Excellent Realistic (Contemporary) Fiction Books for Kids

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Realistic fiction chapter books, middle grade books, and YA books are either relatable to children’s lives or build empathy as readers walk in the shoes of another.
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, these books show 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 books about 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 age 5 to 18.

Book Lists by AGE

Verse Novels

Realistic Fiction Books for Kids

Beginning Chapter Books

Aggie the Brave by Lori Ries, illustrated by Frank Dormer
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 6 – 9
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. I LOVE the diversity, the gutsy main character, and the beautiful design of the entire book.

Here’s Hank: Bookmarks Are People Too! #1
 by Henry Winkler & Lin Oliver
ages 6 – 9
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.

realistic book list for kids
The Year of the by Andrea Chang
ages 7 – 10
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 REal True Friend realistic books for kids
Dory and the Real True Friend
 by Abby Hanlon
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 6 – 9
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.

realistic books for kids
Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence, illustrated by Eliazbet Vukovic
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 7 – 9
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 realistic books for kids
Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest Episode 1: The Quest for Screen Time
by Marti Dumas, illustrated by Marie Muravski
ages 6 – 9
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. Not only is this a fantastic story, but I also love that we see a family with cultural diversity.

Sophie Mouse realistic books
The Adventures of Sophie Mouse A New Friend
 by Poppy Green, illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell
ages 6 – 9
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!

realistic books for kids
Daisy Dawson
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 5 – 8
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
ages 7 – 10
Class pet, Humphrey, is a hamster who travels to a students’ home on the weekends
and has lots of adventures.

Waggit’s Tale 
by Peter Howe (series)
ages 6 – 9
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 you engaged. It’s interesting, emotional, and well-written.

recommended realistic chapter books for kids
Scribbles and Ink Out of the Box
 by Ethan Long
ages 5 – 8
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
ages 7 – 10
Second-grade soccer-loving Lola, 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.
recommended realistic chapter books for kids
Bink & Gollie Best Friends Forever
 by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 6 – 9
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 realistic books
Weekends with Max and His Dad
 by Linda Urban, illustrated by Katie Kath
ages 6 – 8
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

ages 6 – 9
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 recommended realistic chapter books for kids
Stink and the Shark Sleepover
 by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds
ages 6 – 9
I love this realistic story because it’s an exciting adventure as well as it includes a lot of factual information about marine life. 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.

recommended realistic chapter books for kids
Shelter Pet Squad: Jelly Bean
by Cynthia Lord
ages 6 – 9
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.

recommended realistic chapter books for kids
Like Carrot Juice on a Cupcake by Julie Sternberg, illustrated by Matthew Cordell
ages 6 – 9
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 good realistic books
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
ages 7 – 9
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 realistic books for kids
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams
ages 6 – 9
So much more than a 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
ages 6 – 9
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
Little Rhino My New Team
 by Ryan Howard and Krystle Howard
ages 6 – 9
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.

realistic books for kids
Piper Green: Too Much Good Luck
 (book 2) by Ellen Potter, illustrated by Qin Leng
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 7 – 10
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
ages 6 – 9
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.

realistic books for kids
Mouse Scouts: Make a Difference
 by Sarah Dillard
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 6 – 9
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
ages 7 – 10
Illustrated with comics, hilarious, relatable, this book has it all. Awesome.

Amelia Bedelia Unleashed
by Herman Parish, illustrated by Lynne Avril
ages 6 – 9
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
age 6 – 9
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
ages 6 – 9
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!
realistic books
Ellie Engineer
by Jackson Pearce
ages 7 – 9
A well-written adventure 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
ages 6 – 9
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?

Middle-Grade Books, Ages 9 – 12

Cress Watercress
by Gregory Maguire, illustrated by David Litchfield
With delicious figurative language and deliberate word choice, this is a stunningly beautiful story about family, community, and grief. 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. Filled with immensely lovable characters, a gentle storyline of adventure and discovery, and lavish illustrations!

Star in the Forest 
by Laura Resau
ages 8 – 12
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
ages 9 -12
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 and Vivy gets overwhelmed with communication easily?

Dragon Vs. Unicorns: Kate the Chemist
by Dr. Kate Biberdorf with Hillary Homzie
ages 8 – 12
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.

by Rob Harrell
ages 9 – 12
A funny, standout cancer story based on the author’s life for readers who like humorous but emotion-filled stories with a few bad words 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 in order to impress a girl, Ross asks the tech for guitar lessons. Turns out, the guitar and his new music, help Ross both express his frustrations and find his joy, leading to some surprising results — like a new, unexpected friend. (Has a few bad words)
ages 8 – 12
Lucy joins coding club so she can make an app for her uncle to remember his medications. But the class is moving TOO slow. 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
ages 8 – 12
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.

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. 

Boy at the Back of the Class
by Onjali Q Raúf
ages 8 – 12
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. Showing the power of individuals to make a difference, this moving gem of a novel ultimately is about human kindness and friendship. It will be an essential addition to your homes, classrooms, and libraries.

The Fort
by Gordon Korman (his 100th book!)
Tension-filled, disturbing, and powerful, this story 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. The story feels raw and important — and is a discussion-worthy novel for middle school students.

by Jennifer Ziegler
ages 8 – 12
Worser is floundering after his mom’s stroke left her unable to talk and his exuberant artsy aunt is taking care of them. He still finds solace in words and grammar but it’s not the same without his mom. Worser invites the Literary Club, run by a girl he has a crush on, to meet at the used bookstore. Slowly, he 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.
best realistic chapter books for middle grade readers
Louisiana’s Way Home
by Kate DiCamillo
ages 8 – 12
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.

by Celia C. Pérez
ages 9 – 12
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 those hopes are slowly are dashed when her bio dad, Manny, consistently drops her off with his family and leaves. Adela loves getting to know her extended family, especially her twin cousins, — but wishes Manny would want to spend time with her. Adela must figure out what it means to have Manny in her life, or not.

Honestly Elliott
by Gillian McDunn
ages 9 – 12
Elliott’s shuttling between his dad and mom’s houses. He’s often overwhelmed with emotions, particularly anger and sadness since his parent’s divorce and his stepmom’s pregnancy, not to mention that his ADHD makes it hard to focus. Also, his dad’s constant criticisms aren’t helping either. (I really disliked the dad for most of this story.) Worst of all, his dad won’t let Elliot do his favorite thing– cook. For a buy-local school project, Elliot pairs up with a girl who has Celiac disease. Not only do they become good friends but Elliott’s rigid black-and-white thinking softens as he opens to different perspectives, including his new friend’s. I love how the author normalizes therapy, ADHD, and Celiac disease and gives the characters great arcs. (The dad comes around and Elliott grows into new ways of seeing the world.)

No Fixed Address
by Susin Nielsen
ages 9 – 12
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
ages 8 – 12
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 along with growing up and grieving the loss of a father. Jingwen’s observations and wit make him a likable main character and the illustrations capture the depth and flavors of his experiences. He likens learning English to becoming human. 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 the occasional bad word but feels appropriate in the context.)

Pippa Park Raises Her Game
by Erin Yun
ages 9 – 13
Korean American Pippa uses the new school to reinvent herself, hiding her background from the popular kids (not wealthy, from a rival middle school.) While she’s figuring out who she is, she is mean to her best friend. Little does she know that someone is watching and documenting it all, sending her threatening emails, then publishing the truth for the entire school to see. In a satisfying ending with valuable life lessons, Pippa decides to not 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
ages 9 – 12
On her 12th birthday, Zoe, a girl who loves to bake, discovers a letter to her from her incarcerated biological father, Marcus. She decides to write him back, even daring to ask him about the murder he’s in jail for — did he really do it? Marcus writes to Zoe that he’s innocent and he can prove it which sets Zoe on a quest to find out the truth for herself, even if her mom and dad forbid it. She 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.

by Varsha Bajaj
ages 9 – 12
Set in Mumbi, this is a deftly narrated, hope-filled story of the inequities around water 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.

The Kaya Girl
by Mamle Wolo
ages 9 – 12
A thoughtful novel about a friendship that crosses regions, languages, income levels, and education–despite the stigmas and prejudices. Abena, from a rich southern family in Ghana, is spending the summer with her auntie to help at her auntie’s market store. There, Abena meets Faiza, a Muslim girl from northern Ghana who works as a kayayoo– a girl who uses a large head pan to carry shopping for customers. The two girls immediately become friends, and Abena’s eyes are opened to the differences in their lives and her own privileges. But when someone accuses Faiza of stealing, and Abena gets malaria, they are torn apart until fifteen years later in a beautiful full-circle moment.

Flipping Forward Twisting Backwards
  by Alma Fullerton
ages 9 – 12
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 gets sent often 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. I love that Claire is a fully developed character with efficacy who shows readers (and her mom) that having a learning disability doesn’t mean you’re not smart; it means your brain learns differently.

Jacky Ha-Ha
by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
age 8 – 12
Jacky stutters badly so to make life easier, she just makes a joke . . . about everything. Now at age 12, she’s started 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 — and that 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
ages 9 – 12
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
ages 9 – 12
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. As they do, it helps Frankie accept herself and forgive Colette and her sister. 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
ages 9 – 12
Arief, family, poverty, poetry, the power of writing, and friendship — this is beautiful story will capture your heart with its struggling, heroic main character. 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.

Swag is in the Socks
by Kelly J. Baptist
ages 9. -12
12-year-old Xavier hates speaking because of his stutter, he’d much prefer to play video games and hang out in his room at home. But, he wants to join Septer League just like his (incarcerated) father, great uncle, and grandfather. He’s surprised when Great Uncle Frankie Bell’s gift of crazy socks change everything. The socks give Xavier an opportunity to be a leader in a way he never expected. That plus speech therapy and we watch as he blossoms with confidence.
excellent realistic chapter books for kids
by Raina Telgemeier
ages 8 – 12
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.
recommended realistic fiction books for kids
by Katherine Applegate
ages 8 – 12
A wise old oak tree named Red narrates this beautiful story. He, after all these years, decides to intervene to help a lonely girl named Samar who is new to the neighborhood and whose family was the intended recipient of the word, “LEAVE” on Red’s trunk. Red’s called the Wishtree because every year, people write down their wishes and hang them on his branches. Now, before he is cut down (executed), he speaks to Samar to help her find a friend.

I Can Make This Promise
by Christine Day
ages 9 – 12
The author skillfully weaves an important, heartfelt story about growing up, family, and finding your identity in the context of adoption, 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. The truth opens her eyes (and ours) to the unjust but common practices that happened throughout U.S. history of taking Native kids away from their birth parents; parents whose only crime was being Native.

Smile, Drama, Sisters
  by Raina Telgemeier
ages 8 – 12
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
ages 9 – 12
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.
realistic chapter book list for kids
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus
by Dusti Bowling
ages 8 – 12
Aven Green is used to making up creative stories about why she doesn’t have any arms. Especially now in Arizona where her parents are the new managers 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. This story is about restorative friendship, facing your fears, and discovering your true (significant) potential.  I loved the physical and mental diversity shown with so much strength and compassion. This would be a GREAT read aloud for classrooms and for at home. There’s much to love and discuss!! (Added to my Physical Disabilities Book List.)

by Gordon Korman
ages 8 – 12
Funny, sensitive, well-written, brilliantly paced, relatable, and poignant. 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 does not care at all about teaching. Or disciplining. Or his students. them. As we get to know the kids in this 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. As things get more complicated, like Mr. Kermit getting notice that he will be fired, we see that the class’s unexpected mechanic field trips are transforming both the students and Mr. Kermit who begins to see the potential in each child. This is reciprocated, too. Because the students have a plan for saving their teacher’s job.

Emmy in the Key of Code
by Aimee Lucido
ages 8 – 12
This is an exquisite book that celebrates music, STEM, making friends, and growing into yourself. Emmy’s eager to start a new school and make friends but she’s thwarted by rudeness at every turn. A girl in her programming class named Abigail is friendly but only during class. Which makes Emmy feel both good for that little attention but angry at being kept a secret. As Emmy’s family adjusts to San Francisco, Emmy figures out her place in the world, especially as it relates to her growing love for 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
ages 10 – 13
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
ages 9 – 12
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 who, unlike her older sister with all-black friends, has a diverse friend group she calls The United Nations. When a jury finds a cop innocent in the shooting death of a black boy, despite a video showing the boy walking away, 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. Shayla explains to her classmates that black lives have been and are still being marginalized and treated differently than what is right, fair, or equal.

Each Tiny Spark
by Pablo Cartaya
ages 8 – 12
Each Tiny Spark is one of the best books about learning differences that I’ve ever read that also tackles 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. When he invites Emilia to work on a vintage car, teaching Emilia to weld, it helps rebuild their relationship, too.

For Black Girls Like Me
by Mariama J. Lockington
ages 9 – 12
Just like the author’s own experience as an adoptee, it’s hard for Makeda to be a black adopted girl in a white family whom she loves but where she feels like she doesn’t fit– or is even seen. 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. (Adults will recognize the signs of bipolar disorder.) 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.

by Raina Telgemeier
ages 8 – 12
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.

by Alyson Gerber
ages 8 – 12
Clea is a chess-loving girl who gets distracted easily (except when she hyper-focused on chess) and it’s becoming a problem, especially in school but also with friends. She’s resistant to do the testing her parents want, refusing to believe 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. It is exactly like what my oldest daughter who has ADHD tell me it’s like with thoughts bouncing all over the place. Important and insightful.

Clean Getaway
by Nic Stone
ages 9 – 12
Sometimes growing up means seeing the difficult truth about someone you love…Scoob takes a spontaneous road trip with his beloved G’ma in her new camper, escaping his dad’s spring break punishment. As they visit places from his G’ma’s past, their trip turns out differently than he expects. What begins as only a fun adventure turns into a revelation of current and historical racial prejudices (Scoob is black and his grandmother is white). What’s more, things become strange and confusing as Scoob notices more weird behaviors from G’ma. Was she trying to steal jewelry in the store? And why are there stacks of cash hidden in the camper? Perfect pacing, an intriguing plot, and memorable characters make this a top pick for middle-grade #ownvoices.

Song for a Whale
by Lynne Kelly
ages 9 – 12

Iris is a lonely Deaf girl who learns about Blue 55, a whale who is called 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. Even though she sends the song to the research station tracking Blue 55, Iris wants to see him for herself. She and her grandmother, who is also Deaf, sneak off without Iris’ parents’ permission on a cruise to the Alaskan research station. Their adventure is different than either could have imagined but profoundly life-changing for them both. 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
ages 9 – 12
This meaningful story will tug at your heartstrings. It’s narrated by Ellie a girl who loves to bake, who has CP, cerebral palsy, and who rolls through life in a wheelchair. She hates having an aid at school who’s supposed to help her with everything, even going to the bathroom. 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. I appreciate that the author skillfully shows readers that kids in wheelchairs are just like everyone else only with different challenges such as things like accessibility (where your chair can go) and getting dressed.
The Crossover realistic books
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
ages 9 – 12
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.
realistic books for kids
Extraordinary Birds
by Sandy Stark-McGinnis
ages 9 – 12
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.
realistic fiction books for kids
Planet Earth is Blue
by Nicole Panteleakos
ages 9 – 12
Nova is autistic and nonverbal, in this story 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. (ADDED TO Children’s Books with Autistic Characters.)

Black Brother Black Brother
by Jewell Parker Rhodes
ages 8 – 12
Twins with very different skin colors, one whiter and one darker, are treated differently, most noticeable at their school. 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.

The Bridge Home
by Padma Venkatraman
ages 9 – 12
Set in India, Viji writes this story as letters to you, her little sister Rukku who has intellectual disabilities. She recalls how the two of them ran 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 Viji learns how much more capable her sister is than she previously thought. Unfortunately, Rukku gets a terrible cough and fever and what happens next will almost destroy Viji. She wonders how prayers and faith can coexist with misery and pain. Ultimately, it is the kindness of her new family that helps her see more in the future than misery. 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.

Caterpillar Summer
by Gillian McDunn
ages 8 – 12
McDunn beautifully weaves an emotion-filled, coming-of-age story with a strong female main character named Cat who you will adore. Cat is a protective big sister for her special-needs brother who often has meltdowns and runs away but she’s ready to be more — she’s ready to have her own life and for her mom to see that. Cat finds the opportunity when her children’s book author-illustrator mom leaves she 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 can enter the local kids fishing contest. It’s an absolutely lovely story that addresses growing up, race, special needs, family, and reconciliation.

Pay Attention, Carter Jones
by Gary D. Schmidt
ages 9 – 12
When his grandfather’s butler arrives to help out 6th grade Carter’s family, Butler immediately becomes a big asset to the family. Butler, a very proper man who has a passion for the game of Cricket, fills a void the family didn’t know they had. He gives Carter purpose, structure, belonging. “Make good decisions and remember who you are,” he often reminds Carter and Carter’s sisters. This wisdom resonates as Carter tries to understand why his dad abandoned their family. Butler helps Carter see that his dad’s actions are his dad’s responsibility, not Carter’s. Through this time of introspection, Butler teaches Carter the game of cricket even starting a cricket team at Carter’s school, transforming not just Carter’s life but the school community’s as well. Along this journey, Carter learns to do just what the title commands — pay attention to his life and to who loves him.

best realistic chapter books for middle grade readers
The Benefits of Being an Octopus
by Ann Braden
ages 9 – 12
This is a well-written story with an emotional poignancy about poverty and unhealthy relationships. Zoey is trying to stay hidden to survive her life but it’s not easy. She and her siblings are 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. That conversation changes everything for their family for the better… (Added to Books That Facilitate Empathy: Poverty)

Twin Cities
by Jose Pimienta (GRAPHIC NOVEL)
ages 9 – 12
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. The story is interesting with appealing brightly colored artwork.

best realistic chapter books for middle grade readers
Harbor Me
by Jacqueline Woodson
ages 9 – 12
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. This well-written story deserves to be discussed as it has a wealth of ideas to ponder.

New From Here
 by Kelly Yang
ages 9 – 12
When the coronavirus hits Asia, Knox’s mother brings him and his two siblings to California and safety, leaving his dad behind for his work in Hong Kong. In California, Knox struggles with ADHD and adjusting to a new school. He befriends another kid whose restaurant-owning parents are facing racism and declining customers. Money is tight after his mom loses her job, too. Good writing with a lot of dialogue that shows the sibling, parent, and other relationships, read this if you want a slice-of-life story about a close-knit family’s experience during the quarantine with Asian-directed racism.

If You Read This
by Kereen Getten
agesg 9 – 12
When Brie turns twelve, she receives a special and surprising gift– letters from her beautiful, loud, and deceased mother that send her on a search for a secret door. The letters help her reconnect with her distant father and find comfort and solace in her grief. It’s a compelling, heartfelt novel of grief and healing.

Beast Rider
by Tony Johnston and Maria Elena Fontanot de Rhoads
ages 9 – 12
An eye-opening, powerful story of growing up, immigration, and courage. Missing his older brother, 12-year-old Manuel decides to leave his family’s farm in Mexico for the United States. He hitches a ride ON TOP of a north-bound speedy freight train and begins a long, awful, and beautiful journey.
best realistic chapter books for middle grade readers
Elephant Secret
by Eric Walters
ages 8 – 12
You’ll zip through this lovely story about a girl named Sam who lives on 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 she and her father to leave the sanctuary. As she deals with this, Sam must also come to terms with her father’s long-term girlfriend. It’s a great story that will keep animal lovers enthralled with new knowledge about elephants and their behavior.

Falling Short
 by Ernesto Cisneros
Neighbors and best friends, Marco and Issac, head to middle school where their differences — one is short and academic, the other is tall and sporty, don’t affect their loyalty to each other. They also have in common absent dads except at least Issac’s dad wants to be part of Issac’s life — if he’s not drinking. Issac’s new basketball friends mistakenly think Marco is as good as Issac at basketball and encourage Marco to try out for the team. Marco quickly watches videos and practices with Issac but he’s a terrible player who can’t dribble or shoot. In the end, a high-stakes basketball game and bad car accident show these friends, and their teammates, that friendship matters most of all.

realistic chapter book list for kids
Science of Breakable Things
by Tae Keller
ages 9 – 12
Whoa. This children’s middle-grade book touched my heart so deeply. 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, not an exact science. It’s a beautiful, well-done story and a compassionate look at depression. (Added to Mental Illness in Children’s Books.)

Greetings From Witness Protection
by Jake Burt
ages 8 – 12
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.
realistic book list for kids to read
Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard
ages 8 – 12
Jackie’s story is so emotionally rich, you’ll feel her angst, anger, and confusion as if it were you experiencing it yourself. Her 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 really makes a family. It will rip you up and put you back together.

House Arrest
by K.A. Holt (VERSE)
ages 9+
You’ll feel so many emotions reading this tender, heartwarming story that shows a brave boy who feels anger, fear, worry, and love over his challenging situation. Timothy is under house arrest for the next year, living with a brother who needs constant medical care, and feeling so much pain over his big life changes. 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 best books for 10 year olds 5th grade
 by Edward Bloor
ages 8 – 12
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!!

by Jeanne Birdsall
ages 8 – 12
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
ages 8 – 12
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. Even if it means entering the town’s poultry show. Unusual Chickens has exceptional writing, characterization, and plot!

All Four Stars
 by Tara Dairman
ages 8 – 12
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?

The Seventh Most Important Thing: One Kid. One Crime. One Chance to Make Things Right.
 by Shelley Pearsall
ages 8 – 12
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.

Roller Girl
 by Victoria Jamieson
ages 8 – 12
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.

by Svetlana Chmakova
ages 8 – 12
My daughter found this 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
ages 9 – 12
Katie’s a bit different than other kids being homeschooled with crooked teeth and red hair but she knows that doesn’t matter because she has a best friend forever named Kacey. Until they start camp and Katie makes a new friend and Kacey gets jealous. But what’s even harder is the secret Katie’s hiding from everyone — she’s having buzzing thoughts that tell her to do repetitive things and they’re getting worse. During the next school year, Katie and Kacey’s friendship deteriorates even more because Katie continues to make new friends and try new things like theater. Eventually, Katie tells her parents about the buzzing and they get her help for what she learns are obsessive-compulsive thoughts. I love this story– the author (and illustrator) skillfully show realistic friendship changes and the challenges of a mental health issue. 

The Summer of June
by Jamie Sumner
ages 9 – 12
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– no chance of pulling it out. She spends her summer days at the library with her youth librarian mother. She meets a boy named Homer who shares his love of poetry with her and they gradually become friends but she hasn’t told him the truth about her anxiety.  Her mom is her biggest supporter (she shaved her head in solidarity), her therapist’s gentle and firm 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
ages 8 – 12
Narrated by one gorilla named Ivan, this story will immediately grab your heart — it’s sad but keep reading, it’s an amazing story – and I don’t usually like animal stories. 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
ages 8 – 12
Bob is living in a home with his friend who adopted him after the mall zoo closed but he’s restless and insecure, believing he has nothing inside to match his outside bravado; that he’s a fraud. Once we get into the meat of the story, it’s absolutely captivating…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
ages 8 – 12
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
ages 8 – 12
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.

 by Katherine Applegate
ages 8 – 12
After losing their home and living in their van for 3 months, the family is now 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 this big fear and hard situation alone. Oh, and who is Crenshaw? He’s Jackson’s large, imaginary cat friend from when he was little returned to help Jackson in his time of need. I felt like it was a God metaphor. I wonder what you’ll think?

Wonder by R.J. Palacio best realistic books
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
ages 8 – 12
Both “a meditation on kindness” and not judging people by how they look on the outside, but by their character. “I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks.”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 Kicks Hat Trick review
The Kicks Hat Trick
 by Alex Morgan
ages 8 – 12
Finally, a fantastic sports-related book (series) for soccer girls! If you have a soccer player in your house, and I think a LOT of you do, you’ll want to get your soccer lover this book –actually, buy her the entire series. 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.

realistic middle grade fiction
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Perez
ages 8 – 12
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 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 Latin-flavored 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.
good realistic books for kids
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street
by Karina Yan Glaser
ages 8 – 12
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.

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook
All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook
 by Leslie Connor
ages 8 – 12
This book hooked me from the first page, taking me on a coming-of-age story that was 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 be helpful in reuniting him with his mother. This story will stay with you long after you read the last page.

Rain Rising
by Courtne Comrie
agest 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 always has taken good care of her; he helps her on her saddest days, especially after their dad left and their mom is gone at work most of the time. 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 and heartbreaking and heart-putting back together, I literally couldn’t put this novel in verse down for one second!

realistic chapter books
All’s Faire in Middle School
 by Victoria Jamieson
ages 8 – 12
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.
realistic books for kids
by Justin Sayre
ages 8 – 12
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.
Orbiting Jupiter
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
ages 10+
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.

All the Impossible Things
by Lindsay Lackey
ages 9 – 12
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.

Gaby, Lost and Found
 by Angela Cervantes
ages 8 – 12
I picked this realistic middle-grade book because of the cat pictured on the front cover — and found it to be absolutely 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.

Manatee Summer
by Evan Griffith
ages 8 – 12
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. 

by Kate Messner
ages 9 – 12
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.
good realistic books for elementary school and middle school
by Tamara Ireland Stone
ages 8 – 12
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.

Rules of the Ruff
by Heidi Lang
ages 8 – 12
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.

realistic chapter book list
by Kwame Alexander
ages 8 – 12
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
ages 8 – 12
This story is a beautifully written slice-of-life, a growing-up story with authentic characters and relatable themes of family and big life changes. When Bea’s parents get divorced, her dad helps her focus on the things that won’t change — like her parents’ love for her — even though many other things will and do change. To help her feel safe, Bea keeps a list of things that WON’T change in a special journal. (Which, by the way, is a great idea!) When she learns that her dad and his boyfriend are getting married and that she’ll get a new sister, she’s excited. But her new stepsister isn’t excited to be sisters, not at all, at least not right away. It’s a bumpy journey that shows the ups and downs of divorce and changes as well as how much easier it is when you have loving parents.

realistic chapter book list
Sticks and Stones
by Abby Cooper
ages 8 – 12
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!

realistic chapter book list
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.
book list realistic fiction for kids
by Jason Reynolds
ages 8 – 12
Patina’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
ages 8 – 12
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.
realistic books for elementary and middle school kids
See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng
ages 8 – 12
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!
realistic books for elementary and middle school kids
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
ages 8.- 12
Marcus is an entrepreneurial kid who makes the most of his intimidating size. He’s also very protective of his brother with Down syndrome who faces prejudice at school. When Marcus gets suspended, his mother takes the brothers to Puerto Rico, the home country of their father who abandoned them years before. Even though they are only meant to visit relatives, Marcus hopes to find his father and reconnect. Instead, he finds a loving, extended family, the truth about his dad, and a growing sense of his own identity. Remarkable. I loved every moment of this story.

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.

good books for 10 year old 5th grade
Tortilla Sun
by Jennifer Cervantes
ages 8 – 12
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 Meaningful Realistic Chapter Books
Some Kind of Happiness
by Claire Legrand
ages 8 – 12
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 realistic
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.

by Sharon Draper
ages 8 – 12
Isabella spends one week with her dad and his girlfriend, the next week with her mom and her boyfriend. She hates it. She really hates exchange day when she switches. She feels like nowhere is home, she’s always visiting. And her parents, one who is white and one who is black, don’t get along. Tensions between the families get worse when both parents decide to remarry — on the same date. Add to this hurtful race issues like when she and her stepbrother are pulled over because of he’s black and in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sharon Draper writes a story that captures Isabella’s feelings of division as she searches for who she is in her own story.

Can You See Me
by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westcott
ages 8 – 12
Co-written by Libby Scott who is a girl on the autism spectrum (
#ownvoices) and based on her journals, this poignant, exceptional story shows what it’s like to be autistic...But it also shows how difficult it really is for family and friends to understand, too. Tally’s behavior reflects her brain trying to navigate the world and it is challenging for others, even when they try hard to understand. Tally relates to 3 legged dog who doesn’t like new people. She takes everything literally, has trouble (big trouble!!) with mandates, feelings, and friendships. Eventually, Tally learns to find her own version of “normal”, a word that comes up a lot in this book. Please read this #ownvoices story that so deftly shows what autism can be like. It’s a story that will help those of us who aren’t on the spectrum, have more empathy and compassion.

Attack of the Black Rectangles
by A.S. King
ages 10+
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
ages 9 – 12
Santiago is thrown out of his cruel tia’s home in rural Mexico with nowhere to go except back to an even worse grandmother. But, Santiago unexpectedly meets a kind woman and her daughter who let him join with on their journey to el Norte. Santiago is a keen survivor and helps them find a trustworthy coyote but their group is attacked and must find the route without their coyote’s help. The heat and lack of water almost kill them, he and his adopted little sister are rescued half dead and taken to an internment camp where they’re separated. He learns that his sister is reunited with her mom but without papers or any way to prove he’s related to them, he’s confined for endless, hopeless days with guards who treat him like a criminal. He learns to read until the school funding is cut. Will Santiago get a happy ending? This book is amazing — unflinchingly honest about the situation of illegal immigrants with a heroic main character who you’ll love.

The Space Between Lost and Found
by Sandy Stark-McGinnis
ages 8 – 12
A story about the long process of saying goodbye. Cassie’s mom suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s. In a survival response, Cassie pushes away her best friend Bailey and isolates herself, not even doing her art. As her Mom becomes more unpredictable like smashing things in anger, forgetting names, or refusing to budge from places, Cassie feels more sad and lonely. Then she has an idea…her mom loves dolphins so what if Cassie could take her to swim with the dolphins before her mom is completely lost to the disease? Beautiful, heartbreaking, and filled with emotion, this is a story worth reading.

Sara and the Search for Normal
by Wesley King
ages 9 – 12
Sara wants to be cured of her mental illnesses and be “normal” like other kids so she makes rules for herself. Among other diagnoses, Sara is bipolar for which she blames herself. She hates her out-of-control brain and feels like nobody can help. Meanwhile, she begins group therapy where she makes a friend; a friend who is covered in hidden bruises. Sara and Erin think of themselves as Star Children, kids alien DNA. It’s profoundly sad to witness Sara’s self-loathing yet her still hoping for a better tomorrow. Sara begins to realize she wants to change her inner dialogue and accept herself. For readers, it’s a valuable opportunity to peek inside Sara’s mind and see how painful it is to have an invisible disease. It won’t make you think like her but will give you compassion.

Smaller Sister
by Maggie Edkins Willis

ages 10+
Based on her own experience, this graphic novel story address body image and eating disorders within a family of close-knit sisters.
Lucy already hated how distant her sister Lucy became when they stopped sharing a bedroom. When her 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 makes friends and has classmates who constantly talk about who is fat or has a pooch (Olivia does) and these girls obsess about size all the time. Soon, Olivia 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
ages 9 – 12
Heartbreakingly sad, this is a beautiful story of misfit friends set in the 1980s.
Both are lost and emotionally abandoned children who become friends when the boy moves to the neighborhood. June Bug’s mom suffers from severe mental disorders including fear of germs since June Bug’s dad died of AIDS. She doesn’t get out of bed, she doesn’t cook, and she’s obsessive about cleanliness. When Ziggy gets dropped off at Grandma’s house because his mom doesn’t want to raise him or see him, he and June Bug become friends and try to survive their lives as well as the bullies in the neighborhood. They show us the power of imagination but their experiences seem so real that at one point, I wondered if the kids were descending into psychosis. Meanwhile, June Bug is starving — there’s no food in the house. She takes care of herself as best she can but she’s scared to tell the truth to anyone. Ziggy’s Nana Jean offers June Bug love, food, and safety. It’s a story that will stay with you and make you feel deeply connected to these survivor kids.

Summerlost Meaningful Realistic Chapter Books for Ages 8 - 12
by Ally Condie
ages 8 – 12
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
Peter escapes his yelling, hurting family by wandering around the Texas Hill Country. He meets and befriends a Make-a-Wish Girl named Annie, who is also escaping her daily reality of a (stupid) art camp and a cancer treatment she doesn’t want. To avoid the unwanted surgery, the pair run away to the magical valley they know will protect them. This is so well-written! The characters are realistic with dysfunctional family dynamics, an important friendship, despair, and hope — it hooked me from the first page. Amazing!

What Lane?
by Torrey Maldonado
ages 8 – 12
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
ages 8 – 12
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.

 by Sara Pennypacker
ages 8 – 12
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.

realistic chapter books for kids
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.

Ramie Nightingale realistic chapter books for kids
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 Meaningful Realistic Chapter Books for Ages 8 - 12 middle grade
Eleven and Holding
by Mary Penney
ages 8 – 12
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.

realistic books for kids
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. This is a quick read with some interesting topics to discuss.

realistic book list
by Cynthia Kadohata, illustrated by Maurizio Zorat
ages 8 – 12
Checked is a slice-of-life story about a boy who lives for hockey but worries about his sick dog, his policeman single dad, and money. While it did surprise me that there wasn’t a major conflict, the atmospheric snapshot of the boy’s life felt authentic and held my interest.

Katerina Ballerina
by Tiler Peck and Kyle Harris, illustrated by Sumiti Collina
ages 8 – 12
An earnest young girl loves ballet but since her dad can’t afford lessons, she watches YouTube videos and practices in her room. After a disastrous talent shows Katerina’s dad her bravery, Katrina’s dad stretches the budget for lessons. It’s not a great start though– she shows up in a red swimming suit and homemade tutu! But she makes a friend who helps her learn ballet terms and adjust to formal classes. As Katrina becomes more serious in her dancing, a competition reminds Katrina that she needs to balance both working hard and enjoying dancing.

It Ain't So Awful, Falafel realistic books middle grade
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.

Baking Life of Amelie Day review recommended books for 6th grade 11 years old
The Baking Life of Amelie Day
 by Vanessa Curtis
ages 8 – 12
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 –
ages 8 – 12
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.

good realistic middle grade books
Ruby on the Outside
by Nora Raleigh Baskin
ages 8 – 12
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 . . .

realistic books for kids
A Handful of Stars
 by Cynthia Lord
ages 8 – 12
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 realistic books
Goodbye Stranger
 by Rebecca Stead
ages 10 – 13
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
ages 8 – 12
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
ages 8 – 12
As I read this realistic chapter 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.

realistic books for kids
The Absolute Value of Mike by Kathryn Erskine
ages 8 – 12
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.

realistic books elementary middle school
Lucky Broken Girl
by Ruth Behar
ages 8 – 12
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.

Painful, Hopeful Growing Up Stories: New Realistic Fiction
When Friendship Followed Me Home
 by Paul Griffin
ages 8 – 12
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.

Young Adult

Visit my Recommended Books for Teens list for all realistic fiction choices.

The Serpent King realistic books for kids
The Serpent King
 by Jeff Zentner
ages 13+
This is a stunning, twist-you-heart-inside-out, beautiful coming-of-age story of three friends who are all outcasts in their small, narrow-minded town. It’s about learning to accept your past, present, and future, not letting your circumstances (including your parents) define you, and finding hope in the midst of difficulty. I HIGHLY recommend you race to the bookstore or library and get this book — it’s a book that will linger with you.
realistic chapter book list
The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds
ages 12+
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
ages 13+
Kayla’s moved from Trinidad to Canada with her aunt after a depressive episode and suicide attempt. She’s experiencing debilitating anxiety and self-loathing, making trips to the mall or a restaurant almost impossible. Her aunt and her aunt’s girlfriend are very understanding and patient which makes a huge difference in Kayla’s recovery. In therapy and her journal, she writes about the difficult relationship she has with her mother who wants her to be smart and pretty, not sick. It also helps when she befriends a good-natured boy named Josh who understands depression. His understanding along with her aunts’ acceptance helps Kayla come to terms with her illness. Her story feels honest, relatable, and important.
the best chapter and middle grade books about real life (realistic books)
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