These 2020 books (and select backlist titles from 2019) explore three recent trends we have observed in the middle grade category: novels in which the main character copes with a mental health issue, books featuring protagonists who have experienced a #MeToo situation, and memoirs and informational nonfiction titles in the graphic novel format. For editors' insights on these themes, see Eye on Middle Grade: Spring 2020.
Because of That Crow by Beverly Brenna (Red Deer, Oct.). PTSD makes it difficult for Harris to deal with the deaths of his parents, three years after the accident. But a fifth grade science fair assignment and the appearance of a mysterious crow lead Harris to discover how he might cope with his past.
The Best at It by Maulik Pancholy (Balzer +Bray, 2019). Actor Pancholy’s debut follows Rahul, a gay Indian American boy who is figuring out his identity and coping with OCD as he enters seventh grade in a small Indiana town.
The Brave by James Bird (Feiwel and Friends, June). According to Liz Szabla, associate publisher at Feiwel and Friends and editor of this book, “In James Bird’s debut #OwnVoices middle grade novel, the main character processes words spoken to him by counting each letter and then stating the total before he responds to the speaker. The author experienced a similar way of processing at that age; doctors couldn’t agree on a diagnosis at the time. It meant that James, like his main character, was considered too difficult to teach in mainstream classes. Some people give up on these kids, or at least, pass the buck.” Bird says, “Today, people with brains like mine are called neurodiverse. All those years ago, I was sent to doctors, but my mom, a single parent to me and my siblings, who worked two jobs, was a better doctor. She diagnosed me with simply being ‘overly creative.’ I chose to be brave and believe her. And I finally saw my curse as a gift.”
The Canyon’s Edge by Dusti Bowling (Little, Brown; Sept.). Nora is still reeling in a spiral of anxiety and depression after her mother was killed in a random shooting. But when she and her father explore a canyon in the desert to try and find some peace, they become separated and Nora faces a new struggle—to survive.
The Deepest Breath by Meg Grehan (Feb. 2021). In a novel-in-verse that explores identity, Stevie’s mother helps her find the right tools to manage her anxiety. But Stevie still struggles with some very big unknowns that she hasn’t asked her mom about yet, including the feelings Stevie has for her friend Chloe.
Five Things About Ava Andrews by Margaret Dilloway (Balzer + Bray, June). Shy 11-year-old Ava is determined to manage her anxiety by joining an improv group at school, and soon discovers her activist voice.
Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai (Scholastic Press, Oct.). At Bayshore Middle School, Jordyn serves as school ambassador to Noura and her family, who were recently granted asylum after living for two years in a Turkish refugee camp. Jordyn begins experiencing panic attacks and is learning to deal with her anxiety as she helps Noura cope with the prejudice and hostility she faces in their Florida community following the enforcement of President Trump’s 2017 Muslim Ban.
Foreverland by Nicole C. Kear (Imprint, Apr.). Margaret, a middle schooler with generalized anxiety disorder who suffers from a morphing list of phobias, escapes the stress and trouble at home by running away to her favorite local amusement park.
It’s My Party and I Don’t Want to Go by Amanda Panitch (Scholastic Press, Sept.). Ellie and her best friend hatch a plan to sabotage Ellie’s bat mitzvah party so she won’t have to deal with her intense social anxiety.
The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane by Kate O’Shaughnessy (Knopf, Mar.). Though she’s prone to panic attacks, young Maybelle embarks on a road trip to Nashville from Louisiana—escorted by her neighbor Mrs. Boggs, and a stowaway neighbor boy—to audition for a singing competition for which the father she’s never met is a judge.
A Monster Like Me by Wendy S. Swore (Shadow Mountain, 2019). Swore’s #OwnVoices story focuses on nine-year-old Sophie, who suffers bullying and humiliation at school because she has a very visible facial tumor. She deals with her anxiety by escaping into an imaginary world of myths and legends, and wonders if she’s truly a monster like the ones she reads about.
Naked Mole Rat Saves the World by Karen Rivers (Algonquin, 2019). kit-with-a-small-k deals with her mother’s mental health issues and drama with her friends all while keeping a big secret: when she gets anxious, she turns into a naked mole rat.
The Peacock Detectives by Carly Nugent (HarperCollins, Jan.). Eleven-year-old Cassie finds distraction from problems at home—including her father’s and occasionally her own depressive episodes—in solving a local mystery. Along the way, she also learns serious truths about her family and must cope with her feelings in the wake of her discovery.
Quintessence by Jess Redman (FSG, May). Shortly after 12-year-old Alma and her family move to a new town, she begins experiencing panic attacks. Her focus on a star that fell from the sky into her backyard and some unlikely new friends from her astronomy club may just offer some relief.
Real by Carol Cujec and Peyton Goddard (Shadow Mountain, Jan. 2021). Charity, who lives with nonverbal autism, repeats a routine to manage her anxious feelings about being bullied when she moves from a special ed school to a public school.
Sara and the Search for Normal by Wesley King (Wiseman, May). This prequel to OCDaniel spotlights Sara, who was diagnosed with multiple mental health disorders—including bipolar disorder, mild schizophrenia, and general anxiety disorder—at age six and is now in seventh grade, who longs to be just a “normal” kid at school instead of “Psycho Sara.”
Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie (Sourcebooks, Sept.). Skeptical Claire, who suffers from anxiety, comes to believe she is being haunted by a mysterious boy she first saw on the bus for one of her father’s ghost-themed Chicago tours.
A Song Only I Can Hear by Barry Jonsberg (S&S, Apr.). In order to impress the new girl at school, supershy Rob accepts a series of challenges from an anonymous texter that encourage him to venture out of his comfort zone. He hopes that these efforts will help him impress the new girl at school and overcome his panic attacks, which include vomiting, difficulty breathing, and genuine terror that can last all day,
Talking to Alaska by Anna Woltz, trans. by Laura Watkinson (Oneworld, Sept.). In this award-winning title translated from the Dutch, Parker suffers severe anxiety after witnessing a violent event and now faces the new school year and new stressors. She soon discovers that her beloved lost dog, Alaska, has become the support pet of a new boy at school who has epilepsy.
When Life Gives You Mangos by Kereen Getten (Delacorte, Sept.). Due to dissociative amnesia, Clara can’t remember anything that happened last summer after a hurricane struck the island where she lives with her family.
The Wild Path by Sarah R. Baughman (Little, Brown; Sept.). Claire gets a “flutter feeling” of anxiety in her chest when she worries about her brother, who is sent to rehab, and her parents’ plan to sell the family’s beloved horses Sunny and Sam. When Claire learns about equine therapy for a school project, she imagines there might be a way to keep Sunny and Sam. She also senses signs that there may be a herd of what appear to be mysterious wild horses in the woods behind her house.
Chirp by Kate Messner (Bloomsbury, Feb.). During a summer at her grandmother’s cricket farm, Mia struggles with and tries to forget the secret she is keeping about the inappropriate behavior of her gymnastics coach. But she learns that she is not alone when she hears stories of similar incidents told by the girls and women in her life, who offer strength and support.
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial, Aug.). Ten-year-old Della’s world is shaken when her older sister and fierce protector Suki attempts suicide after Suki is sexually abused by their mother’s boyfriend, who has taken them in while their mom is in prison.
Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee (Aladdin, 2019). Mia experiences harassment and unwanted attention from the boys in her seventh-grade class and gradually learns how to stand her ground, as well as what it means to respect others and yourself.
Revenge of the Red Club by Kim Harrington (Aladdin, 2019). Alyson Heller, senior editor at Aladdin, says, “Harrington explored the effects of unfair dress coding and period empowerment in this book. The ideas of boundaries and consent aren’t just applicable for readers, as kids are dealing with these behaviors at all ages.”
That’s What Friends Do by Cathleen Barnhart (HarperCollins, Jan.). Sammie confronts harassment and consent issues when the slick new boy in class, Luke, makes comments that make her uncomfortable, and also eggs on Sammie’s longtime friend David to make a move on her.
Turning Point by Paula Chase (Greenwillow, Sept.). Rasheeda and Monique’s friendship is tested when Sheeda captures the attention of Mo’s older brother in this #OwnVoices novel.
When You Know What I Know by Sonja K. Solter (Little, Brown, Mar.). This debut novel-in-verse follow’s one girl’s journey in the aftermath of sexual abuse.
Graphic Novel Memoir/Nonfiction
Becoming RBG by Debbie Levy, illus. by Whitney Gardner (S&S, 2019), presents the life and career milestones of equal rights activist and feminist icon Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Before They Were Authors: Famous Writers as Kids by Elizabeth Haidle (HMH, 2019) spotlights the early lives of such luminary writers as Maya Angelou and Madeleine L’Engle.
The Boy Who Became a Dragon by Jim Di Bartolo (Graphix, Feb.) introduces kung fu legend and global film star Bruce Lee in a graphic novel biography.
Cub by Cynthia Copeland (Algonquin, Jan.). As a cub reporter intern at a local newspaper in the early 1970s, seventh-grader Cindy discovers her talent for writing, and for asserting herself to question authority in a male-dominated world.
Fever Year: The Killer Flu of 1918 by Don Brown (HMH, 2019) chronicles this dark episode in history and has echoes in the Covid-19 pandemic currently plaguing the world.
Guts by Raina Telgemeier (Graphix, 2019) is the author’s latest autobiographical comic, in which she experiences a terrible upset stomach triggered by her anxiety and worries about food, school, and changing friendships. She chronicles her work with a therapist to develop calming techniques and coping mechanisms.
Journey Under the Arctic by Fabien Cousteau and James O. Fraioli, illus. by Joe St. Pierre (McElderry, Mar.) continues the Fabien Cousteau Expeditions series starring famed explorer Cousteau and his research team, this time in search of the rare Dumbo octopus.
Machines That Think! Big Ideas That Changed the World #2 by Don Brown (Abrams, Apr.). Brown continues his nonfiction series, which launched last year with Rocket to the Moon!, by offering a look at the work done by machines, from the ancient abacus to the modern computer and artificial intelligence.
Maurice and His Dictionary: A True Story by Cary Fagan, illus. by Enzo Lord Mariano (Owlkids, Oct.) is an #OwnVoices text following the journey of a Jewish boy named Maurice and his family as they flee their home in Belgium during WWII. Maurice eventually works his way through various obstacles to attend university in Canada, and his English dictionary served as a beacon of hope throughout his journey.
So Embarrassing: Awkward Moments and How to Get Through Them by Charise Mericle Harper (Workman, Nov.). Workman’s first-ever graphic novel provides middle graders with advice—peppered with humor—on how to manage the stress that comes with such everyday embarrassments as scoring a touchdown for the wrong team or having food stuck in your teeth.
Sylvie by Sylvie Kantorovitz (Candlewick, Feb. 2021). Author-illustrator Kantorovitz reflects on her childhood in France, where hers was the only Jewish family in town, and where she took her first steps toward becoming an artist and teacher.
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, illus. by Jamieson (Dial, Apr.) chronicles Somalia-born Mohamed’s early life growing up with his younger brother in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya.