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178: Find More Amazing Middle-Grade Books with These Recommendations

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

Episode graphic: Silhouette of a child reading in front of a sunset; Text: Episode 178 - Middle Grade Recs

In this Unabridged episode, we have several amazing middle-grade book recommendations for you all. We share about Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ghost Boys, Alex Gino’s George, and Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus as our featured recommendations, and then we each mention a couple of other personal favorites from our recent middle-grade reads.

Bookish Check-in

Ashley - Talia Hibbert’s Act Your Age, Eve Brown ( | Amazon)

Jen - Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet ( | Amazon)

Sara - Priyanka Chopra Jonas’s Unfinished ( | Amazon)

Our Middle-Grade Recommendations

Ashley - Alex Gino’s George ( | Amazon)

Jen - Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ghost Boys ( | Amazon)

Sara - Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus ( | Amazon)

Ashley’s Other Picks - George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy ( | Amazon), Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again ( | Amazon)

Jen’s Other Picks - Jacqueline Woodson’s Harbor Me ( | Amazon); Tiffany Jewell’s This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work ( | Amazon)

Sara’s Other Picks - Kelly Yang’s Front Desk ( | Amazon), Jason Reynolds’s When I Was the Greatest ( | Amazon)

Other Mentions

Sandhya Menon's When Dimple Met Rishi ( | Amazon) and adaptation Mismatched (Episode 165, about the adaptation)

Maggie O'Farrell's This Must Be the Place ( | Amazon) and I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death ( | Amazon) - Episode 98, about I Am, I Am, I Am)

Shakespeare's Hamlet ( | Amazon)

Talia Hibbert's Get a Life, Chloe Brown ( | Amazon) and Take a Hint, Dani Brown ( | Amazon)

Kelly Yang's Three Keys ( | Amazon) (the sequel to Front Desk)

Our Global Read Aloud episode featuring Front Desk

Dusti Bowling’s Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus ( | Amazon) (the sequel to Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus)

E. B. White's Charlotte's Web ( | Amazon)

Thanhha Lai's Listen, Slowly ( | Amazon)

Bri McCoy's Come and Eat: A Celebration of Love and Grace Around the Everyday Table ( | Amazon)

T. J. Klune's The House in the Cerulean Sea ( | Amazon)

Give Me One - One Thing that Made You Happy This Week

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Bookish Check-in

Book cover of Priyanka Chopra Jonas's Unfinished

Sara said, "I am reading Priyanka Chopra Jonas's Unfinished. It's her memoir that just came out, and it is about her life. In India, it starts in the very beginning of her life, and it goes through present day. Honestly, I wanted to read it because I was interested in her story with Nick Jonas because I really like I like him a lot, and I like her. I think she does a lot of really awesome things, but I really wanted to read about the relationship and see how they met and all of that. What I was really pleasantly surprised about is that it starts from when she was younger, and we learn so much about her parents and how much they supported her, and she had just this lovely relationship with both of them. They just really pushed her to be in who she wanted to be and to do what she wanted to do. I just really enjoyed learning about all that, and having watched Mismatched and read When Dimple Met Rishi and having some scaffolding on Indian culture, that made it even more interesting to read a nonfiction book and learn more even more about it. So I really am enjoying it. I'm almost finished. I think it's really good. I just I love celebrity memoirs, and I just think anytime I can learn something new, it is a bonus. . . . So that is Priyanka Chopra Jonas's Unfinished."

Book cover of Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet

Jen said, "So I am reading Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, and I am a fan of O'Farrell's work. I've not read all of her backlist, but we read I Am, I Am, I Am on the podcast—that's her memoir—and I loved her novel This Must Be the Place. So when I saw she had a book that had any relation at all to Hamlet, which is my absolute favorite Shakespeare play—I've taught it for many, many years, and I love it so much—I was very excited. I immediately put it on hold at my library, and it just came in, so I had this mini celebration. It is great so far. I'm not very far into it, but it takes place during Shakespeare's time. As the title suggests, Shakespeare is not necessarily the main character, but it does shift between perspectives, and This Must Be the Place did that as well. I think that's something that O'Farrell does very well. So far. It has it started with Hamnet. Hamnet was actually a twin, and when the book starts, he is—I think he's nine—and his twin has fallen ill, and for some reason, there are no adults at their house except his grandfather, who has gotten drunk and is unable to help him that he's also abusive. So he's trying to get a hold of him to beat him because Hamnet did something that made him angry. But Hamnet is desperate because he knows that his sister is really sick: he can't figure out where anyone is. He goes and tries to get the doctor; the doctor is not at his house. So he goes back, and he realizes that his sister has these huge growths on her neck and on her arm. So I'm pretty sure she has the plague: we will see, but I think that's where it's going. He's just all alone and is so sick. Anyway, my mother's heart was super sad.

"Then it switched to, I think it's like 15 years before, when Shakespeare is acting as a tutor in the village to pay off a debt of his father. So this is the grandfather who is abusing Hamnet at the beginning, and he has become intrigued by this woman who he sees out the window of the school house, carrying a falcon. He becomes very intrigued by her and finds out that there are all these stories about her in the village that she might be a witch, and he thinks that's kind of cool. So he wants to get to know her better. Then it Susannah's (Hamnet and his twin, Judith's older sister), and it just had her perspective. So I don't know how many perspectives it's going to go through. So far, they've all been compelling. These are all really rich characters. You see the burden that it's putting on Hamnet and his siblings for their dad to be gone so much of the year, that they live with their father's parents, with their grandparents, because he's gone so much. I think it's just so far a really rich portrait of a family. Again, of course, I can't wait to see . . . I'm sure Hamlet is going to come into it at some point. I'm very ready. I'm anxious to see how that's worked in. But as with O'Farrell's other work, the writing is gorgeous. The characters are compelling, so I'm just kind of along for the ride. We'll see what happens."

Book cover of Talia Hibbert's Act Your Age, Eve Brown

Ashley said, "So I wanted to share about Talia Hibbert's Act Your Age, Eve Brown, I have shared my love for Talia Herbert's work, I read Chloe Brown's book and also Dani Brown and was so excited for this one, and had the audio of this. So I was very excited to see that it was available on there, and the others I had read and not listened to, so I was also excited to try the listening experience. So far, I absolutely love the narration, and hat's been really fun to see it in that form instead. This is about Eve Brown. In the opening part, she—so just a little bit of context about the sisters: their family is very, very wealthy. They all have a trust fund, and they're given essentially allowances from the trust fund to supplement what they do, but their family, their parents, are alive and involved. They still are monitoring them, and they want them to work and to have their own source of income as well. Eve, unlike her sisters, has not found any continuous work of her own. She is much more reliant on the allowance that she gets from the trust fund. She has tried a lot of different careers, but in the opening part, she set up this wedding business, and she had established a website, and she had gotten everything lined up to do that. Then she had a pretty spectacular failure with a friend who'd gotten married, and that's the opening part. Immediately she pulls down her website and gives up on her business. Her mom discovers this because her mom shares the website address with a friend so that they can share it for somebody who's getting married, and the friend lets her mom know that the site she's getting an error message, and the site's not found. That's how her parents discover that she's bailed on yet another business, and she's had quite a few. Chloe is a website designer, and so in Get a Life, Chloe Brown, some of that is all about her website design. So Eve has been taking advantage of her sister's skill and has tried a lot of different ones. Her parents have a bit of a moment with her right at the beginning, and they basically say, once this stuff is coming out that she is no longer going to have any access to the trust fund until she has proven that she can be successful on her own and have her own source of income. She was currently living in their house, and they're giving her three months to move out and to start finding her own way. So they really have felt like they had to give her this nudge. As the title suggests, they're trying to get her to act her age, and they're encouraging her to take the step to figure out what she wants to do.

"With a bit of serendipity, right after that, she sees a posting for a chef at a cafe in this town and is intrigued by the quaint location: it's a bed and breakfast. So she's just really intrigued by the area and enters to see about applying for this chef position. She does have training, even though she hasn't really practiced a lot—she has a lot of natural talent, and she's got some training. So she is thinking about applying for that. Meanwhile, we see a little bit of the perspective of Jacob who is the guy who's doing the hiring and who runs the space. He is rather curmudgeonly and has a friend who is helping him with these interviews. He's just very no nonsense and has a very clear attitude about what he does and does not want. So he has eliminated every possible candidate very quickly because as soon as he sees them, he knows whether they meet the criteria on his list. If they do not, he's not interested in pursuing it. So there you're getting a glimpse into this side of the struggle when she knocks on the door and suddenly appears. So that is where I am. I've only listened to a little bit so far, and I am loving it. We talked before about comfort reading and learning the authors that you really like and that, you know, you're gonna like every time, and that's how Talia Hibbert is for me. So I was excited before I started this, and I am absolutely loving it. . . . So again, that's Talia Hibbert's Act Your Age, Eve Brown."

Main Segment - Our Middle-Grade Recommendations

Book cover of Jewell Parker Rhodes's Ghost Boys

Jen's pick was Jewell Parker Rhodes's Ghost Boys. She said, "I think that I was thinking again about my sensitive son: I think there are topics that I very much want him to know about, and I think one thing that I really appreciate about middle grade books is just these authors excel at exploring really challenging topics with this age group. I will say this will be a tough read for anyone. It is about a boy named Jerome. He's 12 years old, he is Black, and he is killed very early on in the book by a white police officer. Then Jerome joins other 'ghost boys' who are other black boys who have been killed unjustly, usually as a result of racism or some sort of violence. In the group of ghost boys that he joins, Emmett Till is there, and Emmett Till acts as a sort of guide for Jerome to help him work through some of his feelings of anger and betrayal and just acceptance. It's really powerful. I think this is—it's a tough book—but I do think it's important for kids this age to know about things like the story of Emmett Till. This does a good job of introducing that part of the history. One powerful part of this book is that Jerome meets Sarah., the daughter of the police officer who killed him. She is also very angry and feels very betrayed, so you see these two kids trying to work through that kind of anger and what forgiveness means and when forgiveness is appropriate. Through the eyes of Sarah, you see her father struggling with what has happened, and so I think there's a lot of empathy for so many characters in the book. Yet, it is very much acknowledging something that I think we need to continue to put at the forefront of our reading and to continue considering ways that we can act against. So it's a tough topic for a middle-grade book, but I think this is the right age for it. So again, that's Jewell Parker Rhode's Ghost Boys."

Book cover of Dusti Bowling's Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Sara recommended Dusti Bowling's Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. I read this on audio this year: I checked it out from the library. This book is about Aven Green. She is a child who was born with no arms, and she was adopted by this couple, and they live in, gosh, I can't remember—I think Oklahoma? They live in a state, and she has grown up in an area that everybody knows her, and she's very comfortable in, and she loves her life. All of a sudden, her parents decide to purchase an old amusement park that is an Arizona, and they kind of uproot and move out to Arizona to try their hand at running this amusement park. The story is basically about her trying to navigate being in a place where she doesn't know anyone, and no one knows her. She doesn't have arms, and so that is uncomfortable for some of the kids that are at her new school because she does everything with her toes. It's just this book about her navigating and finding her place there. She also makes best friends with a boy who has Tourette syndrome. It's just a really beautiful book about friendship and making your own way. I just loved this book. There were a lot of things represented in the book that I haven't seen very much in middle-grade literature. I thought it was really funny: I laughed out loud because Aven is just really funny. She's got all this spirit, and she you just love her from the very beginning, and you love her family and all the people she encounters. It's just a great story. So I am recommending this because I think it is important for all different kinds of people to be represented in children's literature, and I think it's important for kids to read about people who have experiences that are not like their own."

Book cover of Alex Gino's George

Ashley shared Alex Gino's George. She said, "I read this one and don't remember sharing it on here, and I absolutely loved it. So this was a nice chance to share that story because I just think it's such a powerful book, and I absolutely loved it. This is the story of George: she is transgender. At the beginning of the book, she is aware of that but feels that no one will ever know that. It is a secret. She knows that everyone sees a boy when they look at her and that that's just the way the world is: that's kind of her feeling in the beginning. So she does things, like she loves to look at girls' magazines and stuff like that. Then she's hiding those from her family because she worries that they would not be accepting of her looking at these girls' magazines and being interested in those things. Yet, over time, the focal point of this story is about her class putting on a play version of Charlotte's Web. She wants to be Charlotte, and so a lot of this story is about her wanting to be Charlotte and her wanting there to not be such a strong conflict between her inner life and her outer life and wanting those things to connect. She also has this great best friend Kelly, and even Kelly doesn't know a lot about her at the beginning. She doesn't know this inner self that that George is having this big conflict with her in herself. Kelly's not aware of that, but over time, Kelly becomes aware of some of the conflict that that Georgia is experiencing. Ultimately, I don't want to give too much away. I don't want to ruin the story, but they do some things so there's an opportunity for George to show who she really is, and they do that in connection to the Charlotte's Web play. . . . What I really loved is that positive affirmation of the fact that who she really is can be who people see and that there's not a right way to be and that it's okay to tell about the inner self to other people and to trust that those other people can accept what is true and in your inner self. I just thought all of that was really masterfully done and is done in a way that I think helps. I think it is both a great story for kids who are struggling with gender to read and to see that other kids might feel that way too, that they are different on the inside than the way that people see them, but I think it also is great for kids who do not have that inner conflict and who can then come to understand what that might feel like for a child who does feel that way. I think all of that is just really beautifully done, and I absolutely love the way that the connection between Charlotte's Web and George's inner self, how all of that is woven together is really lovely, and I love that it plays on a classic that everyone knows in a story that we all love and then shows how that connects to to George to her as a character."

Give Me One - One Thing that Made You Happy This Week

Be sure to listen in to hear what was making us happy and to share something making you happy, too!


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