If your 8-12 year old is chafing at staying home over the summer, we recommend traveling the world through folklores and fairytales. Colombian, Panamanian, Dutch, Appalachian, Malaysian, and Irish-inspired, these tales show the truth behind the stories that helps the characters, and the readers, discover and learn about themselves, their families, and the universality of friendships. Here are my summer middle grade suggestions:
Curse of the Night Witch by Alex Aster (6/9) In this fast-paced adventure filled with mythology, mayhem, and peril, Tor must travel to a witch to save himself from a curse.
On Emblem Island all are born knowing their fate. Their lifelines show the course of their life and an emblem dictates how they will spend it.
Twelve-year-old Tor Luna was born with a leadership emblem, just like his mother. But he hates his mark and is determined to choose a different path for himself. So, on the annual New Year’s Eve celebration, where Emblemites throw their wishes into a bonfire in the hopes of having them granted, Tor wishes for a different power.
The next morning Tor wakes up to discover a mark symbolizing a curse is imprinted on his arm and his hand’s lifeline is cut short. There is only one way to break the curse—and it requires a trip to the notorious Night Witch.
With only his village’s terrifying, ancient stories as a guide, and his two friends Engle and Melda by his side, Tor must travel across unpredictable Emblem Island, filled with wicked creatures he only knows through myths, in a race against his dwindling lifeline.
Why I liked it: Emblem Island is such a cool setting with a unique origin story. Tor and his friends realize that all the scary childhood stories in the Book of Cuentos are actually a roadmap to the witch. That’s my favorite part–the truth of humanity that hides in every fairytale emerges fully formed in this novel. Some terrifying like the faceless vanor to the peaceful descendants of the Giantess of Nar, sent by the wish-gods to protect humans. What makes this novel stand out is that the tales are inspired by the Latin American stories the author’s Colombian abuela would tell her as a child.
Be careful what you wish for–the twists on this echoed throughout the book and it was interesting how it affected the plot. The ending was great. Everything felt resolved but it definitely leaves you anticipating the sequel.
The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez by Adrianna Cuevas (7/21) In this magical middle-grade debut novel, a Cuban American boy must use his secret ability to communicate with animals to save the inhabitants of his town when they are threatened by a tule vieja, a witch that transforms into animals.
All twelve-year-old Nestor Lopez wants is to live in one place for more than a few months and have dinner with his dad, an Army sergeant deployed in Afghanistan. When he and his mother move to a new town to live with his grandmother, Nestor plans to lay low, and he certainly has no intention of letting anyone find out his deepest secret—that he can talk to animals. But when the animals in town start disappearing, and Nestor’s grandmother is spotted in the woods where they were last seen, suspicion mounts against her. Nestor learns that they are being taken by a tule vieja, a witch who bites animals to gain their power, and his extraordinary ability is put front and center as he tries to catch the real culprit and clear his grandmother’s name.
Why I liked it: Um, what kid hasn’t wished they could talk to animals?! Add a raven that drops “white lightning” on your bullies and tons of animal Quiz Bowl fun facts and you get a sense of Nestor’s new life in New Haven, the town where his dad grew up. It’s a fun read with a lot of heart as Nestor copes with a dad overseas, risking his life for our country, as well as moving constantly and navigating the minefield that is middle school friendships. Don’t read this hungry because between Nestor’s appetite and his abuela’s Cuban cooking, food is described so deliciously you can almost taste the cinnamon and sugar on a piping hot churro.
The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke (7/21) Neil Gaiman meets Hans Christian Andersen in this delicious fairy tale full of mysterious spirits, daring escapes, and a beautiful message about the power of found families.
In all the years that Elinora Gassbeek has been matron of the Little Tulip Orphanage, not once have the Rules for Baby Abandonment been broken. Until the autumn of 1880, when five babies are left in outrageous circumstances; one in a tin toolbox, one in a coal bucket, one in a picnic hamper, one in a wheat sack, and finally, one in a coffin-shaped basket.
Those babies were Lotta, Egg, Fenna, Sem, and Milou. And although their cruel matron might think they’re “unadoptable,” they know their individuality is what makes them special—and so determined to stay together.
When a most sinister gentleman appears and threatens to tear them apart, the gang make a daring escape across the frozen canals of Amsterdam. But is their real home—and their real family—already closer than they realize?
Why I liked it: Set in late 19th century Holland, The Unadoptables has the classic feel of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale with the creepy magic and sinister mystery of a Neil Gaiman story. So of course I loved it.
It’s really Milou’s story the most but the way all five orphans pool their strengths and come together is heartwarming. Lotta, the mathematician and scientific one who wears a waistcoat and has six fingers on each hand; Sem, the sewist and costume designer; Egg, the artist and cartographer; and Fenna, the mute animal whisperer. They’re on the run from the mysterious stranger Rotman who wants to adopt them and so follow coordinates that might belong to Milou’s family–the Poppenmakers.
With Eyebrows of Curiosity, Milou’s Book of Theories, tingling ears that sense danger, Puppet Papa that thwarts nosy adults, an evil orphanage matron cut from the same cloth as Umbridge and Trunchbull, and a spooky abandoned theater, this book twists and turns in ways that make it un-put-downable.
Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo (8/4) The magical story of a hex that goes haywire, and the power of friendship to set things right!
In the town of Howler’s Hollow, conjuring magic is strictly off-limits. Only nothing makes Delpha McGill’s skin crawl more than rules. So when she finds her family’s secret book of hexes, she’s itching to use it to banish her mama’s money troubles. She just has to keep it quieter than a church mouse — not exactly Delpha’s specialty.
Trouble is, Katybird Hearn is hankering to get her hands on the spell book, too. The daughter of a rival witching family, Katy has reasons of her own for wanting to learn forbidden magic, and she’s not going to let an age-old feud or Delpha’s contrary ways stop her. But their quarrel accidentally unleashes a hex so heinous it resurrects a graveyard full of angry Hearn and McGill ancestors bent on total destruction. If Delpha and Katy want to reverse the spell in time to save everyone in the Hollow from rampaging zombies, they’ll need to mend fences and work together.
Fans of A Snicker of Magic and The Witch Boy will love this funny, folksy, fresh debut from Ash Van Otterloo that proves sometimes it takes two witches to make the strongest magic happen.
Why I liked it: First off, the title. It’s one of my favorite words so it immediately captured my attention. I adored this magical and folksy middle grade with fabulous voice that had me chuckling at the unique similes. Delpha and Katybird have wonderful character arcs that felt real. I also learned a lot about androgen insensitivity. It was presented in a way that I wasn’t hit over the head with facts but wove in nicely with the magic plotline. Katybird’s pet racoon, Podge, and Delpha’s resurrected outhouse/mode of transportation she calls Puppet makes for a truly cattywampus, and heart-warming, cast of characters.
The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf (8/4) A Malaysian folk tale comes to life in this emotionally layered, chilling middle grade debut, perfect for fans of The Book of Boy and The Jumbies.
I am a dark spirit, the ghost announced grandly. I am your inheritance, your grandmother’s legacy. I am yours to command.
Suraya is delighted when her witch grandmother gifts her a pelesit. She names her ghostly companion Pink and the two quickly become inseparable. But Suraya doesn’t know that pelesits have a dark side—and when Pink’s shadows threaten to consume them both, they must find enough light to survive . . . before they are lost to the darkness.
Perfect for fans of Holly Black’s Doll Bones and Tahereh Mafi’s Furthermore series, this ghostly middle grade debut explores jealousy, love, and the extraordinary power of friendship.
Why I liked it: What kid hasn’t wished a swarm of mosquitos on the group of kids that make fun off their too-short pants or holey shoes? Suraya actually, when Pink feels the need to protect her from schoolhouse taunts. What starts off innocent enough turns scary as Suraya quickly sees how dangerous a pelesit can be and how dark jealousy can twist. When Pink goes too far, Suraya goes to her mother for help and help arrives in the form of the pawang, eager to add a pelesit to his command. So Suraya, her Star Wars-loving bestie Jing, and Pink start off on a journey to discover how her grandmother actually created Pink and it’s an ending I did not see coming, it was so absolutely perfect.
Kiki MacAdoo and the Graveyard Ballerinas by Colette Sewall (8/4) When eleven-year-old Kiki MacAdoo and her talented older sister go to Mount Faylinn Dance Conservatory for the summer, they ignore the brochure’s mysterious warning that “ballets come alive” in the nearby forest.
But after her sister disappears, it’s up to Kiki to brave the woods and save her sister from the ghost sylphs that dance young girls to their deaths. As Kiki unlocks the mysteries of Mount Faylinn, the ballet of the ghost sylphs, Giselle, simultaneously unfolds, sending Kiki on the adventure of a lifetime.
Why I liked it: Another book with a fabulous title, ‘graveyard ballerinas’ immediately caught my attention. Kiki and her sister Alison travel to this creepy old mansion in the middle of nowhere for summer dance camp and are immediately told the woods and being out after dark is off-limits. Kiki needs glasses to see clearly, but oddly, sees things that shouldn’t be there when she’s not wearing them. She learns she has ‘ghost eyes’ and is able to see the ghostly realm, something that comes in handy when her broken-hearted sister disappears over the Forbidden Lake into the Wilis Mound graveyard. It’s a great mix of the Giselle ballet, Irish folklore, and the power of sisters.
(All summaries are from the publishers.)
What books are you or your tween looking forward to reading over the summer? Is your favorite not on this list? Tell us about it!
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Happy summer reading!