Cindy & Lynn's Top Middle Grade Fiction Books

calpurniaCindy & Lynn: Today’s Bookends Best of the Year list features books published for upper elementary and early middle school students. We’ll lead off with titles we both have at the top of our list and then will each add a few personal favorites. Want more information? Titles are linked to our prior Bookends blog posts or Booklist reviews.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. Holt, 2009.

Lynn: Kelly beautifully crafts this funny yet bittersweet story. Callie Vee’s evolutionary coming-of-age touched my heart and my head.

Cindy: I was caught in the net of Kelly’s storytelling early in the year and never released. Callie Vee may be 11, but her coming of age in hot, dusty turn of the century Texas is an evolutionary tale that will also appeal to select older readers concerned about finding their place in the world.

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman. HarperCollins, 2009.

Lynn: Is there anything Neil Gaiman can’t write well? This truly lovely take on Norse folklore has the makings of a children’s classic. Brett Helquist’s intricate illustrations are a perfect match.

Cindy: Among other things, this tale is a perfect contender for the Schneider Family Book Award with its hero who doesn’t let his lame leg slow him down in dealing with adversity in all forms.

A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck. Dial, 2009.

Cindy: What a gift! Grandma Dowdel returns in another rollicking and meaningful adventure, this time seen through the eyes of a neighbor boy who finds her even more frightening and mysterious than her grandchildren did in the award-winning prequels.

Lynn: I will never tire of Grandma Dowdel! She is in fine form here – as is Richard Peck who takes some jabs at human nature along with the folksy fun. His comic timing has never been sharper.

Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan. Candlewick, 2009.

Lynn: If the Dust Bowl seems like an odd topic for a graphic novel, wait until you read this stunning book that blends history, fantasy, and a coming-of age story. Matt Phelan’s evocative work will make everyone a believer in the power of this graphic narrative.

Cindy: The fantasy element was a real surprise in this tale, but it worked well. The faces in this book, though, haunt me with their tribute to Dorothy Lange’s work and other Dust Bowl photos of weary but determined, strong faces.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Random/Wendy Lamb, 2009.

Cindy: An intriguing mystery, a sci-fi nod to Madeleine L’Engle, and a dash of 70s nostalgia, all add up to a satisfying story that begs to be reread, but the real magic here is the strong characterization.

Lynn: Great time travel for the younger set – and me too. The minute I finished the book I wanted to start all over again – and Cindy’s right – the characters and relationships are dead on.

Cindy’s Extra Picks

Escape Under the Forever Sky by Eve Yohalem. Chronicle, 2009.

Cindy: Cultural understanding of life in Ethiopia wrapped up in a kidnapping, escape story based in part on a real event make an absorbing read. I hope there’s a sequel in the works. I want to know more about Lucy and her friends.

Half-Minute Horrors ed. by Susan Rich. HarperCollins, 2009.

Cindy: There simply aren’t enough good books for the reluctant teen reader, but this one is a gem. Short stories by talented, popular teen authors, some in graphic form, all of them readable in 30 seconds or less. There’s a website to submit your own tale…

Secret Science Alliance and the Copyright Crook by Eleanor Davis. Bloomsbury, 2009.

Cindy: A delightful graphic novel with fun characters, sly visual and textual jokes, and amazingly intricate and varied page designs. The illustrations will keep readers busy for hours enjoying all the details. Oh, and it honors intelligence and creativity instead of big breasts. Go Eleanor!

Lynn’s Extra Picks

The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge. Harper, 2009.

Lynn: This intricate, imaginative and highly original fantasy has the best world-building of the year and that is saying a lot! Exquisite character development and rich thematic depth round out this remarkable book.

Giant-Slayer by Iain Lawrence. Random/Delacorte, 2009.

Lynn: Lawrence flawlessly blends two separate but connected narratives in this beautifully written book. Who knew that a book about polio could also be a paean to the power of story?

The Islands of the Blessed by Nancy Farmer. S&S/Atheneum, 2009.

Lynn: I’ve heard very little discussion about this terrific book and that really makes me sad. Farmer wraps up her Sea of Trolls series brilliantly while still exploring new ideas and issues that tie so well to contemporary life. Such a great cast of characters too: Jack the humble everyman struggling with the collision of beliefs and cultures, changelings, mermaids and berserkers. And who can resist hobgoblins that fish with their toes?

Lucky Breaks by Susan Patron. S&S/Atheneum, 2009.

Lynn: Susan Patron puts us inside a child’s head with unerring accuracy. Lucky makes a friend who is a girl and suddenly she is embarrassed by her old friends in Hard Pan. Funny, poignant and every bit as charming as her Newbery book, Patron hits pay dirt as Lucky ventures on. I adored the hilarious Americanization of Brigitte.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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