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These fiction and nonfiction resources are geared toward middle-graders, with the intention of helping kids in a transitional time of life increase empathy, self-awareness, and self-love.
Over the last few years, publishers have increased the number of titles aimed at middle-school audiences that focus on diversity. A shared emphasis among these books is the need to develop empathy and tolerance for individuals with attributes that mark them as different from the perceived norm. While developing tolerance for others may seem attainable, one aspect that might seem especially daunting is developing personal tolerance—for oneself. As middle-schoolers become hyperaware of their own bodies, personalities, and perceived differences, self-acceptance can become a seemingly unattainable goal.The following fiction titles introduce middle-school-aged characters who are coming to terms with themselves, telling stories that should resonate, reassure, and hopefully inspire readers. These are followed by some nonfiction offerings designed to help kids through tough times by providing basic, need-to-know information. It’s easier to deal with reeling emotions and feelings of exclusion when readers realize that there are others who feel marginalized or weird, just like they do. It’s also easier to figure out what’s going on when kids have factual information presented in a nonjudgmental, straightforward fashion. Hopefully, the following titles will help.FictionAlan Cole Doesn’t Dance. By Eric Bell. 2018. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen, $16.99 (9780062567062). Gr. 5–8.In this sequel to Alan Cole Is Not a Coward (2017), gay 12-year-old Alan is now out at school but closeted at home, with an older brother ally but an abusive Neanderthal father. Now add mysterious Odin, a new boy at school. Alan is an appealing character, and his story is a welcome addition to LGBTQ literature for middle-schoolers.Blended. By Sharon M. Draper. 2018. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy, $16.99 (9781442495005). Gr. 4–7.Every week, Isabella changes gears, alternating between her white mom and her Black dad—who have completely dissimilar lifestyles. Although Isabella’s mixed race and her struggle to find identity in a world where racism exists are strong components, this story is primarily about a child of divorce finding her place in two different families.The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond. By Brenda Wood. 2014. Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, $16.99 (9780399257148). Gr. 4–7.Eleven-year-old Violet feels as though she doesn’t belong—she’s biracial and never knew her father, who died before she was born. She discovers her father’s mother is an artist who will be visiting her hometown, and when she makes a connection, she finds answers and gains a more confident sense of self.Dream On, Amber. By Emma Shevah. Illus. by Helen Crawford-White. 2015. Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, $12.99 (9781492622505). Gr. 4–7.Twelve-year-old half Italian and half Japanese Amber can’t figure out why her dad left, and that’s just one of the things tormenting her as she starts middle school. Her amusing self-awareness, imagination, and drawings keep the tone light, and her true-to-life tween concerns should resonate with readers searching for self-identity. Gracefully Grayson. By Ami Polonsky. 2014. Disney/Hyperion, $16.99 (9781423185277). Gr. 5–8.Sixth-grader Grayson quietly doodles princesses and dreams of wearing twirly skirts. She knows she’s a girl deep down inside, but she’s learned to look and act like a boy. Thoughtfully told, the story conveys Grayson’s angst, hurt, loss, and emerging confidence as she struggles with a whirlwind of emotions.I Funny. By James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein. Illus. by Laura Park. 2012. Little, Brown, $15.99 (9780316206938). Gr. 4–7.Jamie is a middle-grade stand-up comedian who delivers jokes sitting down—because he uses a wheelchair. The narrative and the line drawings offer dozens of gags, but there’s also plenty of heartfelt discovery and dawning self-acceptance.Lily and Dunkin. By Donna Gephart. 2016. Delacorte, $16.99 (9780553536744). Gr. 5–8.Born a boy, Tim knows she’s really a girl named Lily. Her new friend Dunkin has a secret, too: he’s bipolar. The two young teens tell their increasingly compelling stories in alternating first-person chapters. Both characters are irresistibly appealing, and the narrative beautifully manages their evolving self-awareness.Lizzy and the Good Luck Girl. By Susan Lubner. 2018. Running Press, $16.99 (9780762465026). Gr. 4–6.Lizzy always looks for signs, because signs help her prepare for what’s coming so she’s never taken by surprise. Lizzie suffers from emotional anxiety, and she slowly comes to understand that signs can’t predict everything and that life is messy and unpredictable. Anxious kids should relate to Lizzy and, through her example, learn to reach out for help.Love like Sky. By Leslie C. Youngblood. 2018. Disney/Hyperion, $16.99 (9781368016506). Gr. 4–7.Living in a blended family is not easy, especially for a girl whose divorced parents have both remarried and moved on to build new families. Using beautiful prose, this debut novel explores the expansive love only siblings can have for one another, while capturing the heart and soul of what it means to be a blended family.Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish. By Pablo Cartaya. 2018. Viking, $16.99 (9781101997260). Gr. 5–8.Big for his age, Marcus collects fees from fellow students in return for protection from bullies. When he gets into serious trouble, he’s sent to Puerto Rico to spend time with family. He finds a supportive community that gives him space and encouragement and sees him for who he really is.Merci Suárez Changes Gears. By Meg Medina. 2018. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763690496). Gr. 4–7.Merci navigates her way through middle school, dealing with home, social, and economic issues, and discovers that change is scary and that things may never be the same—but they will be OK. This strong, deeply honest protagonist will make readers laugh as they identify with her struggles.My Basmati Bat Mitzvah. By Paula Freedman. 2013. Abrams/Amulet, $16.95 (9781419708060). Gr. 5–7.Tara, half Jewish, half Indian, isn’t sure she wants to have a bat mitzvah. Actually, she’s not even sure she believes in God. Plus, her friends are acting really weird. Set in Manhattan, this explores the feelings of a child of mixed heritage when it comes to culture, family, and religion.My Life as a Book. By Janet Tashjian. Illus. by Jake Tashjian. 2010. Holt/Christy Ottaviano, $16.99 (9780805089035). Gr. 4–7.Part Diary of a Wimpy Kid, part mystery, this first-person novel captures the pushes and pulls of a kid with learning disabilities. Twelve-year-old Derek is brash, careless, and usually willing to do something stupid. He is also bright and a talented artist. The generous typeface looks like printing; the artwork is by the author’s 14-year-old son. Kids who won’t read will read this.One True Way. By Shannon Hitchcock. 2018. Scholastic, $16.99 (9781338181722). Gr. 4–7.In the 1970s South, Allie and Samantha navigate their newfound friendship and slowly budding romance against a backdrop of religious intolerance, family discord, and school drama. Young readers will find this novel to be ultimately uplifting and inspirational, particularly considering the current dearth of middle-grade books with LGBTQ content.Short. By Holly Goldberg Sloan. 2017. Dial, $16.99 (9780399186219). Gr. 3–7.Very short Julia’s world opens up after she wins the role of a Munchkin in a stage production of The Wizard of Oz. She finds friendship and great role models, especially Olive, a woman with dwarfism. Julia doesn’t mind being short and believes she’s “little, but big inside.” Her self-acceptance is inspiring, and the joy she experiences during her foray into theater is irresistible.Soldier Sister, Fly Home. By Nancy Bo Flood. Illus. by Shonto Begay. 2016. Charlesbridge, $16.95 (9781580897020). Gr. 5–8.Thirteen-year-old Tess is part white, part Native American, and she lives a split life between her white boarding school and the Navajo reservation. Tess joins her grandma for summer “sheep camp,” where she helps care for the flock and experiences important revelations that help her bridge her two cultures.Some Kind of Happiness. By Claire Legrand. 2016. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781442466012). Gr. 4–7.Eleven-year-old Finley has “blue days,” when she wakes with an unshakable sadness or is overwhelmed by a racing panic that takes her breath away. Fin’s narrative is an appeal to honesty and self-acceptance.Speechless. By Adam P. Schmitt. 2018. Candlewick, $16.99 (9781536200928). Gr. 5–8.Thirteen-year-old Jimmy hated his cousin, temperamental Patrick, who ruined every toy or occasion he ever touched. Now Jimmy has to give Patrick’s eulogy, and as he reminiscences, the story drops clues that place Patrick on the autism spectrum, sadly undiagnosed and untreated. Jimmy, through his recollections, gains a better understanding of the boy lying in the coffin and ultimately of himself.Spiked. By Steven Barwin. 2014. Lorimer, $16.95 (9781459405271). Gr. 4–7. Emma is the tallest person in the eighth grade. When bullying ensues, Emma must dig deep to address the situation and be true to herself. This is a good pick for tween girls trying to navigate peer pressure, and it serves up a healthy dose of self-worth and empowerment.Sticks and Stones. By Abby Cooper. 2016. Farrar, $16.99 (9780374302870). Gr. 5–7.Sixth-grader Elyse suffers from a fictional disease where words appear on her skin when someone levels a compliment or insult at her. This debut novel is sweet and sincere, offering up a far-fetched metaphor to remind readers to be kind to themselves and others.Sure Signs of Crazy. By Karen Harrington. 2013. Little, Brown, $16.99 (9780316210584). Gr. 5–8.Sarah was two when her mother tried to drown her; now she is 12 and “looking for any signs of going crazy.” Sarah finds allies and role models in her English teacher, a home-from-college neighbor—and Atticus Finch.Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. By Stephan Pastis. Illus. by the author. 2013. Candlewick, $14.99 (9780763660505). Gr. 4–7.Aided by his partner, an imaginary 1,200-pound polar bear, 11-year-old Timmy believes he is the world’s best detective. Timmy’s delusional self-confidence is both pathetic and sympathetic. Younger readers will be attracted to the cartoons; older readers should be amused and touched by this quirky antihero.The Underdog Parade. By Michael Mihaley. 2018. Akashic/Kaylie Jones, $35.95 (9781617757129). Gr. 5–8.Bullied new kid Peter may have no friends and parents who are constantly arguing, but worst of all are his epileptic seizures. Then their new next-door neighbor announces that God has told him to build an ark—with Peter’s help. What next? Peter is appealing, and readers will applaud his small triumphs.Wonder. By R. J. Palacio. 2012. Knopf, $15.99 (9780375869020). Gr. 5–8.This best-selling phenomenon is a touchstone for learning to accept yourself and looking beyond physical attributes. Wonderful, fully-realized characters explore their feelings, develop friendships, and bring readers a stand-up-and-cheer finish. NonfictionBeing a Girl. By Hayley Long. Illus. by Gemma Correll. 2016. Andrews McMeel, $12.99 (9781449477974). Gr. 6–9.The best part of this guide is its ultimate message: there’s no one right way to be a girl. This breezy primer, peppered with genial cartoon illustrations, is a good starting point for younger teens.The Confidence Code for Girls: Taking Risks, Messing Up, and Becoming Your Amazingly Imperfect, Totally Powerful Self. By Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. Illus. by Nan Lawson. 2018. Harper, $14.99 (9780062796981). Gr. 4–7.This challenges girls to risk more, think less, and be themselves. It’s filled with stories, quizzes, cartoon illustrations, quotes, and questions, plus brief bios of girls who’ve successfully overcome challenges.Conquering Negative Body Image. By Viola Jones and Edward Willett. 2016. Rosen, $32.95 (9781499462050). Gr. 6–9.Brief chapters define negative body image, discuss contributing factors, mention that both females and males are affected, and pose questions that help readers recognize warning signs. Coping strategies are suggested, myths are debunked, and creative exercises are offered, including suggestions for starting conversations with adults. Girl to Girl: Honest Talk about Growing Up and Your Changing Body. By Sarah O’Leary Burningham. Illus. by Alli Arnold. 2014. Chronicle, $12.99 (9781452102429). Gr. 5–8.This guide takes an especially friendly and positive approach to puberty, drawing on the expertise of professionals while maintaining the tone of a conversation among trusted girlfriends. This exhaustive resource is appealing in format, tone, scope, and timeliness.Guy Stuff: The Body Book for Boys. By Cara Natterson. Illus. by Micah Player. 2017. American Girl, $12.99 (9781683370260). Gr. 5–8.Boys will find a set of reassuring, informally presented facts and observations mostly focused on visible and behavioral changes, from growth spurts to mood swings to nocturnal emissions. There’s also practical advice on types of underwear, shaving, proper brushing and flossing, sleep, and nutrition.HelloFlo: The Guide, Period. By Naama Bloom. Illus. by Fleur Sciortino. 2017. Dutton, $19.99 (9780399187315). Gr. 6–10.In an upbeat, nonjudgmental tone, this text covers an array of puberty-related topics, seeking to demystify and reassure. The candid, no-holds-barred approach will hopefully encourage open dialogue about reproductive health in young women, while advocating self-awareness and a positive self-image.How to Survive Anything: Shark Attack, Lightning, Embarrassing Parents, Pop Quizzes, and Other Perilous Situations. By Rachel Buchholz. Illus. by Chris Philpot. 2011. National Geographic, $14.95 (9781426307744). Gr. 4–8.This hilarious and practical guide helps make life’s challenges endurable. It offers advice on weathering public gaffes and sticky social situations, like dumping your tray in the school cafeteria. The bright and splashy illustrations induce laugh-out-loud responses. This reads as if it was created by a two-year-old—in the best possible way.Invisible Girl. By Mariel Hemingway. 2015. Regan, $19.95 (9781941393246). Gr. 5–8.In an adaptation of her adult memoir, Hemingway offers an honest account of growing up in an unhappy and unstable home that should resonate with any reader struggling with mental health issues, addiction, self-esteem, or family problems. Its calm reflections will comfort readers coping with inner or outer turmoil, as will the message that kids should never be afraid to ask for help.I’ve Got My Period. So What? By Clara Henry. Tr. by Gun Penhoat. 2017. Skyhorse/Sky Pony, $14.99 (9781510714229). Gr. 6–9.A popular vlogger and YouTube sensation addresses basic menstrual topics and challenges the taboos surrounding this natural bodily function. Unapologetic humor helps assure that any girl who reads this book will face her first period armed with knowledge and not feeling embarrassed or alone.Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts. By Susan Cain and others. Illus. by Grant Snider. 2016. Dial, $17.99 (9780803740600). Gr. 5–8.Based on the adult best-seller Quiet(2012), this thought-provoking guide emphasizes self-acceptance and recognition that introverts have “secret strengths”: listening, reflecting, and focusing. Guides for parents and educators help adults understand introverts who want to roar—on the inside.Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall at All. By John Schwartz. 2010. Roaring Brook/Flash Point, $16.99 (9781596433236). Gr. 4–8.In this memoir of growing up short, New York Times columnist Schwartz shares personal experiences alongside biographies of short, successful astronauts, artists, and politicians, and shows that while size matters, it doesn’t determine a person’s future. Short kids will hang on every word.Short & Skinny. By Mark Tatulli. Illus. by the author. 2018. Little, Brown, $24.99 (9780316440493). Gr. 4–7.This graphic-novel memoir shares how short and skinny seventh-grade Mark was subjected to bullying, girl-shyness, and body awkwardness until the 1977 debut of Star Wars inspired him to face his tormentors and make an amateur movie that determined his eventual career as a filmmaker. A Smart Girl’s Guide to Liking Herself—Even on the Bad Days. By Laurie Zelinger. Illus. by Jennifer Kalis. 2012. American Girl, $9.95 (9781593699437). Gr. 4–6.Readers are encouraged to shake their negative feelings through quizzes that help identify frenemies, separate constructive criticism from negative self-talk, and determine whether they’re outgoing or shy to help them see themselves more positively, raise spirits, and model ways to challenge fears and apprehensions.The Tween Book: A Growing-Up Guide for the Changing You. By Wendy L. Moss and Donald A. Moss. 2015. Magination, $14.95 (9781433819247). Gr. 5–8.Intended for both boys and girls, this self-help manual addresses physical, emotional, and social topics like becoming independent, maintaining hygiene, flirting, and teasing. Quizzes encourage self-reflection, while first-person stories lend authentic, relatable voices along with easy-to-follow examples of productive behaviors when faced with bullying or peer pressure.
Kathleen McBroom is the School Library Media Practicum Coordinator for the Wayne State University School of Information Science.
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