3 Nostalgic Middle Grade Reads | SLJ Spotlight

These three titles hark back to beloved tween reads of years past.

These three titles hark back to beloved tween reads of years past. Borba’s quirky time-traveling tale evokes kidlit icons Judy Blume and Louis Sachar. Fans of “The Baby-Sitters Club” will find much to love in Lee’s entrepreneurial crew, led by Gigi Shin. McDermott’s fantasy, with its driven heroine and high-stakes trials, will thrill readers of Tamora Pierce.

Borba, Adam. This Again? 304p. Little, Brown. Apr. 2024. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780316553186.
Gr 3-7–Noah Nicholson has his future all mapped out, and it’s a bright one. All he has to do is win the election for eighth grade class president, start acing his pre-algebra course, and become as popular and successful as his older brother Paul. This, he believes, will put him on the path to glory in high school, Harvard acceptance, and a brilliant career in physics, just like both of his college professor parents. He has eight days, plenty of nervous energy, and a time-traveling version of his future self to guide him. How hard can it be? The answer to that question drives the underlying premise of a charming new middle grade speculative fiction that delivers some genuine feel-good moments along with some not-so-subtle lessons about the importance of being oneself, the value of true friends and supportive families, and the serious problems of temporal manipulation. Its hopeful exuberance in the face of junior high angst is reminiscent of Judy Blume, its quirky high jinks evoke the works of Louis Sachar. VERDICT Despite being a bit zany, this novel strikes a tone that is both nostalgic and fresh. Recommended for middle school collections.–Kelly Kingrey-Edwards

Lee, Lyla. Gigi Shin Is Not a Nerd.192p. (Gigi Shin Is Not a Nerd: Bk. 1). S. & S./Aladdin. Mar. 2024. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781665939171.
Gr 3-7–A seventh grader sets her sights on a prestigious art program in New York, but needs to raise money, navigate sticky friendship situations, and convince her parents that being an artist is a worthwhile pursuit along the way. Korean American Jiyoung “Gigi” Shin loves art, but her immigrant parents, who run a grocery store in Texas, want her to have a more stable and lucrative career, like a scientist or engineer. Gigi and friends Zeina Hassan, Carolina Garcia, and Emma Chen start a tutoring club to raise money to attend the young artists’ program that receives tens of thousands of applications from all around the world. Running a small business comes with unforeseen issues: difficult tutees, scheduling challenges, and hurt feelings among the friends. The tension caused by bad communication, disagreements, and changing allegiances resolves quickly as they work through their issues by taking responsibility and talking things through. When Gigi’s parents find out about the tutoring club, she lands in hot water but uses the opportunity to show her parents the art she has kept secret from them to prove that the club is making a positive impact. Serviceable, unadorned writing tells the relatively low-stakes small plot, but Gigi’s authentic voice and feelings and the strong, nuanced secondary characters shine. Hand this to readers who enjoy the simple camaraderie and entrepreneurship of “The Baby-Sitters Club” series. VERDICT A solid realistic fiction series opener about pursuing passions and working toward a goal.–Amanda MacGregor

McDermott, Siobhan. Paper Dragons: The Fight for the Hidden Realm. 384p. Random. Mar. 2024. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780593706114.
Gr 5 Up–Twelve-year-old orphan Zhi Ging escapes her small glass-making village to become an apprentice to the immortal Cyo B’Ahon scholars. But once she arrives, Zhi Ging discovers that she can stay in the underwater city of Hok Woh only if she passes 12 challenges. If she fails, she will be exiled. And there is more—Hok Woh is under threat from the mysterious Fui Gwai demon. Will Zhi Ging be able to pass her exams and uncover the villain? Obviously; and it’s a fun ride. In the best wizard boarding school tradition, there are magical feasts (sau bao and congee with duck egg!), cool dormitories, sports competitions (dragon boat), high-stakes challenges, and a mysterious enemy who shows their face in the final chapters. This is a magical setting where readers will want to live, with weird, tangible charm. Like the squire-schools of Tamora Pierce or Nadia Shammas, the education is as much about learning the nuanced history of place and peoples as it is about testable skills. As a bicultural author, McDermott makes a point of having a world that has its roots in both English and Cantonese punning. The novel ends too soon, just as Hok Woh is under attack and Zhi Ging is setting out on an epic quest. Readers will be impatient to follow her next adventure. VERDICT With a plucky orphan heroine learning to harness mysterious powers in a well-realized fantastical setting built off Cantonese cultural motifs, this hits the sweet spots in the magic-school novel genre.–Katherine Magyarody

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