In the summertime

These seven summer-set novels for middle-grade and middle-school readers are perfect for this time of year. (Or save them for winter when you’re ready to escape from the cold!) See also our Five Questions interview with Maxwell Eaton III about Lost in the Mountains (Roaring Brook, 7–10 years), the first entry in his new humorous graphic-novel series, Survival Scout; our 2023 Summer Reading Recommendations; and, sigh, Back-to-School lists.

The Secret Letters [Mysteries of Trash & Treasure] 
by Margaret Peterson Haddix 
Intermediate     Tegen/HarperCollins    400 pp. 
9/22    9780062838520    $17.99 
e-book ed.  978006283854    $12.99 

Colin, an only child, and Nevaeh, the youngest of five, are both reluctantly working at their families’ businesses for the summer. At Possession Curation, Colin is tempted to rescue items his ultra-minimalist mother culls from her clients’ homes but mostly settles for taking pictures of them, finding beauty in unwanted objects. Nevaeh’s father loves being the Junk King, but Neveah would prefer a little less mess in her life. Colin finds a box of letters from the 1970s in an attic and becomes caught up in the story of former friends Rosemary and Toby. A hunch about where he might find the other half of the correspondence brings him into Nevaeh’s path, and the two become friends while searching for Rosemary and Toby and trying to figure out what drove them apart. When a brewing conflict between their parents intensifies, Colin and Nevaeh end up solving the mystery of the broken friendship as well as that of an empty storage unit, allowing the adults to resolve longtime misunderstandings. Haddix packs a lot into a fast-paced novel, and she does so while keeping the focus on the plot. Issues of class, equality, and self-determination are touched on in a slightly convoluted but ultimately unexpected and satisfyingly resolved mystery. SARAH RETTGER 

Ruby Lost and Found
by Christina Li 
Middle School    Quill Tree/HarperCollins    304 pp. 
5/23    9780063008939    $19.99 
e-book ed.  9780063008953    $10.99 

Thirteen-year-old Ruby Chu is grieving the death of Ye-Ye, her paternal grandfather, who would devise elaborate scavenger hunts around San Francisco’s Chinatown for her. Ruby has also lost her best friends Mia, who moved away, and Naomi, who has become closer with her soccer teammates. Even her sister, Viv, is moving across the country for college at the end of the summer. When Ruby gets caught ditching school, her parents send her off to Nai-Nai’s house for the summer. She spends the weekdays with her grandmother, visiting her friends (“a bunch of old Chinese ladies”) at the senior center, making tea, and watching Chinese dramas. An otherwise boring summer is interrupted when a newcomer, Liam, also no stranger to grief, appears at the senior center with his Maa-Maa. Summer slowly rolls on, Nai-Nai begins exhibiting signs of dementia, and Ye-Ye’s favorite bakery, a staple of Chinatown, threatens to close due to development. What begins as an isolating and overwhelming journey through grief turns hopeful as Ruby makes new friends, opens up to the people she loves most, and learns that she doesn’t have to navigate change alone. GABI KIM HUESCA 

Lo & Behold 
by Wendy Mass; illus. by Gabi Mendez; color by Cai Tse 
Intermediate, Middle School    Random House    224 pp. 
5/23    9780593179635    $20.99 
Library ed.  9780593179642    $23.99 
Paper ed.  9780593179628    $13.99 
e-book ed.  9780593179659    $8.99 

In this moving and memorable graphic novel, twelve-year-old Addie loves tortoises, outer space, and moon trees (planted from seeds that traveled with the Apollo 14 mission before germinating back on Earth). A prologue reveals that when Addie was ten, her mom was injured in a bicycle accident and had surgery; things got worse from there. The main narrative begins almost two years later, after a traumatic (and ambiguously shown) incident, with Addie and her futurist dad adjusting to a “new normal.” The pair is now living on a college campus for the summer, her dad working with a fun-loving group of young researchers studying augmented and virtual reality. Thrust into a new environment, Addie makes friends (including Mateo, a kind, free-spirited neighbor kid) and has experiences that push her as she challenges assumptions, processes feelings, and grows in empathy, vulnerability, and confidence. Character, setting, dialogue, and plot are skillfully delineated, and the inclusion of sunny moments balance heavier, introspective scenes. Well-paced, deftly illustrated panels convey characters’ emotions and experiences; especially striking are fanciful VR-related images superimposed over realistic settings. When Addie’s family situation (involving addiction and incarceration) is fully disclosed, it is presented with care, compassion, and hope. Back matter includes notes from the creators and a link to additional resources, including augmented reality that can be integrated into the reading of the book. ELISA GALL 

When Sea Becomes Sky 
by Gillian McDunn 
Intermediate    Bloomsbury    288 pp. 
2/23    9781547610853    $16.99 
e-book ed.  9781547610860    $11.89 

Bex dreams of becoming a writer, and usually the words flow from her pencil. But not this summer; now she has more erasures than words. Her younger brother, Davey, gives Bex some advice: “Writers must tell the truth thoroughly, constantly, and recklessly. Do that and the words will come.” It’s advice Bex appears to follow as she describes how she and Davey find a mysterious statue near their home in the North Carolina salt marsh. For years, it had been covered by a river (a body of water Davey will not enter but dubs the River Sticks), but it is now increasingly visible as the water recedes during a serious drought. Bex decides on the perfect summer plan: the two of them will discover the statue’s provenance. Their exclusivity makes sense, as Davey appears to be selectively mute around everyone but Bex and she’s had a falling-out with her best friend. However, a sudden revelation midway through the novel shatters that presumed truth-telling. McDunn (Honestly Elliott, rev. 3/22) has written a story that the character of Davey would want to read: “This book starts happy, gets sad, and then at the end, it’s happy and sad mixed up together. That’s what makes it special, that it has both.” BETTY CARTER 

Half Moon Summer 
by Elaine Vickers 
Intermediate, Middle School    Peachtree    288 pp. 
6/23    9781682635391    $17.99 
e-book ed.  9781682635544    $10.99 

Drew and Mia met as infants — born on the same day in the same hospital, they stopped crying only when nurses put them in the same bassinet — but grew up in different areas of California, meeting again only when Mia comes to stay with her Gram in Drew’s hometown of Half Moon Bay for the summer before they turn thirteen. Mia’s family is there while her father is in Alaska caring for his ailing mother. Drew’s summer plans mainly involve avoiding work in his father’s carpentry shop until the gift of a pair of Nikes gives him new purpose. Mia joins Drew and his dad on their morning runs, and they decide to enter a local half marathon. When Drew learns that his dad has been diagnosed with ALS, the race takes on a deeper meaning. Vickers does an excellent job of blending her two narrators’ voices, with Drew’s chapters written in prose and Mia’s in verse. The book deals authentically with tween feelings, especially their complex reactions to death and loss, while also maintaining a solid pace through the dynamic plot, making it a great choice for upper-middle-grade readers looking for an emotionally intense story without a hint of romance. SARAH RETTGER 

The Braid Girls 
by Sherri Winston 
Middle School    Little, Brown    272 pp. 
6/23    9780316461610    $16.99 
Paper ed.  9780316461597    $8.99 
e-book. ed.  9780316461603    $7.99 

It’s a big summer for middle schooler Maggie: she is starting a braiding business with her best friend, Daija, and she will be meeting her half-sister, Callie, who is from the Bahamas, for the first time. Callie’s mother recently passed away, and Callie will be moving in with Maggie’s family in Jacksonville, Florida. While Maggie is welcoming to Callie, Daija is not so happy about this new sister, as she and Maggie are practically sisters. Protective of her friendship and their new braiding enterprise, Daija is not interested in embracing Callie and is determined not to be replaced by a stranger. However, Callie soon becomes the least of their worries as nemesis Angela and her crew decide to open a competing braid business and start to steal their customers. Is it possible for the three girls to overcome their differences and insecurities and become sisters and friends? Drama between the Braid Girls and the Sistahs Who Braid heats up as the competition for business leads to a memorable climax. A summer crush for Maggie lends extra excitement. Told through the alternating points of view of the three girls, the story explores themes of friend and family relationships, grief, bullying, divorce, and parental absence, all handled with care and sensitivity. MONIQUE HARRIS 

Remember Us
by Jacqueline Woodson 
Middle School    Paulsen/Penguin    192 pp. 
10/23    9780399545467    $18.99 
e-book ed.  9780399545481    $10.99 

Sage Durham, a basketball-obsessed Black twelve-year-old, is looking forward to a summer of pick-up games with the boys (she’s always the only girl on the court) in her close-knit 1970s Brooklyn neighborhood. Instead, it proves to be a season of screaming sirens and burned-out buildings. The newspapers dub Bushwick “The Matchbox,” and a number of the Durhams’ neighbors become victims of fire. Sage’s mom, the widow of a firefighter, is saving every possible penny to put toward a brick house and a safer future for herself and her daughter. But the idea of leaving the home where her dad grew up and all the people she has ever known is hard for Sage. A recent cruel comment (“What kind of girl are you?”) has her questioning where she fits in. This lyrical first-person upper-middle-grade novel taps into a wide array of emotional truths and preteen sensibilities. Passages on loss and memory feature palpable sadness, but there is also a tender exploration of the enduring power of friendship and love, the discovery of inner strength and resilience, and the need to balance an appreciation for what “once was” and what may be. Woodson again delivers an appealing protagonist whose voice will resonate with readers in a nuanced coming-of-age story worth remembering. LUANN TOTH

From the August 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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