3 wonderful middle-grade novels for fall

Intriguing protagonists, lively cultural mixes, and sensitive writing make these books winners.

'The House with Chicken Legs' is by Sophie Anderson.

Eastern European folklore holds that houses belonging to Baba Yagas walk around on chicken legs, an idea that’s fascinated youngsters for centuries. Sophie Anderson’s debut middle-grade novel The House with Chicken Legs (ages 9-12) is a mostly-modern take on these tales. Our Baba is indeed a mystical, mysterious old woman, but her young charge has dreams that could belong to anyone. Marinka wants a friend, a real family, but most of all she wants to escape her un-wished for destiny.

Marinka’s Baba guides the dead to their next world with a feast, with music, and with knowledge she’s garnered for as many years as she’s been on earth. Now Marinka is being groomed to take on this serious responsibility. This means the girl might never swim in the ocean, shop at the market, or idle the day away with a friend. What’s worse, she must obey a house that chooses where it will run to next.

Marinka does try. She dutifully patches up the skeleton-bone fence. She helps prepare and serve the feasts. But she struggles to remember the proper death journey words. Guiding the souls who are so old they’re wispy and faded may not be difficult. But then a girl who could be the friend Marinka longs for shows up to be guided. To keep her as a friend, Marinka may lose Baba.

"The House with Chicken Legs" is a fast-paced, beautiful story. A fan of the Baba Yaga stories, I knew I would love this book when I saw the cover art. The words inside are magical too, right up to the mostly happily-ever-after ending.

Life isn’t going well for Amy Silverman, protagonist of In Your Shoes, Donna Gephart's latest middle-grade novel. After her mother’s death, she moved to Pennsylvania and lives in her uncle’s funeral home. On weekends, Dad visits, but even her beloved dog is back in Chicago. To make matters worse, on her first day at school, she’s “clonked in the forehead by a flying bowling shoe.” Amy’s salvation is that she loves to write. She’s creating a story to help navigate her mother’s death, the new school, even an anxious boy like Miles Spagoski.

Miles is the owner of that tossed shoe, a worrier about everything, an expert on all things bowling. His latest worry is that his two best friends, a cool boy with a big personality and a girl who dies her hair blue and is a competitive weight lifter, think he should go to the school dance. With a girl.

Miles’s family owns the local bowling alley. His secret is that he’s saving money to take his grandfather to the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame.

The expert voice of the author occasionally interrupts their story with clever bits of “Dear Reader” facts and commentary. And should you need it, there’s a bonus list of bowling lingo appended. Like all of Gephart’s middle-grade books, this is another delightful, discussion-worthy story for young readers navigating friendships, family sadness, and first love.

Mercedes Suarez, protagonist of Merci Suarez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina, lives in Las Casitas, her exuberant extended family’s three small flat-top houses in south Florida. But she spends school days trying to fit in at the prestigious Seaward Pines Academy. She and her brainy brother are scholarship students and are expected – by their family and the school – to give back, set an example, and never ever cause trouble.

She’s also expected to do more than her share of community service. That means being a Sunshine Buddy to a cute boy, new to Seaward Pines. Not only is he a boy, he’s from Minnesota. He likes ice fishing. The two have nothing in common, not even a favorite color. When the queen bee of the popular girls tries to impress him, things can’t go well for Merci. As if her sixth-grade problems (mummies with clipped eyebrows are never a good idea) weren’t enough for the smart soccer-star-turned-babysitter, Merci learns that her beloved grandfather, her Lolo, the man who rides bikes and plants flowers with her, is not well.

Medina mixes humor with poignancy and affection for her characters with a fast-paced story kids won’t want to put down. The Cuban food, the Latino culture, the love tinged with embarrassment typical of many pre-teens make this novel perfect for discussion and for reading together with a friend, a teacher, or a family member. "Merci Suarez Changes Gears" has justifiably been named a finalist for the prestigious Kirkus Prize for 2018.

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