Middle Grade Books with Powerful Themes Released in 2021

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Best Middle Grade Books of 2021

Let the ‘Best of 2021’ book lists fly! It is the end of the year, 2021, which means publishers, book companies and readers alike share their list of favorite books for middle graders released this year! This may be a good reminder of all the awesome books you may have missed this year while trying to catch up with all the amazing books released in 2020!

As the trend goes, we always see a select few books appear on ALL of the lists. However, with SO many middle grade books released in 2021, the lists are strewn with a vast array of genres and topics, which makes this year’s lists particularly exciting. Let’s explore them a little bit.

 

Reading A La Mode's Favorite Middle Grade Book of 2021

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston book cover featuring black girl conjuring orb of magic

Topics and Themes Found in Middle Grade Books of 2021

This middle grade book list is categorized by topics and themes that are commonly found within them. We are seeing a plethora of strong topics and themes that are poignantly related to the social environments our young people are exposed to and experience today. 

  • Overcoming Adversity – The themes of loss and grief are becoming more and more prevalent within middle grade books as the topic of mental health among young people is emerging in all aspects of our culture. This includes the way in which main characters overcome adversity that is out of their control such as dealing with an unexpected death, traumatic events that occur within the household or community or events of war.
 
  • Belonging / Inclusion – When we think of middle school, we think about peer pressure and a young person’s longing to fit in and feel accepted by their peers. However, this theme has expanded to include topics of racism, prejudice, bullying, and other societal issues such as poverty, homeless and immigration-especially on a micro level. This is perhaps the biggest category on this list where you will find books of different genres.
 
  • Coming of Age – This theme is almost exclusively found in books for younger readers, young adult books included. Coming of age includes topics such as becoming self-aware, personal growth both mentally and spiritually, establishing one’s own place in the world, and gaining a broader perspective on how the world works often with a more empathic viewpoint. Coming of age is direct to the experience of young people growing and transitioning into mature adults. Navigating friendships are also at the helm of coming of age novels. Friendships had and lost are common among middle school aged kids. This theme has always been relevant to middle grade readers. Books in 2021 relate friendships with personal choice, peer pressure, external familial or social issues, and acceptance.

A LITTLE NOTE: In this list you will see that titles have been categorized by themes. I felt like this was the best way to represent these strong and impactful middle grade books and would make browsing a little more accessible to you. Many of these books have more than one of the themes listed below, some others have none however, for the sake of keeping things organized, please know I did my best!  Those without one of these prominent themes, although one could make a very solid argument that all middle grade contains a coming-of-age theme, are found at the end of the list. If you disagree with the system I have come up with or have any input, please contact me so I can make amendments.

Click on the theme you love the most to explore more. 

Kids in a circle looking down.

2021 Brought Us the Most Diverse Middle Grade Books to Date

Like 2020, 2021 continued to bring us hardships. Our young people missed out on those character developing middle grade experiences you only get at school or extracurricular activities for half of the year. The other half of the year, while most students sat in classrooms, time flew by like the Hogwarts Express moving across the lovely mountain side; present yet unwavering.

Another thing you may have missed during these times is all of the beautiful, brilliant, magical, middle grade books that were released for middle graders in the year 2021. I’m telling you they just keep getting better and better each year! Many of these books delve into topics of diversity surrounding multi-cultural social issues and our fight for full inclusion and acceptance. In my opinion, middle grade books are really cutting out a strong position for themselves in the literary world. More than ever, our young people need someone, something to relate to and the answer is in these books and the authors attached to them. 

Why Middle Schoolers Should Read More Middle Grade Books in 2021

Especially those with topics and themes on diversity, social issues and acceptance. Middle schoolers today are dealt with information overload from social media, communication platforms, and entertainment media the majority of us use. Oftentimes, they become subject to topics and experiences that they may not be fully mature enough to process on their own. 

I believe middle grade books are empowering middle grade readers to become more aware of their own experiences and provide them with a conversation starter for topics that are hard to talk about or do not make complete sense. Whether they have personal experience with the topic or have no experience, middle grade books bring so much to the table for young people to mull over, empathize with and make choices over. 

Read about Barbara Dee’s 2019 novel, Maybe He Just Likes You where I dive in about the book’s topic: sexual harassment in middle school. It’s an eye-opening story that gives its reader insight on the impacts sexual harassment has on an individual, their friends and family, and their school community.

Without further ado, here are some of the most brilliant middle grade books released in 2021.

Belonging / Inclusion

When we think of middle school, we think about peer pressure and a young person’s longing to fit in and feel accepted by their peers. However, this theme has expanded to include topics of racism, prejudice, bullying, and other societal issues such as poverty, homeless and immigration-especially on a micro level. This is perhaps the biggest category on this list where you will find books of different genres.

flight of the puffin by ann braden
Ann Braden

This book is exactly what the world needs right now… especially the world of a middle schooler.

Libby comes from a long line of bullies. She wants to be different, but sometimes that doesn’t work out. To bolster herself, she makes a card with the message You are amazing. That card sets off a chain reaction that ends up making a difference in the lives of some kids who could also use a boost—be it from dealing with bullies, unaccepting families, or the hole that grief leaves. Receiving an encouraging message helps each kid summon up the thing they need most, whether it’s bravery, empathy, or understanding. Because it helps them realize they matter—and that they’re not flying solo anymore.

Starfish by Lisa Fipps book cover
Lisa Fipps

Ellie is tired of being fat-shamed and does something about it in this poignant debut novel-in-verse.

Ever since Ellie wore a whale swimsuit and made a big splash at her fifth birthday party, she’s been bullied about her weight. To cope, she tries to live by the Fat Girl Rules—like “no making waves,” “avoid eating in public,” and “don’t move so fast that your body jiggles.” And she’s found her safe space—her swimming pool—where she feels weightless in a fat-obsessed world. In the water, she can stretch herself out like a starfish and take up all the room she wants. It’s also where she can get away from her pushy mom, who thinks criticizing Ellie’s weight will motivate her to diet. Fortunately, Ellie has allies in her dad, her therapist, and her new neighbor, Catalina, who loves Ellie for who she is. With this support buoying her, Ellie might finally be able to cast aside the Fat Girl Rules and starfish in real life–by unapologetically being her own fabulous self.

How to find what you're not looking for by veera hiranandandi book cover
Veera Hiranandandi

New historical fiction from a Newbery Honor–winning author about how middle schooler Ariel Goldberg’s life changes when her big sister elopes following the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, and she’s forced to grapple with both her family’s prejudice and the antisemitism she experiences, as she defines her own beliefs. 

Twelve-year-old Ariel Goldberg’s life feels like the moment after the final guest leaves the party. Her family’s Jewish bakery runs into financial trouble, and her older sister has eloped with a young man from India following the Supreme Court decision that strikes down laws banning interracial marriage. As change becomes Ariel’s only constant, she’s left to hone something that will be with her always–her own voice.

Fast pitch by nic stone book cover
Nic Stone

Shenice Lockwood, captain of the Fulton Firebirds, is hyper-focused when she steps up to the plate. Nothing can stop her from leading her team to the U12 fast-pitch softball regional championship. But life has thrown some curveballs her way.
 
Strike one: As the sole team of all-brown faces, Shenice and the Firebirds have to work twice as hard to prove that Black girls belong at bat.
 
Strike two: Shenice’s focus gets shaken when her great-uncle Jack reveals that a career-ending—and family-name-ruining—crime may have been a setup.
 
Strike three: Broken focus means mistakes on the field. And Shenice’s teammates are beginning to wonder if she’s captain-qualified.
 
It’s up to Shenice to discover the truth about her family’s past—and fast—before secrets take the Firebirds out of the game forever.

the legend of auntie po book cover
Shing Yin Khor

Part historical fiction, part fable, and 100 percent adventure. Thirteen-year-old Mei reimagines the myths of Paul Bunyan as starring a Chinese heroine while she works in a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885.

Aware of the racial tumult in the years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Mei tries to remain blissfully focused on her job, her close friendship with the camp foreman’s daughter, and telling stories about Paul Bunyan–reinvented as Po Pan Yin (Auntie Po), an elderly Chinese matriarch.

Anchoring herself with stories of Auntie Po, Mei navigates the difficulty and politics of lumber camp work and her growing romantic feelings for her friend Bee. The Legend of Auntie Po is about who gets to own a myth, and about immigrant families and communities holding on to rituals and traditions while staking out their own place in the United States.

OVERCOMING ADVERSITY

The themes of loss and grief are becoming more and more prevalent within middle grade books as the topic of mental health among young people is emerging in all aspects of our culture. This includes the way in which main characters overcome adversity that is out of their control such as dealing with an unexpected death, traumatic events that occur within the household or community or events of war.

 
Pony by R.J. Palacio
R.J. Palacio

Twelve-year-old Silas is awoken in the dead of night by three menacing horsemen who take his father away. Silas is left shaken, scared, and alone, except for the presence of his companion, Mittenwool . . . who happens to be a ghost. When a pony shows up at his door, Silas makes the courageous decision to leave his home and embark on a perilous journey to find his father. Along the way, he will face his fears to unlock the secrets of his past and explore the unfathomable mysteries of the world around him.

R. J. Palacio spins a harrowing yet distinctly beautiful coming-of-age story about the power of love and the ties that bind us across distance and time. With the poignant depth of War Horse and the singular voice of True Grit, this is one of those rare books poised to become an instant classic for readers of all ages.

Bookshop of Dust and Dreams by Mindy Thompson
Mindy Thompson

It’s 1944 Sutton, NY, and Poppy’s family owns and runs, Rhyme and Reason, a magical bookshop that caters to people from all different places and time periods. Though her world is ravaged by World War II, customers hail from the past and the future, infusing the shop with a delightful mix of ideas and experiences.
 
Poppy dreams of someday becoming shopkeeper like her father, though her older brother, Al, is technically next in line for the job. She knows all of the rules handed down from one generation of Bookseller to the next, especially their most important one: shopkeepers must never use the magic for themselves.
 
But then Al’s best friend is killed in the war and her brother wants to use the magic of the shop to save him. With her father in the hospital suffering from a mysterious illness, the only one standing between Al and the bookstore is Poppy. Caught between her love for her brother and loyalty to her family, she knows her brother’s actions could have devastating consequences that reach far beyond the bookshop as an insidious, growing Darkness looms. This decision is bigger than Poppy ever dreamed, and the fate of the bookshops hangs in the balance.

A Place to Hang the Moon

A Place to Hang the Moon

Kate Albus

Evacuated from London to live in the countryside, three orphaned siblings must try to stay together as they search for a permanent home– and a new meaning for family. 
It is 1940 and William, 12, Edmund, 11, and Anna, 9, aren’t terribly upset by the death of the not-so-grandmotherly grandmother who has taken care of them since their parents died.

But the children do need a guardian, and in the dark days of World War II London, those are in short supply, especially if they hope to stay together. Could the mass wartime evacuation of children from London to the countryside be the answer?

It’s a preposterous plan, but off they go– keeping their predicament a secret, and hoping to be placed in a temporary home that ends up lasting forever. Moving from one billet to another, the children suffer the cruel trickery of foster brothers, the cold realities of outdoor toilets and the hollowness of empty stomachs.

They find comfort in the village lending library, whose kind librarian, Nora Müller, seems an excellent choice of billet, except that her German husband’s whereabouts are currently unknown, and some of the villagers consider her unsuitable.

When Stars are Scattered

Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

A National Book Award Finalist, this remarkable graphic novel is about growing up in a refugee camp, as told by a former Somali refugee to the Newbery Honor-winning creator of Roller Girl.

Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Life is hard there: never enough food, achingly dull, and without access to the medical care Omar knows his nonverbal brother needs. So when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future . . . but it would also mean leaving his brother, the only family member he has left, every day.

Heartbreak, hope, and gentle humor exist together in this graphic novel about a childhood spent waiting, and a young man who is able to create a sense of family and home in the most difficult of settings. It’s an intimate, important, unforgettable look at the day-to-day life of a refugee, as told to New York Times Bestselling author/artist Victoria Jamieson by Omar Mohamed, the Somali man who lived the story.

COMING OF AGE

This theme is almost exclusively found in books for younger readers, young adult books included. Coming of age includes topics such as becoming self-aware, personal growth both mentally and spiritually, establishing one’s own place in the world, and gaining a broader perspective on how the world works often with a more empathic viewpoint. Coming of age is direct to the experience of young people growing and transitioning into mature adults.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston book cover featuring black girl conjuring orb of magic
B.B. Alston

Amari Peters has never stopped believing her missing brother, Quinton, is alive. Not even when the police told her otherwise, or when she got in trouble for standing up to bullies who said he was gone for good.

So when she finds a ticking briefcase in his closet, containing a nomination for a summer tryout at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she’s certain the secretive organization holds the key to locating Quinton—if only she can wrap her head around the idea of magicians, fairies, aliens, and other supernatural creatures all being real.

Now she must compete for a spot against kids who’ve known about magic their whole lives. No matter how hard she tries, Amari can’t seem to escape their intense doubt and scrutiny—especially once her supernaturally enhanced talent is deemed “illegal.” With an evil magician threatening the supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she’s an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t stick it out and pass the tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton.

the mysterious disappearance of aiden david levithan book cover
David Levithan

Aidan disappeared for six days. Six agonizing days of searches and police and questions and constant vigils. Then, just as suddenly as he vanished, Aidan reappears. Where has he been? The story he tells is simply. . . impossible. But it’s the story Aidan is sticking to.

His brother, Lucas, wants to believe him. But Lucas is aware of what other people, including their parents, are saying: that Aidan is making it all up to disguise the fact that he ran away.

When the kids in school hear Aidan’s story, they taunt him. But still Aidan clings to his story. And as he becomes more of an outcast, Lucas becomes more and more concerned. Being on Aidan’s side would mean believing in the impossible. But how can you believe in the impossible when everything and everybody is telling you not to?

Violets are Blue by Barbara Dee book cover

Violets are Blue

Barbara Dee

Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.
So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.
Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up.
After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?

The Circus at the End of the Sea by Lori R. Snyder book cover, Venice and Santa Monica

The Circus at the End of the Sea

Lori R. Snyder

Maddy Adriana knows that magic is real. All her life, her heart has pulled her towards things too perfect to be ordinary. One day, that tug leads her to a magical street circus, hidden in plain sight among the canals and boardwalks of Venice Beach.

For the first time in Maddy’s life, she finally feels like she belongs. But the circus is in grave danger. Maddy will need to confront the frightening side of magic, as well as her own deepest fears, if she’s to have any hope of saving the place she dreams of calling home.