‘Playing the Cards You’re Dealt’ by Varian Johnson is a wonderful middle grade read about life, family, and dealing with challenges

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt
by Varian Johnson

Varian Johnson has written some fabulous books for middle grade readers. My students loved “The Parker Inheritance,” and my first experience with his writing was reviewing “The Great Greene Heist,” both novels sparkling examples of witty middle grade reads. With “Playing the Cards You’re Dealt,” Johnson gives readers a glimpse into the world of those who plays spades, and in the Joplin family, playing spades is as close to a religious experience as they are going to have outside of church. Ten-year-old Ant, short for Anthony, had embarrassed himself at the annual spade tournament the previous year, and he’s determined that he and his best friend and spade-playing partner, Jamal, will win this year.

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‘Daughter of the Deep’ by Rick Riordan is thrilling and hugely entertaining

Daughter of the Deep by Rick Riordan

In an exciting leap that is just as thrilling as any twist Percy Jackson might encounter, Rick Riordan brings us a slightly different kind of adventure with “Daughter of the Deep,” his book about a group of students in a maritime academy who end up on the run for their lives and dive straight into an adventure that is based on Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” We first meet Ana Dakkar when she and her brother go for a swim in the ocean on which their special private school sits. We quickly learn that their parents died in an accident two years previously, and Ana and Dev are close. Dev is several years older than Ana, and at the end of their swim he gives her an early birthday present as she is leaving with the freshman class for a final weekend of trials.

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‘What About Will’ by Ellen Hopkins is a middle grade novel about love and family and addiction

What About Will by Ellen Hopkins

Ellen Hopkins knows a lot about addiction. Many of her young adult novels are about that very subject, and addiction’s deleterious effect on families is something she knows all too well. In “What About Will,” Hopkins writes about a younger brother who had a lovely family until he didn’t.

Trace Reynolds is twelve, and his older brother Will is the kind of older brother most kids only dream about. Even though Will is five years older, he has taught Trace to ride a two-wheeler, taught him to snow board, and taken care of him in myriad ways. Trace has known that Will loves him and would always be there for him. But after Will is in a horrible collision during a football game, everything changes.

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‘Willodeen’ by Katherine Applegate; because Nature knows more than we do

Willodeen by Katherine Applegate

Award-winning author Katherine Applegate’s last series, “Endling,” was about the near-extinction of a species. In her newest magical novel, “Willodeen,” she presents an alternative world with strange, exotic creatures. As in our own world, some creatures in this magical one are cute, and others are not only ugly; they smell atrocious. They are called screechers because of the sound they make at night. Main character and first person narrator Willodeen and her father had enjoyed watching them — from a distance — because if you get too close to them, you smell, too. They both loved creatures, and the yard of their cottage was filled with domestic animals and wild ones, like the “ancient river otter who could no longer swim.” Together, Willodeen and her father observed nature and enjoyed watching animals, both ugly and beautiful, until one of the ever-increasing fire events destroyed Willodeen’s house and killed everyone in her family but her.

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‘Pony’ by R. J. Palacio is a superb new novel about devotion

Pony by R.J. Palacio

While the plot of “Pony” by R. J. Palacio reminded me a bit of another middle grade book about a pony, “Some Kind of Courage” by Dan Gemeinhart, the stories are quite different apart from being historical fiction with both boys having a horse that they love dearly. Each story is beautiful in its own right, and “Pony” is one that will not be quickly forgotten. In “Pony,” Palacio forces us to think about love, loss, and the connections that bind us to each other.

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‘Spy School at Sea’ by Stuart Gibbs is the latest in the middle grade series for lovers of espionage and good writing

Spy School at Sea by Stuart Gibbs

I asked a student who was a huge fan of the Spy School series if I could jump into the Stuart Gibbs Spy School series without having read the first few novels. He said that I’d be too confused. I believed him. Shame on me. I jumped into the series with “Spy School at Sea,” and I was not confused. At all. To the contrary, I was charmed and engaged in the fabulous writing, clever plot, and absurdly silly and yet deadly events that befall our main character. Granted, Gibbs does reference past exploits of main character Benjamin Ripley, and we know that he has a past with his nemesis, Murray Hill, but the fast-paced action and the witty dialogue, not to mention the teenage foibles, all make for a story that is funny, clever, and exciting. No preparation necessary.

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‘Tips for Magicians’ by Celesta Rimington is a superb middle grade book that deals with overcoming loss, family and friendship

Tips for Magicians by Celesta Rimington

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from “Tips for Magicians,” a new middle grade book by Celesta Rimington. The title sounded cute—but I realized the book is much more than “cute.” It’s a powerful and touching story of a boy who loses his mother in an unexpected accident, and we see that the grief and the resulting damage to his family seems overwhelming. Harrison’s mother was a beautiful classical singer, and she performed all over the world. His father was her stage manager, and since her death he’s been working a lot. We don’t know if he needs to work or wants to be busy to assuage his grief, but he’s gone a lot. Since her death, Harrison’s father can’t stand to hear music in their home, and Harrison has been grieving not only the loss of his mother, but the loss of the music that both he and his mother loved and shared together.

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‘Rescue’ by Jennifer A. Nielsen is a riveting middle grade historical fiction set during the Holocaust

Rescue by
Jennifer A. Nielsen

Jennifer A. Nielsen’s middle grade historical fiction novels are wonderful examples of books that teach kids about history while sandwiching that information in thrilling, emotional stories that will hook them. “Rescue,” her newest release, is no different. In this story we meet Meg, whose father is British and her mother French. Meg grew up speaking both languages and when the Germans, before WWII, became aggressive, they began to teach her German as well.

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National Geographic Kids hits a home run with summer reads kids will LOVE

Ask any teacher what they want kids to do over the summer and most will reply: read. Of course we teachers all want kids to be outside, enjoying the summer weather and swimming and playing, but we also want them reading. Learning to enjoy reading, and reading for the sake of enjoyment, is a pastime that will have lifelong benefits. A person who reads is an informed person who is better able to analyze what is fact and what is fiction.

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‘Rez Dogs’ by Joseph Bruchac is a touching, timely, terrific middle grade novel about life during COVID on the reservation

Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac

“Rez Dogs” by acclaimed author Joseph Bruchac is not only a timely story about life on the reservation during COVID, it’s also the story of a girl and her dog, as well as a brief overview of the history of the government’s treatment of Native people even recently. All this in Bruchac’s evocative verse, succinct yet poetic and lovely.

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‘Even and Odd’ by Sarah Beth Durst is a middle grade fantasy about family, love, and sacrifice

Even and Odd by Sarah Beth Durst

The middle grade fantasy “Even and Odd” adds to Sarah Beth Durst’s shelves of fantasy books—from middle grade to young adult to adult. And in this magical story, sisters Emma and Olivia become the title characters, Even and Odd, because they share their magic. Each gets to have magic on alternating days, so while their nicknames are Even and Odd, it doesn’t always quite work out that way. (Some months have 31 days, as is pointed out in the story.) Even loves magic and works tirelessly to gain control of it while Odd doesn’t really want it at all. She just wants to help at the local animal shelter.

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‘Connect the Dots’ by Keith Calabrese is a wonderful middle grade novel

Connect the Dots by Keith Calabrese

Want to get your child a fabulous novel to read over the summer that’s filled with relatable characters, a genius who has disappeared, and a mystery that is solved by three intrepid children? “Connect the Dots” is Keith Calabrese’s second novel, and it’s filled with the same wonderful messages that his first book, “A Drop of Hope,” was. This one—dare I say it—is even better.

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