a helping of hefty middle grade reads

A friend of mine was recently looking for suggestions of books to gift her daughters. Her youngest, in particular, hankered for a “thick” book.  You know, something with impressive heft, a tome with sufficient girth to signal a Capable Reader tackling an Unchildish Book. Just by holding such a book, you know some serious reading is about to happen.

If a reader you know and love also wants to dig into something of Estimable Size, today’s books might do the trick.  They venture beyond the standard middle grade novel length which often hovers around the 250-300 page mark. I’ll list the five titles new to my blog in order of ascending number of pages, and also link to a bunch more Big Fat Books I’ve reviewed over the years.

Cape, by Kate Hannigan
published in 2019 by Aladdin
326 pages

Josie O’Malley lives in a version of Philadelphia in which superheroes like Hauntima, Nova the Sunchaser, and Zenobia once battled villains and saved citizens. These superheroes have all been absent a long while though, much to Josie’s dismay.  Now, with World War II raging, Jose is itching to be a part of something super herself, to do her part to help the war effort using her crack skills in puzzling and cryptography.

To her astonishment, she and two other ace puzzlers — Akiko and Mae — find themselves pulled into a top-secret government program. In one fizzing moment the girls are transformed into real superheroes, racing to fight injustice, help the vulnerable, and stop the villains who are “disappearing” their superhero colleagues.

Like a mash-up of the Incredibles and WWII history, this high-octane novel references the real-life women known as the ENIAC Six who played an integral role in defeating Nazi Germany with their pioneering computer programming skills. It features diverse young heroines who are African-American, Japanese-American, and Irish-American and weaves anti-racism and a blast of girl power into the superhero capers. Also, in a unique hat-tip to the Golden Age of Comic Books, the main prose narrative is interrupted occasionally with sections delivered in a swell, comic-book format.

It’s an enjoyable, fast-paced, story with great historical tie-ins, the first in the League of Secret Heroes series. Book 2, Mask, brings the trio to San Francisco where they team up with code-crackers and encounter internment camps. Book 3, Boots, sees the girls land in Chicago, worry over Mae’s dad serving in an African-American unit in Europe, and link up with Women Air Force Service Pilots. Ages 9 and up.

The Story That Cannot Be Told, by J. Kasper Kramer
published in 2019 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
378 pages

This compelling read is set in 1989 Romania in the waning days of Ceausescu’s oppressive regime. I’m old enough to remember the harrowing upheaval as those events took place but for most young readers this represents an unknown slice of world history.

Ileana, 10 years old, and her parents were ousted from their home years ago when The Leader bulldozed their neighborhood to make room for his new palace. Thus they live in a cramped apartment, bearing along with the rest of Bucharest’s citizens severe shortages of food and water, rationed electric power, a terrorizing network of spies and secret police, and bleak futures, all fruits of The Leader’s violently repressive regime. This is a time and place when personal opinions are treacherous, when writing stories can cause a person to disappear, when the whisper of a neighbor can bring about an arrest, and listening to certain radio stations can be fatal.

Ileana, though is a born story-teller.  And now, suddenly, her stories are threatening to destroy her entire family. So she’s sent away, quickly, secretly, to live with grandparents she’s never met in a remote, rural village. But danger follows her. And strangely, it’s the very power of her stories that has a chance of saving the lives of all she has come to love.

This is top-notch historical fiction with smooth, gripping prose, characters we care about deeply, cultural and historical details masterfully woven in, and a witty rendition of Romanian folklore threaded throughout the account. There is one abrupt shift in time to relate Ileana’s grandfather’s forced service in the Romanian army during the horrific Odessa Massacre of WWII. It serves to illustrate his character and further our understanding of Romanian history, but I think it will likely confuse younger readers and no mention is made of the history in the Author’s Note.

A superb read for ages 11 and up.

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, by Jaclyn Moriarty
published in 2018 by Arthur A. Levine Books
379 pages

Bronte Mettlestone, aged 10, has just received word via telegram that her parents have been killed by pirates.

This does not disturb Bronte to the degree you might expect. That’s because she has no memory of them.  She was dropped off as a wee babe, left for her dear Aunt Isabelle to raise. And Aunt Isabelle has done a right good job of it. Bronte is a delightful gal.

The kicker, however, is that her parents have left an extraordinarily detailed and convoluted set of instructions in their will which require Bronte to make a long, solo trek to visit each of her father’s ten sisters located hither and thither on the islands of her strange world.  These instructions, moreover, have been reinforced by faerie cross-stitch which means that should Bronte waiver to the least degree, her beloved home town of Gainsleigh will be obliterated.  So off she goes on what will prove to be a monumentally peculiar set of adventures and ultimately a dangerous mission.

Narrated by Bronte herself in a jolly, breezy voice, peppered by brisk, smart dialogue, this is a tale plum full of moxie and faerie magic, surprising turns and curious folk, quirky aunts and dastardly pirates, and some true-blue friends.  Deep down it’s also a story about stories, the fragments of stories that weave together into the grand story of our lives and connect us to those we love.

It’s a breath of fresh air for all who favor something a little off-beat and a lot adventurous.  I smiled my way through the whole thing.  It would make a jolly read-aloud for a wide age span.  Independent readers ages 10 and up.  There are two sequels: The Whispering Wars, and The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst, which I’ve put on my to-read list.

City Spies: Golden Gate, by James Ponti
published in 2021 by Aladdin
425 pages

Five highly-trained M16 agents — ages 12 to 15 — are the British Intelligence Service’s best kept secret.  Each of these “City Spies,” after being recruited, has taken a new name reflecting their home stomping grounds. This is the second novel in a fizzing series. You can find my review of the series’ opener here and you’ll definitely want to read them in order.

In this installment, Brooklyn and Sydney have been assigned to protect two young students aboard the marine research vessel Sylvia Earle. When hijackers board it, the girls’ skills are tested to the utmost in a life-and-death, risky attempt to outwit the malevolent ringleader and his crew.

And that’s when things just start to get interesting because soon the whole group of City spies are swept into the hunt for an M16 mole, requiring some unexpected travel and a whole lot of dangerous spy-work.

With their cinematic pacing, superb plotting and characterization, snappy dialogue, and suspenseful action, these compulsively-readable novels are 100% enjoyable for ages 12 through adult. The third entry, Forbidden City, is due out in February, 2022. I would not be at all surprised if these are optioned for films at some point.

Amber & Clay, by Laura Amy Schlitz, with illustrations by Julia Iredale
published in 2021 by Candlewick Press
532 pages

This fascinating piece of historical fiction is set in 5th century Greece. It’s a complex weave — a compelling story saturated with detail and ambience that flesh out that world, a tale infused with Greek mythology, archaeology, philosophy, religion, and art. Follow the fates of two children — Rhaskos, an impoverished stable hand, and Melisto, born into wealth and privilege — as their lives and destinies intertwine in wholly unexpected, extraordinary ways.

I am always intrigued by novels with unique formatting and Amber & Clay definitely fits the bill with sections composed in prose and poetry, narration by numerous humans and gods, and 18 “exhibits” interspersed showcasing Greek artifacts with commentary like a didactic panel in a museum, each bearing witness to some aspect of this ancient tale. Now that’s original. This unusual style also means, though, that the book requires quite a capable reader.

The bulk of the story is written in verse and Schlitz explains in her afterword some of the ancient Greek techniques she has employed. I often find novels-in-verse to be a bit overwrought emotionally. Authors who master the genre corral words with enough zest and grit to settle the text down sufficiently and create real characters who may speak in constrained syllables, but who are still full-blooded persons. Schlitz’s voice for Hermes, for example, sparkles with sarcasm and edge, while Rhaskos’ carries the weight of a child born into slavery, the keenness of an observant artist, the unaffected voice of one tied to the land.

Copious Author’s Notes explain more about a number of aspects unique to Greek culture at this time. I was fascinated to learn via this tale about elements I’d never been acquainted with such as the giving of daughters to serve Artemis, goddess of the hunt, as her “little bears.” It bears the marks of a Greek tragedy so don’t anticipate all shimmer and light here. The writing is top notch. I’d recommend it for ages 13 through adult.


Help yourself to some more Big Fat Books from the Marmalade archives — all 400 pages and up!
Click on the title to find my review.


City Spies (Book 1) — 400 pages

The Girl Who Drank the Moon — 400 pages

Greenglass House — 400 pages

Dragon Hoops – 448 pages

The Orphan Band of Springdale — 448 pages

Voyage of the Frostheart — 448 pages

The Wonderling — 464 pages

Un Lun Dun — 496 pages

Little Women — 504 pages

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge —  544 pages

Revolution — 544 pages

Echo — 592 pages

The Murderer’s Ape — 624 pages

Happy reading to all!
Don’t want to miss a post? Subscribe to my blog — it’s free! — by clicking on the three little lines at the top left of the page.