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Unexpected Joy - 7 YA Lit and Middle-Grade Book Recs that Deliver More than You Expect

Words Unexpected Joy over an open book with fairy lights; words 7 YA Lit and Middle Grade Book Recs that Deliver More than You Expect in text box

by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)

On Wednesday, we'll be sharing book recommendations for books we've read that surprised us in the best possible ways and turned out to be more than we expected. In keeping with my recent bookish fave posts featuring YA lit and middle-grade recommendations, I wanted to hone in on a few young adult lit and middle-grade books that also brought me unexpected joy because they were more than I anticipated when I started them.

B. B. Alston's Amari and the Night Brothers (Amazon | - I just finished this one recently and absolutely loved it. I'd heard great things, so I had high expectations, but it still exceeded those expectations! This one is a perfect fit for HP fans, and Alston seamlessly integrates important social issues into this lovely fantasy novel about the secret organization that manages the magical world and keeps it hidden, safe, and peacefully cohabiting alongside the unknowing human world. I may well feature this one in my book review on Friday!

Kelly Barnhill's The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Amazon | - This is a long-time favorite for me, but it is certainly one that exceeded my expectations and made me so happy. This is a richly woven, beautiful story about a witch, an abandoned baby, an ancient swamp monster, and a tiny dragon. It's also about a somber town with a longstanding, heartbreaking tradition and about what it takes to bring about societal change. This one is middle grade but would work for upper elementary school as well.

K.A. Holt's House Arrest (Amazon | - This powerful middle-grade novel in verse explores what happens to the protagonist Timothy after he steals a wallet in middle school to try to get enough money for the medicine his baby brother, Levi, needs to survive. It's about Timothy's punishment, which is house arrest, and about his pathway toward redemption for himself and his family. It's beautiful and quick and would work with a wide age range of readers.

Leah Johnson's You Should See Me in a Crown (Amazon | - Liz Lighty, the protagonist at the center of this powerful story, brings joy wherever she goes, but she has spent much of her high school career trying to dim her light to stay out of the center of things. However, when her college plans do not line up the way she hopes, she finds herself participating in a contest to become prom queen in order to secure the associated cash prize. I thought this one was phenomenal, and it made me so happy! Here's my review of it.

Sandhya Menon's When Dimple Met Rishi (Amazon | - This fascinating young adult romance story focuses on Dimple and Rishi, two Indian American teens whose parents have arranged to marry. When they first meet, Rishi knows this news and is excited about it being part of his future, but he discovers that Dimple is clueless about it and furious about the possibility. But as they get to know each other at a technology camp for high-achieving seniors in high school, they discover that things aren't always what they seem. It's lovely and full of interesting exploration of cultural and societal issues.

Angie Thomas's On the Come Up (Amazon | - I absolutely loved this powerful, uplifting story about Bri and her journey to be one of the best rappers ever. Thomas explores gender expectations, living in the shadow of your parents, the impact of poverty, and so many other important issues in this triumphant young adult lit novel (set in Garden Heights, the neighborhood in The Hate U Give).

Jacqueline Woodson's Harbor Me (Amazon | - We've featured this one before on the podcast and have read it as a buddy read, but I couldn't leave it off this list because it was certainly an unexpected joy for me! This short middle-grade book packs in so many powerful messages about the importance of community and the way that we can learn so much from each other if we open up our hearts and share our secrets. Check out episode 178, Find More Amazing Middle-Grade Books with These Recommendations, or episode 130, Great Books for the Classroom by Black Authors, to hear more about this amazing novel.

Before narrowing it down to YA and middle grade book recs, I almost included T. J. Klune's The House in the Cerulean Sea (Amazon |, Stephen Rowley's The Guncle (Amazon |, and Taylor Jenkins Reid's The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (Amazon |, all of which were unexpected joys for me in many ways. However, I shared all of those recently when I featured books I couldn't stop reading, so check out that post here! (You'll notice that You Should See Me in a Crown appeared there, too! That one is definitely worth adding to the top of your TBR stack!)

(A note to our readers: click on the hashtags above to see our other blog posts with the same hashtag.)

Interested in what else we're reading? Check out our Featured Books page.

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