This year, my favorite books for kids ages eight and up featured ghosts, witches, myths, plagues, boarding school mysteries, and middle school hijinks. You’ll find bestsellers from popular authors like Victoria Schwab and Andrew Clements, debut novels from promising new voices like Kirk Kirchmeir and Julia Nobel, and a few quiet-but-powerful reads that may have slipped your (or your kids’) radars in a busy year for books. And yes, I’ve read every single one of these books and graphic novels―so have my kids!―and I wholeheartedly recommend them as my favorite middle-grade books of 2020.
Editor’s note: Josh Roberts (that’s me!) is the author of the forthcoming middle grade novel, The Witches of Willow Cove, coming May 2020 from Owl Hollow Press. Add it to your Goodreads, or better yet, pre-order your copy today!
1. Dead Voices by Katherine Arden
Arden’s middle-grade debut, Small Spaces, topped my list of the best children’s books of 2018, and her follow-up―the sequel, Dead Voices―is even better. While it continues the adventures of Ollie, Coco, and Brian, Dead Voices can stand alone as an entry point for new readers looking for a frightfully fun ghost story.
From the publisher: “Having survived sinister scarecrows and the malevolent smiling man in Small Spaces, newly minted best friends Ollie, Coco, and Brian are ready to spend a relaxing winter break skiing together with their parents at Mount Hemlock Resort. But when a snowstorm sets in, causing the power to flicker out and the cold to creep closer and closer, the three are forced to settle for hot chocolate and board games by the fire.
“Ollie, Coco, and Brian are determined to make the best of being snowed in, but odd things keep happening. Coco is convinced she has seen a ghost, and Ollie is having nightmares about frostbitten girls pleading for help. Then Mr. Voland, a mysterious ghost hunter, arrives in the midst of the storm to investigate the hauntings at Hemlock Lodge. Ollie, Coco, and Brian want to trust him, but Ollie’s watch, which once saved them from the smiling man, has a new cautionary message: BEWARE.
“With Mr. Voland’s help, Ollie, Coco, and Brian reach out to the dead voices at Mount Hemlock. Maybe the ghosts need their help―or maybe not all ghosts can or should be trusted.”
What critics say: “Standing just fine on its own (though newcomers will definitely be inspired to read Small Spaces), this is a fine addition to any scary stories shelf.” —School Library Journal
2. The Absence of Sparrows by Kurt Kirchmeier
I absolutely loved this apocalyptic tale that deftly wrestles with matters of religion, fate, grief, anxiety, and family dynamics. Kirchmeir’s prose is full of understated eloquence that invites a second read to fully appreciate its insights.
From the publisher: “In the small town of Griever’s Mill, eleven-year-old Ben Cameron is expecting to finish off his summer of relaxing and bird-watching without a hitch. But everything goes wrong when dark clouds roll in.
“Old Man Crandall is the first to change—human one minute and a glass statue the next. Soon it’s happening across the world. Dark clouds fill the sky and, at random, people are turned into frozen versions of themselves. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no one knows how to stop it.
“With his mom on the verge of a breakdown, and his brother intent on following the dubious plans put forth by a nameless voice on the radio, Ben must hold out hope that his town’s missing sparrows will return with everyone’s souls before the glass plague takes them away forever.”
What critics say: “A powerful piece of storytelling… Will resonate with anyone who understands that heroism is not a matter of saving the world but of maintaining yourself, and acting to protect those in your community—despite the forces arrayed against you.” ―Quill and Quire (starred review)
3.The Bone Garden by Heather Kassner
With its spooky graveyard setting, brave and appealing heroine, and perfectly loathsome antagonist, this creepy story evokes the feeling of a deliciously dark fairy tale.
From the publisher: “Irréelle fears she’s not quite real. Only the finest magical thread tethers her to life―and to Miss Vesper. But for all her efforts to please her cruel creator, the thread is unraveling. Irréelle is forgetful as she gathers bone dust. She is slow returning from the dark passages beneath the cemetery. Worst of all, she is unmindful of her crooked bones.
“When Irréelle makes one final, unforgivable mistake by destroying a frightful creature just brought to life, Miss Vesper threatens to imagine her away once and for all. Defying her creator for the very first time, Irréelle flees to the underside of the graveyard and embarks on an adventure to unearth the mysterious magic that breathes bones to life, even if it means she will return to dust and be no more.”
What critics say: “A thrilling read, with bone-chilling descriptions and enough ghastly moments to keep even the bravest young readers shivering―and entertained.” ―Horn Book
4. The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner
This witchy adventure is a perfect homage to the classic Sabrina the Teenage Witch comics and TV show, updated for today’s younger readers. I’m definitely hoping for a sequel to this charming graphic novel.
From the publisher: “Magic is harder than it looks. Thirteen-year-old Moth Hush loves all things witchy. But she’s about to discover that witches aren’t just the stuff of movies, books, and spooky stories. When some eighth-grade bullies try to ruin her Halloween, something really strange happens. It turns out that Founder’s Bluff, Massachusetts, has a centuries-old history of witch drama. And, surprise: Moth’s family is at the center of it all!
“When Moth’s new powers show up, things get totally out-of-control. She meets a talking cat, falls into an enchanted diary, and unlocks a hidden witch world. Secrets surface from generations past as Moth unravels the complicated legacy at the heart of her town, her family, and herself.”
What critics say: “Moth’s magic proves better than ‘okay,’ and readers will hope for a sequel for the intriguing characters.” —Publisher’s Weekly
5. Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange
There’s a kind of old-fashioned grace to this haunting tale that combines ancient myth and the stark realities of World War II. A quiet, understated piece of historical fiction with a lot going on under the surface.
From the publisher: “Growing up in a lighthouse, 11-year-old Pet’s world has been one of storms, secret tunnels, and stories about sea monsters. But now the country is at war and the clifftops are a terrifying battleground. Pet will need to muster all her bravery to uncover why her family is being torn apart.
“This is the story of a girl who is afraid and unnoticed. A girl who freezes with fear at the enemy planes ripping through the skies overheard. A girl who is somehow destined to become part of the strange, ancient legend of the Daughters of Stone.”
What critics say: “A plot summary can only hint at the satisfaction of reading this tightly interwoven story with its haunting setting and memorable characters.” ―Booklist (starred review)
6. The Friendship War by Andrew Clements
Like most of Andrew Clements’ books for middle readers, this is another instant classic that’s at once laugh-out-loud funny and deeply insightful. Unfortunately, Clements passed away earlier this year, but his legacy will live on with the 80-plus books he left behind.
From the publisher: “Grace and Ellie have been best friends since second grade. Ellie’s always right in the center of everything―and Grace is usually happy to be Ellie’s sidekick. But what happens when everything changes? This time it’s Grace who suddenly has everyone’s attention when she accidentally starts a new fad at school. It’s a fad that has first her class, then her grade, and then the entire school collecting and trading and even fighting over… buttons?!
“A fad that might also get her in major trouble and could even be the end of Grace and Ellie’s friendship. Because Ellie’s not used to being one-upped by anybody. There’s only one thing for Grace to do. With the help of Hank―the biggest button collector in the sixth grade―she will have to figure out a way to end the fad once and for all. But once a fad starts, can it be stopped?”
What critics say: “We have never read an Andrew Clements book that we haven’t loved.” ―The Washington Post
7. Tunnel of Bones by Victoria Schwab
The first novel in Victoria Schwab’s ghosthunter series, City of Ghosts, was another one of my favorite books of 2018. Now comes its sequel, Tunnel of Bones, which both raises the stakes for young heroine Cassidy Blake and deepens the mysteries introduced in the first book. Rich, spooky, and often very funny, this is a great continuation of a popular new series.
From the publisher: “Trouble is haunting Cassidy Blake… even more than usual. She (plus her ghost best friend, Jacob, of course) are in Paris, where Cass’s parents are filming their TV show about the world’s most haunted cities. Sure, it’s fun eating croissants and seeing the Eiffel Tower, but there’s true ghostly danger lurking beneath Paris, in the creepy underground Catacombs.
“When Cass accidentally awakens a frighteningly strong spirit, she must rely on her still-growing skills as a ghosthunter—and turn to friends both old and new to help her unravel a mystery. But time is running out, and the spirit is only growing stronger. And if Cass fails, the force she’s unleashed could haunt the city forever.”
What critics say: “This atmospheric ghost story from Schwab (the Monsters of Verity duology) chills and charms while challenging readers to face their fears. Courageous, quick-witted Cassidy inspires, her relationship with Jacob is tender, and the thrilling conclusion is sure to gratify.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
8. Guts by Raina Telgemeier
My kids will read literally anything by Raina Telgemeier, whose previous graphic novels (Sisters, Ghosts, Smile, and Drama) have helped popularize the graphic novel format for an entire generation of readers. As always, Telgemeier’s combination of humor and pathos make a difficult topic not just approachable, but thoroughly entertaining.
From the publisher: “Raina wakes up one night with a terrible upset stomach. Her mom has one, too, so it’s probably just a bug. Raina eventually returns to school, where she’s dealing with the usual highs and lows: friends, not-friends, and classmates who think the school year is just one long gross-out session. It soon becomes clear that Raina’s tummy trouble isn’t going away… and it coincides with her worries about food, school, and changing friendships. What’s going on? Raina Telgemeier once again brings us a thoughtful, charming, and funny true story about growing up and gathering the courage to face—and conquer—her fears.”
What critics say: “A compassionate and accessible look at one girl’s struggles with anxiety.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
9. The Line Tender by Kate Allen
A richly textured coming-of-age story that’s funny, poignant, and lyrical. Allen’s sharp prose and well-developed characters draw you in and never let go. Definitely a story that deserves multiple reads.
From the publisher: “Wherever the sharks led, Lucy Everhart’s marine-biologist mother was sure to follow. In fact, she was on a boat far off the coast of Massachusetts, collecting shark data when she died suddenly. Lucy was seven. Since then Lucy and her father have kept their heads above water—thanks in large part to a few close friends and neighbors. But June of her twelfth summer brings more than the end of school and a heat wave to sleepy Rockport. On one steamy day, the tide brings a great white—and then another tragedy, cutting short a friendship everyone insists was “meaningful” but no one can tell Lucy what it all meant.
“To survive the fresh wave of grief, Lucy must grab the line that connects her depressed father, a stubborn fisherman, and a curious old widower to her mother’s unfinished research on the Great White’s return to Cape Cod. If Lucy can find a way to help this unlikely quartet follow the sharks her mother loved, she’ll finally be able to look beyond what she’s lost and toward what’s left to be discovered.”
What critics say: “Rich, complex, and confidently voiced.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
10. The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane by Julia Nobel
If this story about a trio of kids getting into trouble and solving mysteries at a British boarding school feels awfully familiar to fans of Harry Potter, it’s probably not a coincidence. Nobel’s debut novel channels the Potter books in all the right ways (sans magic, of course) and sets the stage for an eagerly anticipated sequel coming in 2020.
From the publisher: “With a dad who disappeared years ago and a mother who’s a bit too busy to parent, Emmy is shipped off to Wellsworth, a prestigious boarding school in England, where she’s sure she won’t fit in. But then she finds a box of mysterious medallions in the attic of her home—medallions that belonged to her father. Her father who may have gone to Wellsworth.
When she arrives at school, she finds the strange symbols from the medallions etched into walls and books, which leads Emmy and her new friends, Jack and Lola, to Wellsworth’s secret society: The Order of Black Hollow Lane. Emmy can’t help but think that the society had something to do with her dad’s disappearance, and that there may be more than just dark secrets in the halls of Wellsworth.”
What critics say: “A promising first novel that leaves the door open for sequels.” —Booklist
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