Adventure, heroism, magic, and stupid fart jokes: these are things that middle grade readers crave. We are confident that these ten novels are the best indie middle-grade books of 2014. And, of course, they each offer valuable life lessons along with their good dose of kid-friendly fun.
Anung’s Journey by Carl Nordgren, illustrated by Brita Wolf (Light Messages Publishing)
In clear, unadorned language, Carl Nordgren tells the story of Anung, an orphaned Ojibway boy who traverses the land to share with the greatest chief of the nations how all the men and women of his tribe cared for him when his parents died. This story gently proffers a message of cooperation and harmony with nature, community members, and all the world’s people. The surprising ending ties together Eastern and Western legends to reveal the unity of all people, despite cultural, physical, or geographical differences. Ages eight and up.
Mr. Katz Is a Zombie by M. C. Lesh (StoryRhyme.com Publishing)
When J.D. and his disaster-inducing friends, in possession of an ancient spell book, accidentally turn their teacher into a zombie, they must wrangle him (before he eats anyone’s brains) and turn him back before time runs out. J.D.’s appealing, goofy narrative voice will attract trouble-seeking young readers, as will the fun yet spine-tingling Gothic themes, J.D.‘s ghostbusting parents, and random illustrations of donuts and milk cartons. This chaotic adventure has all the elements that make kids giggle, and they’ll keep turning the pages to see if Mr. Katz ever returns from the dark side. Ages eight and up.
Uncovered in Istanbul by Melissa Mahle and Kathryn Dennis (SpyGirls Press)
Narrator Anatolia Steppe is a rebellious twelve-year-old, and wise beyond her years. While these traits may irritate adults and nannies, they are perfectly conducive to solving mysteries with international intrigue. In Istanbul, Turkey, Ana and her foster brother, whose sleight of hand is immeasurably convenient, discover an eighteenth-century French girl’s journal, launching the detective duo on a hunt for treasure, while seeking to understand Ana’s father’s disappearance. With humor and snark, Ana sneaks, translates, and troublemakes her way to answers—fighting pirates, wrangling canines, and apologizing to her caretakers on the way. Ages ten and up.
Call Me Ixchel: Mayan Goddess of the Moon by Janie Havemeyer (Goosebottom Books)
The tagline of this series, “A Treasury of Glorious Goddesses,” sums up the noble aim of the books: to educate young readers on little-known mythology and to open minds to other cultures and alternate understandings of the world. In Call Me Ixchel, like the Mayan legend, Ixchel runs away with the sun god. Obviously toned down from the original to be appropriate for children, this book details the myth clearly. The novelized format makes for an accessible, compelling read, at the same time enlightening readers to an important Mayan tale and revealing the heroic abilities of a lively young girl. Ages nine to thirteen.
Lug: Dawn of the Ice Age by David Zeltser (Egmont)
Being banished from his clan after failing his initiation into cavemanhood is the least of Lug’s problems when signs of the ice age appear and the threat of extinction looms. Hiding his art cave from his no-nonsense father and befriending a Neanderthal and a girl from the enemy clan, this clever hero concocts a plan to save humanity, all while avoiding the dangerous sabertooth tigers that creep in the jungle. Suspenseful and smartly humorous, this novel delights with its themes of brains-over -brawn and the power of friendship. Ages eight to twelve.
Odin’s Promise by Sandy Brehl (Crispin Books)
Set in Norway during the 1940 German occupation, this heartrending, heartpounding tale follows eleven-year-old Mari and her dog, Odin, as they face the dangers of the Nazis and of growing up. Teeming with emotion, the quiet narrative uses lyrical language and short chapters to unfurl the story of Mari’s coming-of-age. Odin’s Promise is both an electrifying page-turner and a touching portrait of a unique country and era. Ages ten to thirteen.
Susan Marcus Bends the Rules by Jane Cutler (Holiday House)
Racism is still a significant issue, and this historical novel puts the Jim Crow laws of 1943 at the forefront in a way that encourages children to take a closer look at how our world is changing and continues to change for the better. Set in a town in Missouri, where young Susan has just relocated from the more liberal New York, this story traces the journey of one girl’s efforts to bend the rules of segregation so her new friend, Loretta, can be included in the fun at the pool, at school, and even in each other’s homes. Jane Cutler’s eloquent prose makes it easy for readers to step into the shoes of the characters who lived more than seventy years ago as she educates about social issues including race, class, and gender. Ages eight to twelve.
Heroes R Us Vol 1 by David Clarke, illustrated by Joanne Kwan (Off Shoot Comics)
Superman, take a step back; the kids in Heroes R Us have totally got this. This imaginative new series sets up the kids of a small town for the summer of their lives after the items they buy from the general store grant them super powers. The characterization is spot on, with realistic, humorous dialogue and believable, flawed protagonists. The themes of teamwork and brains over brawn are prominent, making for a refreshing change from the standard hero trope of punching problems away solo. With a cliffhanger ending, young readers will eagerly await the next installment in this series.
Time and the Tapestry by John Plotz, illustrated by Phyllis Saroff (Bunker Hill Publishing)
Magic and mystery yarn together as Jen and her brother fall into their grandmother’s unfinished nineteenth-century tapestry, disappearing into Victorian England. Packed with action and told through Jan’s conversational voice, this adventure merges fantasy with history, poetry with magic, art with life. Author John Plotz captivates with a balance of danger and enchantment, and Phyllis Saroff’s expertly drawn accompanying illustrations never disappoint. Ages nine to fourteen.
The Battle of Darcy Lane by Tara Altebrando (Running Press)
With sophisticated language rare in the middle-grade fiction genre, Tara Altebrando introduces young readers to a competitive ball game that takes the children suffering through summer on Darcy Lane by storm. Immediately jealous of her new neighbor, Julia fights with this snobby-seeming girl for the attention of her best friend. The summer doldrums, the buzzing of the seasonal cicada swarm, and the angst and rivalry of adolescence converge in this story told through elegant prose and authentic dialogue. Julia will become the reader’s best friend even as she loses her own, learning powerful lessons about competition, community, and genuineness. Ages eight to twelve.
Aimee Jodoin is deputy editor at Foreword Reviews. You can follow her on Twitter @aimeebeajo.