One of the hardest parts of upper elementary and middle school for many children is finding a kind and supportive group of friends. According to the CDC, this is a time when children start to form stronger, more complex friendships, experience more peer pressure, become more self-conscious of their bodies as they go through puberty, and face more academic challenges in school. When you add in the relentless images bombarding them on social media, this can not only take a toll on their mental health but also lead to situations where they might become the victims of bullying behavior or even turn into the bullies themselves.
The middle grade books below are perfect for addressing the social emotions of the tween and early teen years. They can help to prevent bullying or stop bullying that may be going on. Reading them together with your child or students can give you a starting point to talk about issues they may be facing in their own lives.
Seventeen Books for Middle Grade Readers on Bullying, Self-Esteem, & Self Confidence
Jennifer Chan is Not Alone written by Tae Keller
It is rare to read a novel from the mean girl’s or the bully’s point of view– to be allowed to see her as a complex person and understand the pain and the reasoning behind her actions. Mallory has a lot of anxiety about social situations and fitting in at school. She feels fortunate to be friends with Reagan and Tess, whose popularity protects her. When Jennifer moves in across the street, her personality is so big and her obsession with aliens so unusual that Mallory tries to warn her how to act in their small town. She instinctively knows not to be friendly with Jennifer at school and doesn’t tell Reagan about their summer friendship. Things escalate anyway. After a series of bullying incidents that we learn about as the book flips between past and present, Jennifer has run away. Mallory is consumed with guilt and reaches out to other former friends she has hurt in the hope of being able to find her. This is a real, raw look at the causes and consequences of middle school bullying. Highly recommended for grades 5 & up.
Say It Out Loud written by Allison Varnes
Speaking up is hard for Charlotte. She is extremely self-conscious of her stutter, which gets worse in stressful situations. She will do anything to avoid being made fun of, including ditching her best friend when Maddie takes a stand against a couple of bullies on the bus. Charlotte watches as Maddie is tormented and decides to start writing notes of positive affirmations for people to find. This doesn’t help Maddie at all and does little to assuage Charlotte’s guilt. Can Charlotte find a way to speak up when it matters most? And will Maddie ever forgive her? There is also a nice side story about their musical theater production of The Wizard of Oz and a fight to save the program at their school. Recommended for grades 4 & up.
Restart written by Gordon Korman
What middle schooler wouldn’t like the chance to completely reinvent themselves? For Chase, there is no other option. He has amnesia after falling off the roof of his house and being in a coma for 4 days. The good news is he will make a complete recovery. The bad news is he doesn’t remember anything about his life before. As he starts to put things back together, he makes very different choices than the old Chase would have. As he slowly discovers who he used to be, he realizes that he doesn’t want to be that person anymore. Can he become someone different? Or will he change back when the memories start to return? Recommended for grades 4 & up.
A Place at the Table written by Saadia Faruqi & Laura Shovan
Sixth graders Sara and Elizabeth are both having a hard time with friends at middle school. When they are thrown together in the after-school cooking club, they can’t imagine they would have anything in common. As they got to know each other a little better though, they found not only things in common but a true friendship. Both of their mothers are immigrants (Sara’s mom from Pakistan, Elizabeth’s from England), religion plays a huge part in both of their lives (Sara is Muslim, Elizabeth is Jewish), they both have annoying younger brothers, and they are both having friend issues with Maddy. Will their new friendship survive the turbulence of middle school? Highly recommended for grades 4 and up.
Turtle Boy written by M. Evan Wolkenstein
Will is called Turtle Boy because of his chin, which he hates, but he also loves turtles and has several that he captured in the wild. His receding chin not only makes him self-conscious about his looks but also will require surgery to fix because of the complications it causes with eating and breathing. As he makes his way through middle school, he is withdrawing more and more, like a turtle into his shell. His Bar Mitzvah is approaching and the Rabbi assigns him to visit RJ, a hospitalized, chronically ill teenager. At first, Will hates everything about it, unable to see through his own anxiety. Slowly, though, he begins to open up to RJ and let himself be seen by others again. This was an emotionally powerful novel about the impact of bullying and empathy. Recommended for grades 4 & up.
Falling Short written by Ernesto Cisneros
Isaac and Marco are best friends and also complete opposites. Isaac is excellent at basketball but has trouble focusing in school. Marco is outstanding at school but never has been good at sports. Each one feels that their families would appreciate them more if they were more like the other. The best friend dynamic is really sweet as they each help the other to succeed. They keep their reasons secret from each other, however, which makes sense as middle school boys. A very realistic look at family dynamics and the stress that comes with middle school and trying to change how you are perceived. Recommended for grades 4 & up.
Starfish written by Lisa Fipps
Oh, my heart. As someone who has struggled with weight her whole life, this book just tore me to pieces. Ellie has been bullied about her weight for years, both at school and by her mother. She has come up with her own “Fat Girl Rules” to help minimize the bullying, but they are wearing her down. With the help of her father and a new therapist, she begins to feel at home in her own body. This is an important and life-saving book, beautifully written and impossible to put down. The emotions are so raw and real, expressed in lyrical free verse poems. Hand this to any child who is bullied for the way he or she looks, particularly for being overweight. Highly recommended for grades 4 & up.
Pack of Dorks written by Beth Vrabel
When Lucy’s baby sister is born, she has an unexpected fall from grace. Long one of the most popular kids in her 4th grade class, Lucy is suddenly an outcast for no reason that she can understand. She finds no comfort at home — her parents are too busy taking care of her new baby sister, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. As Lucy tries to find her way out of the friendship disaster, she learns things she did not want to about herself and her so-called friends. A realistic look at the shifting friendships in upper elementary school, with a satisfying conclusion. Recommended for grades 3 and up.
Sticks & Stones written by Abby Cooper
Elyse was born with a rare disorder that causes the words people call her to actually appear on her skin. The nice words (awesome, cool, fun) feel good, but the bad words (loser, stupid, freak) itch horribly. It was fine in elementary school when the teachers could make sure that no one called her mean names. Now that she is in sixth grade, though, she does not have a safety net. Every name she hears about herself, including the ones she despairingly thinks about herself, shows up on her arms and legs. Her best friend ditched her for the popular crowd, her crush dumped her, and Elyse has taken to eating her lunch in the bathroom. She wears long sleeves and long pants so no one else will see what is happening to her.
Everything changes when the competition for Explorer Leader is announced. Big posters are hung of former leaders, each with compliments written all around. Elyse knows that these are the words she wants. If only she could be chosen as Explorer Leader, then all would be right. But there is only one Explorer Leader for the whole sixth grade, and the competition is fierce. Elyse must step out of her comfort zone and believe in herself if she has any chance of making it happen. Luckily, she also has a series of anonymous notes cheering her on. An important book about being kind to yourself and the power of words. Highly recommended for grades 4 & up.
The Astounding Broccoli Boy written by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Rory is the smallest kid in his class, constantly picked on by the others, especially Tommy-Lee. His teachers and classmates blame Rory for the mishaps, refusing to see what is being done to him. When Rory suddenly turns bright green while on a class trip, he is first blamed for it and then whisked away to a hospital isolation ward. He finds none other than Tommy-Lee in the ward and also green. While the doctor tries to figure out what is going on, the two of them sneak out at night. They have decided that the green color gives them superpowers. Their adventures across London are hilarious, as they accidentally bring more chaos to an already stricken city. This witty adventure story is highly recommended for grades 4 & up.
Wolf Hollow written by Lauren Wolk
Annabelle and her two younger brothers live a quiet, happy life on their farm in a small town in Pennsylvania with their parents, grandparents, and aunt. They are mostly untouched by World War II, raging far away from them. Even the man who wanders the hills and rarely speaks seems mostly harmless. But all that changes when Betty comes to stay with her grandparents. Betty is more than just a mean girl — she is vicious and cruel, and she is targeting Annabelle. Annabelle keeps the first attacks to herself. She doesn’t want to involve anyone else, and she truly can’t believe that Betty will do anything worse. But things do get worse. And Betty is a liar as well as a bully. Will anyone believe Annabelle when she has kept silent for so long? And can she stop things from spiraling out of control before it is too late? Highly recommended for grades 5 & up.
Emmy in the Key of Code written by Aimee Lucido
Emmy and her parents have just moved to San Francisco from Wisconsin, and Emmy could not feel more out of place at her new middle school. Both her parents are musicians, but music has never worked for Emmy the way she wanted it to, and she can’t bring herself to chose Orchestra/Choir for her activity period. Instead, she is placed in a coding class, and it is there that she begins to find her true passion. This novel in verse has the requisite friend drama and teacher drama required of all middle school realistic fiction, but it is set on amazing backdrop of coding. Readers will want to try out the coding languages themselves, to see if they can create what Emmy did. Give this to your readers trying to fit in and find themselves, as well as those already leaning towards coding and robotics as an answer. Highly recommended for grades 4 & up.
The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl written by Stacy McAnulty
Lucy was struck by lightning when she was younger, and one of the aftereffects is that she has become a math savant and can do complex calculations in her head. A downside is that she is also dealing with OCD, she must count things and has certain rituals she needs to follow. She keeps it under control while she is going to school online, but when her grandmother decides she should try actual middle school, everything becomes so much harder. Not only does she have to deal with her OCD tics, but there is mean girl drama and a fear of standing out too much. Making friends can be hard under the best of circumstances. Can Lucy learn to make friends in the real world and not just on her math forums? A great story about friendship, math, and dogs. Highly recommended for grades 4 and up.
Farah Rocks Fifth Grade written by Susan Muaddi Darraj
Grown-ups always say that they are against bullying, but what happens when they don’t believe it is actually occurring. Especially when the bully is sneaky and knows exactly how to hide what she is doing? How can Farah protect herself and her younger brother Samir when nobody believes her. A good read with very realistic issues. Recommended for grades 4 & up.
Frizzy written by Claribel A. Ortega
Hair is such a hot-button topic, especially when “neat” and “professional” are code for white. Marlene grows up thinking that she has “bad hair,” and is taken by her mother every Sunday to have it straightened and made “respectable.” Marlene dreads this every week and just wants to enjoy her curls. Luckily, she finds help from her best friend and her aunt, who give her the courage to have the hard conversation with her mother. There is a lot of great information about the issues surrounding Black hair, explained in a kid-friendly way. Highly recommended for grades 3 & up.
Absolutely Almost written by Lisa Graff
Albie doesn’t feel that he is good enough at anything. He just switched to a local public school after being asked to leave the private school he was at through fourth grade. A new school brings new challenges, the hardest of which is making friends and figuring out the social order. They seem to recognize Albie’s learning difficulties, at least, offering him help. And his new babysitter Calista is fantastic and understanding. Albie’s parents continue to disappoint him with their lack of interest in his life, and their unreasonable expectations of who he is. He knows how much he disappoints them, and clearly wishes they would take the time to understand him better. All readers will find something of themselves in Albie, and for the student who relates completely, this book will be a lifeline. Recommended for grades 3 & up.
Call Me Oklahoma! written by Miriam Glassman
Paige is tired of being scared at school. Scared of heights, scared of being on stage, scared of trying new things, and especially scared of Viveca, the meanest girl in her class. In order to become the new fearless fourth grader that she hopes to be, Paige asks everyone to call her Oklahoma at the start of the school. With a brave name like Oklahoma, she figures she can put the Paige of the past behind her. As the school year begins, she finds it much harder to act differently than just changing her name. Readers will cheer for Oklahoma as she struggles to take charge of her life and be the person that she really wants to be. Recommended for grades 3 & up.