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All Middle Grade Coverage

Young sleuths searching for great mystery novels know exactly what they’re looking for: engaging characters, a suspenseful story, a satisfying resolution and a touch of heart. They'll find all that and more in these two middle grade books.

Duet

If the animal menagerie of Deborah and James Howe's classic Bunnicula series had included a goldfinch, the result might have been something like Duet. Like Bunnicula and its sequels, Duet features an animal narrator. Mirabelle is a young goldfinch who helps her favorite people find answers to perplexing questions.

Mr. Starek has retired from teaching piano lessons, but he makes an exception for Michael, a sixth grader whose musical talent is matched only by his stubbornness. Mirabelle has kept Mr. Starek company from the trees outside his windows since the recent death of his sister, Halina, and now the little yellow bird delights in singing along while Michael practices a series of pieces composed by Frédéric Chopin, including the technically challenging and exquisitely beautiful Ballade in F Minor. 

As Mirabelle searches for a way to join Michael at an upcoming competition, Michael and Mr. Starek are joined by Emily, a former protege of Mr. Starek's. Emily used to teach Michael piano, but now she's studying music history at the conservatory. Together, the trio search Halina's house for a rare, hidden piano known as a Pleyel, one of two types of pianos on which Chopin composed. However, Halina was a hoarder, which Broach depicts with empathy and understanding, and the house contains more secrets than anyone suspects.

Masterpiece Adventures author Elise Broach fills Duet with evocative details of Mirabelle's avian life, including adventures with her brothers, the welcoming of new siblings to her family's nest and a harrowing description of a thunderstorm. Broach also incorporates a number of intriguing and memorable stories about Chopin and his artistic friends. Her writing is peppered with fun vocabulary (appurtenances, daguerreotype), and Duet includes an author's note that explains how the conclusion of the novel's mystery connects to fascinating real-life events.

At one point, Emily acknowledges her limitations as a pianist, providing a refreshing and mature balance to the other musicians' focus on perfect performances as their primary goal. Music, Duet suggests, can be enjoyed by everyone—including goldfinches. Find a recording of Chopin's ballades and let Broach sweep you away on wings of word and song.

Chester Keene Cracks the Code

Chester Keene appreciates his routine more than your average sixth grader. Every day after school, until his mom gets off work, he plays laser tag and knocks down pins at his mother's best friend's bowling alley. His routine does not include finding an envelope with his name on it that contains two riddles bearing the numbers one and four. And it especially does not include being joined at his solo lunch table by the outgoing Skye, who's holding riddles number two and three. 

Chester thinks the clues must have been left by his absent father, whom Chester has long been convinced is a spy. What if the riddles are Chester's dad's way of communicating that he's in trouble and needs Chester's help? As Chester and Skye decode the puzzles, which seem intentionally designed to require them to work together, they form a friendship. When they overhear a group of bowlers plotting a heist, they begin to wonder whether stopping the crime could be the key to rescuing Chester's dad. But could Chester's reliance on careful observation be leading him astray?

Readers who pay close attention to detail will be rewarded not just with the solutions to the riddles, which involve puns, number games and creative thinking, but also the answers to the novel's larger mysteries, such as why Chester and Skye have been brought together in the first place. The revelation of the riddles' true purpose takes Chester Keene Cracks the Code in a direction that's as fitting as it is initially unexpected. Maybe what Chester longs for most is actually closer to him than he realizes.

Diversity is a part of Chester's world in quiet ways: Both Chester and Skye are biracial, and Skye encourages Chester to “break free of traditional gender roles” and embrace his inner warrior princess. Chester's town's various small businesses, including the bowling alley, evoke a small-town, working-class setting. His solitary habits and reliance on down-to-the-minute schedules also suggest a neurodivergence that acclaimed author Kekla Magoon leaves unspecified.  

Chester Keene Cracks the Code is a heartwarming puzzle mystery whose narrator has multiple codes to crack: the code of the riddle messages, the code of friendship, the code of handling a bully and the code of family. 

Join young detectives on quests for answers that may be hiding in plain sight.

Sometimes when tragedy strikes, a family draws closer, weaving itself into a tightly intertwined bulwark against heartache. Other times, however, tragedy can drive family members apart as they try to avoid feeling—let alone expressing—their grief.

The titular 11-year-old protagonist of Zoraida Córdova's heartfelt and imaginative Valentina Salazar Is Not a Monster Hunter would never have predicted the latter outcome for her family. As far back as Valentina can remember, the Salazars have been dedicated monster rescuers, scooping up magical beings that stumble into this dimension and sending them back to the realm of Finisterra before monster hunters can find and perhaps kill them.

However, in the eight months since their father died on a mission gone horribly awry, the Salazars have been trying to live a more ordinary life. Their mother moved the family to upstate New York, took a job in the city and retired their tricked-out camper van, the Scourge, to the garage. Everyone has adjusted pretty well to the changes, but Valentina can't stop wishing she could repair her family's close bonds and get them all back to doing what they were born to do.

A viral video provides the opportunity Valentina needs: A boy discovers an unusual-looking egg and believes it to be a dragon egg. Millions of viewers are watching online as the egg seems ready to hatch at any moment, but Valentina knows it's a recipe for disaster. After all, her father often liked to say that “people liked the idea of magical beasts, but if they knew the truth? They wouldn't be able to handle it.” Valentina convinces her siblings to climb back into the Scourge and race to the egg before any TV reporters or monster hunters get there—and before something terrible happens.

Córdova sends her characters on a delightfully detailed wild ride of a road trip. As they visit foreboding and fantastical locales, Valentina and her siblings encounter monsters of all stripes, from sinuous, threatening beasts to creatures so cute and fluffy you'll wish they were real. Monsters appear in the most unexpected places, as do humans scarier than any mythical creature.

Valentina Salazar Is Not a Monster Hunter swirls fantasy, adventure, comedy, action, coming-of-age and even a few hints of romance into a magical, memorable elixir of a story. Córdova makes a powerful case for friendship, imagination and hope as she reminds readers that “not everything that looks like a monster is monstrous.”

This heartfelt elixir of a story combines fantasy, adventure, comedy, action and coming-of-age for an unforgettable wild ride.

Bree, a middle school math enthusiast, has just moved to Palmetto Shores, Florida, with her dad so he can attend a technology training program. Bree’s friendship with her new neighbor Clara helps alleviate the nerves of attending a new school, but disaster strikes on the first day of classes: Nearly every elective, including the math puzzles course Bree had looked forward to, is full. Bree’s only option is Swim 101. The problem? Bree is scared of pools and doesn’t know how to swim.

It turns out that Palmetto Shores is utterly obsessed with swimming, from the fancy prep school that always wins the state championship, to the diner whose menu is full of pool puns (“Sea Biscuits,” “Orca Julius”), to Bree’s own Enith Brigitha Middle School, named after the woman who became the first Black athlete to win an Olympic medal in swimming. Bree’s new friends, Clara and Humberto, along with her neighbor Miss Etta, convince Bree to face her fears and learn to swim. When Bree turns out to have a natural talent for racing, she joins the swim team with Clara and begins to embrace the water, developing a passion for the way competing makes her feel. But faced with stiff competition from Holyoke Prep, mounting tension among the team and a busy schedule that prevents Bree’s dad from attending meets, Bree’s newfound love of swimming may fizzle as quickly as it sparked.

Featuring a countdown-to-competition plot, well-developed and relatable characters and expressive, inviting art, Swim Team delivers an energetic, heartfelt look at an exciting sport, as well as crucial context about its history. As Bree learns, racism and segregation directly impacted Black people’s access to public pools. Although this meant many Black people were denied the opportunity to learn to swim, it also created a stereotype—voiced by Bree herself at one point— that “Black people aren’t good at swimming.” While Swim Team includes a few minor inaccuracies that may be distracting to readers who swim competitively, its depiction of swimming’s joys and challenges is spot on.

Swimming is only part of the story. Author-illustrator Johnnie Christmas, best known for illustrating Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird graphic novels, creates an affectionate portrait of Bree and her friends, a group of kids who love their sport, long to win and get up to some funny hijinks along the way. Christmas conveys the enthusiasm that Bree and her teammates have for working hard, improving their abilities and supporting one another, excellently portraying the way that sports can serve as channels for personal growth and lasting relationships.

Swim Team captures the fun of an athletic endeavor that can—and should—be enjoyed by everyone.

This energetic, heartfelt graphic novel captures the joys and challenges of a sport that should be—but hasn’t always been—freely enjoyed by everyone.

Donovan didn’t mean to leave the book on the kitchen table. Gideon hadn’t planned to ask the new boy, Roberto, to be his partner for their school project. And Rick didn’t know that the courage Oliver displayed on their latest adventure would make him realize “just how deeply he loved Oliver.” In acclaimed author David Levithan’s Answers in the Pages, these boys’ stories—separate but inextricably connected—intertwine to explore the impact of a book challenge in a small community.

When Mr. Howe passes out copies of a book called The Adventurers to Donovan’s fifth grade language arts class, Donovan accepts one without much thought and leaves it on the kitchen counter after reading the first chapter. It’s only when his mom asks him about the book and then goes to see the principal the next day that Donovan begins to realize something might be amiss. The situation spirals quickly as Donovan’s mom begins a campaign to remove the book from the curriculum because of its supposedly inappropriate themes.

Answers in the Pages unfolds in three skillfully balanced threads: There’s Donovan’s first-person narration, as well as amusing chapter-length excerpts from the fictional Adventurers novel, which follows the exploits of Rick and Oliver as they make daring escapes, track down evildoers and save the day. Finally, third-person chapters introduce Gideon and Roberto, two boys who don’t quite know where they fit in among their peers until they find each other. Each thread would be compelling on its own, but Levithan pulls them together in the book’s conclusion to create an ending even more moving than the sum of its individual parts.

As long as books have been written and published, efforts have been made to restrict the ability of readers—particularly young readers—to access them. With nuance and grace, Answers in the Pages explores the dramatic impact that such restrictions can have on the readers who need those books the most. Notably, the novel refuses to villainize Donovan’s mom, instead depicting her actions as the result of a misplaced sense of care. “I know you’re on my side,” Donovan tells his mom. “Just not this one time. This one time you thought you were on my side, but you got it wrong.”

Answers in the Pages is an uplifting portrait of the strength it takes to fight for your story. It’s an important book with an essential perspective on a vital, timeless question.

David Levithan's Answers in the Pages entwines three narrative threads to explore the wide-reaching impact of a book challenge in a small community.

Ella Durand’s family can work wonders. As Conjurors, they can traverse the underworld, make plants grow with a song, speak with spirits and more. Ella is proud of her family’s gifts, although Conjure folk have long been wrongfully excluded from magical Marvellian society. When a change in magical law grants Conjurors citizenship and the right to attend Marvellian schools, Ella jumps at the opportunity to be the first Conjuror to enroll at the Arcanum Training Institute, concealed from non-magical Fewels high above the clouds.

Ella arrives at the Institute eager to make friends and share her skills, but her goodwill is met by anti-Conjuror prejudice from many peers and adults alike. The dreamlike delights of a school where stars deliver the mail, cafeteria dumplings dance and sugar snowflakes fall from enchanted balloons are dampened by the harsh realities of bullying and exclusion. But Ella is not completely without allies, and when her beloved teacher, Masterji Thakur, goes missing, Ella and her friends must work together to rescue him. As Ella untangles the dangerous secrets at the heart of her teacher’s disappearance, readers will be captivated by hints at even larger mysteries to come.

The Marvellers, bestselling young adult author Dhonielle Clayton’s first middle grade novel, bursts with charm and whimsy as every corner of the Arcanum Training Institute comes alive with magical details drawn from cultures all over the world. Readers who appreciate copious, intricate world building will find much to love. Students take pride in their unique magical talents and heritages, showing off miniature fu dogs and djinn-housing lanterns while also learning from and connecting with magic users from other backgrounds.

Ella, who is fascinated by Marvellian society but never turns her back on her Conjuror identity, exemplifies how The Marvellers vibrantly celebrates both common ground and difference. She is a splendid protagonist whose inner strength propels her through obstacles with optimism and courage to spare. In every scene, her emotions shine, whether she’s feeling love for her family, uncertainty about her future at the Institute or determination to stand up for what’s right.

It’s clear that The Marvellers is only the start of Ella’s journey, but Clayton has carefully given Ella everything she needs to one day join the likes of Percy Jackson, Morrigan Crow and Aru Shah in the middle grade fantasy hall of fame.

Discover why Dhonielle Clayton was excited to write a book for middle grade readers.

Ella Durand is sure to join the likes of Percy Jackson, Morrigan Crow and Aru Shah in the middle grade fantasy hall of fame.

Dhonielle Clayton is a bestselling YA author, the chief operating officer of the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books and the founder of Cake Creative Kitchen, a multimedia development company. If Clayton’s talent has a ceiling, her first middle grade novel, The Marvellers, reveals that she hasn’t reached it yet. 

The Marvellers is the stuff that middle grade fantasy fans’ dreams are made of. The first book in a planned series, it’s the story of Ella Durand, the first Conjuror to attend the Arcanum Training Institute, a magical school that floats high in the clouds. Clayton spoke with BookPage about creating a fantastical world that balances playfulness and delight with analogs to real-life injustices, anchored by a protagonist certain to join the likes of Percy Jackson and Aru Shah in the hearts of middle grade fantasy readers.


The Marvellers is your first foray into middle grade. What was it like to create a story for this readership?

Middle grade fiction is my first love. I’m a former elementary and middle school librarian as well as a secondary school teacher, so those books have always had my heart and reminded me of why I love books. 

I feel so excited to get to write for a younger audience because I believe that this is the developmental time period when imaginations are cultivated and grown. I was surrounded by these readers in my library every day and they inspired me as I was creating the world of The Marvellers. I tried to reconnect with the middle grade reader I used to be, diving headfirst into all the magic and all the whimsy.

Can you give us a little introduction to Ella and where she’s at when we meet her?

Ella is an eternal optimist who is very invested in making friends and determined to contribute to her community. She is the young person I wish I had been at her age, but instead I was a grumpy, fussy sourpuss and a mildly reclusive kid—more like Harriet the Spy and Turtle Wexler of The Westing Game than anything else. If I could’ve been left to my own devices rather than having to deal with the community, I would’ve gladly curled up with a book and ignored everyone. 

But Ella is the ultimate lovebug and an extraordinary global citizen. If you don’t have friends, she’ll always offer you a branch of friendship. No matter the bad weather, she’s going to look for the sunshine.

Ella faces a huge challenge at the start of the book: She straddles two worlds and functions like a tiny bridge between them. The Marvellian world is uneasy about Conjuror integration into their cities and their school, because for over 300 years they’ve been afraid of how magic manifests in the Conjuror world. Conjure folk remain hurt by and suspicious of Marvellers, leaving many Conjurors torn about whether they should even share space with a group of people who have actively kept them out and ostracized them. 

Ella is caught in this emotional, political and social tangle, not unlike how my parents dealt with being the first generation of Black Americans to integrate segregated schools in the American South. Ella must be steadfast and actively hold onto her joy when so many wish to take it from her.

“I hope Ella’s struggle reminds young readers that there’s something marvelous about them, and the sooner they embrace that universal truth, the better.”

The way that characters treat Conjurers in the book parallels prejudices in our world, especially racism and anti-Blackness. Why was this important to you? How did you balance giving young readers of color a fantastical escape and also representing their own experiences with injustice?

The thematic question at the heart of The Marvellers and its universe is the conflict and tension between two groups of magical people. I wanted this complex and nuanced conflict to parallel anti-Black racism, especially anti-Black racism rooted in the deep-seated prejudice against descendants of the chattel slave trade system so as to include the disapora of trafficked West Africans. I wanted to use magic and fantasy to discuss how anti-Blackness isn’t superficial, but rather an insidious system that penetrates and poisons every aspect of a society, magical or real. 

However, this thematic subtext is all lingering just beneath a big story about a magic school. I was very conscious of the story’s balance, of making sure to tell the truth and confront the darker and more uncomfortable realities of queer and BIPOC kids in environments like these while also making sure those kids still just get to have a magical escape.

Each member of Marvellian society has a unique magical talent known as a Marvel, and Ella spends much of the book wondering where her own talents fit in. What would you say to young readers who are trying to discover or embrace what makes them special?

I hope Ella’s struggle reminds young readers that there’s something marvelous about them, and the sooner they embrace that universal truth, the better. My grandmother told me that it only mattered what I liked and how I felt about myself, and everything else was nonsense and not my business. I hope young readers can be excited about what makes them unique, because the magic system of this world celebrates that.

“Creating the setting of the Arcanum Institute was the most fun I’ve had while working on a book because I got to add in all the things I wish I’d had at a real school, as both a student and a teacher.”

The Arcanum Training Institute teaches students from all over the world. How did you research the various magical traditions that readers will see represented?

I did a ton of research to build the world of The Marvellers, from spending time in libraries, to traveling, to working with cultural experts from all around the world. It was important to me that all children could find their place in this universe and have the ability to self-insert and imagine themselves as a young Marveller headed to study in the skies or as a Conjuror trying to make their way. 

I kept an entire notebook of research about global cultures and theorized what their marvels might be based on their unique folkloric traditions as well as their customs, food and history. I hope that through the series, I’ll be able to learn more and continue to add more inclusivity to this big world.

The world of the novel is bursting with quirks and amazing details. Can you tell us about developing this complex setting? What aspects or elements were the most fun? Were there any challenges you had to solve along the way?

Creating the setting of the Arcanum Institute was the most fun I’ve had while working on a book because I got to add in all the things I wish I’d had at a real school, as both a student and a teacher. The first step was to make a complex map, laying out where everything was and its purpose, plus infusing it all with magic and wonder. 

I had the most fun while creating the Paragon Towers and the Dining Hall. I wanted each tower to be a feast for the imagination and embody a particular sensory category in unexpected ways. The Taste Tower would be filled with delicious things to taste and the Sound Tower would display every instrument you could think of and have amazing sound labs. The Dining Hall was a place where I could just have fun, play with food and ensure that the diversity of the student body was reflected in the menus and magical food trucks. 

I’m wrestling with my biggest challenge now, because the Arcanum Institute never looks the same way twice, so as I work on the sequel, I have to start redoing my map and changing up the look of the school.

“My grandmother told me that it only mattered what I liked and how I felt about myself, and everything else was nonsense and not my business.”

Speaking of the Dining Hall, The Marvellers contains so many imaginative descriptions of food, from dancing dumplings to flying hummingbird cakes. Why is food such an important part of the magic of this world? What’s the most magical thing you’ve ever eaten? What’s the most magical thing you’d like to eat, but haven’t yet (or maybe can’t, because of the laws of this universe)?

I believe that food is a connector between groups of people, and I wanted to use food in this magical universe to bring people together and showcase how diverse and wonderful it could be. I was a kid who was afraid of a lot of different foods, so I wanted to animate the food in a way that might encourage a young reader to seek out cuisines from different cultures and expand their taste buds. 

The food I grew up eating, made by Black American women from North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, felt magical to me. Comfort is magic, and that’s what the food I ate growing up gave me. However, when I first had Jamaican food and food from New Orleans, it felt magical because of flavor combinations I’d never experienced before.

If the laws of the universe could bend to my will, I’d actually want to try all of the different kinds of jollof rice and have a real-life jumping jollof rice competition like the one in the book.

The Marvellers beautifully showcases the joy of learning alongside and from people who are different from yourself. What writers whose genre or category is different from yours have you learned a lot from? What about creators in other fields, like artists or musicians?

If you pay close attention to the text of The Marvellers, I’ve included many Easter egg names of people whose work has had a fundamental impact on me as a writer. I included them as literary love letters to these people (but also to make them laugh and feel seen). 

As for some writers outside of my current publishing categories who have taught me a lot, I’d have to say Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, Donald Quist and Robert Jones Jr. on the adult literary side. Their work is teaching me a lot about line-level work and a deep resistance to the white gaze in modern work.

I’m also very influenced by music and musicians and their ability to be storytellers in a different format. I love what Beyoncé has done with both visual and musical mediums. I watch her as a creator who constantly and consistently understands the assignment to continually challenge her medium, which showcases the depth of her creativity.

Read our review of ‘The Marvellers.’


Author photo of Dhonielle Clayton courtesy of Jess Andree.

The Arcanum Training Institute, where students master fantastical abilities as they float high above the clouds, is the setting of bestselling author Dhonielle Clayton’s first middle grade novel, The Marvellers. Take a peek at some of the wonders that await as Clayton reveals her inspirations, Easter eggs and more.

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