This first one was just adorable. It's called "Dream On Amber" by Emma Shevah. It's about 11 year old Amber who lives with her mother and little sister Bella. Her nonna lives close by but her dad is just gone (and without an explanation, Amber makes up her own stories about why he isn't there). As they are walking home through the park, Amber and Bella see a dad and his daughter and Bella is reminded how much SHE misses their dad. So when Bella writes a letter to her dad inviting him to her birthday party, Amber knows how sad it will make her mom, so she writes back to Bella. But Bella either misinterprets the letter or doesn't read it properly, because she believes their dad is coming to the party. Additionally, Amber is starting middle school and doesn't really have any friends, she has a tragically old phone, and a bit of a germ phobia. She also has a very creative mind, a terrific talent for art and spectacularly fresh voice. I'm not sure this one really belongs on my short list, because I'm not sure that any boy would pick it up, but I know it's going to be a BIG favorite with the girls.
This second one might have a better chance with the boys. It's called "How to Outswim a shark without a snorkel" by Jess Keating. I think this is the follow up to another book called "How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes are Untied" because there are several references to past incidences, but I didn't read that one and this one is a good story even without that backstory. It's about Ana, who is going into 8th grade which means she is 12 (I think). Her grandfather is a famous zoologist and last year, she became a presenter at the zoo about reptiles (which she knows a lot about). Her best friend has moved to New Zealand and seems to have a new life, which leaves Ana a bit adrift. However, her grandfather has a big surprise for her. A new aquatic exhibit at the zoo, which he would like her to help out with. Help also comes in the form her nemesis, Ashley, who is also volunteering at the zoo for the summer. There is lots of great animal information and some pretty terrific quotes (the opening one from Neil DeGrasse Tyson!). But there is also quite a bit of conversation about how butts look in bathing suits or skirts, bras (needing them or not), and hot boys. I think the middle schoolers might like this one better. I'm pretty sure the boys at my elementary school would drop this like a hot potato when it got to a scene like that. It is a fun and funny read though.
This last one also had such a fresh voice! It's called "A Blind Guide to Stinkville" by Beth Vrabel. It's about 12 year old Alice. Her family has just moved to Sinkville, SC, where her dad is the new manager of the local paper mill (which helps give the town its nickname-Stinkville). Alice's mom is not coping well with the move. In fact, she's suffering from depression and is struggling just to get out of bed in the mornings. It's a good thing it's summer vacation, but Alice's older brother is really angry that his dad is too busy to help, so he isn't as much fun to be around as he might be. Alice ends up seeking refuge at the local library where she meets some of the locals, including a really great girl named Kerica and a not so great one named Sandi. Did I mention that Alice is also visually impaired as a result of her albinism? Alice gets wind of an essay contest about the success of Sinkville and decides to enter. She uses the stories of the people that she's met. It's a great story about resilience, and living with a different kind of ability, and friendship. I really loved this one.