Cybils Award Middle Grade Fiction Finalists

Those who know me even a little, know that I am positively NUTTY about good middle grade fiction. Nuttier than a squirrel stuffing her little cheeks full of acorns.

I was just as nutty about it when I was a kid, and I guess that just never went away. The world of the older child/tween is fun, awkward and heart-tugging—like a first crush or a secret told in whisper to a best friend. I love immersing myself in it.

This year I was thrilled to be on the judges panel for the Cybils Awards Middle Grade Fiction category. The Cybils Award (short for Children’s and Young Adult Book Lovers’ Literary Award) recognizes books with both the highest literacy merit and popular appeal. In the words of one of our founders:

“…between the brussels sprouts of literary merit and the gummy bears of popularity contests, we are the organic chicken nuggets—both yummy and nutritious!”

As a Round 2 Judge, I was tasked with reading all seven finalists selected by Round 1 Judges from the scores of middle grade fiction novels nominated for 2022. I did this over the last month or so, discussing them with my fellow judges, and selecting a winner. As you might guess, this was quite hard because they are all fantastic books and each buzz-worthy in my opinion!

It is now my pleasure to take you through each of the books. Let’s start with our winner:

***The Winner***

Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

Under the cover of night, twelve-year-old Homer flees Southerland Plantation with his younger sister, unwillingly leaving their mother behind. Through tangled vines, hidden doorways, and over a sky bridge, the two find a secret community called Freewater, deep in the swamp.

In this society created by formerly enslaved people and some freeborn children, Homer finds new friends, almost forgetting where he came from. But when he learns of a threat that could destroy Freewater, he crafts a plan to return to Southerland Plantation, free his mother from enslavement, and help his new home.

Deeply inspiring and loosely based on the history of maroon communities in the South, this is a striking tale of survival, adventure, friendship, and courage.

Like nothing I have read before in my life, this book has a whole mood to it that invokes the tension and oppression of working life on a southern plantation contrasted with the peaceful and mystical aura of a secret swamp community. It reads like fantasy almost, but is actually well-written, compelling historical fiction. Luqman-Dawson explores fascinating topics such as survivor’s guilt, the concept of true freedom and how different that looks for everyone, and the struggle to find one’s inner strength.

Her characters are stunning, each with their own dedicated chapters, and you will remember them long after the book is over. You will feel a little bit braver but also more vulnerable, simply from reading their stories. I can completely see this being made into an action and adventure movie: are you listening, movie studios?

Air by Monica Roe (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers)

Twelve-year-old Emmie is working to raise money for a tricked-out wheelchair to get serious about WCMX [wheelchair motocross], when a mishap on a poorly designed ramp at school throws her plans into a tailspin. Instead of replacing the ramp, her school provides her with a kind but unwelcome aide and, seeing a golden media opportunity, launches a public fundraiser for her new wheels. Emmie loves her close-knit rural town, but she can’t shake the feeling that her goals—and her choices—suddenly aren’t hers anymore. With the help of her best friends, Emmie makes a plan to lift her dreams off the ground—and show her community what she wants, what she has to give, and how ready she is to do it on her own terms.

This is a food-for-the-soul kind of book. The main character is full of spirit, and you will be so very proud of her by the end. Children who have or had an IEP in school for any reason will relate deeply to her feelings of wanting the final say over various accommodations, and whether they help or hinder her in the holistic mind, body, spirit sort of way. Emmie learns to advocate for herself, and it is such a beautiful thing to see.

I liked how Roe’s characters, though complicated and sometimes clashing with one another, mostly had good intentions, as is typically the case in real life. Kids reading this book will benefit from learning about the history of special education in America, and how astonishingly new it is. We still have a long way to go!

Attack of the Black Rectangles by Amy Sarig King (Scholastic Press)

When Mac first opens his classroom copy of Jane Yolen’s THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC and finds some words blacked out, he thinks it must be a mistake. But then when he and his friends discover what the missing words are, he’s outraged.

Someone in his school is trying to prevent kids from reading the full story.

But who?

Even though his unreliable dad tells him to not get so emotional about a book (or anything else), Mac has been raised by his mom and grandad to call out things that are wrong. He and his friends head to the principal’s office to protest the censorship…but she doesn’t take them seriously.

So many adults want Mac to keep his words to himself.

Mac’s about to see the power of letting them out.

In ATTACK OF THE BLACK RECTANGLES, acclaimed author Amy Sarig King shows all of the ways truth can be hard…but still worth fighting for.

I found this story fascinating, frustrating, and satisfying–all at the same time! It tackles the very important topic of book censorship and banning that unfortunately impacts today’s kids. But, even more than that, it taps into the larger intellectual freedom issue behind it—respecting everyone’s right to speak their truth as they see it from their lens. By being vulnerable and opening yourself to hearing others’ truths, you can learn both about others and yourself, and hopefully grow.

King fearlessly incorporates real issues that kids are dealing with such as mental health struggles, race and gender stereotypes, and what kids are learning through what is modeled in our society. And I loved the Jane Yolen cameo!! (Shout out to Jane, if you are reading this!)

Jennifer Chan is Not Alone by Tae Keller (Random House Children’s Books)

Mallory Moss knows how the world works. She finally has a best friend who makes her feel like she belongs, like she can fit in. That is, as long as she follows Reagan’s simple rules: Wear the right clothes, say the right things, know your place.

But when Jennifer Chan moves in across the street, those rules don’t feel so simple anymore. Jennifer doesn’t care about the laws of middle school, or the laws of the universe. She’s willing to embrace the strange, the unknown…the extraterrestrial. She believes in aliens—and what’s more, she thinks she can find them.

Then Jennifer goes missing. The adults say she ran away, but where did she go? And why? Using clues in Jennifer’s journals, Mallory attempts to find her. But the closer she gets, the more Mallory has to confront why Jennifer might have run…and face the truth within herself.

In her first novel since winning the Newbery Medal for WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER, Tae Keller lights up the sky with this insightful story about shifting friendships, right and wrong, and the power we all hold to influence and change one another. No one is alone.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this one since I finished reading it. It haunts me, but in the best possible way. This book captured my interest right away, since I was trying to solve the mystery of why Jennifer ran away and what happened, but it didn’t strike me in a particularly profound way until the end. Besides the space alien theme, it delves into the mysteries that lie within each of us and our interactions with each other.

I loved the Author’s Note so much that I read it to my husband as he was trying to get his work done. But he didn’t mind at all after listening for just a few short minutes–he ended up loving it, too. Keller takes a deep and compelling dive into the interpersonal dynamics of tweens, with bullying of course being part of that. It is harsh at times, but in the end, exhilarating and uplifting.

Thirst by Varsha Bajaj (Nancy Paulsen Books)

Minni lives in the poorest part of Mumbai, where access to water is limited, and she often has to wait for hours to use the communal tap. Lately, though, even that access is threatened by water shortages and thieves who are stealing this precious commodity—an act that Minni accidentally witnesses one night.

Meanwhile, in the high-rise building where she’s begun working as a maid, she discovers that water streams out of every faucet and there’s even a rooftop swimming pool. There, she also finds herself serving a girl her own age—a girl who has the luxury to focus on her studies, something Minni is finding harder to do with all her responsibilities. It’s a lot to handle. Then one day, Minni encounters the water mafia boss and faces her biggest dilemma yet—should she expose him even if it means risking her job…and maybe her life? How did her future get so complicated?

This is a book that feels like a treat to read, from start to finish. I loved picking it up whenever I had a spare minute. Bajaj skillfully invites the reader into the fascinating and endearing world of a Mumbai slum, through the eyes of Minni. You will fall in love with the characters relatively quickly, needing to find out if they will all be okay. Quite possibly the definition of a page-turner!

I especially enjoy Bajaj’s portrayal of poverty vs. privilege and all the complexities that come with that.  She shows that both ways of growing up are challenging in different ways—different sides of the same struggle. The most important thing for many of the characters in this story becomes keeping their thirst for life—it is what allows them to grow and teach others. Minni learns this through her own trials, and from those around her. This book is a wonderful window into daily life in a part of the world many children would not be familiar with otherwise.

Wishing Upon the Same Stars by Jacquetta Nammar Feldman (HarperCollins Children’s Books)

When twelve-year-old Yasmeen Khoury moves with her family to San Antonio, all she wants to do is fit in. But her classmates in Texas are nothing like her friends in the predominantly Arab neighborhood back in Detroit where she grew up. Almost immediately, Yasmeen feels like the odd girl out, and as she faces middle school mean girls and navigates making new friends, she feels more alone than ever before. Then Yasmeen meets her neighbor, Ayelet Cohen, a first-generation Israeli American. As the two girls grow closer, Yasmeen is grateful to know someone who understands what it feels like when your parents’ idea of home is half a world away.

But when Yasmeen’s grandmother moves in after her home in Jerusalem is destroyed, Yasmeen and Ayelet must grapple with how much closer the events of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are than they’d realized. As Yasmeen begins to develop her own understandings of home, heritage, and most importantly, herself, can the two girls learn there’s more that brings them together than might tear them apart…and that peace begins with them?

Feldman bases much of this book on her own Palestinian-American upbringing, her childhood move to Texas, and the blend of her culture with that of her Jewish husband when they met as teenagers. There is perhaps no other way she could have written this with so much heart, vivid detail, and deft insights from her characters. I now know exactly what it looks, sounds, and feels like to be at a crowded costume fitting for a Maronite church’s dance troupe. I can hear the click-clack of her mother’s heels and smell her trademark perfume.

The dialogue and description reminded me a bit of the Judy Blume books from my childhood, with the female protagonist bravely navigating tween life at home and at school. This version, however, also has beautiful layers of cultural representation, including not only those of Middle Eastern Americans, but also Mexican Americans who form an important part of the cultural fabric of Texas. There are many things for kids to learn and enjoy from this gem of a book. Another possible movie in the making!

Yonder by Ali Standish (HarperCollins Children’s Books)

Danny Timmons has looked up to Jack Bailey ever since the older boy saved two small children from drowning during the Great Flood of 1940. Now, with his father away fighting in World War II and his mother about to have a new baby, Danny relies on Jack’s friendship and guidance more than ever.

So when Jack goes missing without a trace from their small Appalachian town, Danny is determined to find him. He wonders if Jack’s abusive father could be behind his disappearance or if it has anything to do with Yonder—a hidden magical town Jack once spoke of, where flocks of rainbow birds fly through the sky and they’ve never even heard of war. As answers elude him, Danny begins to fear that he didn’t know Jack as well as he thought.

Eventually, Danny’s search forces him to reckon with even larger questions: What is America fighting for in this war? What role do each of us play in stopping injustices, big and small? And is there such thing as a true hero?

I knew from the very first chapter of this book that I would not be able to put it down. And yes, I am a grown-up. It is technically a children’s book, but I feel that it appeals to all ages and demographics. Did Standish do a ton of research on WWII-era Appalachia? She must have, I thought to myself as I read. And yes, as she explains in her Historical Notes in the back of the book, she did do quite a bit of researching, pondering, and creating. But in addition to the riveting subject matter and historical accuracy, the writing is simply beautiful. Particularly, the way Standish so effectively switches back and forth in time, so we are kept on our toes, gradually finding out important new pieces of the puzzle.

The characters are some of the best-written I have encountered in a children’s book, and I feel like I knew them all intimately. Like I lived in Foggy Gap with all of them for a time and witnessed some of the most challenging times of their lives. For that, I feel grateful.

To read more about the Cybils Awards and view all of the category finalists and winners for 2022, please visit You an also follow along on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Now what are you waiting for? Get out out there and read these books! You will thank me later.

Wishing everyone a very happy Valentine’s Day week!


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