The first one I read is called "Paper Things" by Jennifer Richard Jacobson. It's about 11 year old Ari (short for Arianna), who's parents died. At the very beginning of the book, she's living with a guardian, Janna, and her older brother, Gage. Things with Gage and Janna have deteriorated to a point where Gage wants to move out, so he does and takes Ari with him. It turns out that Gage wants to have an apartment and a nice place to live but he doesn't have the money to do it. So they've been couch surfing for the past two months. This gives a really vivid picture of what's like to be homeless and understand what it must be like to feel like you have so few options. It's also a story of standing up for yourself and understanding that sometimes there IS no good choice and so you have to live with the consequences of the choice you make. I really liked Ari's character. She really seemed to know where she was going and I'd really love to read about her again. This would be great paired up with a book like "Hold Fast" by Blue Balliett or "Crenshaw" by Katherine Applegate. Here's a little video with an interview with the author.
The second one I read is called "Finding the Worm" by Mark Goldblatt. It's the second book about a boy named Julian Twerski. The first book was called "Twerp" and I didn't read that one, but this one was really good. Julian is growing up in New York in 1969. He has a group of friends from his neighborhood that all hang together. Many of the boys are getting ready for their bar mitzvahs and they are all struggling with the usual middle school dramas of teachers, bullying, and class work. But one of Julian's posse is sick. Quentin has been in the hospital for quite some time and people are very worried about him. Julian is also trying to decide how to handle the one girl in their group- Beverly keeps bugging Julian to race her. Julian has always been the fastest one and doesn't want to get beaten by a girl. There are some nice themes of friendship as well as some deep philosophical questions like why do bad things happen to good people? I felt like I connected strongly to the characters, but I wonder if kids today would. I kept thinking about people I would recommend this one to, but they were people that would have grown up in a similar time to Julian, not my students at school.
This one would be good matched up with one like "In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson" by Bette Bao Lord or "The Wednesday Wars" by Gary D. Schmidt.
This last one, I'm not even sure if I liked it, but it was super compelling and really couldn't put it down. It's called "Watch the Sky" by Kirsten Hubbard and it is certainly the darkest of the middle grade books I've read so far. It's about Jory who lives with his mom and his step-dad Caleb and his half brother, Ansel and Kit, who is a girl they found in their pumpkin field and have cared for ever since. Caleb is a veteran with some pretty big issues with authority figures. Jory's mom finds safety in Caleb and does what ever he says. The story starts with Jory going back to school. He's been homeschooled for quite some time. Kit doesn't need to go to school because she doesn't speak or write and since they have no formal papers for her, there would be questions from "The Officials". Jory starts making friends and they introduce him to a world where people laugh and have fun and use computers and eat fresh food, which is a big change of pace from Jory's family. Jory's family is building a shelter to survive an apocalypse. I liked Jory's character... he's a pretty smart guy who wants to do the right thing and tries really hard. His friends are awesome. I think I had the hardest time understanding his mom and step-dad. I wonder if middle grade kids have enough life experience to fully understand a book like this. It was certainly a lot different from the ones I've been reading.