Grief can surface from many different causes. It can arise after the death of a loved one, or a loved one leaving your life. Perhaps it takes root after a difficult diagnosis in the family. In my own experience, I have felt grief for all of these reasons and more. The Mayo Clinic explains: “Grief is the natural reaction to loss. Grief is both a universal and personal experience.” This really resonates with me. Loss can take so many shapes and forms in people’s lives. As someone who has moved too many times to count, I have often found myself grieving for the home and the life I once lived that was lost.
During times of grief, I take solace in stories. Reading about someone experiencing a loss I can relate to provides comfort that I’m not alone, even when grief makes me feel alone. Books about grief also help me process my feelings. As I read about how the characters in these books are feeling, I begin to find words to express my own mix of emotions. There’s a certain power and relief to be felt when you can fully articulate how you’re feeling and why.
In School Library Journal, Jessica Anne Bratt discusses the importance of helping children explore their emotions. She writes: “A first step of empathy development is the ability to name one’s feelings, whether positive or negative.” Reading books with characters experiencing grief can help children not only better express their grief, but also nurture empathy for those grieving. On the cusp between childhood and adolescence, preteens are at a particularly delicate age in terms of emotions. If you’d like to explore a variety of heartfelt and memorable middle grade books about grief, either for you or a tween in your life, check out these books.
Clues to the Universe by Christina Li
Biracial Chinese American Rosalind shares a passion for model rockets with her fellow space enthusiast dad. However, plans to complete their latest model implode like a dying star after the unexpected death of Ro’s dad. Consumed by grief, Ro meets Benji, a classmate who also feels the loss of a father—one who left his family years ago. Together, the pair develop a close bond as they continue work on Ro’s rocket. When Benji finds a clue implicating his father as the author of his favorite cosmic comics, Ro jumps at the opportunity to help Benji find him. Benji, though, is dealing with his own grief over his dad’s abandonment. This heartfelt middle grade book explores the many facets of love, loss, family, friendship, and finding hope even in the darkest, starless of nights.
The Sea in Winter by Christine Day
After injuring her leg while dancing, Native American middle schooler Maisie mourns her former life as a dancer. Maisie’s family, including an endearing little brother, wrap her in love and encouragement. Yet Maisie can’t help but continue to grieve her injured body and shattered dreams as she struggles to recover. When her family whisks her off on a winter road trip along the Pacific Northwest coast near her mother’s Native roots, Maisie’s inner grief begins to match her outer pain. Quiet as a cold winter’s night, with poignant introspection and heartwarming family, this tale will nestle into your heart as Maisie begins to learn how to hope again.
King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender
Set in small town Louisiana, this touching National Book Award winner explores grief, race, sexuality, and toxic masculinity. Black 12-year-old Kingston believes his late brother Khalid now lives as a dragonfly, and he fills his days with searching for him by the bayou. While grieving, King also can’t forget the hurt he felt when, just before his brother’s death, Khalid told King to stop hanging out with his best friend Sandy due to rumors of him being gay. When Sandy goes missing, King finds him in his backyard, hiding from an abusive father. The two then set off together to find the dragonfly Khalid, discovering the beauty of their renewed friendship. Along the way, King begins to open up about his own queer identity.
CW: Child abuse, homophobia, racism.
These Unlucky Stars by Gillian McDunn
Rising 7th grader Annie doesn’t have many memories of her mother before she left, other than her mother’s conviction of her unluckiness. Living with her older brother and dad, Annie often feels a bit lost and left out. She grieves the void left behind by her mom. After a prank backfires, Annie tries to make her dad proud by offering to help out her elderly neighbor, Gloria, over the summer. Her blossoming friendship with Gloria may be just the cup of tea Annie needs to begin opening up and connecting to the people in her life.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
This moving, lyrical novel in verse tells the story of Josh and his twin brother Jordan as they balance middle school, first crushes, and their love of basketball. Once a professional basketball player, their father coaches the boys both on and off the court about the sport as well as matters of the heart. When an unexpected and devastating tragedy strikes, grief will wash over Josh and his entire family. Be forewarned, you will shed tears when reading this one (I certainly did). Full of heart, this Newbery and Coretta Scott King Book Award winner will leave a lasting impression.
It’s the End of the World As I Know It by Matthew Landis
When his mom gets killed while serving in Iraq, 8th grader Derrick feels his world coming to an end. Preparing for the worst, Derrick responds by building a fallout shelter. Soon his neighbor Misty starts popping by, eager to help Derrick with the shelter. Misty, after having received a kidney transplant, revels in her second chance at life. Caution: this tender middle grade book about grief, family, and love will lodge itself into your heart.
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani Larocca
It’s 1983 and Indian American tween Reha feels caught between her life at home with her parents and their community and the life she leads at school with her friends. Even though their names mean “star” and “moon,” Reha can’t seem to connect with her mom and her strict expectations. That is, until the day Reha learns about her mom’s devastating diagnosis. Despite her grief, Reha will do whatever it takes to get her mom well again. Curl up with this eloquent novel in verse for nostalgic ’80s pop culture references, endearing characters, and heartfelt family dynamics.
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Preteen Willow likes plants, medical conditions, and counting by sevens. She channels her encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world into the beautiful gardens she nurtures. Then one day, Willow’s world shatters when her adoptive parents are killed in a car crash. The people who enter Willow’s life in the wake of her parents’ deaths begin to impact her in meaningful and important ways. As Willow navigates her grief, she finds hope in new found family. Willow, and the crew of characters that emerge in her story, are earnest, funny, and profound. I cried and laughed while reading this one, and the characters have stayed with me long after I finished.
While these middle grade books explore the difficult emotions of grief, each one also includes tender moments of love and hope in the face of great loss. I hope one may inspire and touch you, or a middle grade reader in your life.
For further reading, check out these Rioters’ discussions on death, resilience, and empathy in middle grade books: