Top 30 Middle Grade books 2021
It's that time of year again when I start to reflect on the books I have read over the last 12 months. It has been another fantastic year for children's literature, it really is a golden age. It's just a shame that the shelves in the majority of supermarkets (which is where a lot of people buy their books unfortunately) are still dominated by celebrity authors. I won't go into a rant on this-I'm sure some of these books are probably very good, it's just frustrating when so many brilliant books don't get the exposure they deserve simply because their author isn't already a celebrity in another field.
So here is my list of 30 brilliant books that have been published in 2021 that deserve to be read and should, in my opinion, be in every school in the land. I have tried to limit myself this year (I did a top 40 last year but it included a wider age range of books) and focus just on middle grade books, which is my main area of interest as I teach year 5/6 children. The process of getting down to 30 books was painful and there are lots of books that I have loved that I haven't mentioned here. There are also some brilliant books that weren't published in 2021 that I have read, a few of which that I will give a mention to at the end of the post.
So here, in no particular order is my list of 30 middle grade novels published in 2021 that I think are astoundingly brilliant. Enjoy.
Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow by Benjamin Dean is just a beautiful, joyful book. It is about a boy whose parents have split up. His dad is gay but is struggling to come to terms with it and is keeping it secret from his son. The book follows their adventure of discovery and acceptance and is such a feel good book it gave me a warm feeling reading it and I still have a smile on my face now just thinking about the book. (You can read my full review of the book by clicking on the title). buy me
The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr is a brilliant historical mystery book. It is set in World War 2 and involves some evacuees from London going to a small town in the Welsh Valleys. There they discover a skull hidden in a recess at the bottom of a tree. It leads them to a mystery that draws the reader in and leaves them wondering the whole way through the book. There are a number of nice features to this book including the hidden message at the bottom of the pages and the chapter illustrations that gradually change. Brilliant, brilliant book. buy me
Show us who you are by Elle McNicholl is one of the most thought provoking books I have read in a long time. It is speculative fiction and really makes you think about life and death plus the ethical implications of artificial intelligence. A very deep book! Add to that that it has Elle's familiar themes of representing neuro divergent people in an honest and positive way then this is a must for anyone to read.
In a recent tweet I said that A Street dog Named Pup by Gill Lewis was 'the best read aloud I have ever shared with a class.' I recently read this with my Y5/6 class and the response was phenomenal. This is a very emotive book about an abandoned dog and the boy that he was taken from. It is raw and unflinching in places but at its heart it is a book about love (just be prepared for tears). I know a lot of children who have put this on their Christmas list because they loved it so much. A wonderful, wonderful book.
The Life and Times of Lonny Quicke by Kirsty Applebaum is her third novel so far. I have enjoyed all of her other books but I think this is her best yet. I'm not sure quite how to classify it, is it a fantasy? Is it sci fi? Is it a modern fairy tale? Not entirely sure but what I am sure of is that it is unique and brilliant. Another emotive book that is full of heart wrenching moments but yet again a book that is actually about love. It works brilliantly as a read aloud as well. My class loved this in the summer term. buy me
I love books that make you feel something. Make you laugh, make you cry. Books that move you. When the Sky Falls by Phil Earl is certainly one of these. It is another book set in World War 2 and has some flashes of Goodnight Mr Tom. The characters are so beautifully realised that you can't help but empathise with them. The story is emotive and anyone who reads this is sure to fall in love with Adonis the gorilla.
Ways to be me by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott is the Prequel to the fantastic 'Can You See Me,' which is a book that I think everyone who works in schools needs to read. This prequel shows Tally as a year 6 child finding out that she is autistic and beginning to discover what that means to her. It is another book that should probably be read by every teacher as well as every child in year 6.
Adam-2 by Alistair Chisholm is one of the best science fiction books I have read in a long time, in fact it is one of the best books in any genre I have read in a long time. It is about Adam, a robot who has been in confinement for over 200 years and discovers the world has been decimated by a war between humans and robots. It is so thought provoking; it is so emotive; it is exactly what a great book should be.
Pax: journey home by Sara Pennypacker is the sequel to Pax which is a fabulous book in its own right. This book though, took it to another level for me. I loved seeing what had become of Pax and his boy. It is another incredibly emotive story. Sara Pennypacker is a supreme writer who has that skill of showing so much by the spaces between what is not said. I love this book so much. buy me
The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh by Helen Rutter is about a boy who has a stutter. He wants to be a comedian but doesn't even want to speak in front of anyone in his new school for fear of them discovering his issue. This book is warm and funny and full of empathy. It's a must for anyone who wants to read about being brave and accepting yourself.
A Tangle of Spells by Michelle Harrison is the third book in the Widdershins sisters series and is my favourite one yet.
You can read a full review by clicking on the link above. This book is probably the darkest of the stories and is genuinely scary in places. This is my favourite fantasy series at the moment and I can recommend all of the books as a great addition to any key stage 2 classroom. buy me
Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston is the first book in an exciting new fantasy series. It has shades of Harry Potter about it and I got the same thrills of excitement reading this that I got from reading the first Harry Potter book. It is a fast paced adventure full of twists and turns; I can't wait to see where this series leads.
Shipwreck Island by Struan Murray was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2021. Orphans of the Tide by Struan Murray was my book of the year in 2020 and I was very excited to read the sequel. It did not disappoint in fact the only frustrating thing about the book was the fact that it finished on a massive cliff hanger and I am still desperately waiting to find out what happens next. This is dark fantasy at its best. If you want to see my full review, click the link above. buy me
Circus Maximus: Race to the Death by Annelise Gray is a full throttle, fast paced historical adventure set in Roman times. The pacing of the story is perfect. The antagonist (A Roman emperor!) is deliciously cruel and evil and the protagonist is well realised and engaging. It is a superior adventure thriller that immerses you in the Roman world. I can't wait to read the sequel and find out what life has in store next for Dido, the main character.
The Swallows' Flight by Hilary McKay is the sequel to The Skylarks' War, one of my favourite books ever. I was nervous about reading this book because I wasn't sure if it would meet up to my hopes but it did. It is every bit as charming and funny and heart warming and sad as the Skylarks' War and it was lovely being back in the the lives of Clarry and co. Fantastic historical fiction. You can read a full review on the link above. buy me
The Mystery of the Night Watchers by A.M. Howell was another book that was on my most anticipated list from last year. If you haven't read any of Ann Marie's books yet you really must. Her historical mystery stories are fantastic and are so well written; they capture the time and place they are written about perfectly and draw you in with enticing mysteries. This latest book does not disappoint. I am also delighted to find out that her 4th book will be out in 2022.
The Last Bear by Hannah Gold is a beautiful story of a girl and a polar bear. The story is very emotive and touches on the grief of the main characters who are still coming to terms with the loss of a mother and wife. The message in the story is about making a difference and not underestimating people but also like a lot of books on my list this year, it is a story about love.
The False Rose by Jakob Wegelius is the sequel to 'The Murderer's Ape which is an astounding book in its own right. Both of these books deserve to be read widely, both are fabulous. I really enjoyed reading about Sally Jones again in this book. It is a book full of peril and threat for poor Sally, but she copes with her usual dash of empathy and resilience. What a wonderful story, completely unique.
Between Sea and Sky by Nicola Penfold is her second book. Her debut 'Where the World Turns Wild' was one of my favourite reads last year. This is another dystopian climate fiction book and although it is very different to her first book, it is equally as good. There is something strangely beautiful about the future flood effected world that Nicola describes here. At its heart it is a story of hope. buy me
Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, illustrated by Tom de Freston is a stunningly beautiful book. The story is so well told and is so emotive, which is what I would expect from Kiran but the illustrations add another dimension to the story and make it truly special. Kiran is probably my favourite writer and this latest book is vying for top spot of my favourite books by her. buy me
The Song that Sings Us by Nicola Davies is an adventure, thriller set in a future dystopian world. You can read my full review on the link. This is a fast paced book that I found hard to put down. It's a love story to the natural world and is full of heart. It would be perfect for upper key stage 2 or key stage 3.
Crater Lake: Evolution by Jennifer Killick is another sequel on my list.
The first Crater Lake book was another of my favourite books last year and is the perfect spooky adventure for year 6 children. This sequel continues the story and introduces new characters. It is just as funny and scary and thrilling as the first book and a great addition to any year 6 classroom. You can read my full review on the link above.
I don't think I've read anything quite like Big Foot Mountain by Roderick O'Grady before. You can read my full review on the link above. This is another book that celebrates the natural world and explores our relationship with it. It is very emotive in places and covers issues of grief and family. Like many other books on my list at its heart it is about love.
Red Stars by Davide Morosinotto is a historical fiction book that is completely unique. It tells the story of twins undertaking a journey across Russia during World War 2. It is told from the perspectives of the 2 children in diary form and includes photos from the time; it includes details of real events from the war. It is a great adventure story and completely immerses you in the world of these Russian children.
The Cooking Club Detectives by Ewa Jozefkowicz is a brilliant story that shows a girl getting to know her new friends and community and finding her place in the world. The charm of this book is in the engaging characters and the mystery and the positive message about making the best out of life even when it is challenging.
The Book of Stolen Dreams by David Farr is a brilliant adventure story. It feels cinematic in its scope and in the way the story is told. It is fast paced and thrilling and what's more exciting is that it is only the beginning of the adventure-I can't wait what to see what comes next in this thrilling adventure.
Pop by Mitch Johnson is a great book. I really enjoyed Mitch's first book 'Kick' which is a thriller set in Indonesia and covers poverty and corruption. This book has equally grown up themes and looks at big corporations and how they behave. It feels a bit like a political thriller for children, it is very funny in places and the pacing is perfect.
Shadowghast by Thomas Taylor is the latest Eerie on Sea mystery and it does not disappoint. If you haven't read Malemander then you really must, it's brilliant, as is its sequel Gargantis. I loved finding out more about Eerie on Sea and getting more clues to who Herbert Lemon really is. I love this series so much, it really is an absolute must for any key stage 2 classroom. buy me
Seven Ghosts by Christ Priestly is possibly the perfect spooky book for upper key stage 2 children, Freeze, Chris Priestley's latest book is just as good. Told as a series of short spooky stories within a larger story, each one is perfectly pitched to spook and unsettle the reader. The ending is brilliant and all I can say about this book is get it.
The Lion at the Door by Onjali Q Rauf is the latest book by the author of 'The Boy at the Back of the Class.' It has her familiar flair and ability to get you to empathise with the characters quickly and get drawn into the story. It tells the tale of Leo who discovers that there was another Leo just like him who fought in the war, a forgotten hero. It opens his eyes to the fact that the world war was not just fought by white people from Europe and America. buy me
The books pictured below are all fantastic but were not published in 2021. Most were published in 2020 but one 'Grandpa Frank's Great Big Bucket List' comes out next year. I was lucky enough to get a review copy and I have a feeling it will be on my list of best books of 2022 as it is brilliant. If you want to read a full review there is a link above.
The books are: Grandpa Frank's Great Big Bucket List by Jenny Pearson (publishing in 2022)
Darwin's Dragons by Lindsey Galvin, The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell, The Children of Swallow Fell by Julia Green, When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kareen Getten, Orion Lost by Alistair Chisholm and Windrush Child by Benjamin Zepheniah