Middle Grade Books That Help Unpack Complex Conversations

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Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

Sometimes there are things in our lives that are challenging at any age, but especially if you’re a tween: grief, the loss of a loved one or friend, being “different” in any way, family issues, and sexuality, just to name a few. It’s not always easy to talk about these things, and sometimes books can help you feel less alone, help you connect with someone else through talking about the book, or help to start a conversation about a tough topic. Books that tackle complex ideas or issues also help people who may not be dealing with something get a better idea of what other people may be going through. Diverse books help encourage empathy in readers.

Here are some middle grade books that unpack some complex conversations or topics. There are certainly a lot more books that do so about a wide variety of topics, but here’s a list of recent ones that can help kick off your reading.

Rick by Alex Gino

A connected story to Gino’s book George, this book centers Rick, who’s just starting middle school. His best friend Jeff is kind of a jerk, especially to girls. The school has a Rainbow Spectrum Club, where kids of all identities and sexualities can meet and hang out. Rick’s never understood all the crushes that his friends seem to get, and he has more questions than ever. This is a delightful #OwnVoices story that readers of all ages will love, about discovering who you are and finding true friends.

Tornado Brain by Cat Patrick (May 5)

Oh, this book tugged at my heart. Frankie and Tess are sisters, but Frankie is neurodivergent. Sometimes she has trouble making or keeping friends, but she did have a best friend, Colette…until they had a falling out. After another fight, Colette disappears, but Frankie thinks she left clues behind—and starts to follow the hints. Can she get Tess (and everyone else) to believe her?

Ghost Squad by Claribel A. Ortega

Another #OwnVoices book, the description of this is “Coco meets Stranger Things with a hint of Ghostbusters” and it’s delightfully apt. Set in present day Florida, Lucely sees ghosts everywhere: although her relatives have died, they are very much in the house and hanging out with Lucely. At the same time, she’s dealing with her mother’s abandonment of her and her dad. When some of her relatives start fading, Lucely and her best friend Syd cast a spell, with unfortunate and unexpected effects. This is a fun read full of pop culture references, and I was really sad when it ended, because all I wanted to do was spend more time with the characters.

Wink by Rob Harrell

It’s not easy being a middle schooler, and it’s even harder when you are diagnosed with a rare eye cancer and eventually have your eye removed. Based on Harrell’s own experiences, this #OwnVoices book is funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Kids can be cruel, but they can also be pretty darn amazing. Harrell’s protagonist Ross has a wicked sense of humor and the illustrations throughout the book help to bring him to life even more. At its heart, this is a book about life and all of its weirdness and ultimately, its goodness.

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

Kingston James is 12, and people say his brother is dead. King doesn’t believe that; he believes Khalid is a dragonfly and visits him in dreams. It’s hard to watch his family adjust to their new normal and deal with grief in their own ways, and on top of all of this, he’s not even friends with his best friend Sandy anymore. Khalid told him to end the friendship after finding out Sandy might be gay. After Sandy goes missing and King finds him and learns more about what’s going on with his abusive dad, their friendship brings up a lot of questions that King might have to examine a little more…

Lila and Hadley by Kody Keplinger

When Hadley’s mom goes to jail, she goes to live with her older sister, whom she hasn’t seen in years. A new town, new house, new school—and Hadley is also going blind. She has plenty to be angry about, and she is. When she visits the local dog rescue where her sister works, she meets Lila, an abandoned dog who doesn’t click with many people or even listen to anyone…except Hadley. Hadley agrees to foster Lila to teach her how to obey commands, but it’s harder than she thought. This, plus her own mobility training for her failing vision and being the new kid…is a lot. But maybe Lila is just what she needs.

Can You See Me? By Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott

In this #OwnVoices book, Scott draws upon her own experiences as an autistic tween to bring Tally, the main character, to life. Tally is autistic and people constantly underestimate her. But that’s not the whole of who Tally is. She’s an 11-year-old middle schooler trying to find her way with her friends, new teachers, and the maze that is tweenhood and middle school. Not everyone understands her, and Tally tells her story about being herself when everyone thinks they know who you are, but they really have no idea.

The Way to Rio Luna by Zoraida Cordova (June 2)

Danny doesn’t believe everyone who says his older sister Pili ran away. When they were separated into different foster homes, she promised that  she’d come back for him. He believes in magic and that she’s in Rio Luna, the land of their favorite book. When he finds a mysterious book in the library with hints about how to go to another world…he goes on a magical adventure spanning continents and meeting characters he’d only read about, in hopes of finding Rio Luna and Pili.

Want more? Check out these feel-good middle grade audiobooks, as well as these excellent middle grade graphic novels.