Is there something about small towns in America that has a special place in the hearts of the Newbery judges? Or is it the people who live there are somehow more quirky, more worthy of nuanced layers of personality ranging from slightly deranged to just plain weird? Are murder and violence somehow easier in a small town? I doubt that. Perhaps it’s easier when resentments simmer for decades or even generations.
Why is it that these small-town scenarios seem to score Newbery nods? Is there nostalgia for an America that is slowly fading away? Is small-town blue-collar how we define the core of America? It’s not what I think of when I think of America — my first image would be waves and waves of immigrants who face prejudices yet manage somehow to make a better life for themselves. The American Dream version perhaps.
Maybe it’s no different in a small town after all. The prejudices and hatred are maybe easier to portray in a smaller setting, and too, the love that binds the people together such that the sum is greater than the parts. In any case, it seems to be a winning formula for a Newbery. Just sayin’.
What chapter books with a small-town feel have I left out? Please make suggestions!
Small Town Quirky Middle Grade Books
10. Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Lucky, age ten, can’t wait another day. The meanness gland in her heart and the crevices full of questions in her brain make running away from Hard Pan, California (population 43), the rock-bottom only choice she has.
It’s all Brigitte’s fault — for wanting to go back to France. Guardians are supposed to stay put and look after girls in their care! Instead Lucky is sure that she’ll be abandoned to some orphanage in Los Angeles where her beloved dog, HMS Beagle, won’t be allowed. She’ll have to lose her friends Miles, who lives on cookies, and Lincoln, future U.S. president (maybe) and member of the International Guild of Knot Tyers. Just as bad, she’ll have to give up eavesdropping on twelve-step anonymous programs where the interesting talk is all about Higher Powers. Lucky needs her own — and quick.
But she hadn’t planned on a dust storm.
Or needing to lug the world’s heaviest survival-kit backpack into the desert.
If you like Everything on a Waffle, then you’ll also like The Highest Power of Lucky, also with a Newbery honor. With a population of only 43 in Hard Pan, this is definitely the smallest town of any book on this list. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
7. Glory Be by Augusta Scattergood
A Mississippi town in 1964 gets riled when tempers flare at the segregated public pool.
As much as Gloriana June Hemphill, or Glory as everyone knows her, wants to turn twelve, there are times when Glory wishes she could turn back the clock a year. Jesslyn, her sister and former confidante, no longer has the time of day for her now that she’ll be entering high school. Then there’s her best friend, Frankie. Things have always been so easy with Frankie, and now suddenly they aren’t. Maybe it’s the new girl from the North that’s got everyone out of sorts. Or maybe it’s the debate about whether or not the town should keep the segregated public pool open.
Augusta Scattergood has drawn on real-life events to create a memorable novel about family, friendship, and choices that aren’t always easy.
Our elementary school does a Civil Rights Movement unit in 4th grade and I would definitely include this chapter book that tells the story from 12-year-old Glory’s point of view. She just wants to have her birthday party in her Southern small-town — same as always — at the local pool but this year things are different and she’s not totally sure why. Is it really under repair or do these new Freedom Fighters who have arrived have anything to do with it? At the end of the day, can an individual change the world, even if she’s just a tween? [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
Life in Sassafras Springs has always been predictable, boring even, but one afternoon that changes when Eben McAllister’s pa challenges him to find Seven Wonders in Sassafras that rival the real Seven Wonders of the World. The reward? An adventure that Eben’s been craving — a trip to Colorado.
Even doesn’t think he’ll have any luck — he can’t think of one single thing that could be considered wondrous in Sassafras — but he’s willing to try. Little does he know that the Wonders he’ll discover among his neighbors, friends, relatives, and family will give him the adventure of a lifetime…without ever leaving his home.
My kids claim not to love this book but I love it dearly. It’s the perfect blend of small-town nosiness mixed with deep dark untold secrets. I imagine all small towns are hiding stories to protect the shenanigans of generations of people living as a tightly bound community. As Eben unearths each wonder in the form of a story, they become amazingly intertwined. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Welcome to Centerburg! Where you can win a hundred dollars by eating all the doughnuts you want; where houses are built in a day; and where a boy named Homer Price can foil four slick bandits using nothing but his wits and a pet skunk. The comic genius of Robert McCloskey and his wry look at small-town America has kept readers in stitches for generations!
This is the Granddaddy of small-town quirkiness but nothing really bad ever happens in Centerburg and Home Price is a semi-modern Huckleberry Finn. This was one of my favorite book series growing up. Does it translate to these times? I hope so! [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
4. A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck
Mary Alice’s childhood summers in Grandma Dowdel’s sleepy Illinois town were packed with enough drama to fill the double bill of any picture show. But now she is fifteen, and faces a whole long year with Grandma, a woman well-known for shaking up her neighbors and everyone else! All Mary Alice can know for certain is this: when trying to predict how life with Grandma might turn out . . . better not. This wry, delightful sequel to the Newbery Honor Book A Long Way from Chicago has already taken its place among the classics of children’s literature.
I’m not sure if Peck’s chapter books are old enough to qualify as classics but this is a modern classic for me. And it is laugh-out-loud funny. You just don’t get characters as big as Grandma Dowdel anymore; she makes heroes with superpowers look downright wimpy. A Long Way from Chicago also has my heart, but I especially like this book, set during the Great Depression with 15-year-old Mary Alice settling into life in a small town. [middle grade, ages 10 and up]
3. Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta
Welcome to Moundville, where it’s been raining for longer than Roy McGuire has been alive. Most people say the town is cursed—right in the middle of their big baseball game against rival town Sinister Bend, black clouds crept across the sky and it started to rain. That was 22 years ago . . . and it’s still pouring.
Baseball camp is over, and Roy knows he’s in for a dreary, soggy summer. But when he returns home, he finds a foster kid named Sturgis sprawled out on his couch. As if this isn’t weird enough, just a few days after Sturgis’s arrival, the sun comes out. No one can explain why the rain has finally stopped, but as far as Roy’s concerned, it’s time to play some baseball. It’s time to get a Moundville team together and finish what was started 22 years ago. It’s time for a rematch.
Mudville is not just a baseball book but reads like a retold fable and a modern classic with a twist of magical realism. Yes, it’s true in Mudville that it rains every single day and has for years due to a fairly recent Indian curse until one day it stops. It should be an ancient Native American story passed orally down for generations. It just has that feel and is best read aloud around a campfire. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
Mark the tenth anniversary of Kate DiCamillo’s cherished story with a beautiful gift edition featuring the author’s signature stamped on the cover.
Millions of people around the world are devoted to the novels of Kate DiCamillo — and it all began with Because of Winn-Dixie. Ten years ago, this unforgettable novel about a lonely girl whose life is transformed by her friendship with a scruffy dog was awarded a Newbery Honor. Since then, it’s become a runaway bestseller in more than twenty-five countries and has been turned into a major motion picture. Now readers can experience Kate DiCamillo’s debut novel in a collectible signature edition that celebrates her ten years as a beloved storyteller.
If I could claim only one book as my favorite all-time book, I’d choose Because of Winn Dixie. Each chapter reads like a lyrical short story and each character you meet is fully formed, breathing on the page. The sum is definitely more than the parts added together. Still, every now and then, my kids will tell me about a kid in their class who didn’t like it which feels like a dagger through my heart. My kids, however, succumbed to the magic of this short chapter book perfect for 3rd grade. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
The movement of the train rocked me like a lullaby. I closed my eyes to the dusty countryside and imagined the sign I’d seen only in Gideon’s stories: Manifest—A Town with a rich past and a bright future.
Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job. Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was.
Having heard stories about Manifest, Abilene is disappointed to find that it’s just a dried-up, worn-out old town. But her disappointment quickly turns to excitement when she discovers a hidden cigar box full of mementos, including some old letters that mention a spy known as the Rattler. These mysterious letters send Abilene and her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, on an honest-to-goodness spy hunt, even though they are warned to “Leave Well Enough Alone.”
Abilene throws all caution aside when she heads down the mysterious Path to Perdition to pay a debt to the reclusive Miss Sadie, a diviner who only tells stories from the past. It seems that Manifest’s history is full of colorful and shadowy characters—and long-held secrets. The more Abilene hears, the more determined she is to learn just what role her father played in that history. And as Manifest’s secrets are laid bare one by one, Abilene begins to weave her own story into the fabric of the town.
Powerful in its simplicity and rich in historical detail, Clare Vanderpool’s debut is a gripping story of loss and redemption.
If you liked Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech then this is the heir to another Newbery winner. It’s small-town mystique at its best that also seems to bring out the best in people that live there. [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
11 Birthdays (Wish series) by Wendy Mass
This hilarious novel from award-winning author Wendy Mass is now available in paperback!
It’s Amanda’s 11th birthday and she is super excited—after all, 11 is so different from 10. But from the start, everything goes wrong. The worst part of it all is that she and her best friend, Leo, with whom she’s shared every birthday, are on the outs and this will be the first birthday they haven’t shared together. When Amanda turns in for the night, glad to have her birthday behind her, she wakes up happy for a new day. Or is it? Her birthday seems to be repeating itself. What is going on?! And how can she fix it? Only time, friendship, and a little luck will tell . . .
Wendy Mass has created a magical little small town with 11 Birthdays and Finally where magic is probably the only logical explanation for the strange things that happen. Like in 11 Birthdays, there is a Groundhog Day (the movie) phenomenon of each day repeating itself until a particular sequence of events can be altered. Can Amanda and her ex-best friend Leo figure it out? It would be a shame since they’ve shared every birthday together … until this one that is. [middle grade, ages 9 and up]
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.