TMS 2021 Gift Guide: Adventurous Books, Graphic Novels for Middle School Kids

Ghosts, time travel, and just trying not to be totally mortified (or whatever the kids are saying).
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Following the footsteps of the Mary Sue Gift Guide to books for kids under 10, this list focuses on that tricky age between about 9 and 13. Some call them tweens, others call them middle schoolers—either way, these books were selected to show the diversity of excellent fiction and graphic novels recently published for this audience. Because we are TMS, we of course prioritized science fiction, magic, social justice, and stories we wish we had growing up.

Like before, this list is coming out really, really early because 1) Diwali starting last week officially started the winter holidays and 2) the supply chain is an absolute mess. Also back are the notes after each summary detailing some themes and a general age recommendation.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

"Front Desk" by Kelly Yang (Image: Arthur A. Levine Books.)

(Image: Arthur A. Levine Books.)

Front Desk is one of three books in a critically acclaimed series following Mia Tang. In the first book, we’re introduced to Mia’s complicated life. At home, she lives in a motel (something she hides from those at school) and helps her parents hide immigrant families from the mean motel owner Mr. Yao by aiding at the check-in desk.

At school, she explores what it would be like to be a writer (her dream job) despite her mother telling her to stick to math, since English is not her first language. Mia’s kindness and tenacity shine through from the start.

This story touches on immigration and family. Recommended age range is nine to eleven, or those in third to seventh grade.

Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

"Ghost Squad" by Claribel A. Ortega (Image: Scholastic.)

(Image: Scholastic.)

If they are fans of Stranger Things, Coco, or Ghostbusters then this is a great pick! Lucely and her BFF Syd cast a spell that accidentally awakens wicked ghosts that would cause destruction wherever they go. They team up with Syd’s witch grandmother and her chonky cat to fight the spirits and undo the curse. This book looks to start and end with back-to-back action and adventure and won the IGNTYE for Middle-Grade fiction at FIYAHCon 2021.

This story touches on multi-generational families and the supernatural. Recommended age range is eight to twelve, or those in third to seventh grade.

The Insiders by Mark Oshiro

"The Insiders" by Mark Oshiro (Image: HarperCollins.)

(Image: HarperCollins.)

When new student Héctor moves from one part of California to another side of the state, he feels like he is in another world entirely. His experience in San Francisco was that being gay was as normal as being straight or anything else, but in this new town (Orangevale), Héctor feels like an outsider. When he finds a regular place to get away from other students, the door closes behind Héctor one day and he’s met with two new friends from across the country. Going through this magical portal-like door changes Héctor’s life forever and sets a new tone for the year—one full of friendship and adventure.

This story touches on identity, friendship, and bullying. Recommended age range is eight to twelve, or those in third to seventh grade.

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron

"Maya and the Rising Dark" by Rena Barron (Image: Clarion Books.)

(Image: Clarion Books.)

Twelve-year-old Maya grew up with epic stories from her father and reading action-packed comics. With these moments of joy also came the unfortunate ability to see the creatures and weird occurrences in her South Side Chicago neighborhood. When her father goes missing, Maya is forced into a familiar and yet new world just beyond our own. With every answer she finds (like the fact that she is a godling) comes a dozen new questions.

This story touches on myths/fables, fantastical worlds, and family. Recommended age range is eight to twelve, or those in third to eighth grade.

Allergic by Megan Wagner Llyod

"Allergic" by Megan Wagner Llyod (Image: Graphix.)

(Image: Graphix.)

This graphic novel tells the story of Maggie, a girl frustrated that her parents are always preoccupied with an incoming baby and her two younger twin brothers. As an animal lover, Maggie sees getting a puppy as the perfect solution and selects one for her birthday. Major problem, though … she finds that she’s super allergic and breaks out in rashes. Maggie’s on the hunt for a solution, if any, to be able to keep her new dog and manage her allergies.

This graphic novel touches on diseases. Recommended age range is eight to twelve, or those in third to eighth grade.

Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy

"Huda F Are You?" by Huda Fahmy (Image: Dial Books.)

(Image: Dial Books.)

In Huda’s old town, she was the only girl with a hijab, and while it was isolating at times, it also gave her a sense of identity. When she moves to Dearborn, Michigan and is one of many with a hijab in the small town, all of a sudden, Huda doesn’t know how to identify herself.

Forced to explore who she is beyond her hijab, she tries a bunch of cliques in this journey. It, like many other middle-grade books, forces its main protagonist to examine their identity. Huda F Are You? releases on November 23.

This graphic novel explores topics like identity and humor. Recommended age range is 12+, or those in seventh to ninth grade.

Displacement by Kiku Hughes

"Displacement" by Kiku Hughes (Image: First Second.)

(Image: First Second.)

Drawing from the generational trauma of Japanese internment camps, anger over the Muslim Bans, and a love of literary hero Octavia Bulter, Hughes crafts an emotional and informative story. In a semi-biographical tale, Hughes is swept into the past during the growing resentment over Japanese Americans leading up to and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She both questions preconceived ideas about those in the camps and grapples with the silence and assimilation of her family after these traumatic years.

This graphic novel touches on multi-racial identity, history, parent/child relationships, and time travel. Recommended age range is 12+, or those in seventh to ninth grade.

Honorable mentions

Also, check out the book gift guide for those under 10 and keep on the lookout for the upcoming gift guides in the books sections and other places on The Mary Sue!

(Image: Clarion Books, Graphix, Scholastic, and Arthur A. Levine Books.)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.