We read books for a lot of different reasons; to escape to another world, to learn something new, to be entertained, to invoke emotion. Children read books for the same reasons. I had a middle school patron ask me recently, "I want to read something that makes me sad. I want to cry." Boy, did she ask the right librarian! I read to feel emotions, whether that is sadness, excitement, contentment, or calmness. However, if you've ever talked middle grade fiction with me, you know I love the ones that make me laugh and cry, especially if it happens within a chapter. To me, a well-written book will make you feel something. So if you want to feel big feels, below are some middle grade fiction books that pack quite a punch!
Historical (And Not So Historical) Fiction
I will admit, I'm not a huge fan of historical fiction, but a lot of my patrons are, so I've been trying to read more of it. I recently read Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park, which is a great read for upper middle graders, about relocation in the west. Talk about a subject outside my normal preferences! But this book had so many layers and great character development, and it was hard not to get sucked in. There are issues of the right to an education, racism, gentrification in its earliest form, bullying, and adolescence. This book takes place in the late 1800s so it is firmly in the historical fiction category, but what about modern historical fiction? I noticed recently that there are a lot of books focusing on events that happened when I was a young adult before my patrons were even born. I'm talking about things like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. These events took place in what feels like another world, but books about these subjects are what I like to call modern historical fiction for middle schoolers. Some of my favorite books in this genre include Finding Someplace by Denise Lewis Patrick and Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes, both of which address Hurricane Katrina. These books are both well-written, sad, hopeful, and will hopefully invoke some empathy. If you're looking for books that address the events of 9/11, may I suggest Nine, Ten by Nora Raleigh Baskin and Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes. There are also some great books about events that are happening now, including social justice movements. I recommend Count Me In by Varsha Bajaj, Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb, and Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes. (Alright, you probably noticed a trend here. Basically I recommend reading any and everything by Jewell Parker Rhodes. She will make you laugh and cry and hope.)
Are you are looking to read a sad book that will make you cry? The best way to ensure that is to have a death or an ailment. One of my fellow librarians likes to point out how many middle grade novels feature a dead parent, usually the mother, which is definitely a trend I've noticed. If you are (eep!) looking for a dead parent, and something more which I can't reveal because ::spoilers::, and you want a guarantee cryfest, read The Line Tender by Kate Allen. Don't be intimidated by the page count (384), because it will suck you in and before you know it you've gone through a whole tissue box. Need more books with dead parents? Check out Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schroder, Blue Skies by Anne Bustard, The House That Lou Built by Mae Respicio, and Birdie and Me by J.M.M. Nuanez. Looking for books that aren't about death but other medical ailments? Check out The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James by Ashley Herring Blake (heart transplant), Clean Getaway by Nic Stone (Alzheimer's), and Itch by Polly Farquhar (idiopathic angioedema and food allergies). These books will make you cry, and hopefully laugh!
We are in a fortunate time right now where the stigma surrounding mental health is declining. Sure, there are still some who look down in those battling mental health problems, but overall children are becoming more aware of their own mental state and seeking guidance. As someone who has battled depression and anxiety as a child and young adult, I know I really could have used books that mirrored all the feelings I was having at that time. Here are some of my favorite books that deal with different mental health issues, and please, talk with a parent or trusted adult if you are not feeling like yourself. Seek help, there is no shame in needing it!
Often in this middle grade books we find children dealing with the mental health of a parent. Sometimes, children have no control over their living situations and must deal with problems as they arise. Some will seek out help while others will create their own coping mechanism. In Hurricane Season by Nicole Mellby Fig, the main character tries to deal with her father's bipolar disorder on her own. Fig goes through a lot of tough times with her father but with the help of a neighbor, her father seeks help and there is hope in the horizon. In Where The Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin, Della must try to hide her fear that her mother's mental illness will land her in the hospital like it did years ago. Della tries to make excuses and hide her mother's illness until it just becomes too much.
It's important for children to also see their own feelings and mental health within the pages of books. In The Year We Fell From Space by A.S. King, we see two sisters dealing with the fall-out of a divorce. One becomes agoraphobic, meaning she won't leave the house, and the other becomes depressed in the way she feels her mother should be. Sometimes it's hard to pinpoint the exact feelings you're having. In the middle grade novel It's the End of the World As I Know It by Matthew Landis, Derrick is preparing for the end of civilization. He is at times anxious as well as at times showing obsessive compulsive signs. As a reader for the most part we see how irrational some of Derrick's thoughts are actions are, but we also can't help root for him to find peace.
I could go on and on recommending middle grade fiction books that invoke all the feels, but I think I've given you a good starting-off point. I could also add many more categories to this blog post (LGBTQIA+, bullying, and autism, to name just a few). So grab the tissues and get ready for all the feels! Happy reading, everyone!