5 Middle Grade Novels I Read in 2020 That I’ll Be Recommending Forever

5 Middle Grade Novels I Read in 2020 That I’ll Be Recommending Forever

One of my favorite parts of my job as a youth librarian is recommending books to young readers, especially middle grade readers around ages 9-12. I’ve been recommending my trusty old classics like Harriet the Spy, The Giver, and Matilda for as long as I can remember. This year, when stay at home orders and the cancellation of many social events opened my schedule for a lot more free time, I decided to dig in to more middle grade readers so that I could widen my ability for recommendations.

Over the summer, I created weekly Book Talk videos for my patrons, highlighting the middle grade books in our youth collection. I pulled mostly from the Summer Reading List for Grades 3-5 from the American Library Association, which is a great resource for parents of young readers. I was amazed to discover that so many of these books written with 9-12 year olds in mind, are actually fantastic stories that many adults would enjoy, and make great books to read aloud as a family. In total, I read 10 middle grade books this year. Here are my 5 favorites.

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Sweep by Jonathan Auxier

Set in Victorian London, Sweep is the story of Nan, a tough and smart girl, all alone in the world. Nan is a climber, the best climber, and the only girl among a rag-tag group of climbing boys who all work for one powerful chimney sweep. At night, Nan dreams about the kind and magical Sweep she once knew, who disappeared suddenly one day when she was a little girl. The only thing she has from her life with the Sweep is the small piece of charcoal he left her. Now, Nan finds herself working for the evil chimney sweep, Master Crudd.

Everything changes when Nan nearly dies in a terrible accident, and she finds that her small piece of char has grown into a creature made of ash and soot: a golem she names Charlie. Nan learns that the monster has a special mission to protect her, and together she and Charlie must fight to rescue the other climbers from being hurt and exploited. Sweep is an enchanting story of friendship and bravery, and what it means to sacrifice for those you love. Recommended for ages 9-12.

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Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Jude lives in Syria. She loves her family, her friends, and her life in her home country. But when things in her hometown become too violent and unsafe to stay, Jude and her pregnant mother leave Syria and immigrate to the United States, leaving Jude’s brother and father behind. Life in America is exciting and different, but the adjustment isn’t easy. Everything in America is loud and fast, and Jude struggles to keep up with a new language and new customs.

Jude misses her family and her friends, and the warm feeling of belonging she felt in Syria. In addition to feelings of homesickness, Jude learns that her new identity as a Middle Eastern in America means that she will not always feel welcome or safe. Through friendship and music, Jude learns to create a new home, within America and within herself. Written in lyrical poetry style, Jude’s thoughts and memories gently flow in and out of the action taking place around her. Other Words for Home is recommended for ages 8-12.

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Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Max lives in Mexico with his father and grandfather, Papá and Buelo. He wants nothing more than to be a great fútbol player, just like Papá and Buelo, but Papá isn’t sure he wants that for Max. Papá has been especially protective of Max, ever since Max’s mother went missing when Max was only a baby. Max loves stories, and Buelo tells the exciting stories of mythical Guardians who help to transport Hidden Ones out of their dangerous homes and lead them to safety. But as Max soon finds out, the stories aren’t just myth.

Max discovers that his family has a heritage of bravery, not only on the fútbol pitch, but on the path to rescue, where the stakes are much higher. When a stranger shows up at Max’s door when Papá is away, Max takes on the role of a Guardian, protecting a Hidden One along the generous path until they can both reach the next safe place. Max hopes that he can learn more about what happened to his mother along the way. Max finds himself in over his head when he is sent on a whirlwind adventure of danger and suspense. A remarkable blend of the real and the fantastical, Mañanaland is a story of family, bravery, and selflessness. Recommended for ages 8-12.

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The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

Calpurnia Tate is an eleven-year-old girl growing up in a small town in central Texas. The only girl among seven children, Callie learns from a young age to rough and tumble just like the boys. Callie is special, though. Callie is a naturalist. A budding young scientist, curious about the natural world around her, Callie and her grandfather study all the specimens they can find in their region, including looking at organisms they collect from the San Marcos River under the microscope. Her brothers are all scared of their curmudgeonly grandfather, but Callie likes his brisk and scientific manners. Grandfather even loans Callie a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species so that she can begin her career as a real scientist.

Callie’s life starts to change when her mother expects her to begin her training as a housewife. She tries not to get swept up in the cooking and cleaning, but it seems almost impossible for Callie to get away from the housework and back out into nature with her grandfather where she belongs. Callie is disheartened by the reality that it will be much harder for a girl to accomplish the dream of becoming a scientist, much harder than she realized. A heartwarming picture of childhood in the South, this book was especially enchanting to me since I live near the very same San Marcos River that appears in the story. I could feel all of the magic and wonder that Calpurnia sees in the natural world, right in my heart’s eye. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is recommended for ages 9-12.

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As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds

It’s summer time, and eleven-year-old Genie and his older brother Ernie are spending the next few weeks with their grandparents in Virginia. Genie is a curious guy, always writing down questions in his notebook to research when he can, and nothing brings up so many questions as meeting his grandfather for the first time, and finding out he is blind. Genie has a lot of questions about Grandpop’s blindness, including: How did Grandpop become blind? What does blindness feel like? Is it like being asleep, but awake, like sleepwalking? Ernie quickly learns that Grandpop can do most of the same things he can do.

Genie and Ernie spend the summer helping their grandmother pick peas in her garden, going to church, and hanging out with Tess who lives nearby. Virginia is different from Brooklyn, especially the way that people in the South shoot guns. When Grandpop tries to get Ernie to participate in their 14th birthday family tradition of shooting, things get scary quick. Both Genie and Grandpop discover the real meaning of bravery and staying true to yourself. As Brave As You is recommended for ages 10 and up.

Thanks for reading 5 of the best middle grade books I read in 2020! To stay up to date with all of my book recommendations, join my email newsletter below.

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Disclosure (Let’s be honest)
This website contains posts with affiliate links, meaning that I receive a small commission if you purchase a book I’ve linked— at no extra cost to you. I’ll always be upfront with you when a post is sponsored or a book is gifted. All books I recommend are books I actually read and enjoyed.
No joke.