Warm summer days and chilled-out summer nights are only made better by a shiny pile of new books to read!
Our team has been taking an advanced look at some of the brilliant new middle-grade books (ages 8-12) coming up this term. We’ve picked out ten top recommendations to watch out for from May to July 2021. Why not pre-order now as a gift to your summer self?
1. Mystery of the Night Watchers
A M Howell & Saara Soderlund
A.M. Howell (author of The Garden of Lost Secrets and The House of One Hundred Clocks) returns with a gripping new historical adventure, set during the Edwardian era.
Nancy and her sister Violet live in Leeds in 1910. Halley’s Comet is coming, and many people wrongly believe the comet means destruction and impending doom. Without warning their mother takes them off to Suffolk to stay with their grandfather they did not know existed. Something very strange is happening and Nancy discovers that her mother has not been honest with her about their past.
Their grandfather lives in a beautiful house with an observatory at the top and an apothecary shop below. But something is not right, and Nancy is determined to find out what is going on and why her mother has apparently lied to her for most of her life.
From the very first page there is tension, and the themes of secrets and lies are continued throughout the book. A M Howell manages to convincingly portray the finer details of the period and deep sense of mystery in what makes a beautifully written, exciting and atmospheric adventure story. It is easy to imagine both the time and the setting (which is based on a real place in East Anglia) and the whole book is vivid with detail. Each chapter is headed with a small picture related to the story, illustrated by Saara Katariina Soderlund, and these are a lovely addition that contribute well to the overall atmosphere of mystery and adventure in the book.
Nancy is an excellent role model as a girl standing up for herself and wanting more for herself than girls from that era were expected to achieve. Over-arching the entire book is the story of Halley’s comet itself; its portrayed brightness and the awe people experience watching it seem to linger through the story like the light from its tail.
Publication date: 8 July 2021
Reviewer: Jacqueline Harris
2. The Astonishing Future of Alex Nobody
Kate Gilby Smith & Thy Bui
On the day she was born, a coach of tourists appeared at the hospital – was it just a coincidence or is there something special about Alex? To her friends and teachers, Alex is a nobody – but what does the future hold for her?
Alex is a unique, brave and intelligent protagonist who doesn’t feel like she fits in with her peers. That is, until the appearance of Jasper. Jasper arrives just when Alex is feeling extremely alone and most in need of a friend. Alex can’t help wondering where Jasper came from, especially as she knows so little about him. Then Jasper mysteriously disappears and Alex decides she has to find a way to save her friend.
When she discovers that the only logical explanation for the sudden disappearance is time travel, Alex becomes focussed on finding a way to follow Jasper. Alex’s only option is to become a stowaway on the coach of tourists outside her school. With the help of an interesting cast of characters, Alex begins her journey through the future to locate and rescue Jasper, but she is also determined to uncover the truth – why was Jasper sent to watch and protect her?
This is Kate Gilby Smith’s debut novel, and after thoroughly enjoying this thought-provoking read, I am intrigued to see what comes next. Time travelling is a fascinating subject, and this is a gentle enough introduction to excite young readers by the concept without leaving them scratching their brains in confusion at the metaphysics – especially as Alex’s back-story is really her future-story. This well-crafted story with its strong female lead celebrates difference, friendship, family and determination. It does also include a number of interesting historical references, through Gerty’s collection of stolen historical items from Martin Luther King to Cleopatra. This would make a fabulous class read, as they are plenty of talking points throughout the story.
Publication date:10 June 2021
Reviewer: Angela Kent
3. A Glasshouse of Stars
Shirley Marr & Kathrin Onesta
A Glasshouse of Stars is a thought-provoking and heartwarming story of belonging, sacrifice, family and understanding.
Meixing is just 7 when her family moves from a remote island to start a new life in Australia. Everything is strange and new to the family. They don’t speak the language of the New Land, the father doesn’t have a job, a new baby is on the way and there is very little money. They do have a house to live in that was left to them by Big Uncle, who has just passed away. Meixing’s life has just been turned upside down.
Meixing discovers an old house made of glass in the backyard, where she finds the ghost of Big Uncle and a rather strange cat. Inside the glasshouse, she discovers a whole new world. She is the only one who can see this world and begins to visit regularly. School is terrible as she doesn’t speak the language and she is bullied. However, when she and another two children are taken to a special class where they are helped with English, things start to look up. That’s when tragedy strikes. Will Meixing and her family ever learn how to survive in the New Land?
This is an enchanting tale that gently weaves important themes of immigration, racism and displacement with threads of magic, hope and the power of imagination. Based on the author’s own experiences, A Glasshouse of Stars is an excellent story about discovering your place in the world.
Publication date: 10 June 2021
Reviewer: Tami Wylie
4. The House on the Edge
Faith has been successful in keeping others away from her house, because if somebody comes in, they’ll know. They’ll know that ever since her Dad disappeared, Mum has been spending all day in bed. They’ll know that Faith is the one who is caring for her little brother. They’ll know about the crack in the garden that seems to be getting bigger every day. And if they know, they’ll be forced to leave.
When her brother’s obsession with the sea ghosts that apparently live in their basement gets out of hand, adults start to take notice – so Faith has no choice but to lie. However, all lies have consequences and everything seems to be going wrong. Will Faith be able to keep her family and their home together before everything she knows goes over the crumbling cliff-edge?
Full of mystery and with a dose of the supernatural, The House on the Edge is perfect for Key Stage 2 readers who enjoy a spooky read without it being too frightening. Alex Cotter’s close narrative style makes the reader feel as though they are in the head of the main character Faith and gives them a real sense of who she is as a person, including her sense of humour and the ups and downs of a turbulent family situation. The background to the story enables parental mental health issues and the experiences of young carers to be considered empathetically by readers. The story is accessible for children at different stages of their reading journey, including those less confident, and the promise of shipwrecks, smugglers and thrilling adventures near the sea is likely to pull in a wide audience of children.
This story would be a great addition to KS2 classrooms and libraries – its links to coastlines and the erosion occurring will make the issue real and relatable to children, providing lots of opportunities for discussion and cross-curricular learning too.
Publisher: Nosy Crow
Publication date: 1 July 2021
Reviewer: Christine Ivory
5. Rainbow Grey
Laura Ellen Anderson
A magical new series from best-selling author and illustrator, Laura Ellen Anderson, who is known for her popular Amelia Fang books.
Weatherlings all have a different type of weather magic – like rain, sun or snow. All except Ray Grey, who has no weather magic at all. She lives on Cloud Nine with her family and cloud-cat, Nim, and wants to be an Earth Explorer just like the famous La Blaze DeLight so she can discover all sorts of human treasures. Ray has already started a collection, thanks to her Dad’s visits to Earth when he is working as a Weather Warrior battling storms.
It is rumoured that there once used to be another type of Weatherlings who had Rainbow magic, until they were all wiped out by the worst storm in history – although most people don’t believe they were real. Along with her two best friends, Snowden Everfreeze and Droplett Dewbells, Ray attends a festival for the Eclipse, which turns out to be the beginning of an unexpected adventure for them.
Rainbow Grey is funny, smart and I am in awe of the creativity behind it. I adored the clever weather-related character and place names. The characters are not human, but still remain highly relatable; the main characters had friendship issues to deal with, like any children their age, and it’s important for children to be able to recognise things that they might be going through in their own lives in a book. Likewise, the nod to dyslexia when Ray describes letters as being jumbled on the page and later on, when reading from coloured paper was referred to, would resonate with a lot of children.
Whilst being a mid-length chapter book, the illustrations make this book more accessible for slightly younger readers or those that are used to a shorter-length chapter book. I was completely drawn in by Ray’s magical world and can’t wait to read more of her adventures!
Publication date: 27th May 2021
Reviewer: Kristen Hopwood
Louie Stowell & George Ermos
Myra and Rohan are life-long friends through a shared experience at birth. Every year they share a birthday party. Every year Myra causes havoc at that party. Last year, for example, she broke the magician’s hand and superglued Rohan’s cousin’s hair. This year she sets the shed alight. But while everyone is distracted, Rohan’s little sister Shilpa is kidnapped by the Fairy Queen and taken to Otherland – a world where nothing is quite as it seems.
With the help of another fairy, Myra and Rohan follow Shilpa to Otherland and accept a challenge from the Fairy Queen. If they can win three challenges in a deadly game set by the Fairy Queen, then Shilpa can return with them to their world. If they lose, all three of them stay in Otherland forever.
Louie Stowell’s newest story is a fabulous journey through the world of fairies, gods and vampires. The interaction between Rohan and Myra is hilarious and the characters visibly change throughout the story – both of them realising things about themselves and each other along the way. The challenges that the characters face and twists in the story keep the reader entertained all the way through. Each piece of action is superbly described and the tale was so fast-paced that I was desperate to read what happened next. For a teacher teaching story writing this is brilliant. The dialogue is superb, the pace fast and the descriptions wonderful.
Otherland is a fantastic escapist story, encompassing action, mischievous characters who are not quite what or who you think and an adventure that sees the children learn important things about themselves and each other. Just remember – in Otherland nothing is quite as it seems!
Publisher: Nosy Crow
Publication date: 6th May 2021
Reviewer: David McBride
7. How I Saved the World in a Week
Brave and utterly gripping, this is an edge-of-your-seat tale of survival that will delight fans of The Boy in the Tower, Orphans of the Tide and Crater Lake. Filled with all of the chills and thrills that you’d expect of Polly Ho-Yen’s dystopian middle-grade stories, the story is also served with a generous helping of emotional poignancy that explores themes of family bonds, mental health, learning to trust and never giving up on those you love.
Sylvia has always taught her son Billy the basic rules of survival; always be prepared, pay attention, trust no-one, master your fears and never stop trying. Sylvia loves taking Billy on outdoor adventures and ensuring that he is as ready as possible for surviving whatever may come their way. But Billy knows that his mum’s behaviour is different from other parents. Her actions become increasingly erratic and she soon removes Billy from school altogether to prioritise survival lessons. After a crisis weekend when one of their survival lessons goes awry, Sylvia is admitted to hospital for mental health help, and Billy is sent away to live with his Dad in Bristol. Billy knows more than anything how much Sylvia loves him, but now he feels alone, confused, and cross with the grown-ups who do not seem to think that Sylvia is able to look after him well. Among the strangeness of living in a new place, Billy notices other unexpected things starting to happen. Before long, a mysterious virus seems to take hold in the local area, turning people into zombie-like creatures called ‘Greys’. Suddenly, the world appears to change in the blink of an eye, and Billy and his new family embark on a race against time where his survival instincts will be more important than ever.
Like the very best dystopias, Polly Ho-Yen’s sci-fi worlds always feel just the smallest step away from our own and after the past year, reading a virus-themed story feels both daunting and relatable. The fast-paced virus escape scenes are quite frightening in places, but the zombie-esque appearances of the victims helps to maintain a fictional edge that stops the tale becoming too close to home. There’s a well-crafted mirroring between the physical virus taking hold of the community and the mental health crisis that has been gaining a grip on Sylvia’s mind over a number of years. Billy’s character development in the story is beautiful, and by the end of the narrative he has formed a good set of real-world survival skills of his own that will help him to navigate the ups and downs of growing up and making trusting relationships with others.
This is an exciting thriller that packs an emotional punch and leaves you rooting for the main character. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but is sure to thrill mature readers in KS2 who love a page-turning plot with a rollercoaster of emotions and a few truly nail-biting scenes to get stuck into.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 8th July 2021
Reviewer: Alison Leach
8. Arctic Star
The life-and-death struggle is played out until the very last page, but it was no game for those who lived the adventure back in the 1940s – that much is clear. It is also very clear how much the author respects those who served and how determined he is to portray accurately their service to the nation. He has done so with huge success.
This book, with its concluding Author’s Note together with the accompanying online teaching notes available from Tom Palmer’s website, provides an exciting and informative classroom resource for the teaching of WWII as a curriculum topic, besides being a book many children will choose for the sheer enjoyment of reading. A thoroughly recommended read, just like Tom Palmer’s other well-researched and highly readable novels.
Publisher: Barrington Stoke
Publication date: 6th May 2021
Reviewer: Jane Rew
9. The Cooking Club Detectives
A gently unfolding detective story that delicately unpacks themes of food poverty, friendship and the importance of community spaces. Author Ewa Jozefkowicz says of the book, ‘The pandemic has had a huge impact on food insecurity, with as many as 2.3 million children now affected. So through my book, as well as telling a story, I wanted to highlight the importance of community and to show all readers that they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if they need it.’
When Erin moves to a new school, she quickly bonds with three new friends as they attend an after-school cooking club at the local community centre. Erin is thrilled about the club, and cooking has always been an important part of life for Erin and her mum, Lara. Erin’s mum is an expert in making delicious recipes from low-cost ingredients, and dreams of one day being able to share them with a global audience. But a series of knock-backs, from job losses and failed auditions to online trolling, make Lara’s ambitions seem like an impossibly distant pipe dream. One day, the friends discover that the community centre where their club is held is under the threat of closure. Something seems out of place, and Erin begins to wonder what could possibly lie behind the closure of a centre that provides such a valuable space to her community. Soon, the friends form the Cooking Club Detectives and set out to solve the mystery, with some big surprises along the way.
Folded into the story are real recipes at key moments in the plot – from mum’s Eggsquisite Egglets’ and cooking club leader Mrs Gupta’s Spinach and Cheese Pancakes. to the Portuguese paella that Erin makes with her friend Frixos and Erin’s own banana bread bonanza – saved for a very special celebration. The real recipes are a great touch, and all of them would be simple enough for young readers to try at home. I really enjoyed how the power of local community and the act of asking for help were positively explored – with no stigma attached to food poverty, but rather a celebration of resilient families and of communities coming together. Ewa Jozefkowicz’s books never rush through the plot, but pause to explore the experiences of different people sharing experiences together. The writing gives space for a range of perspectives and characters’ background stories to be heard (as well as their recipes!), celebrating communities that listen to one another and demonstrating the power of small voices in solving big problems.
This is a relatively quick read – but a deeply satisfying one – that will appeal to readers who enjoy true-to-life stories, a mystery to solve and gentle storytelling that explores real-world issues.
Publication date: 10th June 2021
Reviewer: Alison Leach
10. Jaz Santos Vs The World
Jaz Santos vs the World is the first in a new series about a girl who gathers an unlikely group of friends together to make their own girls’ football team. This is an inclusive and empowering tale with a real-life feel that will appeal to fans of Cath Howe and Jacqueline Wilson.
Circumstances in Jaz’s life are starting to feel out of control. She has been in trouble at school, kicked out of dance club and is dealing with the growing cracks in her parents’ relationship, culminating in a house fire and her mum eventually moving out. There’s more on her mind too – Jaz loves football and often plays with the boys at lunchtimes, but is excluded from the school team because girls are not allowed to play.
When Jaz finds a leaflet advertising a girls’ football tournament, she seizes the opportunity to take back some control. Thinking carefully about how to sell the idea to her classmates, Jaz pours heart and soul into rallying a team of girls to prepare for the tournament. From fundraising to training, Jaz leaves no stone unturned – with her passionate hopes of proving that girls can be taken seriously in football matched only by her desire to get mum back. Deep down, Jaz wonders whether winning the tournament might magically solve all of the other problems in her life too. but some wise words along the way help Jaz to understand that life’s circumstances do not have to define her, and her own personal successes and failures don’t have to be tied up with the things in life that are simply beyond her control.
With a summer of football fever on its way and girls’ football growing more popular than ever, this is an empowering book with a dynamic and entertaining main character who shows what can happen when somebody leads the way in a new sporting initiative. The discrimination against Jaz as a girl wanting to be taken seriously in football (from both adults and children) feels frustrating and unfair, but Jaz is passionate and triumphant to show what can be achieved with a little determination. Some of the other girls have no interest in the sport before Jaz recruits them to the team, but the story shows how beneficial the opportunity to join in is for them each in different ways. The Author Priscilla Mante says of the book, “Girls’ football and women’s football don’t get the attention they should do and it was really important for me, through Jaz, to challenge the status quo.”
This timely and heart-warming story about teamwork, self-belief and following your passions in the face of life’s ups and downs is likely to score big with readers aged 8-11.
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Publication date: 27th May 2021
Reviewer: Alison Leach
Thank you to the publishers for sending me advanced copies of these books and to the review panel members who contributed to the reviews.
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