As a high school librarian, I am constantly looking to instill empathy in myself, the students I work with, and the staff at the school. I recently wrote a post featuring 15 middle grade books that have empathy at their core. This is something that I’ve become very passionate about in my eight years at Glenthorne High School in South London, UK. I have recently come across some amazing middle grade books published here in the UK that feature main characters with diverse challenges.
These areas are often overlooked in middle grade and YA novels, and it’s great when these novels are written by own voices authors. I have worked hard at promoting these novels around the school because I work with autistic students on a daily basis and I know how things can be overwhelming for them, how things can seem daunting, and how even things like the wrong type of clothing or lighting can send an autistic student down a negative path before they’ve even started their day. Imagine having to survive school with these additional pressures and anxieties. That’s why two of the books on this list focus deeply on this topic.
A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll
Addie is an 11-year-old girl with a love of sharks. It’s her obsession in life – that is, until she discovers that witches were once executed centuries ago in her Scottish village. Now she’s determined to get the local government to erect a monument in their honour, something the townsfolk don’t want; it’s a shameful period that they’d much rather forget. Addie can’t let it go, though, her feelings towards this incident are something she can relate to. Being autistic, she and her sister know what it’s like to be considered the weird ones, the ones that stand out even when they don’t want to. Headstrong Addie decides to pour all of her energy into a mission to honour the witches. Heartfelt and uplifting, this is a novel that, in my opinion, should be required reading for teachers and students alike. It’s a book that will break your heart and really have you rooting for Addie as she takes on those that simply don’t understand. I chose this novel for our first ever Big Summer Read, where I encouraged every student and staff member to read it over the summer. I gave students various activities around the book to make it more engaging. In September, I will have discussions, quizzes, and other activities around it to keep the conversation going!
Can You See Me? By Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott
Perfect for fans of Wonder by RJ Palacio, this novel features Tally, a girl who isn’t afraid or ashamed of being autistic. She’s about to enter a new grade and a new school, something that actually does terrify her. Sometimes she just needs to be alone, sometimes she needs extra time to get prepared for things, and sometimes she gets angry and frustrated and wants people to go away all together. Tally is a wonderful, smart and creative child who offers a unique take on life. This is a truly wonderful book about standing up for yourself, the joys of being different and being the person that you want to be, not what other people want you to be. I bought this book for all of our English teachers and our teaching assistants at Glenthorne because I loved it so much. We also had the great experience of having Rebecca Westcott visit the school to talk to all of our Year 8 (12-year-old) students. Then we had some of our older students interview her for our podcast, which you can listen to here. It really was an amazing experience and one that I won’t soon forget.
Ade’s Amazing Ade-Ventures by Ade Adepitan
This is a wonderful, funny, and touching story about a boy who moves to the UK from Nigeria. At first, things seem nice, but then he and his family experience racism, then Ade is mocked for being different. His amazing soccer skills help him defeat the bullies, as does his super alter-ego. Ade’s Amazing Ade-ventures is a great book that celebrates differences and provides a positive message about immigrants in the UK.
The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf
The Star Outside My Window is a harrowing look at children who witness violence against their mother and end up in foster care. Determined to find her, they set off on an adventure to the Greenwich Observatory to ensure a newly discovered star is named in her honour. It’s a gut-wrenching story, and an important one for anyone trying to place themselves in the shoes of those coping with deep mental trauma.
Terror Kid by Benjamin Zephaniah
Rico is frustrated and full of rage at the injustices he sees around him on a daily basis. He’s just a teen, though, what can he do to stop it? When he meets a mysterious hacker who gives him an opportunity to fight back, Rico is intrigued. However, he soon finds himself tumbling down a rabbit hole he may never get out of. This is a powerful read about justice, loyalty, and doing the right thing.