This curated list, annotated with editors’ comments whenever possible, offers a closer look at some of this year’s middle grade books that feature highly illustrated formats, or themes exploring neurodiversity and physical challenges, or LGBTQIA+ representation.
New Highly Illustrated Books
All the Greys on Greene Street by Laura Tucker, illus. by Kelly Murphy (Viking, June). Twelve-year-old Olympia is on the case when her artist dad disappears in the middle of the night in 1981 New York City, leaving only a cryptic note. “One of [this book’s] greatest gifts is its ability to capture the magic of art,” noted editor Kendra Levin. “It simply but powerfully describes what it feels like to see the everyday—a window, a fire escape, a cat—through the eyes of an artist. Kelly Murphy’s illustrations build on Laura Tucker’s writing and add to the feeling that, as readers, we are peeking over the main character Olympia’s shoulder into her sketchbook and seeing the world of 1981 SoHo, full of artists’ lofts, galleries, and graffiti. I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination, but every time I have read All the Greys on Greene Street as I’ve worked on the book, it has left me feeling inspired to pick up a pencil or a paintbrush and lose myself in the pure enjoyment of making art, just like Olympia.”
Anna Strong and the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring by Enigma Alberti and Laura Terry (Workman, Apr.) introduces a key member of the secret group led by George Washington to gather intelligence on the British during the Revolutionary War.
AstroNuts Mission 1: The Plant Planet by Jon Scieszka, illus. by Steven Weinberg (Chronicle, Sept.) begins a trilogy narrated by Earth herself as four characters “are tasked with finding a new planet for Earthlings to move to when we can no longer sustain life on Earth,” said Taylor Norman, editor at Chronicle Books. “It’s full-color throughout, so it will be a little different,” she added. “As we worked on the book, it’s been scarily relevant how timely it is coming to feel. In the two or three years since we’ve signed up the books, the reports from everywhere have only proven that Earth is definitely going through a significant change at this time because of human activity. The ultimate conclusion of the [trilogy] is going to be that there is no magic planet we can move to—we have to fix Earth. As silly as the story is, the science in it is all real and important science that’s going to have a major impact directly on the readers it’s targeted at.”
Ben Braver and the Incredible Exploding Kid by Marcus Emerson (Roaring Brook, Mar.) is second in the series about Ben’s adventures at his secret middle school for kids with special abilities, from the creator of the Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja series.
Bigger, Badder, Nerdier by Obert Skye (Holt/Ottaviano, Apr.), continues the Geeked Out series set in a dystopian junior high where a group of geeky friends gain superpowers from a spider bite.
Cape: Book #1 of The League of Secret Heroes by Kate Hannigan, illus. by Patrick Spaziante (S&S/Aladdin, Aug.) “I was lucky enough to jump on board with this trilogy after the acquiring editor, Amy Cloud, went to HMH,” said editor Alyson Heller. “When Amy brought it to our editorial meeting, the whole team fell in love with Kate Hannigan’s voice, and these three kick-butt girls who are all brave, resourceful, and incredibly smart. We loved that Kate drew inspiration from the Golden Age of comic book heroines and from real-life women—in particular, female computer programmers, the ENIAC Six—who were instrumental during World War II. And, of course, in our current cultural zeitgeist, franchises such as Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel show that you can’t spell hero without ‘her.’ I hope young readers feel empowered after reading this.”
DK Life Stories (DK, Jan.-Oct.). The first 12 titles launching this middle grade biography series employ graphics, full-color photos, and illustrations to illuminate the life stories of such figures as Anne Frank and Alexander Hamilton.
Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid: Rowley Jefferson’s Journal by Jeff Kinney (Amulet, Apr.) introduces a new series spun off from Kinney’s mega-selling Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, featuring the musings of Greg Heffley’s best pal, Rowley.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid #14 by Jeff Kinney (Amulet, Nov.) is next up in this groundbreaking illustrated series.
Emperor of the Universe by David Lubar (Starscape, July). “This was basically my holy grail,” said senior editor Susan Chang of the tale spotlighting a seventh-grader, his pet gerbil, and a package of ground beef aboard an alien space ship. “I have loved Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy since I was a kid. I have wanted to do a middle grade Hitchhiker’s Guide and that’s what David just happened to deliver. When the manuscript came in and was so funny and presented such opportunity for visual humor as well, we thought it would be great to illustrate it.”
The Extremely High Tide (Secrets of Topsea) by Kir Fox and Shelley Coats, illus. by Rachel Sanson (Disney, Jan.), is next up in the series about young Talise, the best and only bathymetrist (ocean expert) in Topsea.
Katt vs. Dogg by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein, illus. by Anuki López (Little, Brown/Jimmy Patterson, Apr.) “has a really fresh take on the age-old rivalry between cats and dogs that we all take for granted in a humorous way,” said Jenny Bak, editorial director at Jimmy Patterson Books. “Jim was able to explore some pretty timely themes about prejudice in a non-preachy, accessible way, and a way that I think kids can really understand and internalize. I like how the characters ultimately separate their thoughts from what they’ve been taught by their families their whole lives and are able to stand up and think for themselves, which is a really great lesson for kids of this age to learn when they’re starting to explore their independence.”
The Last Kids on Earth and the Midnight Blade by Max Brailler, illus. by Douglas Holgate (Viking, Sept.). Thirteen-year-old Jack and his friends face more danger, action, and adventure following the Monster Apocalypse in this fifth in the series.
Masters of Mischief (The Misadventures of Max Crumbly #3) by Rachel Renée Russell (S&S/Aladdin, June) features the middle school exploits of Max and his trusty sidekick Erin.
M Is for Movement by Innosanto Nagara (Triangle Square, Nov.) delivers a fictionalized memoir of the social movement that Nagara witnessed as a child growing up in Jakarta, and how it overturned the government of Indonesia.
Tank & Fizz: The Case of the Tentacle Terror (Orca, Mar.). The titular crime-solving monsters dive into a new mystery.
The Very, Very Far North by Dan Bar-El, illus. by Kelly Pousette (S&S/Atheneum, Sept.). Young polar bear Duane befriends a cast of arctic animal characters.
Weird Little Robots by Carolyn Crimi, illus. by Corinna Luyken (Candlewick, Oct.). “Parents, librarians, and gatekeepers are going to love the top-notch writing, the STEAM-related content, the celebrated creators. Kids are going to love the engaging illustrations, complex relationships, and the sentient tiny robots,” according to editor Katie Cunningham.
New Books Addressing Neurodiversity and Physical Differences
Dog Driven by Terry Lynn Johnson (HMH, Dec.). McKenna signs up for a dog race in the Canadian wilderness even though she’s been hiding her failing eyesight for months. “I love the way Terry Lynn Johnson captures the bond between her characters and dogs, love how she brings to life the thrill of dog sledding, and the tenacity of this capable 14-year-old girl musher. McKenna’s terrifying experience, the loss of her vision, made me connect with her even more,” said editor Ann Rider. “I felt Terry wrote about McKenna’s vision loss with authenticity, perhaps because she herself has suffered vision loss after contracting a terrible tick-borne illness.”
The Good Hawk by Joseph Elliott (Walker Books US, Jan. 2020). Debut author Elliott spotlights a fantasy protagonist with Down syndrome. “I was immediately drawn to Agatha, a main character in The Good Hawk who has Down syndrome,” said Susan van Metre, executive editorial director of Walker Books US. “She is so brave and good-hearted and loyal and funny but is living among some people who see her as a danger to her community; of course, having a heroic nature, she proves invaluable instead. I’d never met a character like her in fantasy and yet she is exactly the sort of character I most like.”
Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse by Susan Vaught (S&S/Wiseman, May) is a middle grade mystery featuring an autistic girl who begins sleuthing (with her beloved dog, and new friend at school by her side) when her father is wrongly accused of theft.
A Monster Like Me by Wendy S. Swore (Shadow Mountain, Mar.). In this #OwnVoices story, young Sophie—a monster expert—believes she must be a monster because of her facial deformity, which is caused by a blood tumor.
Normal by Magdalena and Nathaniel Newman, illus. by Neil Swaab (HMH, Jan. 2020) is a humorous memoir by a mother and son who share what it’s like to live with young Nathaniel’s severe craniofacial condition. “I had the privilege of meeting Magda in person and was struck by the power of her family’s story, what it has been like for her son Nathaniel to grow up with Treacher Collins syndrome,” said editor Cat Onder. “This is a family that has faced one life-threatening situation after another, and challenge after challenge, and yet they are a family forged in love and the everyday experiences of growing up, just like every family.”
Over the Moon by Natalie Lloyd (Scholastic Press, Mar.). In this fantasy-adventure, a girl with a prosthetic arm bravely takes on a dangerous assignment training flying horses to earn money for her struggling mining-town family.
Planet Earth Is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos (Random/Lamb, May). In January 1986, 12-year-old astronomy enthusiast Nova, who is autistic and nonverbal, counts down the days until the space shuttle Challenger’s launch, as she tries to settle in with her new foster family and awaits the return of her runaway sister.
Roll with It by Jamie Sumner (S&S/Atheneum, Oct.). When Ellie and her mom move to a new town, Ellie’s not just the new kid—she’s the new kid with cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair. But she soon makes some true friends, which makes the transition a lot easier.
Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly (Delacorte, Feb.) introduces Iris, a 12-year-old Deaf girl, on her quest to communicate with a whale by creating a special song using the electronics expertise she has gained while repairing vintage radios.
New Books with LGBTQIA+ Representation
The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy (Balzer + Bray, Oct.). “I hope kids will come to understand that they are perfect just as they are,” said Alessandra Balzer, v-p and co-publisher of Balzer + Bray. “That it’s okay to be different and, in fact, being different is your own personal superpower. The only thing you need to be the best at is at being yourself.”
Freeing Finch by Ginny Rorby (Starscape, Oct.). Finch knows she is a girl even though she was born into a boy’s body. She wants to start trusting the people in her life while remaining true to herself. “What’s important about this book is how universal it is. It has classic middle grade themes about a girl trying to find her place in the world and finding a family who loves her, and she happens to be transgender,” said editor Susan Chang.
Ghost Cabin (Lumberjanes #4) by Mariko Tamaki, illus. by Brooklyn Allen (Amulet, Sept.). This middle grade series brings readers new stories about the characters and world originated in the bestselling Lumberjanes graphic novels. “The series follows five spirited, passionate campers who go on magical adventures and solve problems using smarts, grit, and teamwork—it’s about girl power and friendship and makes a natural fit for the middle grade category,” according to senior editor Erica Finkel. “The comics are so fun, and it’s amazing to see the world expanded in these novels, with readers learning more about the characters and their inner lives.” Asked what she hopes readers might take away from the books, Finkel noted, “That there’s no wrong way to be a Hardcore Lady Type!”
Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions by Henry Lien (Holt, Jan.). The second volume of this series finds Peasprout aiming to defend her title at Pearl Academy of Skate and Sword as a wu liu champion, mastering the sport that blends martial arts and figure skating. Within the fantasy-action tale, Lien addresses issues of gender and depicts a romance between two girls.
Queer Heroes by Arabelle Sicardi, illus. by Sarah Tanat-Jones (Wide-Eyed Editions, May) features biographical portraits of 52 LGBTQIA+ role models. “We felt that LGBTQ+ people were underrepresented; there are hardly any books that celebrate the achievements of this community. So we wanted to make that right!” said publisher Katie Cotton.
The Whispers by Greg Howard (Putnam, Jan.) follows 11-year-old Riley who embarks on a fantasy-inspired mission as he desperately searches for his missing mother, all the while struggling with guilt and shame he feels because he is attracted to boys. “I recognize that there are middle grade kids who need and want to see a character like Riley who doesn’t doubt himself even in the face of so much resistance to who he is,” said Stacey Barney, editor at Putnam. “Gay kids need and want to see themselves in the pages of books and there’s a wonderful universal message in Riley’s strength of certitude in knowing himself, even and especially at this age. We have a host of books in middle grade fiction where a boy has a crush on a girl or a girl has a crush on a boy, but not enough where a boy has a crush on a boy or a girl has a crush on a girl and it’s just another day in the neighborhood. I wanted to be part of changing that. Publishing books like The Whispers is what feeds the cultural shift in representation I can only hope we’re all looking for.”