Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

Realistic Fiction
364 pages

It’s hard enough to be a new kid in 8th grade, but when you’re new because you were evicted from your last apartment and you’re already the blackest kid in the school, it’s impossible not to stand out.  Genesis has a history of trying to be the person she thinks others want her to be.  And every time she changes, she ends up feeling worse.  Can she ever learn who she wants to be for herself?  What will it take for her to let go of the things she can’t control like her dark skin, her father’s drinking, her grandmother’s prejudice, the taunts of other kids, and start to embrace who she is and her own talents?

I recommend this book to any middle school reader who understands the feeling of being not quite good enough or not knowing how to belong.  It will surely encourage empathy and understanding.

The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden

Realistic Fiction
354 pages

Zoey has a lot on her plate — and we’re not talking about food here.  To make ends meet (and barely meet), Zoey has to watch her younger siblings at her mom’s boyfriend Lenny’s trailer park while her mom takes shifts at a restaurant.  Her clothes barely fit and it’s cold in Vermont in winter.  Lenny is verbally abusive to her mom, and Zoey is always walking on eggshells around him.  Plus, the kids at school are not always kind when you’re poor, and the friends she has are in worse shape than she is.

But Zoey is smart, and she can juggle everything better than an octopus with 8 arms.  She’s a great storyteller and loves her siblings fiercely.  She remembers when her mom had the strength to run their household without taking the belittling comments from men in her life.  There’s one teacher looking out for her, and with just a little confidence, she just might make the debate team or at least learn how to stand up for her family and friends.

I would highly recommend this book to any sensitive middle school reader who can empathize with Zoey’s situation or any reader who wants to better understand how complicated a life of poverty can be.

Courage by Barbara Bills

Realistic Fiction
353 pages

T’Shawn doesn’t know what to think when his brother gets early release from prison.  Will he be the gangster who put a gun to his head or the brother who taught him how to swim?  The memories of the kind, older brother are fading.  That was long ago: before his dad dies slowly and painfully from cancer, before the time at the shelter, and before T’Shawn learned to be the man of the house.  But it’s tough for a young black kid from Chicago’s south side to compete with the wealthy, privileged kids on his swim team, as well as deal with drugs, gangs, 7th grade, and police who don’t trust him.  So it would actually be nice if only his brother would come through for him.  However, Lamont returns to a home where he’s not trusted.  T’Shawn takes care of his little sister (who barely remembers her other brother), gets all A’s in school, has good friends from church, and has found a passion for diving.  When these worlds collide, it’s easy to see how their brotherhood could fall apart.

I would recommend this book to any middle school reader who has ever wanted to trust someone when they’ve been hurt before.

The Graces by Laure Eve

YA/Fantasy/Dark Magic
336 pages

River has just moved to town, but she realizes that if she can get in with the Grace family, she’ll be all set!  And she does.  Summer befriends her, dreamy Fenrin flirts with her, and even Fenrin’s twin Thalia who is two  grades older, welcomes her into the family.  But it’s a strange family with secrets locked away in their mansion.  That’s OK.  River has secrets of her own.  What happened at her old school?  Where is her father?  And mostly, does she really believe in magic or that the Graces practice the kind of magic that can help her?

I would recommend this book to mature 8th grade readers for it’s language and some sexual content.  Those who like books that delve into a little dark magic will enjoy this tale!

Blended by Sharon M. Draper

Realistic Fiction
308 pages

Isabella is caught right in the middle.  Her parents are divorcing and she can’t live with both of them.  The fact that they both love her and want her with them does not change the fact that she has to have a backpack in each house, shift gears from one family to another each week, and even practice piano on different instruments.  Things get even more complicated when Izzy’s friend is the target of racial harassment.  She’s just as scared as Imani, but being half white and half black changes the way she’s treated.  Her identity has always been linked to music, but her race and family life play a role too.  It’s not until two major life events force her to think about just how much.

I highly recommend this book to any middle school reader who cares to confront issues of race and identity.  This book is also for any reader who can empathize with the feeling of being pulled in so many directions that you don’t know exactly who you are or where you belong.

Lousiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

Realistic Fiction
227 page

I looks like the end of the road for twelve-year-old Louisiana.  Her unfit grandmother has taken her from home and after the car runs out of gas and they only have enough money for one night at the motel, there does not seem to be anywhere to turn.  But then there is the kindness of strangers and Louisiana’s own gift.  She has an endearing voice and a way of moving forward.  This child is resilient beyond her years, and despite the many tears she sheds, she learns that there is a magic in learning fo find yourself AND take what’s offered to you.

I highly recommend this story to sensitive middle school readers who believe in the power of hope.  Be prepared for a good cry and some joyful moments too.  Fans of Raymie Nightingale will not be disappointed!

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling

Realistic Fiction
262 pages

Aven green has no arms, but she’s also sassy, a problem solver, kind, funny, and a talented soccer player.  When she moves to Arizona for her family to manage a run-down, Old Western Theme Park, she’s missing her friends and her old life where she was more than just the girl with no arms.

But she starts from scratch befriending Connor, a boy with Tourettes and Zion another outcast who is overweight.  Their friendship helps each of them deal with  their individual disabilities as well as solve the mystery of Stagecoach Pass.  Along the way, Aven learns more about what makes her who she is today.

I would recommend this book to any middle school student who wants to practice empathy and learn how to overcome adversity.

The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

YA Mystery
369 pages

Not long after her classmate’s murder was solved, another student is missing from the elite Ellingham boarding school nestled away in the mountains of Vermont.  Can Stevie Bell solve this case like she did the last one?  And will it bring her any closer to the unsolved murder and kidnapping case from 70 years ago?  It’s hard not to wonder if the school is cursed or if it’s just an unfortunate series of events unfolding despite the watchful eyes of security across the campus.

What’s even more curious are the players in this situation.  A powerful senator and his manic son (who may be more than just a crush to Stevie), a troubled professor and her peculiar nephew, as well as Stevie’s genius friends each weave a new layer into the mysteries that are screaming to be solved.

I picked this book without realizing it was the 2nd in a trilogy, and I was still hooked.  There was enough heart-pounding action and a satisfying conclusion  to make me rave about this mystery.  But there were enough loose ends to make me crave the 3rd and final book in the series.  I might even go back and read the 1st one to pick up some hints.  I recommend this book to strong, mature middle school readers who love a wildly clever whodunnit.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Novel in Verse
332 pages

Jude and her mother leave Syria because the violence is getting closer and closer to their home, and Jude’s mother is expecting a baby.  Her father and brother remain home to keep their store running and hope for peace.  It’s a difficult choice but totally understandable.

Life in America is different.  Her uncle’s family shares their beautiful home with them, but it’s still hard to live in a country with a new language and culture.  However, Jude finds her way.  She takes all the parts of herself: music, humor, standing up for what’s right, her hijab, wanting to be a star on stage, her memories and her hopes for the future, and somehow makes it work.

I would recommend this book to any middle school student who understands that being true to yourself takes a bit of courage, but it is what matters most in life.

Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee

Realistic Fiction
286 pages

Teasing?  Bullying?  Flirting?  Harassment?  The linne can sometimes be blurry but sometimes it can be quite clear.  Of course that doesn’t make it any less painful or any easier to confront.  Mila knows she’s the target of something uncomfortable, so why is it so hard for her, her friends, or the witnesses to know what to do?  School, friends, and family life are tough enough to manage without any added obstacles.  When a few boys start making comments and touching her and pretending it hasn’t happened, her friends just want her to deal with it.  But she has dealt with everything in all the right ways, and still it continues.  Her frustration and anxiety can be felt through the pages of this book, and you will be rooting for her to be the champion of her own destiny.  But does it work that way?

I would recommend this book to ANY middle school reader.  It’s an important story not only about harassment, but also about decency, respect, and taking responsibility.  It’s about being there for one another and it’s about taking care of ourselves too.