One of the best things about reading realistic fiction is that you don’t have to always experience something to experience it. In other words, you can experience poverty, death, heartbreak, loneliness through the characters. In fact, it creates empathy to have experienced these things in literature. It creates compassion.
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” – William Styron
Today’s selection of realistic books will transport you into the lives of memorable characters; lives with depth and pain and hope and joy. I hope you find them as meaningful as I do. I hope your kids find the experiences as memorable as I did.
And, if you don’t know how your kids will like the books, read some of it out loud first. A chapter or two will do. See what hooks them. Sometimes the more powerful books are better read with someone else — then you can talk about them!
“There are certain emotions in your body that not even your best friend can sympathize with, but you will find the right film or the right book, and it will understand you.” – Bjork
Realistic Fiction Books That Develop Empathy
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate REALISTIC ages 8 – 12
Crenshaw is the new book from the author of The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate, and it’s another amazing story dealing with poverty. I read this book after my 10-year old who loved it as much as me. After having lost 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 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?
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt REALISTIC ages 13+
Oh my gosh, this book is so amazing!!! (I knew it would be because Schmidt is such a talented author who writes deeply meaningful stories.) It’s the story of an abused boy, Joseph, who is taken away from his violent father. He lives as a foster kid with Jack’s family on their organic farm. As he learns to trust Jack’s family, we learn about his love for a girl named Maddie. And we learn about Jupiter, their child that Maddie delivered ending her life and who Jack wants to see more than anything. This is a painful story but one with redemption and hope. I really loved it and highly recommend it!
Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin REALISTIC 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 . . .
A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord REALISTIC 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 novel is a tender story about friendship and growing up.
Extraordinary by Miriam Spitzer Franklin REALISTIC ages 8 – 12
Pansy needs redemption. Last year, when her best friend needed her, Pansy didn’t keep her word. Now that her best friend is in a wheelchair and her brain isn’t working, Pansy decides that she will make it up to her. She’ll be brave and do everything. She links her actions to Anna’s recovery, not realizing that Anna is permanently brain damaged. This is a deeply moving story of loss and acceptance.
The Wrong Side of Right by Jenn Marie Thorne REALISTIC ages 14+
This was an very interesting story about an orphaned girl who finds out that her previously unknown dad is actually a married senator running for the office of President. In a whirlwind of events, she’s taken on the campaign trail with his “real” family, all the while trying to grieve her mother’s death and learn if she’s just a prop to her dad, or if he really cares.
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson REALISTIC / GRAPHIC NOVEL
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 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.
The Seventh Most Important Thing: One Kid. One Crime. One Chance to Make Things Right. by Shelley Pearsall REALISTIC 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.
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