Friendship in Middle Grade Books

By Mia Spangenberg

Now that my own daughter has graduated to middle grade fiction, I have been enjoying looking for new titles in this category with her – and luckily, there are more books in translation to choose from than ever. With hardship all around us these days, I’ve found myself particularly drawn to books that can help readers process difficult issues. The books I’ve chosen here stood out to me because they feature relatable characters who come through at the end with friends by their side. The first-person narration is heartfelt and perfectly captures the messy feelings young people have as they learn to deal with the world around them.

The Secrets of Cricket Karlsson

Written by Kristina Sigunsdotter
Illustrated by Ester Eriksson
Translated by Julia Marshall 
Translated from Swedish [Sweden]
Published by Gecko Press, 2022

This short but moving book is suitable for younger middle-grade readers with its shorter sentences and Ester Eriksson’s quirky and gritty black-and-white illustrations. Written in an accessible diary-style format, readers will be immediately drawn into the life of 11-year-old protagonist Cricket Karlsson who has just recovered from chicken pox and lost her best friend Noa to the clique of cool girls at school while she was home sick. What could be worse? As she quips, “I hate school and I hate my life.”

Well, as it turns out, Cricket’s beloved aunt Frannie succumbs to what appears to be depression and is admitted to a psych ward. Cricket’s mother doesn’t seem to be doing much better, as readers encounter her morosely sighing throughout the book, perhaps pining after an old lover. Even Cricket suffers from insomnia sometimes and is awake during the witching hour, which Julia Marshall has cleverly provided in literal translation as the wolf hour. So what are you supposed to do when you’ve lost your best friend, you’re teased at school, and things aren’t quite right at home either? You can process your feelings in a diary, and in doing so, readers come to cheer on Cricket who hates phys ed but loves art and cheese doodles dipped in cheese dip, wrapped in cheese slices. 

Translated literature gives us access to different cultures, foods and ways of doing things, and I also loved how many typical aspects of Swedish and Nordic cultures come through in this book. There is the clique of whinnying and neighing cool girls who are horse fanatics – who would be labelled anything but cool in the U.S. Cricket also has pancakes with lingonberry jam for lunch at school one day, a meal typically offered once a week at many schools in Sweden and Finland. Even the resolution is different from the drama and high-stakes action common to books from the U.S. – here, Cricket and Noa make up when they are paired up for a school activity, and Noa confesses how much she has missed Cricket and wants to be best friends again. Cricket finds a photo of her mother’s old lover on Facebook, looking old and silly, and brings her parents closer again. As for aunt Frannie, she is treated to a middle of the night ride on a horse Noa and Cricket “borrow” from a stable, which invokes images of Pippi Longstocking and her trusted horse companion. 

All in all, this is a relatively quiet read and so may not appeal to readers drawn to action, but anyone who does read this book will be introduced to a memorable character.

Talking to Alaska

Written by Anna Woltz
Translated by Laura Watkinson
Translated from Dutch [Netherlands]
Published by OneWorld, 2021

While this book is also relatively short, it’s one that stays with you long after you’re done. It covers several very real and contemporary themes including bullying, trauma and difference, and the compelling story is told by the teenage protagonists Sven and Parker in alternating chapters. The two start out as mortal enemies when Sven dubs Parker “Parker the Barker” on the first day of school, an action he takes to distract attention from his epilepsy. Parker finds out, to her horror, that her beloved dog Alaska, whom she had to give away, has become Sven’s service dog. Parker hatches a plan to steal Alaska back from Sven, but instead, under the cover of darkness and wearing a balaclava, she steals over to Sven’s house and begins talking with Sven on several nights. Since Sven doesn’t initially know who she is, they talk openly and without judgment. As Alaska draws them together, the two realize they have much more in common than they thought. Sven was diagnosed with epilepsy only a year ago, and is still learning to come to grips with how it has profoundly affected his life and ability to do things independently. He just wants to feel normal and blend in like any other kid at school. Parker, for her part, is dealing with the aftereffects of witnessing her parents being robbed at gunpoint in their photography store. She is now constantly on high alert and doesn’t know if she will ever be able to walk casually down the street again. 

Their budding friendship is put to the test when Sven realizes who the “balaclava girl” is and can’t stand that he’s been vulnerable in front of her. But after Sven has a seizure at school that someone films, and it goes viral, Sven no longer wants to come back to school. And as Parker finds herself walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood one day, she suddenly recognizes the sneakers worn by the man involved in the robbery. These two dramatic events bring the two together again as they realize how alike they feel, and what a difference it makes when you have friends, furry ones included, by your side.

Meet Mia Spangenberg

Mia translates from Finnish, German and Swedish into English. When she doesn’t have her nose in a book, you can find her hiking, camping and enjoying the great outdoors with her family. Her family also includes two white cats, Lumi (Finnish for Snow) and the plump boy Pulla (a Finnish-style cinnamon bun).  She is a regular contributor to the World Kid Lit blog.