Sharon Verbeten

What signs would portend the apocalypse for a tween boy? Twelve-year-old Eddie Holloway and his friends Xavier, Sonia, Trey and Sage think something might be amiss when the electricity in their neighborhood goes out and then their families don’t return from the annual Beach Bash party on Lake Erie.

Eddie’s day begins in mundane fashion. His mom grounds him after discovering that he hasn’t done his laundry in weeks, forcing him to stay home from their small Ohio town’s biggest party of the year. Even Eddie’s older brother, the Bronster (“Bronster is what happens when you mix equal parts brother + monster”), and their stepdad of six months, Calvin aka WBD (“Wanna-Be Dad”), can’t convince Eddie’s mom to free him from the drudgery and allow him to attend the celebration he’s looked forward to all year.

Clad in his sole piece of clean clothing—pink swim trunks printed with glow-in-the-dark pineapples—Eddie watches his family pile into the car and leave for the beach, then heads down to the basement to start making his way through 40 days’ worth of dirty laundry. But as the washing machine is filling up for his second load, the power goes out. Eddie discovers that he’s one of only five people in the entire neighborhood who aren’t at the Beach Bash, and as the hours pass and none of their families come back from the beach, it becomes clear that something is very, very wrong.

Young adult author Justin A. Reynolds’ first book for middle grade readers is propelled by Eddie’s hilarious stream-of-consciousness narration. Eddie frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly, and his storytelling is full of exclamations and asides, such as a three-page treatise titled “Eddie’s Unassailable Insights Into Why Laundry Is a Scam/Hoax/Con.” 

It’s the End of the World and I’m in My Bathing Suit isn’t all silliness, however. Eddie’s often-circuitous ramblings stem from his ADHD, which Reynolds depicts with thoughtful care. Just as empathetically crafted are Eddie’s reflections on the changes his family has experienced—his father’s death, his brother’s anger and his new stepdad’s efforts to find his own place within Eddie’s family structure.

Although the novel unfolds in just 24 hours, It’s the End of the World and I’m in My Bathing Suit ends on a cliffhanger that will leave readers begging for a sequel. Reynolds offers plenty of laughs as Eddie and his friends team up to save the world—or at least the neighborhood.

Propelled by hilarious stream-of-consciousness narration, Justin A. Reynolds’ It’s the End of the World and I’m in My Bathing Suit offers a fun tale of friends who team up to save the world—or at least the neighborhood.

Under a moonlit sky, 12-year-old Homer and his little sister, Ada, run away from Southerland Plantation, frantically scrambling to stay ahead of the dogs unleashed by their enslaver to track them. Tragically, Mama is left behind, but they follow her final instructions: “Get to the river.” 

Together, Homer and Ada make their way through the unfamiliar swampy landscape. Homer tries to memorize their route so that he can eventually make his way back to Southerland to rescue Mama. Deep in the swamp, the siblings are discovered by Suleman, who brings them to Freewater, a hidden, thriving community composed of formerly enslaved people and children born free. When the safety and shelter Freewater offers are threatened, Homer must do everything he can to survive while holding out hope of reuniting his family.

Journalist and historian Amina Luqman-Dawson’s debut middle grade novel, Freewater, is historical fiction at its finest. In a detailed author’s note, Luqman-Dawson describes how the book’s titular community was inspired by real “spaces of Black resistance,” particularly those within the Great Dismal Swamp in eastern Virginia and North Carolina. Luqman-Dawson’s thorough research into such communities rings clear on every page of the novel.

Freewater is also a gripping, emotional story. Its short chapters and expert pacing seize the reader’s attention, and its young freedom-seeking protagonists are instantly engaging. Luqman-Dawson’s novel is, in her own words, a moving reminder that “wherever African enslavement existed in the Americas, a culture . . . of extraordinary resistance was always present.”

A tale of siblings who join a hidden community of formerly enslaved people, Freewater is historical fiction at its finest.

The range of graphic novels and nonfiction for children gets better, more exciting and more popular with each passing year. Even the choosiest young reader won’t be able to resist the charms of these wonderful books.

Marshmallow & Jordan

For the reader who carefully arranges their stuffed animals at the head of their bed every morning—and knows each and every one of their names

Growing up in Indonesia, Jordan is a talented basketball player who lives for the sport. She’s even named after her dad’s favorite player. After an accident two years ago, Jordan is also a paraplegic and uses a wheelchair. Although she’s still the captain of her school’s team, an official rule means she’s not allowed to participate in games against other teams. In spite of her teammates’ sincere efforts to make her feel included, it’s just not the same. 

Jordan’s life changes when she discovers an injured young white elephant at a park one day after basketball practice. She names him Marshmallow and, with help from her veterinarian mom, nurses him back to health. Jordan and Marshmallow become fast friends, but it’s soon clear that the connection between them runs much deeper. Marshmallow obviously needs Jordan’s help, but as it turns out, Jordan needs Marshmallow too. 

As Jordan leans on Marshmallow, he helps her begin to swim, and eventually she discovers a new athletic passion: water polo. But a worsening drought threatens the local water supply and the use of water for recreational purposes like swimming. Could there be a connection between Marshmallow and the much-needed rain?

Marshmallow & Jordan is a practically perfect graphic novel. Jordan’s strong spirit and earnest emotional vulnerabilities make her an appealing and relatable hero, and Marshmallow is irresistibly adorable as his big blue eyes shine with emotion. Lush and lovely, Alina Chau’s delicate watercolor illustrations are rendered in warm pastel tones. The book’s text is fairly minimal, so her images pull a great deal of the narrative weight, making this an ideal choice for young readers still gaining verbal confidence and fluency who would benefit from the unique interplay of words and images that graphic novels offer. 

This beautifully rendered tale, with its fluffy, marshmallow-sweet images, is all heart. 

—Sharon Verbeten

Another Kind

For the reader who has always felt a little out of place—except within the pages of a great book

Inside a hidden government-run facility called the Playroom, six creatures known as Irregularities are living out their childhoods quietly tucked away from society. There’s Omar, who’s half yeti; Sylvie, a will-o’-the-wisp; Newt, a lizard boy; Jaali, who can transform into a Nandi bear; Clarice, a selkie; and Maggie, who might be the daughter of Cthulhu. When the group’s secrecy is compromised and their safety endangered, government agents decide to move them to a more secure location.

Along the way, the powerful youngsters end up fending for themselves in a totally unfamiliar world filled with ordinary people who are totally unfamiliar with them. To survive, they must hide their unusual features and abilities—and avoid detection by dangerous forces that are hot on their trail. When the merry misfits meet other Irregularities and uncover rumors about a place called the Sanctuary, a place where they’ll all be safe, they’re determined to find it and make it their new home.

Trevor Bream’s narrative touches subtly on weighty themes, including gender identity, bullying and feelings of abandonment. At every turn, the story emphasizes the importance of self-acceptance and a sense of belonging within a community—empowering notions for young humans to consider.

Illustrator Cait May’s art is gorgeous. Just as Bream grounds their supernatural characters in emotional realism, May’s linework anchors this fantastical story in a detailed, realistic aesthetic. There’s a lightheartedness in her use of color that’s perfectly suited for a tale that never loses sight of its young characters’ optimism and hopefulness.

Another Kind is a magical graphic novel that movingly demonstrates the power of being different.

—Justin Barisich

★ The Secret Garden on 81st Street

For the reader who knows that if you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden receives a contemporary update in this thoughtful graphic novel. 

Mary Lennox is a loner, and she likes it that way. She doesn’t have friends in her everyday life, but she makes up for it by immersing herself in technology, especially via her cell phone and online video games. Her parents, who both work in Silicon Valley, aren’t home much, which doesn’t help Mary’s isolation. When they’re killed in a tragic accident, Mary must go live with her uncle, whom she barely knows. 

Uncle Archie keeps his New York City mansion tech-free, and Mary has an understandably hard time adjusting to his rules. But with help from her cousin, Colin, and her new friend Dickon, Mary begins to restore the rooftop garden at her uncle’s house. Gradually, Mary starts to acclimate to—and then thrive in—New York, working through her grief and forming meaningful connections along the way.

Adapting a beloved classic to a new form and setting is no small task, and it’s clear that author Ivy Noelle Weir and illustrator Amber Padilla did not take the challenge lightly. Their love for Burnett’s original novel shines through on every page and makes The Secret Garden on 81st Street a truly heartwarming experience. Padilla’s playful, cartoonlike style lends itself wonderfully to expressing the happiness and contentment that Mary slowly finds. Weir’s prose is refreshing and modern, with just enough nods to Burnett’s best-known lines to preserve the story’s classic roots.

Best of all, Weir revisits many of the themes of Burnett’s novel through a contemporary lens, approaching each character’s journey with sensitivity. Colin stays in his room all the time because of anxiety, while Uncle Archie is grieving the loss of his husband, Masahiro. These updates blend perfectly with some of the most powerful elements from the original story, such as the slow transformation of the garden and the ways that nature and human connection have the ability to heal us.

The Secret Garden on 81st Street is a beautiful and respectful new vision of a long-treasured tale.

—Hannah Lamb

Salt Magic

For the reader who would be more that willing to pay the hero’s price for a thrilling, out-of-this-world adventure

Hope Larson (A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel) teams up again with illustrator Rebecca Mock, her partner on Compass South, to create Salt Magic, an absorbing and fast-paced historical fantasy adventure.

There’s a hint of The Wizard of Oz to Salt Magic, which begins in our world, then launches its hero on a quest into a new, magical world before she finally returns home again. Twelve-year-old Vonceil is the youngest of five children on an Oklahoma farm in 1919. She is a determined and appealing character whose boredom and angst simmer on every page, perfectly conveyed through her many evocative facial expressions and especially her piercing eyes. 

As the story opens, Vonceil’s beloved brother Elber has finally returned from World War I after two long years away. Physically and mentally, he’s a changed man, and he seems to have no time for the fun he used to share with his littlest sister. Vonceil feels more alone than ever when Elber marries his sweetheart, Amelia, a local girl. Before long, however, a mysterious, wealthy woman in white named Greda appears in their small town. Greda was Elber’s nurse and lover in Paris, and she is so enraged to learn that Elber has married someone else that she curses his family’s farm, turning all of their precious fresh water into salt water. 

Vonceil feels responsible for Greda’s curse, having hoped that Elder would have a fabulous romance with someone from France and resented Amelia for marrying him instead. When she realizes that Greda is a salt witch, she sets out in the dark of night to try to make things right. So begins a fantastical journey that leads Vonceil to uncover not only Greda’s secrets but also numerous revelations about her own ancestors, culminating in a dangerous bargain to save the family farm and Elber’s life.

Mock’s illustrations make every enchanting, dangerous moment pop. Even a close-up of a seemingly simple handshake between Vonceil and Greta conveys the importance of their dire agreement. Other scenes expertly dramatize the desolate landscape Vonceil traverses, the inescapable power of the all-important salt crystals she discovers and the many strange creatures she encounters along the way. 

Salt Magic is a feast of a tale that treats readers to an epic battle between evil forces and a courageous, persistent young hero.

—Alice Cary

Other Boys

For the reader who needs to hear that they are never as alone as they sometimes might feel

Damian Alexander’s debut graphic memoir, Other Boys, is a powerfully compelling portrait of a boy learning to understand and accept himself.

Damian has always felt different. He and his brother live with their grandmother in a small apartment, because when they were very young, their father murdered their mother. Damian has also always enjoyed things that he thinks boys shouldn’t like, such as dolls, flowers and tea parties. He’s repeatedly been told that he’s too “girly” to fit in with boys, but girls often excluded him from playing with them because he’s a boy. His struggle to understand where he belongs has followed him all the way to middle school.

As he starts seventh grade at a new school, Damian has decided that the best way to avoid being bullied is to give his classmates absolutely nothing to bully him about. Damian is not merely planning to speak only when spoken to or to keep his voice to a whisper; he’s not going to speak at all. To anyone. But his silence doesn’t go unnoticed, and his grandmother arranges for him to see a therapist. With the therapist’s help, Damian begins to understand that he isn’t weird, strange or wrong. Meanwhile, he’s also discovering that not all boys are bullies, and some are even, well, pretty cute. The only way that Damian will find his place is by staying true to himself and finally speaking up. 

As he narrates in the voice of his seventh-grade self, Alexander skillfully uses flashbacks to fill in his personal history. His bright color palette balances the book’s darker elements, and his figures’ slightly enlarged faces keep readers focused on the emotion of each panel. Other Boys will be a life-changing read for any young person who is questioning their identity or searching for where they belong.

—Kevin Delecki 

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Just try to resist the charms of these delightful middle grade graphic novels, perfect for gifting.

A Soft Place to Land, Janae Marks’ second middle grade novel, is a heartwarming story of family, friendship and one girl’s longing to find her place amid the world’s turmoil.

Until recently, 12-year-old Joy lived in a comfortable house with her loving parents and her little sister, Malia. But when Joy’s father loses his job, her parents must sell their house to avoid foreclosure. Joy and her family move to a small apartment, where she and Malia must share a bedroom. The financial stress also means her parents can no longer afford Joy’s piano lessons, which is a crushing blow because she loves music and aspires to become a film composer when she grows up.

Just when all seems lost, Joy meets a kindred spirit: Nora, a classmate who also lives in Joy’s new apartment building and has worries of her own. Nora introduces Joy to a secret hideout where they can escape their troubles and share secrets. The hideout becomes the titular soft place to land for Joy, Nora and the other kids in their apartment complex. 

In the hideout, friendships blossom and splinter. A shared passion inspires Joy and Nora to test their independence by starting a dog-walking business to earn money, which elicits interest and growing trust from their parents, but yields unanticipated results. Troubling hidden messages scrawled on the hideout’s wall leave Joy concerned, puzzled and wanting to do more to help the anonymous writer. 

The desire for a safe haven is shared by all of the novel’s characters. Chaos is everywhere, Joy discovers, but what matters is how you confront challenges, share what you’ve learned and invite others in. If you can find the strength and courage to do so, you may find that home has been right in front of you all along. 

A Soft Place to Land, Janae Marks’ second middle grade novel, is a heartwarming story of family, friendship and one girl’s longing to find her place amid the world’s turmoil.

In Nidhi Chanani’s enchanting Jukebox, a girl travels back in time but connects with the present.

Shaheen discovers the titular machine as she searches for her music-obsessed father, who has gone missing after they had an argument. She has enlisted her cousin, Tannaz, to help her find him, when the pair stumble upon the jukebox in the attic of her father’s favorite record shop and strange things start happening. With the spin of a record, the jukebox takes them on a magical mystery tour, transporting them to the pivotal places and moments in history that reflect the records it plays. They find themselves amid protest marches, epic concerts and more, all fueled by the legendary music of Nina Simone, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and more. Tannaz enjoys the ride, but Shaheen keeps her eyes peeled for her father and the chance to make things right between them.

Author-illustrator Chanani cleverly employs time travel in this middle grade graphic novel, using it to explore themes of family and friendship in what is ultimately a coming-of-age narrative. Her depictions of the power of music to connect us with history are touching.

Chanani’s illustrations are one of the best things about this book. In addition to graphic novels and picture books, Chanani has been a featured artist with Disney Parks, and her playful, colorful style is well suited to the story she tells here. Her characters have exaggeratedly large and expressive eyes, which lend themselves well to portraying emotions. And as you would expect in a book with music at its core, every page is infused with motion and action.

Although the mystery of the jukebox is eventually revealed, it’s clear that Shaheen’s journey is only just beginning. After all, as Stevie Wonder said, “Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories.”

In Nidhi Chanani’s enchanting Jukebox, a girl travels back in time but connects with the present.

Pawcasso is a joyful graphic novel from acclaimed author-illustrator Remy Lai (Pie in the Sky) that abounds with silliness, camaraderie and a few white lies.

A dog wanders around town, holding a basket in his mouth. There’s a shopping list inside the basket, but why is the dog shopping on his own? Where is his owner? And where will he go next? Jo is bored, upset that her father has left on yet another extended work trip and eager for a distraction. When she sees the dog pass by her house, she slips out of her yard and follows him into the cleverly named Dog Ears bookstore, where a children’s painting class is being held in an upstairs meeting room.

The class is so enamored with the charming dog that they name him Pawcasso and invite both him and Jo back for the next class, under the mistaken impression that the dog belongs to Jo. Though she wonders where his owners are, Jo effectively adopts Pawcasso, going so far as to give him a bath after he rolls in something stinky. She quickly comes to love the attention she receives when everyone believes that Pawcasso is her dog.

But not all of Jo’s neighbors find Pawcasso charming. It turns out that the Duchamp family has submitted a petition to the city council that would require all dogs to be leashed, and the town quickly becomes divided over the issue. How can Jo protect Pawcasso when he doesn’t even belong to her?

All over town, children and adults work together to support their side of the debate in an excellent depiction of civic engagement. Characters respectfully stand up for their beliefs, gather support and follow through. Lai’s candy-colored, cartoon-style illustrations are a delightful complement to this cute, clever romp. The book is full of well-executed canine puns and jokes, including Jo’s fabulously phrased apology: “I made a Chihuahua-sized lie, but it snowballed into a Great Dane-sized lie.”

Readers who enjoyed Lai’s two previous illustrated middle grade novels will love Pawcasso, her first graphic novel. It’s a gentle story of community, forgiveness and redemption.

Pawcasso is a joyful graphic novel from acclaimed author-illustrator Remy Lai (Pie in the Sky) that abounds with silliness, camaraderie and a few white lies.

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