Trouble in the Middle

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Trouble in the Middle

Contemporary Realistic Fiction for Middle Readers

For a taste of some of the best middle grade reads of the past year try one of the books listed below. Each book focuses on issues surrounding tweens and adolescents, including growing independence, friendship and advocacy. Perfectly paced and timely these novels will capture the most casual readers of the realistic fiction, of all ages.

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Books by Jason Reynolds
Canton keeps watch over his mother, the Latimer Middle School crossing guard who figures in each of the ten stories about what happens on the way home from school. It's been a year since Canton's mother was hit by a school bus while saving a student intent on retrieving a treasured item from the roadway. The owner of the retrieved handball's brother is now in prison, far away. The handball owner's best friend and protector is the younger brother of person responsible for the prison sentence, and so goes the intertwining lives of the students who pass by Canton's mother to meet their destiny or just enjoy hanging out with friends. Reynolds alternates humor, poetic stream of consciousness and heart-pounding drama for yet another novel filled with characters the reader will want to revisit.
2019 National Book Award Finalist
2020 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book


Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams
Genesis life is on a precipice. Her father disappears for days on end and because of the family's situational homelessness, Genesis is occasionally left with her emotionally abusive grandmother. Genesis also continues to be bullied at each school the family's peripatetic living situation lands her in. At the heart of the novel is the colorism (the bookcover hints at the issue) found throughout Genesis's family history and among the affluent students at her new school. Williams's candor on familial and societal prejudice are rendered relatable through universal experiences, like crushes, finding one's particular talent, and the desire to feel accepted by one's peers.
2020 John Newbery Award Honor Book
2020 William C. Morris Debut Author Award
2020 John Steptoe New Talent Award


Roll With It by Jamie Sumner
Ellie has cerebral palsy and when she was much younger had seizures. Because of this Ellie must endure the humiliation of having a twentysomething who calls her “sweetie” trailing her in the halls of her Nashville, Tennessee middle school. Ellie wants to blend at school and have a little privacy. When her mother moves them to Oklahoma to help with her ailing grandfather, Ellie gets a fresh start with new friends and a little independence, if only because her new school doesn’t have all the accommodations of her old school. Ellie, much like Genesis, struggles with the setbacks change presents, but eventually finds opportunities for personal growth and self acceptance.  

Not If I Can Help It by Carolyn Mackler
Willa has settled into life on the Upper West Side with her single father and younger brother. Her parent’s divorce and her mother’s subsequent move upstate and remarriage were a struggle for the change averse Willa, but with middle school on the horizon, Willa is better at living with her sensory processing disorder. Willa struggled with controlling her body when she first started school, which led to some embarrassing incidents. Willa doesn’t want her cool new best friend Ruby to find out about her SPD, but when her father and Ruby’s mother announce their romantic relationship, Willa’s fear of change and others finding out about her quirks leads her to question her ability to ever feel settled. Inspired by the author’s own family, Not If I Can Help It is another highly readable exploration of what many tweens experience, a desire to fit in.

Each Tiny Spark by Pablo Cartana

Emilia Rosa lives with her abuela and parents a short walk from her abuela’s car repair and body shop. Her grandmother is a respected member of their Merryville, Georgia community, as is her Marine father and computer app developer mother. Emilia Rosa has lived in Merryville all her life and has no trouble fitting in. Her ADHD makes keeping up with her peers in school difficult, but mami keeps her organized. When her mother leaves for a weeklong conference, Emilia Rosa finds much has escaped her attention. Emilia Rosa becomes aware of the disrespect shone abuela by neighbors and customers. Her returning father is too despondent to be a caregiver. The impending decision to bus students from the largely Latinx and Black neighborhood of Parkview, exposes the microaggressions her friend Gus and others have been experiencing in and out of their middle school. Emilia Rosa sparks change by applying her superpower, her laser like, ADHD fueled focus to learning more about and advocate for those around her.
2020 Schneider Family Book Award Honor, Middle Grades

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee

Shayla fears for her family’s safety after a police shooting. Her Japanese American best friend begins spending more time with other Asian Americans. Other Black girls at Emerson Junior High are wary of Shayla’s non-Black associations. She can’t seem to shake a boy in shop class or get the attention of the boy she’s interested in and joining the track team may not be her “thing” after all. For Shayla life has been about avoiding problems. In A Good Kind of Trouble, Ramee provides the reader with someone to root for who isn’t very brave, but learns to speak up and act for herself through speaking up for others.