I think sometimes adults forget what it was like to be a kid. They imagine that the grade school years were a sort of magic time with no worries outside of what sugary cereal they should have on Saturday morning. But in reality, those years from 8 to 12, even in a safe and loving home, can feel fraught with peril. All of the decisions about your life are made by the adults around you, and it can feel quite scary to not have any control. Divorces, illness, systemic injustices, job loss, cross-country moves, death: these sound like grown-up problems, but they have just as great an impact on the lives of the kids in the house.
That’s why I’m so glad there’s middle grade fiction like the books on this list. The young protagonists in these books may or may not be facing the same issues as the young readers in your life, but books like these help kids learn how to handle the scary things, big or small. Mia Tang from Front Desk shows kids they can have courage and stand up for the underdog, even when adults and authority figures are telling them to do the wrong thing. Shannon from Real Friends shows kids how to face bullies and what a true, healthy friendship should look like. When Efrén’s mother is deported in Efrén Divided, he becomes his younger siblings’ primary caregiver, showing kids they can have resilience and tremendous heart, even when the unimaginable happens. Kids may only begin middle school once, but through Jerry Craft’s New Kid, they have the opportunity to see what it’s like to be dropped into a new place where no one else looks like you.
Maybe one of these books is just right for the young reader in your life, or perhaps you can read it for yourself and remember just what those middle grade years were like.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Mia Tang has a lot going on: she’s the daughter of immigrants and helps her parents manage a motel. She also has to find time to go to school and do her homework, of course. And then she has some extracurriculars, like helping clear her friend’s name when he is unfairly accused of a crime and helping her parents hide immigrants in the hotel behind the back of the mean owner, Mr. Yao. Mia shows true strength as she brings the whole motel together as a strong community in this book that addresses tough issues while also being a lot of fun.
Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
For ZJ’s whole life, his dad has been everybody’s hero: a star football player on a winning team. ZJ is used to the perks that go along with being a pro athlete’s son. But when his dad starts to exhibit signs of brain damage from his life on the field, ZJ’s life starts to change. National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson has written another beautiful novel in verse, and reading about ZJ’s struggles and triumphs through poetry is especially touching.
New Kid by Jerry Craft
In this graphic novel written and drawn by Jerry Craft, Jordan Banks has been dropped into a new school. Jordan loves to draw and shows talent as a budding artist, but his parents want him to focus academics. They send him to a prestigious school where he’s one of the few non-white kids. Jordan feels the push and pull of his neighborhood and the culture of his fancy new school.
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
You may know Kimberly Brubaker Bradley from her best-selling and award-winning historical novels, The War that Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won, but Fighting Words is her first work of contemporary fiction. Fighting Words is the story of two sisters in the foster care system. They’ve banded together since their mother was incarcerated, and after finding themselves in a safer foster house, they are able to open up to the trials they faced while being cared for by their mom’s boyfriend. Fighting Words handles sexual abuse in a way that is age-appropriate, but it’s quite a heavy book and cannot be recommended without content warnings.
Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros
American-born Efrén leads a mostly peaceful life as the eldest child of undocumented immigrants, until one day he returns home from school and finds that his mother is missing—she’s been deported. Efrén must care for his 5-year-old siblings while his father works to support the family and make enough money to bring his mother back. It’s an #OwnVoices story that shows kids how strong they can be in the face of trials.
Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
Shannon Hale’s lightly fictionalized memoir of her tween years acts almost as a manual for how to handle bullies and difficult friendships in grade school. As kids cross from the relatively uncomplicated friendships of early childhood into the more difficult friendships of adolescence, they can find themselves adrift in the confusion of tween relationships. Didn’t we all enjoy playing pretend just yesterday? Why is everyone interested in dating all of a sudden? Real Friends is required reading for anyone who has ever experienced a friendship shift.
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, colored by Iman Geddy
When Stars Are Scattered is a collaboration between graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, along with colorist Iman Geddy. Mohamed shared his story of growing up in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya with Jamieson, and together they brought the story to life for young readers. When Omar and Hassan’s father was killed and they were separated from their mother, they fled Somalia hoping to find safety. The graphic novel spans six years as Omar cares for his younger brother, Hassan, who suffers from occasional seizures. It’s a perfect entry point for parents or teachers hoping to introduce some of the realities of the world to middle grade readers.
Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk
Ellie’s family has been turned upside down by the stock market crash. It’s 1934, and they are moving to the mountains in the hopes that they’ll fare better in the country. When an accident leaves her beloved father in a coma, Ellie takes on his chores to help care for her mom and sister. As she ventures deeper into the woods while she works, she finds comfort in nature. She meets an elderly woman on the mountains: is she a forest witch, or just a wise old woman? Ellie is a strong, steady protagonist who can show readers how to handle trauma with grace.