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If you are looking for Christmas gift ideas for the 8 to 12 year-old in your life, here are some of the best middle-grade books I have read this year:

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

11-year-old Addie is autistic but her new class teacher thinks she’s just being difficult, her best friend has dropped her for someone else, and even her older sister Keedie, who understands her better than anyone else, is now away at university all day. When Addie learns about her town’s history of witch trials she is determined to find a way of commemorating these women who were tortured and executed, just for being a little bit different. But no one wants to listen to Addie. Can she find a way to speak up for these women and for herself in the process? This is a brilliant book that raises awareness and understanding about autistic people, in particular those who are not as obvious due to masking. But it is also a wonderfully moving and inspiring story about kindness and tolerance in general. Highly recommended.

The Beast and the Bethany by Jack Meggitt-Phillips, illustrated by Isabelle Follath

The Beast and the Bethany is a hilariously macabre story about a nasty, self-centred man, called Ebenezer Tweezer, who adopts a badly-behaved orphan in order to feed her to the Beast that lives in his attic. But neither the Beast, nor Ebenezer is fully prepared for The Bethany! It sounds like a pretty horrifying concept, but this is also a charming, beautifully illustrated story, full of heart and humour, that children will love. 

The Girl Who Stole An Elephant by Nizrana Farook

When Chaya breaks into the palace and steals the Queen’s jewels she has no idea that her actions will lead to a prison break, political unrest and a madcap escape with her friends through the jungle on the back of the King’s elephant, Ananda. The book is set in the kingdom of Serendib, inspired by the author’s home country of Sri Lanka, and the lush vegetation and dense jungle are beautifully evoked. This is a fun, fast-paced adventure with a feisty protagonist.  

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski

Twelve-year-old Flick Hudson has always longed to travel the world, but she’s never been anywhere, until she stumbles across the Strangeworlds Travel Agency and discovers a whole shop-full of suitcases leading to other worlds. This is a wonderfully imagined, delightfully magical book and hopefully, the start of a brilliant new series.

The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson, illustrated by Saara Soderlund

Sophie Anderson is such a deft and accomplished storyteller—her books all seem to spring forth as fully formed modern-classics. I loved The House with Chicken Legs and The Girl Who Speaks Bear, so I was anticipating great things from The Castle of Tangled Magic and it didn’t disappoint. Olia lives in an old castle full of secret ways and fantastical domes. She’s sure there is magic in the castle and can’t wait to share it with her baby sister. But one day there is a terrible storm and the castle is damaged. Olia follows a magical guide through the castle’s domes to a land beyond, where a host of magical creatures have been trapped by a cruel wizard. Olia must defeat the wizard to save her castle and free the magic, but she must also make some difficult decisions and some sacrifices along the way. A spellbinding, heart-warming story about growing up and taking responsibility. (There’s also a lovely link to one of the other books that I particularly enjoyed.)

The Vanishing Trick by Jenni Spangler, illustrated by Chris Mould

When destitute orphan Leander meets the mysterious Madame Pinchbeck, she seems kind and trustworthy but by the time he meets the other children under her ‘care’, Charlotte and Felix, it is too late and he is as trapped as they are. The resourceful children must work together to foil her nefarious plans and find a way to escape. This book has a definite Series of Unfortunate Events feel, and Madame Pinchbeck is a dastardly villain worthy of comparison with Count Olaf. A dark and sinister tale set in Victorian England.

My Name is River by Emma Rea

Dylan is devastated to learn that his family farm in Wales has been sold off to a multinational corporation called BlueBird. His friend Floyd’s Dad works for BlueBird, but he’s currently in Brazil with Floyd’s little brother, and Floyd and his Mum are worried that something is wrong as they have lost touch with him. Dylan and Floyd hatch a crazy plan to fly to Brazil, bring Floyd’s brother home and save Dylan’s family farm. En route, they meet the charming Lucia, a resilient street child with a peculiar range of vocabulary (because she learned English by reading a thesaurus), and her Great Dane, Pernickety. Their quest takes them to Manaus and on a boat up the river and deep into the Amazon Rainforest to confront a heartless villain with a horrifying agenda. My Name is River evokes the same sense of adventure as Eva Ibbotson’s ‘Journey to the River Sea’, through a more contemporary lens. It is a gripping story of friendship and courage, saturated in the sights, scents and sounds of the rainforest, with a vitally important message about environmental conservation. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Wild Way Home by Sophie Kirtley

All Charlie has ever wanted is a little brother or sister, and when his wish is finally granted on his twelfth birthday, he resolves to be the perfect big brother. But when Charlie’s little brother is diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition, Charlie runs away to the forest that has always been his refuge. But something in the forest has changed: Charlie finds himself caught up in a Stone-Age quest that will challenge him and ultimately give him the courage to be the big brother he wants to be. There are some major challenges about writing a story set in the Stone Age, the language barrier in particular, but Sophie Kirtley makes the imaginative leap with ease and flair to create a sincere friendship between Charlie and ‘Harby’, a Stone Age boy, despite the thousands of years that separate them. The Wild Way Home is a page-turning adventure, but also a wonderful tribute to the lingering magic to be found in all wild places.

Wonderscape by Jennifer Bell

While investigating some mysterious exploding garden gnomes on their way to school, Arthur, Ren and Cecily are sucked through a portal to another planet, 400 years in the future, and find themselves in the Wonderscape—an in-reality adventure game featuring famous historical characters. As they play their way through the various realms, they must learn to conquer their own fears as well as their prejudices about each other so they can work together to find a way to escape and get back to their own time. But behind the entertaining facade of the Wonderscape, there is something sinister going on—can Arthur, Ren and Cecily solve the mystery of the missing founder and help the others trapped in the game before their time runs out? Wonderscape is a fun, fast-paced and immersive story, perfect for fans of the new Jumanji films and Anna James’s Pages and Co. series. Jennifer Bell creates the sense of being in another dimension in a way that will appeal to gamers, but with real-life stakes. I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the futuristic gaming-theme with the fascinating stories of real historical figures—some more obscure than others. And I love the beautiful cover design—it perfectly encapsulates this thrilling world of imagination and possibility. Highly recommended. 

The Ship of Shadows by Maria Kuzniar

Aleja dreams of adventure while working in her Grandmother’s kitchen in Seville, but as everyone always tells her – girls can’t be explorers. But one day a mysterious ship sails into the harbour, crewed by women, and Aleja becomes a temporary crew member on the Ship of Shadows – a pirate ship full of secrets and magic. But Aleja has to earn Captain Quint’s trust and respect before the true purpose of their voyage is revealed to her. Of course, the author had me at ‘pirate ship crewed by ruthless women’, but this is also a lovely story of friendship, courage and empowerment. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will look out for more of Aleja’s adventures.

Nothing Ever Happens Here by Sarah Hagger-Holt

Nothing ever happens in the small town of Littlehaven, where 12-year-old Izzy lives, until the day Izzy’s dad comes out as a transgender woman called Danielle. At first Izzy is confused, anxious and terrified about anyone from school finding out. But as her dad begins the process of transition, Izzy comes to terms with their new family dynamic and finds the courage to stand up to the bullies. I loved this book. Nothing Ever Happens Here is a warm-hearted, empathy-inducing family story, with the same deceptively simple style as the Judy Blume books that I read as a teenager and fulfils a vitally important function of providing fiction to represent the full spectrum of different types of families.

WildSpark by Vashti Hardy

Prue Haywood and her family are still mourning the death of her brother Francis when a stranger comes to the farm looking for apprentices to join the Ghost Guild in the city of Medlock, where they have managed to bring machines to life by harnessing ghosts. Prue runs away from home and pretends to be ‘Frances Haywood’ in order to claim her brother’s place in the guild. But she has an ulterior motive – perhaps she can find a way to restore the ghosts’ memories of their former lives and bring her brother back. But in a city already filled with tension between citizens and ‘personifates’ – the ghost-animated machine animals, Prue’s experiments could have catastrophic consequences. WildSpark is a thrilling sci-fi adventure that takes traditional elements of children’s fiction (ghosts, robots) and melds them into an innovative, sparkling new world. I loved this.