malcolm up for a tournament. The book alternates between the events of the tournament day and past events leading up to the tournament as Malcolm and Frank forge a sweet friendship, Malcolm befriends a smart girl named Lex, and his parents relationship deteriorates.
Today, it's all about the best books for sixth graders (and can I say, this is quite the sweet spot). At age 11, these kids are often confident readers who are eager to explore a variety of genres. Many of them can handle problem books and really enjoy realistic fiction. Still, of course, they're still reading their graphic novels and short books, as well as engaging series. That's why I've tried to include all of these on this list. You'll find comics, problem books, funny stories, short books, long books, middle-grade mysteries, and even series on this list of books for sixth graders. I've worked hard to make it a good mix of books with boys on the cover and girls as well.
I fell for The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling just for its name alone. Thankfully, the premise is equally as captivating. Anna Chiu is a high schooler who has her hands full caring for her little brother and sort of watching over her younger teen sister. Their father runs a restaurant in a nearby town (about two hours away by car) and their mother is so depressed, she hasn't gotten out of bed in weeks. When Anna convinces her dad to let her work at their restaurant on weekends, she starts a relationship with Rory, the new delivery boy. As Anna gets to know Rory (and his own mental illness struggles), things at home go from bad to worse. Anna's mother gets out of bed, but begins acting erratic and her relationship with her sister, as well as their father becomes strained as Anna has to step in to provide her mother the support she needs.
In her graphic memoir Smile, Raina is just trying to enjoy being a sixth grader when an accident severely injures her two front teeth. Thus begins an unending series of visits to dentists and different treatment options. Throughout this process, Raina still has middle school to tackle. Her friends are sometimes insensitive toward the things that matter to her and she's finding herself newly developing crushes on boys, even as she's too embarrassed to smile, thanks to the braces, head gear, retainer, and other contraptions she has to wear throughout the course of this book. Smile follows Telgemeier from sixth grade until high school as each attempt to rectify the situation with her teeth is stumped and doctors are forced to try a different route.
The best middle-grade books about immigration highlight the challenges of moving to a different country. These often include dealing with feeling like an outsider, and struggling to find one's place in a new home, culture, and sometimes in the midst of anxiety caused by parental deportation or other immigration crises. This list has been on my mind for while, and I kind of went back and forth on whether or not it was worth it to make, since I already have a list of books about moving (which includes moving houses, moving to a new city or moving to a new country). Consider this list of middle books about immigration as one that includes books about moving and the immigrant experience.
In Stick with Me, Izzy and Wren, two very different 12-year-olds are unwittingly brought together at just the right time in their lives. Izzy, a sweet, creative artist with a love for stickers lives in Boston with her parents and older brother Nate. Her best friend, Phoebe is now friends with popular, not-so-nice girl, Daphne, and only hangs out with Izzy because their mothers who are best friends, make them. Wren, on the other hand, is a determined figure skater whose little sister, Hannah has epilepsy.
Olive is excited to be going to summer camp this year, especially since her best friend Willow is also going. She's looking forward to doing camp things and making new friends. As soon as the girls arrive, Olive jumps right into the friend-making and activities, but Willow is as adept as making friends and instead wants to follow Olive everywhere. Worse still, she tries to hold Olive back from making other friends or joining different activities, becoming sulky and giving her the silent treatment when she does. At first, Olive handles things well, making compromises and forgoing opportunities to hang out with other campers just to keep Willow happy. Eventually, though, things start to get to her and the girls' friendship becomes strained.