Tween

12 Kid-Approved Middle Grade Books That Tackle Mental Health

by Kari Ness Riedel

“Mental health” is a weighty phrase that is loaded with different meanings for different people. On one end of the spectrum, it could suggest a call for taking deep breaths or reducing stress and, on the other extreme, concern about one’s mental stability and the possibility that it may lead to violent or extreme choices. For this list of book ideas, I am using the term to consider issues like anxiety, OCD, depression, and ADD/ADHD that are relevant to many kids and families.

Books with characters that struggle with these issues captivate students in the book clubs I run for elementary and middle school students. For some, reading this category of books makes them feel more at ease with whatever social/emotional/mental struggles they are dealing with at school and home. For others, it’s great to connect with a character that is experiencing the actual mental health challenge they face every day. And others find inspiration from reading sad but hopeful books where the lead character perseveres and succeeds despite any mental health issues and trials that life throws at them.

Here are 12 kid-approved books that tackle mental health in a way that is relatable to young people. These have received rave reviews from young readers on Bookopolis.com, a social network and book discovery tool where kids can write reviews and swap book recommendations with friends.

These books are recommended for mature 4th – 8th graders due to the complexity of the characters and their interactions with friends and family.

  • Finding Perfect

    by Elly Swartz

    To others, 12-year-old Molly seems perfect. In order to keep this outward appearance of perfection, she must always have her pencils sharpened just right, have her glass figurines lined up just so, and constantly count by fours in her head. When her mother temporarily moves out to pursue a job far away, Molly’s OCD-like habits become more extreme and she feels like her life is falling apart. But, she’s afraid to get help from anyone — even her family and closest friends. Youanna, 11, raves, this is “the best book I have ever read! If I were to write a review, it would be easy. One word: AWESOME!!!!”

  • Some Kind of Happiness

    by Claire Legrand

    Finley Hart is sent to her grandparents’ house for the summer while her parents try to work out their marital differences. Her depression, which has been an ongoing struggle, is intensified while living away from home with her grandparents and cousins. Her only way to escape is to go to Everwood, a fantasy kingdom that exists only in her notebook. But, when Everwood becomes a real physical place to her and her cousins, the lines between fantasy and truth begin to blur. Finley finds herself on an adventure to uncover the secrets and save Everwood — and herself. Gabriella, 12, gives it five stars, “This book completely captured my heart. I would totally recommend this book to everyone!”

  • Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

    by Jack Gantos

    Joey is a “weird” kid with a big heart and a lot of energy. He bounces around — a lot — and often makes bad choices like putting his finger in a pencil sharpener. His ADHD is sometimes dulled by the “dud meds” he takes but he doesn’t like how they make him feel. He wants to do the right thing and this humor-filled book fills the reader with empathy for Joey and the people around him. Allison recommends others read this book, “I like this book because it goes into [many] details … plus it shows that everyone is different, and weird, in some cases very weird.”

  • Nest

    by Esther Ehrlich

    Fans of “sad” books will adore this touching story about tragedy and healing that centers around 11-year-old Naomi (aka “Chirp”), a bird expert and nature lover living on Cape Cod in 1972. Her mom has been in an accident that forces her to stop dancing and now suffers from deep depression. Chirp must navigate her own emotions as well as her relationships with her sister, parents, and classmates while watching her mom struggle. When a new friend, Joey, comes into her life, they end up on a life-changing adventure together. Olivia, 11, loves this book and recommends this to anyone looking for a great read, “Adventure and a good emotional book like this one can really get you on the couch, getting comfy, and reading!”

  • The Goldfish Boy

    by Lisa Thompson

    Matthew suffers from severe OCD that was brought on from the death of his baby brother. He is obsessed with hand-washing and germs, and he can’t go to school or even leave his bedroom due to his extreme worries. Then, the toddler next door goes missing and he was the last one to see the child alive. He is faced with the arduous choice of staying in his safety zone or tackling his fears to solve the crime and help the child. This is an emotionally driven mystery that is full of adventure and heart. “This is one of my favorite books ever! It’s so scary and funny!” praises Piper, 11.

  • A Mango-Shaped Space

    by Wendy Mass

    Thirteen-year-old Mia sees the world differently than her peers and no one quite believes or understands when she says she sees words as shapes and numbers as colors. After much research, Mia identifies her conditions as synesthesia and connects to others who experience the same things. While it’s debatable whether synesthesia is a brain condition or not, I included this book on this list as her story is relatable to any kid who feels “different” from others. Macie shares that this book contained “an emotional roller coaster of events. I think that people who have a creative mind and love for animals would enjoy this book.”

  • The Science of Breakable Things

    by Tae Keller

    Using the scientific method as a framework, Natalie tries to find a solution to her biggest question – how to help her mother who is suffering from depression and can barely get out of bed. Natalie latches on to winning a local egg drop competition as a way to earn prize money and bring hope to her botanist mom. This story explores what it is like for a seventh grader to deal with a parent with mental health struggles as well as the typical ups and downs of friends, family, and academics. This is a sweet and hope-filled story with charming characters and good lessons about persevering when life’s challenges try to break you.

  • The Seventh Most Important Thing

    by Shelley Pearsall

    In a fit of rage after his father’s death, Arthur hurls a brick at the “Junk Man,” a local trash picker. Instead of time in juvie, a judge gives him 120 hours of community service — with the man he hurt. Arthur is tasked with finding the Junk Man’s list of the Seven Most Important Things. This highly engaging and emotional story teaches major life lessons about redemption and the power of kindness as well as shows the potential of recovery from grief. Brian enthuses, “This book was amazing … it had really great twists and turns. One thing that was really great about the book is that it shows how if you give back things will turn around for you.”

  • OCDaniel

    by Wesley King

    Daniel has spent his life trying to hide his obsessive compulsive disorder from his friends and other kids at school. But, one girl, nicknamed “Psycho Sara,” notices him, and she seems to see things that others cannot. When Daniel gets a mysterious note asking for help, he finds himself part of a huge mystery that takes him on a whirlwind of adventures and emotions that change how he sees the world. This coming-of-age story is “heartwarming and it felt like the characters and the plot came to life,” says Julianna, 11.

  • Small as an Elephant

    by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

    Jack is an 11-year-old boy whose mom’s moods can swing dramatically from happy and loving to depressed and neglectful. He wakes up after camping in a national park in Maine with his mom and finds himself totally alone with only a backpack, a sleeping bag, and $14. He doesn’t want to tell the police so he begins the journey back to his home in Boston — alone. Olivia says, this book is “a heartwarming novel with adventure that will keep you on the edge of your seat.” Jack, 12, shares, “This book makes your heart root for Jack. You would like this book if you like an action book, a sad book, and a mystery book.”

  • How to Speak Dolphin

    by Ginny Rorby

    Lily is a middle schooler who has become the closest thing to a mother that her autistic half-brother Adam has since their own mother died. This is a heavy responsibility for someone her age. When Lily learns of a dolphin therapy program, she brings Adam to meet Nori, a young captive dolphin. Adam and Nori form an immediate and deep bond but Lily believes strongly this dolphin should be free, not captive. Morgan, 10, says, “I really liked this book because it's a story that will touch your heart. If you’re a person who likes dolphins, friendship, adventure, and fighting for what is right, this book is for you.”

  • Umbrella Summer

    by Lisa Graff

    Annie has not been the same since her much-loved older brother died when he was hit with a hockey puck. Everyone tells her not to worry, but she can’t stop being obsessively nervous and careful about everything from bike helmets to germs. When a new neighbor her age moves in across the street, she and Annie become friends. Their ups and downs of their friendship help Annie to see that closing your umbrella of sadness may be a better way to go. Faith, 11, raves, “It's great book for anyone who needs to put their umbrella down.’” Young readers will also love the companion novel, Lost in the Sun that explores how Trent, the kid who hit the hockey puck that killed Annie’s brother, deals with this tragedy and what happens when their paths intersect.

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