17 Books That Kids Say Have Helped Them Find Their Own Voice
by Kari Ness Riedel
Reading is important for so many reasons. It’s linked to academic success, it builds empathy, it’s fun, it’s relaxing, it teaches us things. One of my favorite reasons to read is that it can help readers find their own voice and better understand their truest selves. This applies to readers of any age but can be especially meaningful to tweens who are starting to come into their own identity, separate from that of their parents.
We asked tween readers (and parents and teachers of tween readers) to share some of the books that have helped them discover their own voice and develop their own view of the world. The genres of books they named ranged from fantasy to history to realistic fiction, but there’s a definite common thread of inspiring characters that are brave, kind, and stay true to themselves even if it’s not the most popular way to be.
In this sweet and poignant story, Amina grapples with common tween issues like how to fit in and if she should change to be like everyone else. She must also deal with the added challenge of being a Pakistani-American Muslim in a town where her mosque was recently vandalized. She makes big mistakes on her journey to figure out her own identity and role in the world and must work through these missteps. Jennifer, 11, found that she really related to Amina’s struggles in this story that is “packed with emotions [like] happiness, anger, and worry.”
Jensen is living a daily nightmare of being bullied in middle school. In his head, he is the hero that rules the day when the bullying happens, but, in reality, he doesn’t do anything when mean kids call him fat, ugly, and dumb. Many kids can relate to the events that occur in this charming and optimistic graphic novel where (spoiler alert) the good guy prevails. Kara, 10, shared, “The main character is really brave even when he might be in trouble, and this could happen to any of us.” Anna, 12, agrees, “This was so much like what happens in my school.”
Counting by 7s
This is a sad yet inspiring story that celebrates resilience and finding joy after the worst things in life happen. Willow, a 12-year-old genius of mixed race who was adopted by a white family as a baby, has never quite fit in at school. Things get even harder for her when her adoptive parents die in a car crash and she finds herself alone. An unexpected cast of characters save her, including her school counselor, Dell, and a new friend, Mai, and Mai’s Vietnamese family. “This book has changed my life and how I think. Everyone has to read this sometime in their life,” raves Button, 12.
This book is the secret blog of Felix Yz, a 13-year-old boy who is about to have a medical procedure done to separate the friendly and intellectually gifted fourth-dimensional being that became fused inside him after one of his father’s science experiments went terribly wrong. With this fantastical set up, Felix’s blog explores relatable topics from anxiety to bullying to having a crush on a boy. It is the story of being unique and yet still connected to the world. “I loved this book and it meant a lot to me to see so many different representations of LGBTQ in one book,” says Abbie, 12.
Fish in a Tree
Sixth grader Ally Nickerson has always dreaded school. She’s been called dumb and a loser by her fellow students and considered a troublemaker by her teachers. She’s great at math and art but she’s never let anyone know her darkest secret: She can’t read. Everything changes when she gets a new teacher, Mr. Daniels, and befriends two other misfits at school, Keisha and Albert. Mr. D realizes that Ally has dyslexia and helps her learn to read and see the value of her creative mind. Her new friends help her realize there’s a lot more to people than first meets the eye. Dahlia, 8, says, “This book is amazing and if you need a little help with reading, this book will give you the little bout of confidence to tell someone.”
Freak the Mighty
This modern-day classic is about the friendship between two very different boys — Max, a slow learner stuck in the body of a teenage giant, and Kevin, a tiny Einstein in leg braces. It uses humor, mystery, and adventure to teach important lessons about compassion and courage. Joseph, 12, recommends this book to other kids. “It has a very kind message and you can be like Max, one of the characters in the book, and help people out and be their friend when nobody else will.”
Castle (nicknamed Ghost) is a teenager from a rough neighborhood who has suffered a heartbreaking tragedy in his past. He finds a new purpose in life when he puts his natural running skills to use on the track team. His coach and teammates become like family to him and he learns the challenges of working hard and what it feels like to push through bad choices and hard times rather than just run away. Portia, 12, felt connected to this inspirational story: “...it made me want to change the world. It is a relatable book because everyone has had that moment where they just wanted to give up. Of course most people get out of that slump and get up again like Ghost did. But some don't, and they never reach for their goals. Ghost is an amazing young boy that came from nothing to something.”
The Heart and Mind of Frances Pauley
Frances, aka Figgrotten, is an offbeat fifth grader who feels more comfortable alone in nature or talking to her wise 80-year-old school bus driver. She’s learned not to raise her hand too much in school, even if she knows the answer, because she gets funny looks from other kids. As unexpected events transpire, she must learn to deal with grief, new friends, and big sisters, and discovers that there may be an alternative to flying solo that still allows her be true to herself. Savannah, 9, said, “I didn’t want to return this book. I read it over and over again. I could totally relate to Frances and it made me feel both sad and happy at the same time.”
Keeper of the Lost Cities
Sophie, a 12-year-old child prodigy with mind-reading skills, has never quite fit in with her peers or classmates. When she realizes she’s actually from the elven world rather than the human world, things start to make sense. She immerses herself in this new world and discovers even more magical powers as she embarks on an adventure-filled quest to find out the secrets of her past. Khanza, 12, says, “Have you ever thought that you were different? Sophie made me want to discover my own superpowers.”
My Side of the Mountain
Twelve-year-old Sam runs away from his family and their life in a crowded New York City apartment to live in the woods. This book chronicles his adventures as he learns the skills he needs to survive in the wilderness. Many kids feel empowered by reading survival stories where kids are living on their own with no grown-ups. Winnie, 10, says, “I found this book inspiring … and very educational. I learned so much about how to survive in the wild, I would almost feel comfortable going out into the wild.”
The Night Diary
A moving historical fiction book set in 1947 India, the year when British colonialism ended and the old India was separated into two nations — Pakistan and new India. Told from the point of view of 12-year-old Nisha, through letters she is writing to her Muslim mother who died in childbirth, the story relates the experiences of Nisha's multicultural world turning upside down almost overnight. Nisha’s father is Hindi so their family must flee their hometown, which is now part of Pakistan, to the new India. Through this journey, Nisha discovers her own talents and abilities amidst a world that is full of both despair and love. This is historical fiction for middle grade readers at its best!
A beautiful story about 12-year-old Peter and his pet fox, Pax. When the two are separated, Peter goes on a 300-mile journey to find his friend that forces him to discover new things about himself and his family. A tale of survival and adventure that got 11-year-old Connor’s creative juices flowing and “really inspired me to want to create something … it also expressed how animals are so smart and revealed the true meaning of love.”
Same Sun Here
Two tweens, Meena, an Indian immigrant girl living in New York City, and River, the son of a Kentucky coal miner, become pen pals and learn that they have a lot more in common than the differences in their background would indicate. Told through a series of letters that are actually written by two different authors, this book is full of joy, bravery, and compassion. Mrs. Payne, a reading tutor for multiple grade levels, shares, “All my students LOVE it and feel moved to share their own stories after they are finished.”
Bubba, a foul-smelling bully, has been the bane of brainy and nerdy Nolan’s existence his whole life. While doing a class assignment, Nolan becomes a reporter under the pseudonym, Shredderman, and uses the power of the pen to take down his sworn enemy. This is a funny and unique spin on the classic bully versus nerd story. Will, 11, shares that he felt less alone in dealing with bullies in his own school after reading this.
Serafina and the Black Cloak
Serafina lives with her father in the basement of the fancy Biltmore estate. When the wealthy children of the estate begin disappearing, Serafina and her friend, Braeden Vanderbilt, are compelled to follow the clues and figure out who is taking these children. This book is a mix of history, mystery, and magic with a heroine that is celebrated for being eccentric and brave. Jess, mom of two tweens, shares that they read this book as a family and all loved it. Serafina is “odd but you celebrate her triumphant overcoming.”
Stargirl is a true original. When she first shows up at Mica High, everyone loves her. Including Leo, a shy teenager who is more of a follower than a leader. When the popular kids start to turn on Stargirl, Leo wants her to stop being so eccentric to get everyone to like her again. Lessons about the value of being yourself versus being “normal” come through loud and clear in this story of young love. This character inspired Edward, 12. “I love Stargirl. She is a great role model to people because she is friendly and kind but does not care what other people think about her, whether good, or bad.”
A Wrinkle in Time
This classic science-fiction tale takes readers on an adventure through time and space with Meg and her brother Charles Wallace. Both kids are geniuses who don’t fit the mold in their daily lives at school or home. They travel on a “wrinkle in time” on a giant quest to find their father. Beck, 10, reveals, “Whoa. This book opened up a whole new way of thinking about the world to me, and what the possibility of life on other planets could be. Everyone should read this book.”
What other books would you add to this list? Share your recommendations in the comments below.