100 Excellent Realistic Fiction Books for Kids
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Realistic fiction books for kids start include excellent chapter books, relatable middle grade books, and compelling YA novels. Realistic fiction is either relatable to children’s own lives (mirrors) or builds empathy as readers walk in the shoes of another (doors.) But which titles are the best choices for readers? That’s how this list can help!
I have read all these recommended books. My reviews can help you decide if the book is right for your reader.
Whether the realistic fiction books on this list are windows, mirrors, or doors, they are all well-written and highly recommended. And quite frankly, no matter the circumstances, the genre of realistic books shows us that we are more alike than we are different. We love, we feel sad, we want friends, we yearn to find our identity, no matter what life circumstances or culture, or language.
So, if your readers enjoy fiction books about fictionalized real people and relatable issues like friendship, growing up, coming of age, going to a new school, moving, identity, and other such topics and themes, then these books will hit the spot.
Get ready to discover many wonderful realistic fiction books for kids ages 5 to 18.
Realistic Fiction Books for Kids
Realistic Beginning Chapter Books, Ages 6 – 9
Aggie the Brave by Lori Ries, illustrated by Frank Dormer
Colorful illustrations match the basic sentences, which tell the story of Aggie, the dog who must go to the vet to get spayed, stay overnight, and heal at home. The story teaches about the process at the vet as well as what to expect – like the stitches and cone she must wear post-surgery. I love the way the little boy owner imagines that Aggie is not a cone-head but a LION.
Penny and Her Marble by Kevin Henkes I Can Read Book 1
In this cautionary tale, Penny finds a beautiful blue marble on the sidewalk in front of her neighbor’s house. She takes it home but feels guilty about stealing it and not returning it to her neighbor. Finally, she returns the marble and her neighbor tells her she can keep it.
Boris Gets a Lizard by Andrew Joyner
You can’t help but love Boris, a wildly imaginative boy who really wants a pet Komodo dragon. In fact, it’s his imagination that prompts him to tell his entire class that he’ll be not only getting a Komodo dragon but that they can all see it. (Which isn’t exactly true. At all.) And, it’s that same imagination that saves the day when there is no Komodo Dragon but many excited visitors who Boris doesn’t want to disappoint.
Grin and Bear It by Leo Landry
This is a darling easy reader book about a bear who wants to be a comedian but he has a problem with stage fright. Fortunately, the hummingbird helps the bear’s dream come true. VERY EASY.
Meet Yasmin! by Saadia Faruqui, illustrated by Hatem Aly
Yasmin is an exuberant girl who is interested in everything from exploring to building to fashion. This book tells four short stories from Yasmin’s life, all in chapters with lively, full-color illustrations. Each story shows Yasmin as a creative problem solver even when things get hard. Her Pakistani American culture is embedded throughout the story such as the foods Yasmin’s family eats, like naan or how she calls her father Baba.
Here’s Hank: Bookmarks Are People Too! #1 by Henry Winkler & Lin Oliver
Hank is a relatable, neurodiverse character to whom learning doesn’t come easily. These are easy to read, well-written beginning illustrated chapter book series for readers transitioning to chapter books.
The Year of the by Andrea Chang
Growing up is challenging and in the first novel, The Year of the Book, Anna turns to books for company while she learns how to make friendships in real life. The subsequent books in the series are just as realistic and well-written. I highly recommend them.
Dory and the Real True Friend by Abby Hanlon
Dory is one of my favorite book characters because her imagination is THE BEST! She has three imaginary friends: one monster friend, one fairy godmother that’s actually not a lady, and one bad lady nemesis. I love this story because she meets a real-life friend who understands all about imaginary friends and together, they’re the perfect match.
Miranda and Maude: The Princess and the Absolutely NOT a Princess by Emma Wunsch, illustrated by Jessika Von Innerbner
These two girls are different — one is a more sensitive, pinked-up princess and the other is a chicken-raising, social justice-loving regular girl. They are in the same class at school where right away, a misunderstanding grows and grows until it results in a disastrous birthday party with no one attending. Don’t worry — it will end up well. It’s a terrific story with great life lessons about communication and kindness.
Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence, illustrated by Eliazbet Vukovic
Jasmine is jealous that the older kids in her family can help on mochi-making day; she wants to do what the older boys and men are doing, pound the mochi rice. Her understanding father figures out a way for Jasmine to join in. And even though it didn’t work out how she wanted, her family is proud of her and decides it’s okay to break some rules, like who gets to pound the rice.
Zoo Camp Puzzle by Gail Herman
Ava and Rosie move to the zoo for the summer with their brother, writer mom, and teacher dad where they worry about the missing pronghorns and the suspicious trucks just outside the fences. With the help of their brother Ethan, the siblings must figure out what’s happening and how to keep the animals safe. Throughout the book, you’ll find pages with activities like puzzles and mazes as well as information about the animals at the zoo.
Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest Episode 1: The Quest for Screen Time by Marti Dumas, illustrated by Marie Muravski
Jaden has a plan for convincing his parents that he needs more screen time — and he’s going to use his big brain and his fellow kindergarteners to help. A fantastic realistic fiction story, but I also love that we see a family with cultural diversity.
The Adventures of Sophie Mouse A New Friend by Poppy Green, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell
A new student arrives at Sophie’s school — a SNAKE named Owen! (Yikes!) All the mice students are scared. When Sophie tells her parents, they tell her they knew a really nice snake who moved away which helps Sophie give Owen a chance. Owen rescues Sophie from a dangerous situation and they become good friends. Kindness for the win!
Daisy Dawson by Steve Voake, illustrated by Jessica Meserve
Daisy can talk to animals! You’ll love her free spirit personality and her kindness in all sorts of adventures. I love Daisy!
Owl Diaries Eva’s Treetop Festival by Rebecca Elliott
This is a really cute book that’s just right for beginning readers, particularly girls. Eva writes in diary form all about getting the Bloomtastic Festival put together and how she eventually learns to ask friends for help.
The World According to Humphrey by Betty Birney
Class pet, Humphrey, is a hamster who travels to a student’s home on the weekends and has lots of adventures.
Waggit’s Tale by Peter Howe (series)
Waggit is abandoned in the park but a group of dogs takes him in and helps him survive. He lives with them for many months, including a hard winter, but when a friendly woman feeds him and gives him a home, he finds his forever home. I love how this book hooks readers from page one and keeps them engaged.
Scribbles and Ink Out of the Box by Ethan Long
Scribbles and Ink (a cat and mouse) find that a box is a really cool thing to play with — it can become so many things (a race car, a mask, overalls). Unfortunately, the duo begins arguing about who gets the box and the box rips in half. After working out their differences, they think of a boxtastic solution.
Lola Levine Is Not Mean by Monica Brown
Second-grade soccer-loving Lola, the daughter of a Peruvian mom and Jewish dad, is misunderstood. I loved the diversity and the realistic topics of life and playing sports –so many kids will be able to relate to this charming story. See also: Lola Levine: Drama Queen.
Bink & Gollie Best Friends Forever by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile
The second book of funny Bink and Gollie (mis)adventures in friendship and life is filled with wonderful color illustrations.
Ellray Jakes Walks the Plank by Sally Warner, illustrated by Jamie Harper
Little sister overfeeds Ellray’s class fish and kills it. Ellray takes the blame to protect his sister, after all family is family, and gets to help find a new class pet.
Sydney & Simon Full STEAM Ahead! by Paul A. Reynolds, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
Sydney and Simon are twins working on their flower show project. Throughout the book, they work together, questioning, predicting, and experimenting, as well as using art, music, and technology to make their booth the best it could be.
Weekends with Max and His Dad by Linda Urban, illustrated by Katie Kath
This is a terrific book that captures the fun of time spent with a caring parent who is totally present for his son. I loved the short story format of adventures and that the story didn’t make a big deal of Max’s parents’ divorce but was simply part of the way life was. Excellent.
Jenny and the Cat Club: A Collection of Favorite Stories about Jenny Linsky
Join Jenny and her friends, including fearless Pickles the Fire Cat, on their spirited downtown adventures and discover why The Atlantic Monthly called Jenny “a personality ranking not far below such giants as Peter Rabbit.”
Stink and the Shark Sleepover by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
These are great realistic fiction books with the exciting adventures of Stink. Stink gets to sleep over at the aquarium. While he’s there, he learns more about sharks, solves a mystery, learns a ghost story, and has tons of fun. Of course, the Peter H. Reynolds illustrations are ah-mazing as always.
Shelter Pet Squad: Jelly Bean by Cynthia Lord
Suzannah joins the Shelter Pet Squad because her apartment building doesn’t allow pets. She meets a sad girl who has to leave her guinea pig, Jelly Bean, at the shelter due to moving. Suzannah promises the girl she’ll find Jelly Bean a good home. Only it’s not as easy as she first thought. The Shelter Pet Squad works together to find the perfect home — a kindergarten classroom.
Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake by Julie Sternberg, illustrated by Matthew Cordell
This story told in first person from Eleanor’s point of view is about the challenges when Eleanor gets jealous of a new girl she thinks her best friend Pearl might like better than her. This made my top five list of best books for the year.
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
Opal’s preacher father is always too busy and her mother has been gone since Opal was three, something Opal has always wondered about. But Opal finds someone to care for, a stray dog that she names Winn-Dixie, and that dog brings hope and meaning into 10-year old Opal’s life. Brilliant.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams
This is so much more than a sad book about farm animals, this story is a beautiful tribute to friendship that incorporates love and death as well. It’s a classic for a reason and one of the best-written children’s books in existence.
Princess Posey and the First Grade Boys by Stephanie Greene, illustrated by Stephanie Roth Sisson
Posey gets annoyed about those crazy first-grade boys and makes up a mean song about Henry. When Posey’s teacher, Miss Lee, says to stop and that Posey was bullying Henry, Posey feels very mad. Until her neighbor boys make fun of Posey’s little brother, and suddenly Posey realizes the truth. I loved the life lesson, the relatable characters, and the excellent pacing.
Little Rhino My New Team by Ryan Howard and Krystle Howard
Little Rhino joins a little league baseball team only to discover that the boy who bullies him is on his same team. His wise grandfather and daily lunch at the dinosaur table help Rhino and his shy friend gain new social skills and the confidence to deal with the bully.
Piper Green: Too Much Good Luck (book 2) by Ellen Potter, illustrated by Qin Leng
Piper is a lovable girl who just like all of us, makes mistakes, and hopes for her luck to change. She learns a valuable lesson about jealousy and friendship in this short and sweet story.
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look
Second grader, Alvin Ho, is afraid of everything, especially school. At school he’s quiet but at home, he’s Firecracker Man, superhero.
Wedgie & Gizmo by Suzanne Selfors
Dog owners will relate to the ADHD stream of conscious narration from Wedgie, the barking dog who LOVES everything. Contrast this with the diabolical plotting narration of the evil genius guinea pig Gizmo (remind anyone of Pinkie and the Brain?) who is horrified to be living in a Barbie house instead of his own habitat. The two pet’s alternating narrations show a newly blended family that Gizmo’s servant/owner, Elliot, is not happy about.
Have Fun, Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke
Anna Hibiscus lives in amazing Africa but in this story, she goes by herself to visit her Granny Canada in Canada where it’s snowy and cold. Anna gets to wear warm clothes and eat new foods. She even gets comfortable with Granny Canada’s dog and makes new friends. This is a delightful story of a sweet girl on an exciting new adventure.
Mouse Scouts: Make a Difference #2 by Sarah Dillard
Six new Mouse Scouts and friends share adventures as they seek new merit badges. In this story, the girls must to work together to rescue a CAT! What a sweet new illustrated series for beginning chapter book readers. See also Mouse Scouts #1.
The Vanishing Coin (Magic Shop Series) by Kate Egan and Mike Lane, illustrated by Eric Wight
Kids like fourth-grader Mike who can’t sit still will relate to Mike’s struggles with getting work done, avoiding the school bully, and staying out of trouble. It’s such a great story because Mike discovers something that he IS good at — magic. And, you’ll learn how to do the tricks as you read the book.
Shredderman: Secret Identity by Wendelin Van Draanen
Illustrated with comics, hilarious, and relatable events, this book has it all. Awesome.
Amelia Bedelia Unleashed by Herman Parish, illustrated by Lynne Avril
I’ve been enjoying these updated Amelia chapter books by the original author’s son. In this story, Amelia searches for the perfect puppy.
Drama Queen (Kylie Jean) by M. Peschke
Kylie Jean Carter wants to be a beauty queen but also a rodeo queen, blueberry queen, hoop queen, singing queen . . . Kylie Jean is adorable!
Esme’s Birthday Conga Line by Lourdes Heyer, illustrated by Marissa Valdez
Esme lives with her grandparents, but since they didn’t plan a birthday party for her, she decides to plan one for herself. Her plan includes and involves her neighbors like the Gracia girls who help her make the piñatas and Lupe who bakes the cake under Esme’s watchful eye and Mr. Leon who plays a solo on Esme’s new guitar. Enthusiastic Esme, with her can-do attitude is sure to be a favorite with readers!
Ellie Engineer by Jackson Pearce
These are well-written realistic fiction books that makes engineering seem enticing and creative! After a disastrous “french braid machine” tangles her best friend’s hair, Ellie, who already identifies herself as an engineer, plans to make her BFF a new birthday present — a dog house, getting help from a neighbor boy and a group of girls from school who are bitter rivals up until Ellie helps them work together.
Marya Khan and the Incredible Henna Party by Saadia Faruqi, illustrated by Ani Bushry
Marya feels jealous of her neighbor’s big, fancy birthdays, so she lies to her friends and says she’ll be throwing a big party even though her parents are against it. She tries to be helpful and good, but that doesn’t always work out. Will she get her big party and learn a few things about herself and others in the process?
FIND MORE CHAPTER BOOKS:
Realistic Fiction Middle Grade Books, Ages 9 – 12
Cress Watercress by Gregory Maguire, illustrated by David Litchfield
A beautiful story about family, community, and grief with lovable characters and lavish illustrations. After the death of her father, Cress and her family move from their cozy burrow into the Broken Arms oak tree ruled by a cranky Owl with a noisy neighbor squirrel family. There, Cress helps her mom collect moths to pay their rent, leaving her mom time to work and gather ingredients for her sickly brother’s tea. As Cress navigates her new environment, the natural world, and the stories around her, it helps her understand her inner world, especially how grief waxes and wanes like the moon’s cycles.
Leeva at Last by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Leeva’s horrible Matilda-like parents ask her sarcastically, What are people for? And Leeva, who isn’t allowed to go to school and does the chores, cooking, and other tasks to help her parents become rich and famous, decides to investigate the question. She discovers the library and books — but more than that, she discovers kind new friends, including the librarian and her grandson and two kids her age. She realizes that people help you not be lonely because they share life with you…and hugs are a nice bonus, too. I love the writing and the message of kindness and good things from books!
Star in the Forest by Laura Resau
Star in the Forest is a good introduction to the situation of Mexican children illegally in the U.S., who are fearful and sometimes separated from their family members. We learn that friendship comes from the most unlikely of friends, even someone like Crystal, who, despite her lies, is a loyal friend. And we find that Zitlally’s love for her father helps her do courageous things.
Get a Grip Vivy Cohen by Sarah Kapit
Vivy is a girl on the autism spectrum who loves baseball, particularly pitching knuckleballs. The book is written as letters and emails between Vivy and her favorite baseball player, VJ Capello. Vivy writes to VJ all about getting to play on a team as well as making her first friend, pitching, and getting bullied by the coach’s son. When she gets hit in the head with a ball and her mom won’t let her play anymore. How can she convince her mom to change her mind when her mom won’t listen?
My Not-So-Great French Escape by Cliff Burke
Rylan hopes that traveling to work on a farm in France with his former best friend will repair their friendship. But once there, Rylan is separated from his arrogant friend which helps him be open to befriending other international kids, milking a goat named Bijou, growing a garden from scratch, and discovering the truth about his father, who’d abandoned him years before. The growth that Rylan experiences is incredible; readers will be cheering him on as he forges his path, experiencing hard-earned, painful truths about his former friend and his dad and finding wonderful new lessons about what he values.
Dragon Vs. Unicorns: Kate the Chemist by Dr. Kate Biberdorf with Hillary Homzie
Exciting from the first page (a fire-breathing science experiment!!), this awesome new STEM chapter book series is hard to put down. There are lots happening in Kate’s busy life every day but no matter if she’s dealing with science, the school play, or friends, she’s a determined problem solver. When she tries to figure out who is sabotaging the school musical, it’s going to take all her skills to find the culprit.
Wink by Rob Harrell
A funny cancer story based on the author’s life…When Ross is diagnosed with a rare kind of tumor, he immediately starts radiation treatment. School becomes pretty challenging because his eye is goopy, he has to wear a hat, and his hair starts falling out in clumps– among other things made funny with his cartoon drawings. A goofy, kind-hearted radiation tech gets Ross interested in alternative punk music and guitar lessons. Turns out, the guitar and his new music help Ross express his frustrations and find his joy. (Note: a few bad words.)
The Friendship Code #1 Girls Who Code by Stacia Deutsch
Lucy joins coding club so she can make an app for her uncle to remember his medications. But the class is moving TOO slowly. Then, a mysterious letter arrives in her locker with instructions in code. The subsequent messages in code put her back in touch with old friends and help her build a new friendship. But who is sending her messages? Whoever it is, they’re teaching Lucy and her friends about input/output, conditionals, loops, and variables. To solve the mystery, the girls decide to write their own code.
One-Third Nerd by Gennifer Choldenko, illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans
I love these three unique, wonderful siblings — they stick together and look out for each other. Liam is a responsible, kind big brother in fifth grade. His mom and dad have recently divorced and now their grumpy landlord has given them an ultimatum — they’ll have to give away their German Sheperd dog, Cupcake, unless her peeing problem gets solved. Choldenko crafts a beautiful, multi-layered, warm-hearted story that celebrates family, unique personalities as well the richness in having a dog. I love this story so much. If you like the Penderwicks or the VanderBeekers, you will love this book, too.
Starfish by Lisa Fipps
ages 8 – 12
Heartbreaking and inspiring, this poignant story in verse shows a girl who learns, after years of fat-shaming and bullying, to define herself not based on what others say but on who she really is. Ellie’s nickname is Splash because of her size but Ellie loves swimming; it’s her safe escape where she feels the most comfortable. Her biggest bully is her mother–who won’t buy her new clothes because she thinks it encourages Ellie’s weight gain and is pushing for gastro-bypass surgery. Not even Ellie’s dad stands up to her mom’s cruel treatment of Ellie. Fortunately, Ellie finds an understanding therapist who helps her move from powerless to powerful.
Worser by Jennifer Ziegler
ages 8 – 12
Worser is floundering after his mom’s stroke left her unable to talk. He finds solace in words and grammar but it’s not the same without his mom. Worser attends the Literary Club, run by a girl he has a crush on and begins to share his love of words with other word-loving kids. As he develops friendly connections with the other group members, he finds that he likes being part of something and having friends. Then, jealousy leads him to a terrible decision that changes everything –but maybe the lessons learned will be what he and others need.
The Fort by Gordon Korman (his 100th book!)
Tension-filled, disturbing, and powerful, this realistic fiction book alternates the points of view of a group of boys who are each dealing with their own struggles, including poverty, OCD, bullying, and domestic abuse. When the boys discover an abandoned bomb shelter in the forest, they make it their fort, which becomes a special and safe place. When one boy, the outsider who isn’t friends with everyone yet, figures out what’s happening with the abused boy who is secretly sleeping in the fort, all the friends try to help him, but it’s tricky and complicated.
Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Raúf
When a new refugee boy from Syria arrives at Alexa’s London school, she can’t wait to be friends with him. However, Ahmed doesn’t talk or make eye contact. Alexa and her friends learn that Ahmed was in a real war and has been separated from his family. When Alexa and her friends hear that England is going to shut the borders, they decide they must go to the Queen to help Ahmed be reunited with his family. They go to the palace in person, tangling with the guards, and getting in big trouble, but it eventually leads to media attention and a happy solution.
Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo
A luminous, sparkling gem of a book with quirky, complex characters! Granny drags Louisiana out of bed in the middle of the night, insisting that they leave their home to confront the family curse. Not only does Louisiana not want to leave her friends and home, but things also get even worse when Granny abandons Louisiana at a motel along the way. Forced to fend for herself, Louisiana figures out how to survive miles from home while worrying that the family curse has destined her for an unhappy life.
Tumble by Celia C. Pérez
Pulsating with longing and confusion about family relationships, this heartfelt story is about heritage, identity, and…Mexican wrestling. When Adela’s stepdad wants to adopt her, Adela secretly uncovers who her biological dad is — and finds out he’s from a famous luchador family. She contacts him with high hopes of connecting but he consistently drops her off with his family and leaves. Adela must figure out what it means to have Manny in her life or not.
Honestly Elliott by Gillian McDunn
Elliott’s shuttling between his dad’s and mom’s houses. He’s often overwhelmed with emotions, particularly anger and sadness plus his ADHD makes it hard to focus. Not to mention, his dad’s constant criticisms aren’t helping either. For a buy-local school project, Elliot pairs up with a girl with Celiac disease. But Elliott’s rigid black-and-white thinking softens as he opens to different perspectives, including his new friend’s.
No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen
Felix doesn’t want to tell anyone that he’s been living in a van for months and months. His hope is that he can win his favorite TV game show so they’ll finally have enough money to get an apartment. This story shows a child’s love for a parent despite all the parent’s flaws–and his mom has many like lying and not holding down a job. It also depicts homelessness as circumstances beyond a child’s control — which is something most kids don’t know or think to consider. This well-written book is beautiful, important, and highly recommended.
Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai
Pie in the Sky is an insightful, funny, and poignant look at the struggles of immigrating to a new country (Australia) and the difficulties of learning English while grieving the loss of a father. Jingwen’s observations and wit make him a likable main character and the illustrations capture the flavors of his experiences. After school with his brother, he bakes the cakes that his father wanted to include at his dream Pie in the Sky bakery. It’s a coming-of-age story that is both salty and sweet, the perfect blend. (Includes an occasional bad word.)
Pippa Park Raises Her Game by Erin Yun
Korean American Pippa uses a new school to reinvent herself, hiding her background from the popular kids. In a satisfying ending with valuable life lessons, Pippa decides not to be ashamed of her working-class family, her culture, or her friends. Girl readers, in particular, will be able to relate to the social hierarchy of middle school and the temptation to change yourself to suit others.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
On her 12th birthday, Zoe, a girl who loves to bake, discovers a hidden letter to her from her incarcerated biological father, Marcus. She writes him back and Marcus tells Zoe that he’s innocent and he can prove it. Zoe enlists the help of her Grandma and her best friend, Trevor. You won’t be able to put down this winsome story with a heroine you can’t help but adore; a story that illuminates social justice with themes of family, friendship, and love.
Thirst by Varsha Bajaj
Set in Mumbi, this is about water inequities with themes of advocacy, education, and community. 12-year-old Minni’s community has access to water only a few hours per day with severe water shortages. When Minni is forced to leave school to work as a maid, she sees the water (and other) iniquity first-hand and discovers that the family’s dad is the water mafia boss. Her decision and action to report him makes a difference — and gives us hope that one person can make a difference.
Flipping Forward Twisting Backwards by Alma Fullerton
Claire is the best at gymnastics, but she’s not the best at reading. In fact, she can’t read AT ALL–and has fooled everyone for years. She lashes out to protect her secret and often gets sent to the principal. The principal figures out that Claire needs learning testing, but Claire’s mom is adamantly against testing. Claire’s friends, her sister, and a supportive teacher help her with word recognition — but she continues to ask her mom to let her get tested, which she eventually does. There’s so much to love about this fast-paced book in verse.
Jacky Ha-Ha by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
Jacky stutters badly, so she makes jokes . . . about everything. Now at age 12, she’s starting the new school year with tons of detentions. Luckily, someone sees the potential in Jacky and lets her “serve” those detentions in the school play, “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” It turns out Jacky is a natural actor — which helps distract her from her Nonna being sick, her mom being deployed, and her dad never being home. Very enjoyable!
Operation Sisterhood by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
A rich slice-of-Black-blended-family life in New York City. Jo and her mum move into a big brownstone with Bill and his daughter Sunday plus twins Lee and Liland, their parents Mama Hope and Papa Charles, and so many animals — chickens, cats, a lizard, a turtle, and a dog. It’s hard for Bo to get used to so much togetherness, and she misses the one-on-one time she used to have with her mum. While she’s adjusting to her new patchwork-quilted family, she and her new sisters embark on a project to make the upcoming wedding a special day.
Tornado Brain by Cat Patric
When 7th grade Frankie’s former best friend, Colette, vanishes, Frankie begins to look for clues on her own. Frankie realizes that Colette was trying to finish the list of dares that they made up when they were younger. The mystery of Colette’s whereabouts keeps every moment of the story suspenseful. Frankie and her twin sister piece together Colette’s last known locations. It’s a brilliant, touching first-person story that gives us insights into a neurodivergent character’s brain in a suspenseful mystery story.
Isaiah Dunn is My Hero by Kelly J. Baptist
Grief, family, poverty, poetry, the power of writing, and friendship... After Isaiah’s dad dies, his mother stops working and starts drinking too much. The family of three now lives in a smokey motel where Isaiah watches his 4-year-old sister when his mom is passed out. He finds strength and inspiration in his father’s journaled stories about Isaiah Dunn Superhero and eventually, begins to write poems again in his own journal…poems that he and a new friend named Angel sell as a business, money he wants to give to his mom for a new place.
Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
Catrina’s little sister, Maya, is sick with cystic fibrosis. A ghost tour outing with a neighbor boy sends Maya to the hospital. Cat feels guilt and fear for her sister, knowing that her sister’s lungs will never get better. But as the neighbor introduces Cat to the beautiful Day of the Dead celebration, Cat starts to see death and life differently. Beautifully written and illustrated, this story deftly deals with big issues in an interesting, unique way.
I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day
The author skillfully weaves an important, heartfelt story about growing up, family, and finding your identity in the context of adoption, the historical maltreatment of Native Americans, and the mystery of your own heritage. When Edie unexpectedly finds a box of photos and letters from the woman she suspects was her mom’s birth mother, it prompts a journey to discover the truth of her Native heritage.
Smile, Drama, Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
Raina shares her growing-up stories with humor and amazing art in these three popular books. My 10-year-old daughter read Sisters four times the first week she owned it – they’re excellent books and quite addictive.
Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams
Don’t miss this important story about self-worth, beauty, and colorism. Genesis hates that her skin is so dark; she knows her grandma and father hate that about her, too. In her self-loathing, she believes that if only she were lighter-skinned, she’d be pretty and have all the things that go along with being pretty. In this coming-of-age story, Genesis finds her voice both literally and metaphorically. It will start the conversation about who defines beauty and how we can do better individually and as a society.
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling
Aven Green makes up creative stories about why she doesn’t have any arms. Especially now in Arizona where her parents are the new managers at a rundown theme park. She befriends a boy at school who, like her, feels different and isolated from the other kids. His name is Connor and he has Tourette Syndrome. Together, he, another new friend named Zion, and Aven investigate a mysterious storage shed at the theme park, which leads them to a mystery involving Aven’s past.
Unteachables by Gordon Korman
The middle school assigns the worst teacher, Mr. Kermit, to a class of the so-called worst kids –the class known as the unteachables because Mr. Kermit hates teaching. As we get to know the kids in the small class, something surprising happens that gets Mr. Kermit to care just a little. And that opens the gates to even more caring and a big life change. Heartwarming and hopeful.
Emmy in the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido
This is an exquisite book that celebrates music, STEM, making friends, and growing into yourself. Emmy’s eager to start a new school but she’s thwarted by rudeness at every turn. A girl in her programming class named Abigail is friendly, but only during class. As Emmy’s family adjusts to San Francisco, Emmy begins to love programming. Lucido skillfully connects music and programming in a memorable, poetic story that even non-programmers can understand.
Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dees
Middle schooler Mila is feeling trapped— a group of basketball-playing boys is getting too close, grabbing her, touching her, and then telling her that she’s imagining it. Nothing works to deter the boys’ unwanted attention but unexpectedly, Mila finds inner strength when she starts karate classes. That strength helps her find what works to put a stop to the harassment. I highly recommend this essential book; it should be shared widely with middle school boys and girls.
A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée
Middle school is hard enough with friend drama but add to it not-being-black-enough drama, personal and community race-related drama, and boy drama. Frankly, it’s a lot for 12-year-old Shayla. When a jury finds a cop innocent in the shooting death of a black boy, Shayla decides to take a stand and support the Black Lives Matter movement. She wears an armband to school and rallies many of her classmates of all ethnicities to join her, even though the principal says it’s against the rules.
Each Tiny Spark by Pablo Cartaya
Each Tiny Spark addresses learning differences, PTSD, and prejudice in a beautiful, important story. Emilia is a Cuban-American girl whose ADHD makes focusing on school and schoolwork a challenge. When the community proposes to redraw the school district’s boundary lines, exposing prejudice and ongoing injustice, Emilia becomes a passionate activist against injustice. Meanwhile, Emilia’s father’s return from the Marines is different than before; he’s quiet and distant this time.
For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington
It’s hard for Makeda to be a black adopted girl in a white family. But there are even more challenges for Makeda these days, starting with being the little sister to a newly distant teenager, moving to a new town away from her BFF, having parents who are constantly fighting, and watching her mom’s mental health deteriorate and thinking it’s somehow her fault. After her mom’s mania takes them on a trip to Colorado which abruptly nose dives into severe depression and a suicide attempt, Makeda reaches out for help.
Guts by Raina Telgemeier
Raina shares her own life story, how in elementary school, her fears and anxieties led to terrible stomach aches, days of missed school, and time in therapy. Guts sensitively delves into the mind-body connection, showing therapy in a positive light. I wholeheartedly appreciate that the story shows a kind counselor who gives Raina helpful strategies. My daughter and I both love when Raina bravely presents to her class a strategy she learned in therapy — deep breathing.
Focused by Alyson Gerber
Clea is a chess-loving girl who gets distracted easily (except when she hyper-focused on chess.) She’s resistant considering that she could have ADHD. But blurting out things and living with regret, she feels like she’s not in control. As she learns more about her brain, she realizes that she can figure out strategies to help her keep focused. Readers who don’t have ADHD will get a glimpse into the way this kind of brain works.
Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly
Iris is a lonely Deaf girl who relates to Blue 55, the loneliest whale in the world, because his song is at a different hertz than other whales. Iris uses her compassionate heart, intelligence, and tinkering skills to write and record a whale song that Blue 55 will hear. She and her grandmother, who is also Deaf, sneak off without Iris’ parents’ permission on a cruise to visit Blue 55. It’s a heartening, poignant story that gives readers insight into the richness of Deaf culture and the life-changing power of compassion.
Roll with It by Jamie Sumner
Ellie is a girl who loves to bake, has cerebral palsy, and who rolls through life in a wheelchair. When her mom moves them to Oklahoma to help care for her grandfather, even though she’s from the so-called wrong side of the tracks, she makes friends with other trailer park kids — the first friends she’s ever had. It’s a sweet story about taking risks, the importance of finding your tribe, and growing up.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Because this is written in verse, this is a fast read but packs a big punch. Basketball player and twin Josh narrates his life in quarters, just like the game he plays. He writes about missing his twin when his twin, Jordan, gets a girlfriend; about getting in trouble when he hits Jordan in the face with a basketball; and about watching his father as his heart fails. This is a coming-of-age, gripping story about a boy who is just trying to figure out life like most boys at age 12.
Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis
Don’t miss this tender, beautiful, redemptive story. December is a foster child who believes with all her heart that she will soon grow wings and fly living in yet another foster home. After another jump off a high branch in a tree and a trip to the hospital, injured December finally accepts the truth about everything, including her mother, being a bird, and the future. These hard-earned, poignant realizations shift her future, allowing for love and happiness, and will make you cry.
Black Brother Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Twins with different skin colors, one whiter and one darker, are treated differently because of it. Donte is unfairly accused of something and when he tries to defend himself, the police are called and he’s suspended from school. Not to mention, a popular guy at his school calls Donte “black brother” because he’s darker than his twin, Trey. Donte starts fencing to get revenge but as he trains, he finds that he’s smart, good at fencing, and courageous. If you think the world still isn’t racist and colorist, read this compelling story and you’ll see that we still have a long way to go.
Planet Earth is Blue by Nicole Panteleakos
Nova is autistic and nonverbal, in this sad book she writes verbal letters to her runaway big sister, Bridget, telling Bridget everything since the two were separated. Nova holds fast to Bridget’s promise that she will come back to Nova for the Challenger launch. But the launch comes and goes. And Nova will have to face the truth about her older sister… And it will make you cry like a baby. Beautiful, gifted storytelling.
The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
Set in India, Vijiand her little sister Rukku who has intellectual disabilities run away from an abusive father and sick mother to the big city where they meet two friendly brothers and live with them under a bridge, scrabbling to survive by collecting trash. Their days are hard, but Rakku learns how much more capable her sister is than she thought. Unfortunately, Rukku gets a terrible cough and fever and what happens next will almost destroy Viji. It’s an honest, eye-opening story that reveals the plight of many homeless children in India and yet, finds a way to be hopeful, too.
Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt
When his grandfather’s butler arrives to help out 6th grade Carter’s family, Butler becomes a big asset to the family, filling a void the family didn’t know they had. “Make good decisions and remember who you are,” he often reminds Carter and Carter’s sisters. This wisdom helps Carter as he tries to understand why his dad abandoned their family. When Butler teaches Carter the game of cricket it transforms not just Carter’s life but the school community’s as well.
Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn
McDunn beautifully weaves an emotion-filled, coming-of-age story with a strong female main character named Cat. Cat is a protective big sister for her special-needs brother but she’s ready to have her own life. Cat finds the opportunity when her children’s book author-illustrator mom leaves her and her brother at their estranged grandparents’ house for the summer. There, Cat develops a special relationship with her grandparents, helps heal the rift between her grandfather and her mother, makes a good friend, and learns how to fish so she can enter the local kids’ fishing contest.
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
Harbor Me tackles some very big issues, including race, immigration, bullying, learning differences, friendship, and forgiveness. The story is about six diverse children with learning differences. They bond during a special kids-only time on Friday afternoons, where they share their stories, many of which Haley records on a tape recorder. Even as she learns about the other kids who are, Haley is reluctant to share that her own dad is in jail for the car accident killing her mother. When she does eventually share, it’s beautiful to see the other kids support her.
The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden
Zoey is trying to stay hidden, living with their mom’s newest boyfriend in his trailer. She’s required to care for her siblings while her mom works, all the while avoiding making a mess or too much noise. A kind teacher at school persists with a reluctant, non-participative Zoey, encouraging her to try debate club. It’s that activity that eventually gives Zoey the courage and perspective to talk to her mom about everything — from her mom’s boyfriend’s belittling to her own friend getting threatened with a gun.
Twin Cities by Jose Pimienta (GRAPHIC NOVEL)
Twins who live on the Mexico-US border make two different choices in middle school, separating for the first time. Fernando stays in Mexicali, Mexico and Teresa crosses the border every day to go to school in Calexico, United States. Their choices lead them down different paths with Fernando finding a friend who is a bad influence with prejudices and a drug business and Teresa commuting for hours and spending more hours doing homework.
You Are Here, edited by Ellen Oh, written by Linda Sue Park, Erin Entrada Kelly, Grace Lin, Traci Chee, Mike Chen, Meredith Ireland, Mike Jung, Minh Lê, Ellen Oh, Randy Ribay, Christina Soontornvat, and Susan Tan
It’s a day at the Chicago airport. Twelve Asian American kids at the airport are either traveling or, in one case, accompanying his mom to work. They all experience racism and feel scared and uncomfortable. In each case, the kids find their inner strength, either with help or by themselves. The stories are exceptionally written and put us in the children’s shoes so we can see how harmful and hurtful racism is. While these are short stories, this is most meaningful when you read all of the interconnected stories as a cohesive story.
Elephant Secret by Eric Walters
Sam lives in an elephant sanctuary with her father. A mysterious benefactor has paid for an elephant to become pregnant — but it’s not actually an elephant that she births, it’s a wooly mammoth cloned from DNA. Sam’s connection with the elephant is amazing, especially the baby mammoth whom she names Woolly. Things go very wrong when their benefactor forces them to leave the sanctuary. As she deals with this, Sam must also come to terms with her father’s long-term girlfriend.
Falling Short by Ernesto Cisneros
Neighbors and best friends, Marco and Issac, are different but loyal to each other. One is short and academic, the other is tall and sporty. In the end, a high-stakes basketball game and a bad car accident show these friends, and their teammates, that friendship matters most of all.
Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller
Natalie wants to figure out how to help her mother, who we gather is depressed (in her bed all day long, no longer working.) As Natalie prepares for an egg drop contest with two other kids, she looks at her mother’s situation with the same scientific process zeal. Her ultimate plan is to win the contest then use the prize money to whisk her mother away on a special trip. Throughout the story, we see Natalie’s friendships develop as well as the difficult understanding that life and depression are not an exact science.
Greetings From Witness Protection by Jake Burt
A winsome story of adventure and finding where you belong. Nicki leaves the group home to live with a family in the witness protection program. She likes her newest foster family and takes her role seriously. She must stay vigilant against potential threats, not stand out, and try to keep her kleptomania under control. As she grows closer to her new family, both their past and hers catch up to them.
Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard
Jackie’s grandpa is forgetting things so Jackie tries to pick up the slack — helping more than ever at his mechanic shop and at home. But she keeps getting in trouble at school, ending up in a special group with the school counselor. A family tree project feels like absolutely too much for a girl with only a grandpa as her family. It’s a brilliant story about aging and what makes a family. It will rip you up and put you back together.
House Arrest by K.A. Holt
Timothy is under house arrest for the next year, living with a brother who needs constant medical care. Part of his year-long punishment is to meet with a probation officer, meet with a therapist, and write in a journal which is the book we’re reading. When his little brother gets assigned an abusive new nurse, Timothy feels like even if he gets thrown in juvie, he must do something drastic to help his brother. Written in poetic verse, this book speeds along and pulls your heart along with it.
Tangerine by Edward Bloor
Paul is a soccer player — at least he will be if he can go to a different school that doesn’t know about his IEP for vision. If he can avoid his dangerous brother, and play soccer on this team, maybe Tangerine County, Florida, won’t be so bad after all. After some horrific things occur, including a murder, Paul remembers how he lost his vision and makes a stand for what is right. EXCELLENT!!
Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
This summer, the Penderwick sisters have a wonderful surprise: a holiday on the grounds of a beautiful estate called Arundel. Soon they are busy discovering the summertime magic of Arundel’s sprawling gardens, treasure-filled attic, tame rabbits, and the cook who makes the best gingerbread in Massachusetts. But the best discovery of all is Jeffrey Tifton, son of Arundel’s owner, who quickly proves to be the perfect companion for their adventures.
Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones, illustrations by Katie Kath
The book is written as letters from a girl named Sophie, who is newly living at the farm of her dead great-uncle Jim. She writes to her dead abuelita, her dead great-uncle Jim, and Agnes of the Extraordinary Chickens catalog. While her parents are figuring out their new lives, Sophie figures out the farm. Specifically the chickens — starting with the first one she discovers wandering around. She learns that Jim had more than one chicken, and they are quite exceptional! (Think telekinesis, invisibility, and carnivorous chicks.) But a neighbor chicken thief is also interested in Jim’s chickens — and Sophie must stop her.
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
Roller Girl shows the struggles of friendship and finding your place in the world as Astrid works hard to become a better roller derby skater, reconcile her ending a friendship with her best friend, and develop a new one. (I recommend going to a roller derby event with your kids to help them know more about this cool sport for girls — it’s such a blast and would be helpful for reading this book, but not essential.) Well-written and relatable.
All Four Stars by Tara Dairman
I loved this engaging story about food-enthusiast Gladys suffering in a house of microwaving parents without a taste bud between them. Gladys not only appreciates good food, but she also loves to cook and wants to be a food critic. She already has lots of practice writing her daily notes about her parents’ horrid creations. When a mix-up in a writing contest has the editors of a paper thinking she’s an adult, can she actually write a published review without letting anyone know she’s 10 years old?
Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes
I picked this realistic middle-grade book because of the cat pictured on the front cover — and found it to be way more powerful and meaningful than I had expected. Gaby’s mom is deported and her father doesn’t remember he has a daughter. Gaby’s holding out hope for her mom’s return… and maybe a pet kitty.
The Seventh Most Important Thing: One Kid. One Crime. One Chance to Make Things Right. by Shelley Pearsall
Angry with grief, Arthur throws a brick at Junk Man’s head. The judge sentences Arthur to work for the Junk Man who asks Arthur to collect the items on the list of the Seven Most Important Things. Transformed by the experience, Arthur becomes an advocate for the Junk Man’s art. This is fictional but is inspired by the true story of American folk artist James Hampton whose work is in the Smithsonian. This story resonates emotionally and would make for a great bedtime or class read aloud.
Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova
My daughter found this graphic novel book SO RELATABLE — just like she struggles with confidence and speaking up, so does the main character, Peppi. This well-done graphic novel tackles the issues of friendships and confidence, among other things. (So glad I’m not in middle school anymore.) We highly recommend this graphic novel.
Growing Pangs by Kathryn Ormsbee, illustrated by Molly Brooks
Katie’s a homeschooled kid with crooked teeth and red hair and a best friend forever named Kacey. When they start camp and Katie makes a new friend and Kacey gets jealous. But what’s even harder is Katie’s buzzing thoughts that tell her to do repetitive things and they’re getting worse. Eventually, Katie tells her parents about the buzzing and they get her help for what she learns are obsessive-compulsive thoughts.
The Summer of June by Jamie Sumner
I ADORE this hopeful, realistically beautiful story about living with anxiety! June experiences severe anxiety, which sometimes makes her pull out her hair and have panic attacks. That’s why she starts the summer by shaving her hair off completely. She spends her summer days at the library with her youth librarian mother and befriends a boy named Homer. June’s therapist’s gentle care gets June the medication and guidance she needs, and her new and old friends from the library show June that many people care about her and accept who she is.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
Narrated by one gorilla named Ivan, this story will immediately touch your heart. Making it even more compelling, it’s a true story! Ivan is kept in a cage in a run-down mall for 27 years without seeing another gorilla, only the stray dog, Bob, who sleeps with him, Stella the Elephant, and Ruby, a newly purchased baby elephant. Before she dies, Stella begs Ivan to find Ruby a home with other elephants — and Ivan agrees, but it won’t be easy.
The One and Only Bob by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by Patricia Castelao
Bob lives with his friend, who adopted him after the mall zoo closed, but he believes that he’s a fraud. When Bob visits his friends Ivan and Ruby at the zoo, a hurricane hits. Animals are on the loose, there’s flooding, Ivan is trapped under a building, and Bob can’t find his people. As Ivan says, there’s one and only Bob to help rescue everyone. Surprisingly, his search and rescue involve his long-lost sister and her puppy. Sweet, redemptive, and adventurous, this is a story of a dog who finds himself while searching for others.
Everyday Angel by Victoria Schwab
My 10-year-old loves these stories about an angel named Aria who is earning her wings by helping girls who are struggling in some way. In the first book, she helps Gabby. Gabby’s brother is hospitalized indefinitely and her mom is totally focused on her brother. It’s up to Aria to help Gabby at her new school and discover who she is. These are sweet, uplifting stories.
Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley
After her parents’ divorce, Jen moves to a farm with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend whose kids visit on the weekends. It’s a huge transition — she doesn’t love how bossy and whiney her stepsisters are and how annoying her mom’s boyfriend is. But she loves the chicks she takes care of and the farmer’s market. Well, she loves it until her math skills aren’t good enough to be helpful. This story gently shows the ups and downs of living with a new family in a new place.
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor
A coming-of-age story that is both heartbreaking and filled with hope. Perry is well-loved by his mother and her friends. . . in prison. That’s where Perry has lived since he was born eleven years ago. But in an unexpected and unpleasant turn of events, his best friend’s stepfather, the new District Attorney, forces Perry to leave the prison. Not only that, the DA tries to stall Perry’s mother’s parole hearing. Perry discovers the stories behind the inmates’ lives, hoping that they’ll help reunite him with his mother. This story will stay with you long after you read the last page.
All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson
Growing up, Imogene (aka. Impy) always loved her family’s part in the Renaissance Faire . . . that is, until middle school. Even though she gets her dream to work in the faire as a squire, she also just wants to be like the other girls at her school, too. Her journey is painful and honest as she figures out who she wants to be. It’s narrated as a hero’s journey which, with the faire background and middle school drama, feels perfect. Beyond being a terrific coming-of-age story, I’m sure this book will interest your kids in Renaissance festivals themselves.
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
Joseph is an abused boy with a violent father, a parent at age thirteen, and is now living as a foster kid with Jack’s family on their organic farm. As he learns to trust them, we slowly learn about Joseph’s deep love for a rich girl named Maddie, his daughter named Jupiter who he’s never seen, and his shattering heartbreak. This is an amazing story– painful yet filled with redemption and hope — beautifully written and one that will give readers so much to ponder.
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate
After losing their home and living in their van for three months, the family is about to lose their apartment. Although Jackson’s parents don’t tell him this, he knows the signs. He knows why they’re having a yard sale. He knows it’s not his dad’s fault for having MS, but he’s mad and worried and alone. It isn’t until Crenshaw shows up and pushes Jackson to speak the truth to his parents that Jackson learns that he’s not facing the hard situation alone. Oh, and who is Crenshaw? He’s Jackson’s large, imaginary cat friend from when he was little and returned to help Jackson in his time of need.
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Wonder helps us see compassion, empathy, and acceptance from a variety of characters’ points of view. When I first read this book last year, it struck me as a powerful ways to meaningfully talk about bullying and kindness. I believe that it’s easier to see things first not in the lives of characters we read, so that as we read, we can apply those lessons to our own lives. In my experience as a teacher, this especially applies to kids.
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Perez
An excellent, diverse, page-turning coming-of-age story, this is about a girl who is half-Mexican on her mom’s side and half-punk rock on her dad’s side, both of which are cultures prominently featured in the story and her life. Malú’s unhappily forced to move to Chicago with her mother where she eventually finds her place when she starts a Latinx punk band. When their group doesn’t get into the talent show, they decide to play anyway. In the parking lot. (So punk!) We see Malú discover herself through life’s challenges and adventures and also learn what the first rule of punk actually is.
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser
Like The Penderwicks, you’ll fall in love with this quirky, wonderful family. The Vanderbeekers’ landlord wants them out by the end of December, but the Vanderbeeker kids are determined to change his mind, even though he hates noise, kids, and their family. But it’s almost Christmas, and their efforts are only making things worse. What will they do? Charming and heart-warming.
The Kicks Hat Trick by Alex Morgan
Finally, a fantastic sports-related book (series) for soccer girls! Written by Olympic Gold Medalist and U.S. Soccer team member (among other things), Alex Morgan, it’s a realistic story of life, friendship, and playing soccer. As happens in the real world, struggles and conflicts arise. In this particular story, Devin’s beloved Kicks team is separated in the winter soccer league. Not only does it seem like her friends are drifting away, but Devin’s new coach also encourages aggressive playing –and Devin’s not loving it.
Rain Rising by Courtne Comrie
ages 10 – 13
RAIN RISING is a multilayered story about mental health, racism, family, friendship, and self-love — with a main character that you’ll cheer on through her complicated growing-up journey. Rain’s older brother Xander has always taken good care of her; he helps her on her saddest days, especially after their dad left and their mom is always gone at work. But, when Xander gets brutally attacked, he’s a shell of himself and barely speaks and Rain can barely cope. In an after-school group, she starts to make new friends, and she slowly finds her way back to health through therapy and group support. Intense, heartbreaking, and heart-putting back together, I couldn’t put this novel in verse for one second!
All the Impossible Things by Lindsay Lackey
Tender, eye-opening, and heartfelt — this is the story of a foster kid named Red and her journey of abandonment, growing up, empowerment, and finding a family. Red’s in the foster care system with kind-hearted people who run a petting zoo. Understandably, Red is mistrustful and prickly at first with everyone but the Grooves’ gigantic tortoise. This bond is the first step in unthawing Red’s broken heart. Soon, she becomes friends with a neighbor boy and starts developing a relationship with her foster parents. Unexpectedly, her mother announces that now that’s she’s out of jail, she wants visitation. Red wants her mom to love her that she’s willing to overlook her mom’s self-centered behaviors and the signs that her mother is using drugs again.
Pretty by Justin Sayre
Beautifully written and plotted, Justin Sayre has created a coming-of-age masterpiece not to be missed. Sophie’s life is complicated. Hiding her mom’s alcohol addiction affects everything, even her school work. When her mother leaves for a trip, her aunt moves in and gently helps Sophie learn about being a strong, beautiful, biracial woman. Sophie blossoms with the love and kindness of her aunt. Soon, Sophie must decide what she’ll do next — move with her aunt or stay with her mother who eventually returns home from rehab.
The Gray by Chris Baron
ages 8 – 12
Chris Baron packs a lot of meaningful themes and topics into this hopeful, complex story about mental health, abuse, death, Jewish wisdom, friendship, bullying, and family. Sasha is a Jewish boy with severe anxiety, “the Gray” who is staying at his aunt’s for the summer. He’s bullied by a group of small-town kids but hires the town’s outcast, a kid named Eli, as his bodyguard. Sasha practices his strategies for the Gray, spends time with his aunt and his two friends, and learns Krav Maga. Then, Sasha risks a trip to the Gray when he searches for his missing friend Eli on horseback. This is a hopeful, complicated story about self-love and acceptance.
Click’d by Tamara Ireland Stone
At coding camp, Allie makes an app to help kids can find new friends. When she returns to school, she releases it only to discover it has a major glitch. Relatable and engaging, this is a cool STEM-themed story of a middle school girl’s coding project that has unexpected consequences both positive and negative.
Manatee Summer by Evan Griffith
Gentle and poignant, this summer Peter is caretaking his grandpa with Alzheimer’s as well as documenting species in nature with his best friend Tommy. But the summer is filled with loss, not just because his grandfather doesn’t always recognize him but also because Tommy moves and the canal’s manatee gets hurt by a boat. Peter calls a manatee organization that takes the injured creature to a preserve to nurse it back to health. Despite all the loss, we also feel hope in the enduring power of relationships and the gift of helping others, human or animal.
Chirp by Kate Messner
On the surface, this story is about Mia helping to save her grandmother’s cricket farm which is losing money and being sabotaged. But it’s about more than that, it’s about finding out who she is if she’s not able to be a gymnast, facing her fears, and standing up for herself after a coach’s sexual harassment. Readers will be exposed to some important topics like how to define yourself when what you’ve loved is gone and what to do if you feel uncomfortable with a coach’s behavior.
Rules of the Ruff by Heidi Lang
Dog-lovers will love this warm-hearted, realistic story! Jessie is staying with her aunt and newly unfriendly cousin for the summer. She decides to make the best of the situation by helping Wes, the neighborhood dog walker, even though he doesn’t want her help. Wes reluctantly teaches her the “Rules of the Ruff” — rules that help one deal with dogs and, as it turns out, humans. This is especially helpful as the boy she plays soccer with ditches her to go out with a snotty friend of her cousin’s. Then when his mom starts to steal Wes’s dog walking business, Wes and Jessie decide to get revenge, rules or no rules until Jesse realizes that the revenge business doesn’t feel like the right thing to do.
Booked by Kwame Alexander
I’m AMAZED at how skillfully Alexander writes about the teenage human condition — he just gets it! 12-year old Nick struggles with his parent’s separation, a school bully, and the awkwardness of a first crush. The only thing that feels right is soccer. That is, until he gets injured and can’t play. Written in free verse, this is a lyrical, fast-paced story that feels honest and relatable.
The List of Things that Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
Sticks and Stones by Abby Cooper
Now that Elyse is twelve, it’s not just the words that other people say about her that appear on her skin, but also her own self-talk. The words stay about two weeks and the negative words itch badly. Because there are a lot of negative words right now ever since her best friend’s ditched her. Anonymous notes encourage Elyse to try new things and grow out of her comfort zone. She does and is surprised with the positive results including self-acceptance. This would be an interesting book to discuss with a book group!
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
ages 8 – 12
Ghost accidentally gets on a track team and it’s life-changing. His coach becomes a mentor and father figure who pushes Ghost to take responsibility for his mistakes (stealing sneakers) and to start dealing with the ghosts of his past. Well-written and hopeful about growing up and growing into yourself.
Patina by Jason Reynolds
aPatina’s anger sometimes gets the best of her but running helps. She’s mad about her dad dying, her mom’s legs being amputated, and her new school. When her track coach makes Patty work with her teammates in a relay, she’s forced to rely on them. And that changes things. A beautiful coming of age story that will pull at your emotions.
Ride On by Faith Erin Hicks
Norrie loves horses and the low-key stables where she works and rides. She welcomes the new girl, Victoria, who rejects her offer of friendship. What we learn is that Victoria loves horses but after her best friend at Waverly stables wouldn’t let her ride her new horse, Victoria decides no friends means no drama. But the only boy at the stables connects to Victoria about their friend group’s favorite science fiction show, they find common ground, forgiveness, and mutual support. It’s a beautifully knit-together, relatable story of friendship, horses, being yourself, and growing in confidence.
See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng
Luminous and heartfelt, 11-year-old Alex Petroski’s story will grab your heart and expand it. His dream is to launch a rocket into space with his iPod of recordings about life on earth. The story is a transcription of what he records on the iPod — his solo journey to the rocket convention, the interesting people he befriends on the way and there, his trip Las Vegas to find information about his deceased father, and his unique, innocent perspective that tries to make sense of the world.
Always Clementine by Carlie Sorosiak
ages 9 – 12
I highly recommended this book as a family read-aloud choice — it’s a heartfelt story of friendship, adventure, and care for animals that will appeal to many ages and interests. Our narrator, Clementine, is a genius lab rat who is freed by a lab tech and hidden in the mailbox of a former chess champion. Clementine narrates everything that happens in letters to her friend Rosie, a chimpanzee who is still trapped in the lab. She’s found by the chess champion’s grandson, and he and his grandfather vow to keep her safe which is tricky because the lab is hunting her down. Clementine’s voice is compelling and believable. I loved this book so much and didn’t want it to end!
The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla
ages 8 – 12
The Someday Birds is a magnificent story of emotional growth and healing. Charlie’s dad has brain damage from the war. When he’s moved across the country to a different hospital, Charlie and his siblings follow on an adventure that Charlie doesn’t want. But as the kids travel, along with a 20-something girl they hardly know, he searches for the birds he and his father always wanted to see . . . someday. The journey brings Charlie, who has autism, way out of his comfort zone. As it does, he grows in ways he never imagined. And Charlie hopes that if he can see all of the Someday Birds, his dad will get better.
Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
Dog Driven by Terry Lynn Johnson
A story about finding your strength even if it looks like a weakness…McKenna enters a long dog sled race in order to bring awareness to her sister’s degenerative eye disease. Which McKenna can tell she has, too. Her eyesight is worse and worse. She just doesn’t want to tell her parents and be treated differently. During the race, she relies on her lead dog to guide the sled. Another racer, a boy with a blind dog, shows her that his dog is a powerful leader. He quickly notices that’s McKenna can’t see either. The challenges of the race and her new friendship help McKenna realize that just like Zesty the blind dog, she is not disabled and that her differences make her better.
Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes
Izzy’s life was a series of houses, sadness, and secrets – why wouldn’t her mom tell her about her dad who died before she was born? Why did they always move? When Izzy’s mom unexpectedly sends Izzy to her Nana’s in New Mexico, whom she barely knows, Izzy lands in a new culture and discovers her past, present, and future. Just as Izzy learns to make tortillas with practice and patience, she also learns the story of her dad, her mom, and ultimately her own story. The wisdom mixed with grief mixed with love creates a beautiful story — I cried and celebrated. And, cried some more. Cervantes’ writing is lyrical and sensual. See for yourself here.
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand
This is an amazing, beautiful story about facing your feelings, even big, huge depression sadness. It’s also a story that mixes the allegory of an imaginary kingdom named Everwood, a place Finley has written about forever but now finds in the back of her grandparent’s house, with the hope and healing that only pretend play can offer children. This is also a mystery story — what happened to make Finley’s father leave and never return? and why does Finley’s grandma hate the neighbors so much? Some Kind of Happiness is multi-layered, thought-provoking, and exquisite that addresses the big topics of divorce, secrets, and depression.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
ages 9 – 12
This is a beautiful, bittersweet story about Jess who loses his best friend, Leslie, in a tragic accident when going to their favorite pretend kingdom of Teribithia. Jess learns to cope with Leslie’s death with art and running. Well-written and important.
Blended by Sharon Draper
Can You See Me by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott
Attack of the Black Rectangles by A.S. King
Multi-layered and compelling with themes of censorship, family, crushes, and growing up… 6th grade Mac lives in a town that bans Halloween, pizza delivery, bright house colors, and staying out past curfew. At school, his book group notices that certain words and phrases are blacked out in The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. Mac and his friends Denis and Marci find the original book at a local bookstore and are furious that their teacher thinks they can’t handle the words. They talk to the principal, but she does nothing to support them, and their teacher acts smug and self-righteous. Meanwhile, Mac is also dealing with the aftermath of his mentally ill dad’s actions of theft from their house and his granddad. Also, Mac has a crush on Marci– a compelling feminist character. (They eventually go to a dance together but decide they’re not ready to kiss.) Mac compares how he’s feeling to being an office guy — dealing with hard adult things. I enjoyed the story, there’s a lot to discuss!
Santiago’s Road Home by Alexandra Diaz
Sara and the Search for Normal by Wesley King
Smaller Sister by Maggie Edkins Willis
Based on her own experience, this graphic novel story address body image and eating disorders within a family of close-knit sisters. Lucy’s older sister Olivia is diagnosed with anorexia; Lucy watches her parents freak out and Olivia shrink away into a skeleton. No one has time for Olivia because Lucy is getting all the attention. When they move to a new town, Lucy develops an eating disorder, also. I’m not sure if it’s a cautionary tale — but think it would be an important book to discuss especially in terms of the science of what happens to your body and why our culture obsesses about body size. At the end of the story, Olivia and Lucy are recovering and Oliva’s crush turns into a boyfriend — an addition I thought was unnecessary to the plot.
Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley
Summerlost by Ally Condie
This is a dealing with grief, coming-of-age, mystery, and friendship story all in one sweet story. Cedar, her younger brother, and her mom spend the summer after her father and other brother’s death in a small town with a Shakespeare festival. Cedar befriends Leo who helps her get a job at the festival. The duo also starts giving unofficial tours about the town’s most famous resident, an actress who died under mysterious circumstances.
Wish Girl by Nikki Loftin
ages 8 – 12
What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado
Short and fast-paced, this is the story of a boy who learns to think for himself instead of being influenced by friends and how Stephen notices he’s living in a world that treats him differently than his white friends. Stephen concludes that he gets to decide what lane he’s in– not the world or his peers.
The Startup Squad by Brian Weisfeld and Nicole C. Kear
Resa’s class gets put into groups for a lemonade stand competition and Resa gets paired with her best friend, Didi, and a new girl named Amelia. Unfortunately, Resa demands to be in charge of everything and their communication problems affect how their team is doing in the competition. Even though their team doesn’t win, the girls, especially Resa, learn the importance of teamwork and listening to all ideas. It’s a great book for showing kids about entrepreneurship and communication.
Pax by Sara Pennypacker
I almost couldn’t read this story because I was so sad at the beginning when Peter’s newly enlisted father forces Peter to leave Pax, Peter’s fox he’s raised from a kit, in the woods, then drives Peter 300 miles away to his grandfather’s house to live. I mean, talk about heartbreaking! Peter feels just as awful and sets off, on foot, to find his fox. We also read the story from Pax’s point of view who is so confused but hopes his boy will return. Simultaneously Pax is adopted by a leash of foxes who teach him to survive in the wild and Peter is helped by a grumpy war-veteran hermit. Yes, this is a coming-of-age book but it’s also a commentary on war and the power of friendship.
The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner
ages 8 – 12
One of my favorite books of 2016, The Seventh Wish is a magically captivating coming-of-age story filled with friendship and family challenges and . . . wishes. Charlie is struggling with her sister leaving for college and subsequent problems with drug addiction, her parent’s inattention, and trying to make sense out of her life. So when Charlie accidentally catches a wish fish while ice-fishing, she’s sure that the fish will solve all her problems. Only as we might predict, that’s not exactly what happens. This is a wonderful book — great for book clubs and bedtime readings in order to discuss what happens and why.
Peas and Carrots by Tanita S. Davis
ages 8 – 12
This beautiful story will grab your heart! Dess is a survivor who is reunited with her baby brother in his long-term foster home which Dess helped him get after she called social services on her mother. The foster family loves on both kids but their biological daughter Hope struggles between jealousy and compassion for her new sibling. Just as Dess finally starts to trust her foster family, her mother wants her back. (Oh, and interestingly enough, the foster family is black and Dess is white.) There’s way more to the story of course but you should know that it’s a thought-provoking coming-of-age book about family and hard choices.
The Magic Misfits by Neil Patrick Harris and Alec Azam, illustrated by Lissy Marlin and Kyle Hilton
ages 8 – 12
Carter’s had a rough life, even now after he runs away from his crook of an uncle and lands in a New England town. There he encounters unsavory carnival people who remind him of his uncle. At the town’s magic shop, Carter meets a young girl and her fathers who love magic just like him. He and his new kid friends set out to thwart the carnie’s plot to steal the world’s biggest diamond. And maybe in the process, his luck will turn around. Through the book are ciphers, codes, and tricks giving this already delightful story extra oomph.
The Next Great Jane by K.L. Going
ages 8 – 12
Wow, the pacing just clips along in this interesting small-town story filled with science and a passion for writing. Likable Jane lives with her scientist father in a small Maine town and wants to be a writer like Jane Austin. But when her self-centered, actress mom swoops into town asking for custody, Jane gets worried that her life will change for the worse. Meanwhile, a famous writer moves to town with her kids, one of whom becomes Jane’s science partner. It’s a complicated, warm-hearted, and wonderful slice of life story that you won’t want to end.
Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
ages 8 – 12
Raymie Nightingale seems to be a book about friendship and loss but it’s also very much about the big questions of who we are as individuals and why we are here on this earth. “She could feel her soul. It was a tiny little spark somewhere deep inside.” Raymie joins two other girls for baton-twirling classes where no baton instruction happens but friendships develop. The characters are unique and well-developed. This is a beautiful, realistic chapter book and would be perfect for lengthy book club discussions.
Eleven and Holding by Mary Penney
This coming-of-age journey has 11-year-old Macy longing for her father who is reportedly on a secret project for the government. She’s determined to find him and get him to return home. During this time, she and her best friend, Twee help an older woman who has a missing dog. As both plotlines progress, we learn the truth about the dog and her dad who has PTSD and a drinking problem. This is a sad but powerful story about grief, grace, and life.
Forever or a Long, Long Time by Caela Carter
ages 8 – 12
It’s almost impossible for former foster kids, Flora and Julian, to believe their new home is really a forever home. Not when they’ve had so many broken promises in the past. To help them believe and heal, their adopted mom takes them on a journey to their past foster homes for answers and to help them build a strong future. We feel the pain and the trauma as these siblings bravely face their past so they can find their future. Beautiful and haunting.
The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan
ages 8 – 12
The assignment is to write poems that will go in the time capsule when Emerson Elementary is closed. The students have mixed feelings — some are very upset that the school is closing while others aren’t. When the kids learn about protesting, they take their cause to the school board. Not only did I love this story, I really loved that it was written from the students’ unique voices in verse. Shovan does a skillful job writing in each child’s voice so we really get to know each individual. Teachers and parents, you’ll appreciate that the back of the book includes explanations of the different forms of poetry the kids used along with writing prompts.
Checked by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Maurizio Zorat
ages 8 – 12
Katerina Ballerina by Tiler Peck and Kyle Harris, illustrated by Sumiti Collina
ages 8 – 12
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas
ages 8 – 12
Although it may sound like a heavy book, this is a funny, realistic story about growing up and living in a culture that is not your own. It’s the late 1970s and Zomorod (Cindy) and her family are back in the U.S. from Iran –again. She’s desperate to fit in with the other kids but faces both family pressures and anti-Iranian prejudice.
The Baking Life of Amelie Day by Vanessa Curtis
I enjoyed this book so much! The writing flows, the plot is engaging, the characters are fascinating — especially Amelie — and learning about living with Cystic Fibrosis is quite eye-opening. Amelie loves to bake (could you guess from the title?) and she’s made it to the semi-finals of a teen baking contest in New York City. Unfortunately, her health deteriorates (which happens when you have CF) and her mom won’t let Amelie compete. You won’t just love this realistic chapter book but will also want to try the various recipes throughout the book – I love when authors do that.
Liberty Porter, First Daughter by Julia DeVillers –
This is a light-hearted realistic middle-grade series about a girl whose dad becomes the President. We follow along as she adjusts to living in the White House, having a bodyguard, and experiences being the First Daughter.
Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin
Ruby doesn’t want her new and only friend to learn that her mom is in jail. To make matters worse, Ruby thinks that her friend’s family is the reason her mom IS in jail. I found this to be a thoughtful coming-of-age story about a girl who feels like she has two lives — one on the inside and one on the outside — and how she integrates the two. Kids will be able to put themselves into Ruby’s shoes and experience what it would be like if . . .
A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord
When Lily befriends Salma Santiago, a migrant worker’s daughter, Salma gives Lily a new perspective on life — to dream big, to see the possibilities in everything — even for Lily’s blind dog named Lucky. Salma also sees the possibility of winning the local Blueberry Queen pageant for a college scholarship. Lily worries that the community won’t accept someone who isn’t blond and white. This realistic middle-grade novel is a tender story about friendship and growing up.
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
WOW. In a word: powerful. This is middle school at its most intimate and revealing where friends experience the challenges of growing up, from an embarrassing sexting photo mistake to a shameful friend betrayal, and where we see the power of forgiveness and love. Stead asks the question: why are we here in this world? Realistic and relatable.
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
This is one of the BEST books I’ve ever read! I felt deeply connected to the main character, Doug, a boy who is struggling to read with no support from his home life — an abusive dad and older brother and abject poverty. What saves Doug is the connection to a librarian who shows him Audubon’s bird paintings and how to draw. Transformative!
The Looney Experiment by Luke Reynolds
As I read this realistic book, I kept thinking wow– another important life lesson — because they just keep coming. Atticus is bullied, upset at his parents’ separation, and uninspired in school . . . until he meets the language arts substitute, Mr. Looney. Mr. Looney shows Atticus, and his classmates, how to find WHO THEY ARE in the company of characters in a story (specifically To Kill a Mockingbird) and how that transfers to their own lives. I loved Mr. Looney’s character — how he just was present for Atticus without giving advice but facilitating Atticus’ self-discovery. I also loved that the story had a realistic ending.
The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine
If you only read one book this year, make it this one. It’s so powerful and stuck with me for weeks. (Kind of like Erskine’s other book, Mockingbird, another deeply moving book.) The title is the only math concept Mike understands — absolute value — a subject in which Mike’s dad wants Mike to excel. Only Mike hates math and when he gets sent to a small town for the summer with distant relatives, Mike learns is true value.
Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar
After a terrible car accident, Ruthie’s entire body is in a cast. She’s stuck in bed for months, then more months, then over a year with no television (it’s 1960). In a story based on the author’s real life, we see this time of hardship punctuated by a vibrant, caring neighbor, a loving school tutor, and a determined physical therapist. Overall, Ruthie feels grateful that she didn’t die, even on her hardest days but it’s a challenging time, to say the least, one that I personally connected to because of a daughter with a long-term illness.
When Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin
Tear alert! I kind of hated this realistic chapter book at the end because it IS realistic and when I read it I could barely cope with all that the main character went through. SO SAD. You see, Ben has been through hell — foster family, adoption by an amazing woman who dies after a few years, and now a bad new situation with his adopted mother’s sister and her husband. But, he has two things that are good, really good — his rescued dog, Flip, and his favorite librarian’s daughter as a good friend. Until his friend’s cancer gets worse . . . and his uncle punches him in the face . . .The story is gripping, the ending bittersweet, and the writing amazing.
Anne of West Philly by Ivy Noelle Weir, illustrated by Myisha Haynes (ages 10+)
An updated Anne of Green Gables story — with a modern Anne, a foster child in the 8th grade, who moves in with a brother and sister. Anne talks non-stop (which is a bit much for her new foster mom) and occasionally loses her temper. But she’s a smart girl who learns from her mistakes. She loves having a room of her own, a best friend, and soon, a forever family. And she even makes friends with her nemesis, Gilbert, when they work on a robotics team together.
Visit my Recommended Books for Teens list for all realistic fiction choices.
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds
Matt’s recently lost his mom to cancer. When the funeral home director and family friend offers Matt a job, he takes it which is why he wears a black suit on a daily basis. Somehow the job helps, especially when he can sit in the funerals. Seeing other people’s grief makes Matt feel less alone on his own. As Matt struggles to survive, with an absent father and high school challenges, he’s not just supported by his new boss but also meets an inspiring girl named Lovey who opens his eyes to compassion and love.
Home Home by Lisa Allen-Agostini