Circus Mirandus, Cassie Beasley (Dial)
This magical debut novel quickly engages and enchants. Ephraim Tuttle, a wheezing old man, calls in a miracle promised to him by the Man Who Bends Light when he was just a boy. Ephraim’s grandson, Micah, searches for Circus Mirandus’ tents and the miracle that will save his grandfather’s life. Beasley is a word wizard.
Dear Hank Williams , Kimberly Willis (Holt)
Tate P. Ellerbee, assigned a pen pal, chooses rising star Hank Williams. This eccentric choice introduces the uniqueness of this 11-year-old growing up in a small Louisiana town. Tate, an unreliable narrator, brags about her family, gradually fesses up about her real life, and finally tells truths so painful, she hardly comprehends them. This epistolary novel, woven with well-integrated historical details, packs an emotional punch.
Full Cicada Moon, Marilyn Hilton (Dial)
In 1969 when Mimi moves from California to Vermont, she’s surprised to be viewed for her biracialism rather than her scientific aptitude. Spare free-verse poems elegantly and evocatively describe the alien world Mimi finds and eventually changes.
Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible, Ursula Vernon (Dial)
Princess Harriet is smart, brave, adventurous … and cursed. Will she fall into a sleep by pricking her finger on a hamster wheel? Not likely for a heroine who can defeat Ogre-cat and cliff dive. Expected the unexpected along with humor, adventure and lots of illustrations.
A Handful of Stars, Cynthia Lord (Scholastic) Twelve-year-old Lily has lived her whole life in Maine. Artistic Salma has come with her itinerant family to harvest summer blueberries. Confident Salma teaches the insecure Lily about artistic expression, appreciating differences and escaping self-limiting definitions.
Lost in the Sun, Lisa Graff (Philomel; audio from Listening Library, read by Ramon de Ocampo) How could you make middle school more difficult? Trevor Zimmerman finds out after he fires a hockey puck into the chest of an opponent in a pick-up game and his opponent dies. Trevor thinks everyone hates him, but his self-hate is the most consuming. Unique characters and their genuine feelings paint a painfully poignant portrait of crippling situations, longing and grief.
Listen, Slowly, Thanhha Lai (Harper)
A culture clash occurs when 12-year-old Mia, a confident “Long Beach girl,” accompanies her grandmother, Ba, to Vietnam. Humorous situations, fabulous food, family she comes to care about and discoveries about the Vietnamese War move Mia from spoiled snarkiness to compassionate caretaking.
The Nest , Kenneth Oppel (Simon and Schuster) Anxiety-prone Steven has disturbing dreams that intensify when his newborn sibling arrives from the hospital with severe health problems. Temporary relief comes when Steven’s dreams introduce winged beings he thinks are angels, but he soon realizes he’s made alliances with threatening gray and white wasps. Reality and fantasy blur, especially with the factual picture of wasps and Jon Klassen’s eerie illustrations. The hopeful ending shows Steven is more accepting of imperfections in the baby, himself and life.
The Marvels Brian Selznick (Scholastic)
395 pages of gray and white pencil drawings begin in 1776 and encapsulate several generations of a fictional theater family. Next Selznick switches to 1990 and a narrative about Joseph who seeks a place to belong and discovers the truth about his family. It’s gripping whether you’re reading drawings or words.
Sunny Side Up, Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm (Scholastic)
This semi-autobiographical graphic novel stars Sunny who’s sent to her grandfather in West Palm Beach where she puzzles out the life of the oldies and family problems at home with equal parts of humor and heartbreak.
Roller Girl, Victoria Jamieson (Dial)
Astrid, poised on the edge of adolescence, speeds into change as she discovers the roller derby. The graphic novel reflects Astrid’s rocky journey through physical and emotional transitions on her way to self-understanding.
Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry, Kelly Jones (Random House)
12-year-old Sophie Brown is self-sufficient and lonely, the perfect combination for a girl from Los Angeles stuck in the country with two parents trying to revive farm a deceased uncle’s farm. Sophie discovers magic, mystery, and adventure as she reclaims her Uncle Jim’s escaped flock. Sophie’s letters are heartfelt and Katie Kath’s drawings are humorous.
The Way Home Looks Now , Wendy Wan-Long Shang (Scholastic)
Grief, baseball, and acculturation make dynamic themes in the story of Pete, a Chinese-American boy in 1972 dealing with the tragic death of his brother. There are complex portraits of Pete’s family members, their sorrows and adaptations to change.
The War That Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial; audio from Listening Library, read by Jayne Entwistle )
Nine-year-old Ada’s worst problem isn’t her club foot, but her abusive mother. In 1939, she and her brother escape as evacuees from the bombs of WWII London. Housed with Susan, a grieving young woman, Ada gains new perspective and so does the woman who cares for her. This is a painful story with a complex heroine, difficult emotions, believable growth and impressive layering.
Recommended new sequels:
Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks in Spring (Knopf)
Barry Deutsch’s How Mirka Caught a Fish (Amulet)
Jacqueline Kelly’s The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate (Holt)
Jeff Kinney’s Old School(Amulet)
Adam Rex’s Smek for President! (Hyperion)
Jonathan Stroud’s The Hollow Boy (Hyperion)