Back to school is likely to look very different for you and your kids this year, but whether you’re heading back to traditional in-person format schooling, fully online, or a hybrid of the two, one thing remains the same—reading will be a vital part of the school day. I’ve collected together a bunch of fantastic middle-grade books, all (except one) due to be released the next few weeks and which cover a variety of genres and styles. I hope some of them will inspire your middle-grade readers to pick up a new book soon.
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The Language of Ghosts by Heather Fawcett
(Released September 8th, 2020)
The first of my recommended middle-grade books is The Language of Ghosts by Heather Fawcett, a fantasy novel about the trio of Marchena siblings who are forced into exile when their mother (Queen of the Kingdom of Florean) is murdered in a coup by her former councilor Xavier. The trio has fled to the island of Astrae where the eldest—18-year-old Julian—enchanted the island so it can be steered like a ship, keeping them always on the move to avoid Xavier’s forces.
To add complications, both Julian and seven-year-old Maita (Mite) are dark magicians—capable of speaking more than one of the nine magical languages. In fact, Julian is the only person known to speak all nine magical languages, which causes him to be feared by many. Middle child Noa is the only one of her family not able to speak any magical languages and has instead grown to become a master strategist, constantly drawing maps, writing books filled with important information, and helping Julian. Her biggest fear is that Julian’s power will corrupt him, making him truly earn the Dark Lord epithet already whispered around the kingdom.
The Marchena children have surrounded themselves with loyalists who consider Julian to be the true king, including mages versed in all the nine magical languages. After two years on Astrae, they discover a plot by Xavier to locate a number of powerful hidden, lost languages. Soon, they are in a race to be the first to discover these and give themselves an advantage in the ongoing struggle to restore their family to the throne. However, as Julian’s methods become ever more dark and dangerous with increasingly horrifying consequences for those who work against him, Noa starts to wonder if she is on the right side of this conflict.
The Language of Ghosts is an odd book that toes the line between middle-grade and young adult. While the language, structure, and pacing are clearly aimed at younger readers, as well as many of the plot elements, some of the events are surprisingly intense for the middle-grade age group. Some of the methods Julian uses to torture and punish his enemies left me feeling deeply uncomfortable and wondering if I was rooting for the wrong side right alongside Noa. Xavier’s forces don’t skimp on terrible actions either, making this depiction of war one of the more realistic I’ve come across—magical floating islands notwithstanding.
It is this combination of incredibly dark elements mixing with lighter, borderline silly ones (deeply narcissistic talking otters, invisible cats causing mischief, and a cake-loving sea serpent) that make the whole thing feel a little confused as if it isn’t quite sure what type of book it wants to be. That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy The Language of Ghosts. It is a great read with many unique elements that will keep you turning the pages late into the night, ready to be blindsided by the next totally unexpected event. The morally grey characters add an extra dimension too and oddly (for a middle-grade novel in particular) made me think of Breaking Bad and all the ways people will justify the terrible actions of a loved one when the cause is right. But it all feels just a bit… Odd.
I would still recommend The Language of Ghosts to middle-grade fantasy lovers but parents—especially of those at the lower end of the middle-grade age spectrum—might want to read this one through first. I would also suggest you consider reading the story together with your children to allow for discussions regarding some of the events that take place.
The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman
Now for something far more down-to-Earth. The second of these middle-grade books is The Highland Falcon Thief by M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, a contemporary detective story set aboard a Royal train taking its final journey around Great Britain. A minor trigger warning for animal cruelty applies.
Eleven-year-old Harrison Beck is being sent away for a few days with his Uncle Nathaniel, a well-respected travel writer and steam train enthusiast, while his mum and dad prepare for the arrival of Harrison’s new baby sister. Not a train fan in any way, Harrison is not looking forward to the trip even though the pair will be traveling aboard the Highland Falcon, an aging Royal steam train that is soon to retire and is taking a final celebratory tour all around the UK. Also aboard the train are Mr. and Mrs. Pickle (owners of a major train company), movie star Sierra Knight and her assistant Lucy, Baron Wolfgang Essenbach and his son Milo, Lady Elizabeth Lansbury and her man-servant Rowan Buck, along with Isaac the Royal photographer, and Ernest White the former guard of the Highland Falcon.
On his first day aboard the train, Harrison meets a young stowaway who instantly makes the journey a whole lot more interesting. Lenny is the daughter of one of the train drivers and a huge steam train fan who couldn’t bear to not be a part of this historic journey. When Mrs. Pickle’s brooch is stolen, followed soon by Lady Lansbury’s earrings, the kids figure out that a notorious jewel thief who has been stealing from the rich and famous must be among the guests. When the train stops at Balmoral and a recently married Prince and Princess join the train, bringing with them the world-famous Atlas Diamond, Harrison and Lenny know they must act quickly to prevent the thief from taking the jewel. But after the thief manages to pull off the daring heist, will their detective skills be up to the task or, with the pair of them sneaking about up and down the train, will suspicions turn on them instead?
This book reads very much like a middle-grade Agatha Christie with all our suspects cooped up together within the confines of the train. Suspicion gradually moves from person to person with everyone eventually becoming a suspect. Mr. Pickle’s business is having money troubles, Sierra Knight has a history of theft, and the baron’s son is acting increasingly strange—even Uncle Nat is a suspect as he is one of the few people aboard with no alibi when the crime was committed. It’s down to Harrison and his trusty sketchbook to figure it all out. The final reveal is performed in true detective novel style and the identity of the thief was surprising without feeling completely out of left field either. There was one important element that had me wondering how we were ever supposed to guess it, but it wasn’t enough of an issue to detract from the overall story.
As a huge steam train fan myself, this was an absolute joy to read. The Highland Falcon Thief handles the subject with a reverence that can only come from another true enthusiast, poking gentle fun at the die-hard train nerd characters while never becoming cruel or malicious. There is a lot of detail about trains and also the famous routes their journey encompasses here, but it never feels like waffling exposition and is instead built into the dialogue in a very natural way. Train fans will find a lot to love but non-fans won’t be bored and may even find themselves, like Harrison, gradually becoming steam enthusiasts themselves—something I’m sure the authors would be thrilled about.
I listened to the audiobook edition of The Highland Falcon Thief courtesy of Audible and loved the narration by Jot Davies, who captured the personalities of all the various characters brilliantly. I also liked the decision to have the Princess have an American accent, a surprising choice at first but one I now suspect may be a small tribute to Meghan Markle. I did feel like I missed out on a few elements of the book by listening instead of reading as I know from flicking through a physical copy that maps and other small illustrations are included there, but nothing vital was left out and the story kept me happily entertained for it’s near 7-hour runtime.
The Highland Falcon Thief was a fun adventure of a novel with an interesting mystery, unusual setting, and a great cast of characters. I would recommend it to any middle-grade reader, but those with a love of trains will definitely get an extra kick from this one. The Highland Falcon Thief is the first book of the new Adventures on Trains series about Harrison. A sequel—Kidnap on the California Comet—is out now in the US, and all the books in the series will focus on famous train routes with a mystery at their heart. After reading this, I already know I will be picking up more books from this series.
Turning Point by Paula Chase
(Released September 15th, 2020)
The next middle-grade book I want to feature is another contemporary novel. Turning Point by Paula Chase is a dual perspective novel that follows two best friends from the same low-income housing project near Philadelphia. The book is technically the third in a series all featuring characters from the same housing project, but it can be read as a standalone novel, which is what I did. Parents should note that a trigger warning applies here for sexual assault.
Rasheeda lives with her ultra-religious aunt who believes she can keep her niece out of trouble by keeping her in church as much as possible over the summer. Between her dozens of ministries, Rasheeda barely has time to crash on the couch and watch her favorite TV show, but now that she is approaching 14 and ready to begin high school, Rasheeda is starting to develop new interests, specifically in her best friend Monique’s older brother Lennie. Knowing that no matter what she does, she will find herself having scripture quoted at her, Rasheeda gradually starts to break the rules as she wonders who she wants to be.
Meanwhile, Monique has been accepted into a prestigious three-week ballet intensive at a college campus in Philadelphia. Suddenly surrounded by rich, white girls, she has never felt more out of place and she begins to realize that her few years at a small dance studio haven’t prepared her for this level of intensity. When she overhears other girls discussing ballet in terms that make it feel like another language altogether, she finds herself uncharacteristically overwhelmed. When she receives criticism from the instructors that the others don’t seem to get, Monique begins to wonder if it is really her dancing that needs work or if being one of only two Black girls on the course is having an impact on her chances.
For someone who has never taken a ballet class in my life, I find myself oddly drawn to ballet-centric middle-grade (see my 2019 obsession with the Scarlet and Ivy series by Sophie Cleverly). Turning Point takes this classic ballet narrative and shifts it into a new perspective, showing how the highly elite and highly white world of classical ballet can feel unwelcoming to someone from a different background. I loved Monique’s story and felt for her as she tried to navigate this new and alien world, never being able to know for sure if someone’s opinion of her and her abilities was being negatively influenced by her race.
I found Rasheeda’s story more difficult, even though I identified more with her having been involved in youth church programs at a similar age. I found that I simply didn’t connect with her character as much and I didn’t find her story as engaging as Monique’s, perhaps because it was more of a simple “girl likes boy she shouldn’t” story. The sexual assault plotline happens within Rasheeda’s part of the story and it was more shocking for coming out of the blue with no warning. While this made it hugely uncomfortable reading, it also felt more realistic for it—most of us don’t get advance warnings of such things in real life.
Both girls frequently text one another and the chapters often end with transcripts of their messages (and messages to other friends too). In these exchanges, and in their spoken dialogue too, both girls speak in AAVE (African American Vernacular English), which made their characters feel much more believable than if they had spoken in textbook English. Using AAVE made their voices come alive in my head and added so much to the book. It also made me look up what certain words and phrases meant when they weren’t immediately obvious from the context, which helped expand my knowledge
Turning Point was a really interesting book that opened my eyes to new perspectives on familiar subjects, and I’d thoroughly recommend it to all middle-grade readers, but those with an interest in ballet will get an extra kick from this one.
A Whale of the Wild by Rosanne Parry
(Released September 1st, 2020)
And now for something completely different. A Whale of the Wild by Rosanne Parry is a middle-grade fictional tale that tells the story of a pod of orcas living in the Salish Sea near the Pacific Northwest. It is told from the perspective of Vega and Deneb, two of the orcas in the matriarchal pod that calls itself the Warmward Kinship of Salmon Eaters. Vega is destined to become the group’s Wayfinder (leader) and Deneb is her little brother.
Vega is training to become a Wayfinder but worries about her abilities, fearing that she will lead her family into harm’s way or along routes where they will starve due to lack of food. After impressively discovering a salmon for the pod, Vega’s greatmother Siria allows Vega the chance to lead them, but a mistake only reinforces her doubts.
After tragedy strikes at a huge gathering of many orca pods, Vega strikes out alone on a mission, not realizing that Deneb has followed behind her. While they are apart from their pod, a second disaster strikes in the form of the dreaded pacific coast megaquake, followed by tsunamis that alter the coastline beyond recognition and remove all the way markers used by Vega’s family for navigation. Finding themselves alone, it is up to Vega to keep her brother safe, protect them both from the after-effects of the disaster, find food, and try to reunite them with the rest of their family.
This is a sweet, beautiful, and at times heart-wrenching story that shows the effects humanity is having on the oceans through the eyes of a creature who lives there. Vega’s family recognizes that the coastal waters they live in are slowly becoming ever more poisonous, making breeding difficult. The endless boat traffic impacts their hunting and navigation abilities, many of their family now carry scars from propellers, and changes to the environment has reduced the number of salmon—causing some of her family to starve,
However, this isn’t a book filled with doom and misery. Vega and Deneb are constantly in awe of the beauty of their surroundings and the other creatures who share it with them. The ecosystem beneath the waves is shown to coexist largely in harmony—even when the quake hits, all the creatures work together, calling out to one another for mutual support and guidance. The humans in the book are largely distant, but the indigenous tribes who live along the coast are shown to also be a part of this harmony, although Vega remains wary of the humans. Her family still remembers those of them who were stolen away in the past and call out their names in the hopes of one day hearing a reply.
This is a beautiful book that will encourage middle-grade readers to think about the impact we are having on the oceans and (hopefully) what they can do to change things for the better. As with Turning Point, this is technically part of a series but is a stand-alone companion to A Wolf Called Wander, and I’m sure I’ll be picking that title up having read this one.
I would recommend that parents read this book in advance in order to help support their young readers as it deals with potentially triggering topics including death, grief, anxiety, and the loss of family members that, while immensely valuable subjects handled in a sensitive way, are likely to be upsetting to many.
A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi
(Released October 6th, 2020)
My final book in this middle-grade collection is A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi. This story is told from the dual perspectives of Maryam (Mimi) and Sakina, two eleven-year-old girls from very different lives who are thrown together for one long, hot summer in Karachi.
Mimi is the daughter of a Pakistani mother and an American father who she barely remembers after he left their family when she was young but whom she writes to nearly every day in her journal. She has never known her grandparents, but now her mother has packed the two of them up from their small Houston apartment and flown them to Pakistan to spend the summer at their house. Mimi is absolutely amazed when she arrives at the house—or is mansion the better term? Filled with servants and obvious wealth, how can this be the home her mother grew up in?
Sakina is the daughter of the cook at Mimi’s grandparents’ house and also works there as her father’s assistant, helping out around the house as required. Her family all share one tiny home, living hand to mouth and forever under the threat of her father’s poorly managed diabetes getting worse. Sakina dreams of one day getting to attend school instead of working, but after failing one admission test she took without her parents’ knowledge she knows she needs to improve her English if she has any chance of passing the make-up test. Not that she could attend the school even if she did pass; her family relies too heavily on her income for her to stop working.
The two girls find themselves spending more and more time together as Mimi looks for a friend in this strange new country and Sakina hopes that Mimi will help her to improve her English enough to pass the school admission test. Although they seem entirely incompatible at first, the pair soon discover that they have more in common than they could have imagined and that the way things look on the surface isn’t always the whole truth.
I absolutely fell in love with A Thousand Questions. The detailed portrayal of Karachi made me want to explore this vibrant city one day, and the near-constant, vivid descriptions of food made me almost permanently hungry every time I picked it up! The heart of the novel is the burgeoning friendship between the two girls and I found myself quickly rooting for both of them, hoping that Sakina would one day be able to attend the school she dreams of and that Mimi is able to finally meet her long-lost father. As someone who lost my own father at a young age (under very different circumstances), I’ll happily admit that several of Mimi’s journal entries had me choking back tears.
The book is also set against the backdrop of an upcoming election and it touches on wider issues including political corruption and how the twisted tendrils of malfeasance at the highest levels of power reach down into the lives of every person on the street. Mimi finds herself initially amazed that Sakina has opinions on such things at their age, but this is one of many ways in which it is shown that Sakina has been forced to grow up faster than Mimi.
This is a beautifully written middle-grade book that explores how people from widely different backgrounds can come together and find common ground when given the opportunity to know one another.
GeekMom received copies of these titles for review purposes.