Book Reviews: #CYBILS2023 Middle Grade Fiction Finalists

It’s Middle-Grade Monday, y’all!


Simon Sort of Says
Bow, Erin
Disney Hyperion–Rick Riordan presents
Nominated by: Susan (Bloggin’ ’bout Books)

Sondy @ Sonderbooks – [This has] got so many wonderful ingredients: Quirky characters who seem more realistic because of those quirks, a new kid in school at a very distinctive place, loving parents but kid-centric adventures, a main character who’s exceedingly likable, plenty of humor, and a serious theme dealt with realistically and sensitively. Hmmm. Listing the ingredients doesn’t convey how wonderful this book is. This is a truly wonderful book that I already want to read over again.

Jo @ Goodreads – I read this book cold not knowing anything other than it had humor. You have a bit of insight if you read my review and may be think, Nope, nope, nope. I don’t want to read about a school shooting. Read it, as I think you are going to love the characters and want your patrons to experience them as well. It is so funny in parts and so terribly tragic in others. But it is very, very hopeful in the sense of Simon’s ability to make new friends and begin to rebuild a life. There is so much fun in this book amid the underlying tragedy which also gives hope for the survivors.

Linda @ Goodreads – The book flap says this is a book for ages 8-12, yet perhaps it’s for ages even older? Those ages might see themselves or their friends as Simon tells his story but teens will relate to their younger selves, understanding how they navigated those tough years and became who they are now. Parents also may see Simon’s and his friends’ parents as companions in this new journey of dangers in friendships and in school, how to help and how to let go. Simon’s voice shows a thoughtful, but scared young man, already wanting to leave his past behind and wishing everyone else would, too.


Farther Than the Moon
Lackey, Lindsay
Roaring Brook Press
Nominated by: Anne-Marie Strohman

Jessica @ Cracking the CoverFarther Than the Moon is a fabulous story of two brothers — Houston and Robbie — and the bond they share.Beyond  the sibling relationship, Lackey also focuses on friendship and teamwork within the setting of the Junior Astronaut Recruitment Program. Here, it’s great to see teens in their element while still very much themselves. Houston’s team is full of wonderfully flawed characters who are continually working to better themselves academically and personally. Farther Than the Moon is a great upper-middle-grade novel that has multiple educational tie-ins as well as being just a good book to read.

Amy @ Goodreads – Great neurodivergent and cerebral palsy character representation! This book has beautiful themes of friendship and teamwork. There are real adult issues presented as Houston’s mom works to repair her relationship with her estranged father who she felt abandoned her. The themes of redemption and family were done very well. There is a lot of heart and introspective moments that are mixed with the faster paced scenes of astronaut-candidates completing competitive missions, and Robbie dealing with severe medical episodes. This would be perfect for a reader who likes to explore realistic fiction and can empathize with characters’ struggles.

Maldonado, Torrey
Nancy Paulsen Books
Nominated by: Wendy

Susan @ Goodreads – HANDS is a small book, but one that packs a big punch—which is ironic since the story is about keeping one’s hands “soft” in a hard world. Maldonado’s prose has a waste-no-words spareness to it that makes HANDS feel both intimate and immediate. It also has an urban rhythm that reminds me of Jason Reynolds’ work. With short chapters, lots of action, and plenty of tension to keep it moving along at a steady pace, HANDS is a quick, engaging read that teaches some important life lessons. I found it compelling and moving.

Cindy @ Kiss the Book – A short powerful book – a good choice to have for those boys who hate reading, because it is small enough that they’ll be willing to read it, and hopefully the message will sink in.

Melissa @ The Book Nut – I really liked this one. Maldonado captures not only what it’s like to be 12, and have to grow up before you’re quite ready, he captures the spirit of a neighborhood and a family. It felt real, and yet it was hopeful at the same time. There was violence and danger, and yet there are Other Ways that may be better. I liked the inner conflict that Trevor had: he wants to be a Man, and protect his family, and yet he really is just a kid and he wants that, too. And a bonus: Maldonado didn’t use extra words: The short book packs a powerful punch. Quite a remarkable small book.

No Place Like Home.
Bird, James
Feiwel & Friends
Nominated by: Jen at Introverted Reader

Cindy @ Kiss the Book – Opin’s naivete and his firm belief in everything his mother tells him shines throughout the book – painfully. That Bird draws from his own unhoused childhood is readily apparent – Opin’s life is heart-breaking for us in our comfy houses to read, but realistically accurate for families who are living way over the edge. A great mirror for kids similar to Opin, and an excellent window for others.

TheNextGenLibrarian @ Goodreads – Unimaginable. Unpredictable. Unthinkable. Unforgettable. I can’t even count the amount of times this story broke me. What a difficult but necessary and important read for our upper middle grade readers. This book will (hopefully) create and foster empathy, as well as give kids some perspective. It certainly did for me. @jamesbirdbooks I could see this on many state and national award lists. I literally burst into tears towards the end. I’m so happy we picked this one for September’s book club. CW: homelessness, food insecurity, poverty, racism, anti-Indigenous history, forced Christian conversation, domestic abuse, mention of MMIW2S, eviction, white power, prostitution (alluded to), alcohol

Tethered to Other Stars
Leahy, Elisa Stone
Quill Tree Books
Nominated by: Kasey Giard

No judges’ reviews for this book. See other reviews at Goodreads.

The Fire, the Water, and Maudie McGinn
Pla, Sally J.
Quill Tree Books
Nominated by: Kate Mccue-Day

Jessica @ Cracking the CoverThe Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn is the kind of book that sticks with you. Author Sally J. Pla’s elegant prose draws you in and makes you want to stay. She creates a sense of space that feels warm and familiar. And the parallels between the ocean and Maudie are spot on. Maudie is the star of this book from beginning to end. And she’s lovely. Told in first person, you get a front-row seat to Maudie’s innermost thoughts and reactions to the world around her. Her sensory and social interactions are immediately understandable and relatable. She may be “different” but those differences make her the wonderful person that she is. The Fire, The Water, and Maudie McGinn is one of the best middle-grade novels I’ve read this year. Maudie’s growth and journey toward defining herself rather than letting her autism define her is beautiful. It’s an excellent choice for readers 10 and up. And it’s a good option for parents who want a greater understanding of the diverse group of kids their own children interact with.

Melissa @ The Book Nut – I really liked the autism representation in this. I liked the way Pla described what Maudie was feeling, and the sensations that made her anxious and unsettled. She had panic attacks and meltdowns, and the author described them just as if they were parts of life, which they are. I liked that her dad was also neurodivergent. And I liked that Maudie found something she could focus on in the surfing, and that the community was so welcoming.

Things were unsettling though. I disliked Maudie’s mom, who didn’t care about what Maudie needed to thrive.  also wondered about the representation. I liked that the town was populated with all sorts of people, but some of it felt stereotypical. That said, I did like how the overall message was trusting yourself and believing in (some of) the adults around you. And I did like watching Maudie learn to surf. I’m just not sure it’s that great with representation.

Susan @ Goodreads – THE FIRE, THE WATER, AND MAUDIE MCGINN is a quiet, but powerful read about finding the strength within. Maudie is a sympathetic character for a number of reasons. Even if you’ve never experienced her particular situations, it’s easy to feel her pain and root for her happiness. I love that while her autism is portrayed in a realistic way, it’s never painted as a weakness, or as anything other than a unique challenge that is only one small part of who Maudie is.

Lots of important issues are brought up in the book. It touches on neurodivergency, abuse, the power of words, bullying, speaking up for yourself, etc. Its messages are encouraging and empowering.

For all of these reasons and more, I loved THE FIRE, THE WATER, AND MAUDIE MCGINN. It’s warm, touching, and powerful. I’ve read a lot of books this year and this is one of the best.

What Happened to Rachel Riley?
Swinarski, Claire
Quill Tree Books
Nominated by: Missy Ewing

Cindy @ Kiss the Book – Wow! I was engrossed and fell in love with another bold book confronting the casual sexual harassment that is perpetrated on girls at every age. Combine with Maybe He Just Likes You from Barbara Dee for a MS conversation about the topic! While every student SHOULD read this book, you should put it into the girls’ hands and also talk to your ELA about making it a classroom read.

Jessica @ Cracking the CoverWhat Happened to Rachel Riley? is one of those books that just hits all the marks. It’s smart. It’s sensitive. And it makes readers take a good look at their own experiences. The plot, which at first glance appears to be about bullying and middle-school social dynamics, evolves into one that explores sexual harassment. It’s timely and serves as an excellent entry point into necessary discussions.

The publisher’s suggested age for What Happened to Rachel Riley? is 8-12. I think it skews a bit higher, ages 10 or 11 and up. What Happened to Rachel Riley? is a book that sticks with you. It’s a book both tweens and their parents should read. I originally checked my review copy out from the library, but I plan to purchase a copy for my 9-year-old to read when she’s a little bit older. It’s an outstanding read for girls AND boys as they head into middle/junior high school.

Melissa @ The Book Nut – I love a good story told through found documents, and this one was fun. There were some prose sections, so it wasn’t entirely found documents, but much lot of it was. And it’s a smart story as well. I liked how Anna had to piece things together, and how the reader was never too far ahead, so I never felt like I was waiting for Anna to catch up. I loved the dynamic of Anna’s family, and how she slowly made friends at her school – moving right before 8th grade is hard, and I liked how Swinarski portrayed that.

When I finished, my takeaway to my kids was “Middle school boys are the worst”, to which they said, “You just now figured that out?” Which is sad in its own right. Still, I like a good book where girls stand up to the harassment that is ignored in middle schools and hopefully, make their school a better place.