Middle grade books do a lot of work. They get kids into a habit of reading, explore the many nuanced facets of the human experience, and explain hard things in delicate ways. Middle grade books about mental health manage to do all those things while also showing that no one is alone in any of their struggles. They’re powerful and essential books, regardless of the reader’s age. Below, we offer some suggestions that deal with alcoholism, anxiety, attempted suicide, bullying, child sexual abuse, depression, grief, internalized racism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, schizophrenia.
Middle Grade Books About Mental Health
The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga
Cora and Quinn are best friends, but they haven’t spoken in a year. Cora’s wading through the grief of losing her sister in a school shooting. Quinn’s carrying the guilt of what her brother did. On Cora’s 12th birthday, Quinn decides that the only way to fix things is to go back in time to the moment before the shooting, so the two former friends work on the science of opening up a wormhole to change the outcome of the tragedy that’s shaped their lives. But as they work, they realize it’s friendship that will save them in the end. Jasmine Warga writes so powerfully about mental illness, and The Shape of Thunder is an incredible look at grief through the eyes of two young girls.
Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Della — short for Delicious — is 10 years old and has always had her older sister, Suki, by her side. When their mom went to prison for cooking meth, when their mom’s boyfriend took them in, when that boyfriend did horrible things to them and they had to leave, the sisters were always together. Suki took on a mothering role for her little sister, but one day it all becomes too much and she attempts suicide. Afterward, Della has to come to terms with what her sister has endured and shielded her from. Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a stunning novel about being loud about the things that matter and standing up against the stigma around child sexual abuse.
Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams
Thirteen-year-old Genesis keeps a list of things she hates about herself, like how people call her charcoal and eggplant because her skin is so dark. Or how her father is an alcoholic and their family can’t seem to find a house to live in for more than a few months. Her list contains 96 things, and she wonders if, once she hits 100 things she hates about herself, she should continue on or begin anew. Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams is a powerful middle grade novel about internalized racism, bullying, alcoholism, and finding the strength to carry on through hard times.
OCDaniel by Wesley King
Daniel goes through life hoping no one notices him. The way he has to scratch out numbers that are bad. The way he arranges the water cups at football practice. The way he brushes his teeth until his gums bleed. He calls the urges Zaps, and usually they keep him up late at night, because he can’t fall asleep if he doesn’t finish his rituals. But one day at school, Daniel gets a note asking for help. It’s signed “Fellow Star Child,” and soon he’s hanging out with the girl everyone calls Psycho Sara, trying to solve a major mystery, and also learning that his Zaps are not a sign that he’s broken. He’s just different. OCDaniel is a story about a surprising friendship and discovering that none of us suffer alone.
Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin
This isn’t the first time Della’s mom has acted strange. Last time, she spent a few months in the hospital. Maybe this time, with the late-night digging for watermelon seeds and the talking to people who aren’t there, will be different. Della’s daddy is working hard to save the family farm, and her mama is in denial about anything being wrong, so Della takes matters into her own hands to find a cure. She’ll get her a jar of the Bee Lady’s magic honey, of course! It’s mended generations of woes in North Carolina. The Bee Lady shares a difficult truth, though, rather than the honey: Della needs to love her mama as she is. Where the Watermelons Grow presents mental illness as it is: a sickness that must be tended to just like any physical ailment.
Clues to the Universe by Christina Li
Rosalind and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners. But then they discover what they have in common: no father. Ro’s dad died unexpectedly, leaving behind an unfinished model rocket they had been working on together, and Benji’s dad walked out on him years ago, but may have written Benji’s favorite comic book series. They team up to finish building Ro’s rocket and try to find Benji’s dad. But Benji is hesitant, and can’t fathom how desperately Ro wishes she could reunite with her dad. In Clues to the Universe, the two face bullying and grief in their own ways as they try to figure out answers to the universe’s biggest questions.
The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller
When Natalie’s teacher assigns the class to answer an important question using the scientific method, Natalie only has one thing on her mind. Her mother is suffering from depression and that is what she will solve. Mr. Neely suggests she enter an egg drop competition, and she decides that with the prize money, she will take her mother, a botanist, to see the Cobalt Blue Orchids. The flowers are known for surviving against impossible odds. Surely, they will inspire Natalie’s mom. The Science of Breakable Things teaches kids that parents are people too, and that the best way to get through a hard time is to talk about it.
Meow or Never by Jazz Taylor
Avery is new at school and likes to stay backstage to keep an eye on her crush, Nic, from the wings. When she finds a stray cat tucked away in the theater one day, she names it Phantom and visits the cat whenever she’s feeling anxious. But one time, Nic overhears as Avery sings to Phantom, and gets her to audition for the school musical. Avery nails it, gets the lead role, and now has to deal with the overwhelming nerves that come along with being a new kid and the lead in the school musical. Meow or Never is a sweet book about anxiety and secret crushes and learning how to overcome obstacles.
If you enjoyed this list of middle grade books about mental health, check out these YA books about schizophrenia and picture books about anxiety for little ones who worry.