Lively narrators, rich context make these middle-grade books shine

From Pakistan to Miami, these lively tales speak to readers in the 8-12 age group.

'The Night Diary' is by Veera Hiranandani.

History, ethnicity, and questions of belonging and purpose form a rich backdrop for several of the best books for middle-grade readers this summer.

One of the finest new releases is The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani. This powerful work of historical fiction is set in India in 1947 at the moment of the country’s partition.

The protagonist, 12-year-old Nisha, is the child of a Muslim mother and a Hindu father. Her mother died giving birth to Nisha and her twin brother, Amil, but she remains a major presence in Nisha’s imagination. The book is narrated in the form of a diary the painfully shy Nisha writes as a letter to her mother.

When the country is torn apart, Nisha’s emotionally distant father knows that he and his children must flee. The family meets with unimagined hardship, but throughout it all Nisha remains an intelligent and sensitive narrator, bringing history alive with compassion and color.

Building on history in a more lighthearted fashion is The Not So Boring Letters of Private Nobody, by Matthew Landis. Seventh-grader Oliver Prichard is a self-proclaimed Civil War nut, and when his history class finally tackles his favorite subject he’s sure he’ll be the star.

But things take a turn toward the unexpected when Oliver is assigned what he sees as an incredibly boring project: He must read the real-life letters of an unknown Civil War private who died before reaching the battlefield. On top of that, he’s given Ella, one of the weakest students in class, as his project partner.

As it turns out, Ella has plenty to teach Oliver, and it’s fun to watch him break out of at least a few of his self-imposed nerdy bonds.

There’s nothing nerdy about Arturo, the protagonist of Pablo Cartaya’s The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora. With a narrative voice that hints at a teenage Sam Spade, Arturo describes his life in Miami, playing basketball with his buddies, working at his abuela’s restaurant, and coping with his sometimes manic family.

It looks as if Arturo is cruising toward an idyllic summer when a couple of things knock him off his stride: a girl named Carmen starts causing an odd sensation in his stomach and a sleazy developer casts an eye on his abuela’s restaurant.

Suddenly it’s Arturo to the rescue. There are some real-life lessons about gentrification tucked into this story, but what resonates most is the pleasure of Arturo’s immensely likable voice.

When it comes to kid heroes, Mia Tang, the protagonist of Front Desk, by Kelly Yang, is no slouch, either. Mia’s parents immigrated to the United States from China, and it’s been a tough ride for them. They are delighted to finally land a gig as managers of a cheap motel in California, even though the boss is a crook and they are treated like indentured servants.  

Mia sees injustice all around and is not the type to keep still. Unfortunately, her attempts to set the world right sometimes seem to take wrong turns – at least for a time. Finally, however, Mia prevails in ways that surprise and delight.

Making Mia’s story particularly powerful is the author’s note at the end, explaining that Yang is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and she actually lived many of the incidents in the book.

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