Posts Tagged contemporary realistic middle-grade fiction

Meet Virginia…again

I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Kwame Alexander prior to a Toledo-Lucas County Public Library event several years ago. His eyes lit up when I shared Ohio University Press was publishing my biography of Virginia Hamilton for younger readers. I mean, LIT UP! We spoke about Virginia’s incredible body of work, awards, accolades. And of course, being the poet he is, Kwame was curious about how Ms. Hamilton’s husband, poet and teacher Arnold Adoff, was doing, and trying to figure out a way he could make it down to Yellow Springs on his tour for a visit.

Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller. Buy here.

During the Q & A session, an attendee asked about the need for diverse works for younger readers. In a tip of the hat to Virginia, Kwame offered that yes, we need to continue to work toward providing new titles authored by diverse writers. But, Kwame said, we also need to take a look at what is already on our shelves.

Virginia Hamilton is the most honored author of children’s books. She was the first African American to win the Newbery Medal in 1975, for M.C. Higgins, the Great. This incredible story of a young man in Appalachia, facing the loss of his home, went on to also win the National Book Award and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the first book to win all three awards.

M.C. Higgins, the Great. Buy here.

Prolific Author

Virginia wrote forty-one books for children throughout her career. Beginning with her first, Zeely, a story that features a Watutsi queen, published in 1967, to Wee Winne Witch’s Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale, illustrated by Barry Moser, published by Blue Sky Press posthumously in 2004. It received Hamilton’s final starred review from Kirkus. She received 16 of the coveted Kirkus starred reviews in her career.

Zeely cover

Zeely. Buy here.

Awards and Accolades

Look up any major award for children’s literature, and you will find Virginia Hamilton among the recipients. The John Newbery Medal, The Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the International Board on Books for Young People Honour Book Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her body of work, Regina Medal of the Catholic Library Association, and the Coretta Scott King Award recognition a number of times. That’s just the beginning of the list. Virginia was the first children’s book author to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as the “Genius Grant.”

The Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Children was established at Kent State University in 1984 and the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement is given every other year to a children’s book author or illustrator.

Have you read Virginia Hamilton’s books?

Yet, when I talk about Virginia during school and library visits, very few hands go up when I ask if children, educators, and library media specialists have read her works. On a certain level, I get it. Sadly, Virginia died in 2002, after a private ten-year battle with breast cancer. It has been 17 years since her last work was published.

Her amazing books were at risk of getting buried on the shelves, among the those that during visits to the library, Virginia would get “side-swiped every time by all those straight-back sentinels in long still rows. Short books and tall books, blue books and green books.”

Have no fear. Virginia’s works have a new, bright shiny light being shone on them.

Library of America to the rescue!

Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels. Buy here.

The Library of America is publishing a collection of five of Virginia’s novels, to be released in September 2021. Once again Zeely (1967), The House of Dies Drear (1968), The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), M.C. Higgins, the Great (1974), and Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982), will be available to entertain, inspire and educate readers, of all ages.

So, there you go, Kwame. Both older and newer diverse works for children, featured prominently on those shelves for all to enjoy.

January New Releases!

Well, we made it! On this first day of 2021, let’s take a look at some new middle-grade releases coming out this January–from memoirs to graphic novels to youth immigration stories. Hope 2021 is filled with these and many other good books for you to read!

Oh My Gods! by Stephanie Cooke and Insha Fitzpatrick, illustrated by Juliana Moon; HMH Books, out on January 5

Oh My Gods!, the first in a new middle grade graphic novel series, reads as if Raina Telgemeier and Rick Riordan teamed up to write a comic, and offers a fresh and funny spin on Greek mythology. When an average girl moves to Mt. Olympus, she discovers her new classmates are gods and mythological creatures are actually real—as if junior high isn’t hard enough!

Karen is just an average thirteen-year-old from New Jersey who loves to play video games with her friends and watch movies with her mom. But when she moves to Greece to live with her eccentric, mysterious father, Zed, suddenly everything she thought about herself—about life—is up in the air.

Starting a new school can be difficult, but starting school at Mt. Olympus Junior High, where students are gods and goddesses, just might take the cake. Especially when fellow classmates start getting turned to stone. Greek mythology . . . a little less myth, a little more eek! And if Karen’s classmates are immortal beings, who does that make her?


The In-Between by Rebecca K. S. Ansari;
Walden Pond Press, out on January 26

A dark, twisty adventure about the forgotten among us and what it means to be seen, from the acclaimed author of The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly.

Cooper is lost. Ever since his father left their family three years ago, he has become distant from his friends, constantly annoyed by his little sister, Jess, and completely fed up with the pale, creepy rich girl who moved in next door and won’t stop staring at him. So when Cooper learns of an unsolved mystery his sister has discovered online, he welcomes the distraction.

It’s the tale of a deadly train crash that occurred a hundred years ago, in which one young boy among the dead was never identified. The only distinguishing mark on him was a strange insignia on his suit coat, a symbol no one had seen before or since. Jess is fascinated by the mystery of the unknown child— because she’s seen the insignia. It’s the symbol of the jacket of the girl next door.

As they uncover more information— and mounting evidence of the girl’s seemingly impossible connection to the tragedy—Cooper and Jess begin to wonder if a similar disaster could be heading to their hometown.

Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from Upstate New York High Schools, edited by Tea Rozman Clark and Julie Vang; Green Card Voices, out on January 26

The Green Card Youth Voices series is a collection of books dedicated to sharing the immigration stories of young, new Americans from all over the country, with Rochester and Buffalo as our next stops. The upcoming “Green Card Youth Voices: Upstate New York High Schools” is a collection of personal essays written by 29 authors from Twelve Corner Middle School, Bilingual Language and Literacy Academy, Lafayette High School, and Newcomer Academy, and residing in New York State. The book includes a study guide, and a glossary to help teachers use the book as an educational resource when teaching about immigration. Included in the book are first perspective stories, full portraits, maps, 5-minute edited video links, a study guide, and a glossary which all adds a multimedia dimension to this already dynamic collection.


Clues to the Universe by Christina Li 
Quill Tree Books, out on January 12

This #ownvoices debut about losing and finding family, forging unlikely friendships, and searching for answers to big questions will resonate with fans of Erin Entrada Kelly and Rebecca Stead.

The only thing Rosalind Ling Geraghty loves more than watching NASA launches with her dad is building rockets with him. When he dies unexpectedly, all Ro has left of him is an unfinished model rocket they had been working on together.

Benjamin Burns doesn’t like science, but he can’t get enough of Spacebound, a popular comic book series. When he finds a sketch that suggests that his dad created the comics, he’s thrilled. Too bad his dad walked out years ago, and Benji has no way to contact him.

Though Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners, the pair become unlikely friends: Benji helps Ro finish her rocket, and Ro figures out a way to reunite Benji and his dad. But Benji hesitates, which infuriates Ro. Doesn’t he realize how much Ro wishes she could be in his place?

As the two face bullying, grief, and their own differences, Benji and Ro must try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.


The Sea in Winter by Christine Day
Heartdrum, out on January 5

In this evocative and heartwarming novel for readers who loved The Thing About Jellyfish, the author of I Can Make This Promise tells the story of a Native American girl struggling to find her joy again.

It’s been a hard year for Maisie Cannon, ever since she hurt her leg and could not keep up with her ballet training and auditions.

Her blended family is loving and supportive, but Maisie knows that they just can’t understand how hopeless she feels. With everything she’s dealing with, Maisie is not excited for their family midwinter road trip along the coast, near the Makah community where her mother grew up.

But soon, Maisie’s anxieties and dark moods start to hurt as much as the pain in her knee. How can she keep pretending to be strong when on the inside she feels as roiling and cold as the ocean?


Explorer Academy Future Tech: The Science Behind the Story by Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh; Under the Stars, out on January 5

You’ve gone on adventures with Cruz Coronado and his fellow recruits as they communicated with whales using the Universal Cetacean Communicator, camouflaged themselves using the Lumagine shadow badge, and deployed octopods to make speedy escapes. Now dive further into the near-future world of Explorer Academy by learning about the real-life scientific discoveries that inspired the gadgets. This cool book profiles real-life National Geographic explorers who devised innovations like RoboBees (Mell); it features cutting-edge tech that’s actually being developed, and provides empowering stories of how tech is enabling conservation successes. Fields of study cover wearable technology, submersibles, robotics, medicine, space farming, everyday technology, and the world of the future.

Every good explorer craves information, and now it’s time to amp up your technology knowledge. After all, the near-future world of Explorer Academy is just across the horizon, and much of its tech is already shaping the world we live in.


Pity Party by Kathleen Lane; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, out on January 19

Discover an “absurd, funny, and thought-provoking” book perfect for “anyone who has ever felt socially awkward or inadequate” (Louis Sachar, author of Holes and the Wayside School series).
Dear weird toes, crooked nose, stressed out, left out, freaked out
Dear missing parts, broken hearts, picked-on, passed up, misunderstood,
Dear everyone, you are cordially invited, come as you are, this party’s for youWelcome to Pity Party, where the social anxieties that plague us all are twisted into funny, deeply resonant, and ultimately reassuring psychological thrills.There’s a story about a mood ring that tells the absolute truth. One about social media followers who literally follow you around. And one about a kid whose wish for a new, improved self is answered when a mysterious box arrives in the mail. There’s also a personality test, a fortune teller, a letter from the Department of Insecurity, and an interactive Choose Your Own Catastrophe.

Come to the party for a grab bag of delightfully dark stories that ultimately offers a life-affirming reminder that there is hope and humor to be found amid our misery.


While I Was Away by Waka T. Brown
Quill Tree Books, out on January 26

The Farewell meets Erin Entrada Kelly’s Blackbird Fly in this empowering middle grade memoir from debut author Waka T. Brown, who takes readers on a journey to 1980s Japan, where she was sent as a child to reconnect to her family’s roots.

When twelve-year-old Waka’s parents suspect she can’t understand the basic Japanese they speak to her, they make a drastic decision to send her to Tokyo to live for several months with her strict grandmother. Forced to say goodbye to her friends and what would have been her summer vacation, Waka is plucked from her straight-A-student life in rural Kansas and flown across the globe, where she faces the culture shock of a lifetime.

In Japan, Waka struggles with reading and writing in kanji, doesn’t quite mesh with her complicated and distant Obaasama, and gets made fun of by the students in her Japanese public-school classes. Even though this is the country her parents came from, Waka has never felt more like an outsider.

If she’s always been the “smart Japanese girl” in America but is now the “dumb foreigner” in Japan, where is home…and who will Waka be when she finds it?


These are just a few of many great books coming out in January. Happy reading everyone!


What can be better than to spend one’s youth with an animal companion, or to have a special, even if momentary, connection with an animal? Here are some books that show this is really a good and interesting way to grow up, in a variety of happenings.  Here are some examples.

   In this series of four books, with a fifth that fits the storyline, Monica Dickens (a granddaughter of Charles) has written stories featuring a ranch owned by a retired British colonel who has set up this ranch to help retired and injured horses. Helping him run the ranch are a young teen relative, Callie; and two other teens (Dora and Steve). 

Young British teen Velvet Brown dreams of owning a horse and being the best rider around the countryside. One day in town she sees a horse being auctioned off. The owner obviously just wants to be rid of this particular horse, a piebald. Velvet amazingly manages to win the horse.  With the help of her family, and someone who works for her father, Velvet indeed learns to ride the horse well. Then her big dream begins; or seems possible. She wants to be part of a horse race. However, no girls are permitted in this race. What can Velvet do now?!

In their small town in Sonoma County, California,  11-year-old Weston and his 9-year-old sister, Wendy, search for something interesting to do during a summer. Suddenly they find some abandoned  animals and work to help them. Soon they want to help lots of animals they find, but will some people try to stop them? What can they do about that?!

12 year old Davy and his cousin Anderson (often irksome), are intrigued by lights they detect in a forest. They venture into the woods to find out what’s there. The boys make a discovery, are caught near a forest fire, and then desperately attempt to accomplish what they are determined to do!  

Young siblings Maureen and Paul have been saving their money to buy a particular horse they have seen at an annual local round-up of one of two groups of wild horses on Assateague Island (shared by the states of Maryland and Virginia). After being rounded up the caught horses are sent on a run and swim to nearby Chincoteague Island where some will be sold. This annual even happens so the wild horse herds won’t overcrowd the island. The horse the siblings are interested in, with its tell-tale white patch, has avoided capture for some years. By chance, this time, however, this horse is among the horses that are captured. The young people are all set to bargain to buy this horse, but then they find out she has her little colt with her. Will the young people be able to get enough money to buy the mother horse, and the baby too?! 

After visiting his uncle in India, young Alec is on his way home to New York by way of England, in a cargo ship. An unusual fellow passenger is a wild horse. The boy secretly makes friends with the animal by leaving a lump of sugar at the horse’s makeshift stall every night. After several days of travel, the boat is caught in a storm and is destroyed, but not before the boy manages to try to free the horse before abandoning ship. Suddenly Alex is drawn into the water while tied to the animal. For days the boy and horse, tied together, swim near each other. Then, the horse suddenly changes course, and Alex, bewildered, must follow. But then he sees that the horse has found an island. Can they both make it to the island; exhausted as they are; and then can they strive to learn to live and coexist together on the island; not knowing if there are other survivors, or if they will be ever be rescued!

A  young teen is happy living near her granddad’s farm where she can ride her very own horse whenever she wants to. Then suddenly she’s very upset when she hears of her family moving miles away. What can she do? Can she convince her granddad to let her live with him? She must strive to get his attention which is all but taken up by a neighbor woman.

A young woman who’s an artist, and handicapped, discovers a horse who is lame. The young woman so wants to help the horse. Will she and her family be able to?

A horse’s life story, told from the viewpoint of the horse.

A classic story that led to many sequels by various authors. Joe, a boy, and his dog are happy living their lives, but then the boy’s father has money difficulties and must sell the pure-bred dog. After being sold, the dog escapes and comes back home to Joe. The dog is sold again, but again finds his way back to Joe. Sold a third time, Lassie faces a giant challenge when she strives to get back home this time. Her new owner is in another nation! Can she do it?! 

  In addition to picture books and comic books, there is a series of chapter books, also considered novels for young readers, published by Whitman many years ago. These books feature a German Shepherd dog called Rin Tin Tin, and a boy named Rusty. Rusty became an orphan when his group’s wagon train was attacked. A nearby fort with an early American cavalry troop patrolling the frontier took in the boy to live with them. Rin Tin Tin, a stray German shepherd dog, lives at the fort too. The boy and dog become inseparable companions. Both the boy and the dog in these novel chapters have many adventures in the early western United States territory.  

 In this sequel to MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, and ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, this story features an endangered bird who was saved by Sam, a teen, who lives with his younger sister on their grandfather’s land in the Catskill Mountains in New York State.  The bird became Sam’s pet, but then a forest ranger took the bird away, saying it was illegal for the boy to have such a pet. Through the books MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN and ON THE FAR SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, the bird, a falcon named Frightful, is part of the story, then there’s FRIGHTFUL’S STORY in which she strives to get back to Sam. 

A girl, temporarily handicapped, visiting her grandmother, is entertained with stories by a local storekeeper. One particular story intrigues her – a legend about a white lark that few people believe exists. Then one day the girl suddenly discovers something the white lark reveals to her. 

Two dogs and a cat, separated from their family, are determined to travel across country, to get back to their owners. Told from the viewpoints of the animals.

A young girl just recently comes to live with her grandmother in a remote country place, and comes to love and care about the nature that’s all around her. One day a young man happens to come into the area. He asks her where a white heron, said to be around there may be found. The girl notices that the man carryies a gun. Should she tell him where the elusive bird can be seen? The decision she makes will be a turning point in her life. The way her life turns out, at the time the story was written, in 1886, will be a hardship. Readers might consider – if a girl of today in this situation had to make such a decision, what would it be, and how would her life turn out because of it? Such an ending is telling for our present time.