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Tween

12 Kid-Approved Middle Grade Books That Tackle Mental Health

by Kari Ness Riedel

kid-approved-books-mental-health
Photography by Seana Williamson

“Mental health” is a broad phrase that means different things to different people and encompasses many topics. For this list of book ideas, I am using the term to include conditions like anxiety, OCD, depression, PTSD, and ADD/ADHD that many kids experience themselves or through family members.

Stories about characters working through mental health challenges captivate my book clubs’ elementary and middle school students. Reading these books helps some kids feel less alone as they see a character dealing with the same issues they face. Others find inspiration from reading sad but hopeful books where the lead character perseveres and succeeds despite life’s trials.

Here are 12 kid-approved books that tackle mental health in a relatable way for young people. The books on this reading list 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.

I recommend these books for mature 4th–8th graders because of the complexity of the characters and their interactions with friends and family.

  • Nest

    by Esther Ehrlich

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

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  • The Science of Breakable Things

    by Tae Keller

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    Natalie uses science to solve 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 to earn prize money and bring hope to her botanist mom. This book explores what it is like for a seventh-grader to have a parent with mental health struggles as well as the typical difficulties of friends, family, and academics. It’s a sweet and hope-filled story with charming characters and lessons about persevering through life’s challenges.

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  • The Seventh Most Important Thing

    by Shelley Pearsall

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

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  • Fighting Words

    by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

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    10-year-old Della and 16-year-old Suki have endured some of the hardest things that two sisters could face. Ever since their meth-addicted mom left for prison, Suki has taken care of Della. Their mom's boyfriend, Clifton, gave them a place to live but extracted a horrible price from Suki that she kept hidden from Della. When he crosses a line with Della, the sisters run from Clifton, get thrown into foster care, and put into new schools. The author infuses hope, love, and joy into the story while sharing this family’s bumpy road to recovery. Alice raves that this is the “best book ever” and is an “outstanding story about childhood trauma, finding your voice to speak out, and, most importantly, sisterhood.” Note that this book includes several mature topics like sexual assault, suicide, and drug abuse.

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  • The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl

    by Stacy McAnulty

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    Being struck by lightning left Lucy with genius-level math skills and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). At age 12, she is academically ready for college, but her grandmother insists she attends middle school. Can she make friends? Will she have to hide her OCD, or can she be true to herself? This funny and tender story reminds readers to appreciate diversity and embrace change. Sophia says, “This is my favorite book ever...it is dramatic and heart-warming.”

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  • Counting by 7s

    by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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    12-year-old Willow Chance has a brilliant mind and a unique way of approaching situations. Her life gets turned upside down when her adoptive parents get killed in a tragic accident, and she becomes an orphan. The book chronicles her journey to overcome grief by connecting with an unlikely group of strangers who become family to her. Kristy says, “It’s a touching book that will reach down into your heart and make you want to cry. This book has changed my life and how I think.”

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  • The List of Things That Will Not Change

    by Rebecca Stead

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    In this highly relatable story, fifth-grader Bea navigates an emotional roller-coaster as her father, Dan, prepares for his second marriage to Jesse. Bea has a lot of feelings — she worries about how her mother feels and she is excited about having a new stepsister. She also wonders how to deal with others who disapprove of her father marrying a man. The author captures the essence of an imperfect but likable character who grows with the help of therapy and supportive family and friends. Marin recommends it, saying, “This book is very meaningful and also very funny.”

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  • All the Greys on Greene Street

    by Laura Tucker

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    What do you do when your art dealer father leaves the country in the middle of the night, and your artist mother hasn’t gotten out of bed for several days? This is the challenge faced by 12-year-old Olympia (Ollie), who lives in a tight-knit community in New York City. This beautiful story is part mystery and part coming-of-age tale. It spotlights the difficulties of living with a depressed parent and the importance of unconditional love from family and friends.

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  • Lily and Dunkin

    by Donna Gephart

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    This book chronicles the unique and meaningful friendship between two eighth-graders, Lily (born Timothy) and Norbert (aka Dunkin.) Lily knows she’s a girl, and Dunkin has bipolar disorder. They meet when Dunkin walks out of Dunkin' Donuts and finds Lily sitting in a tree. While their relationship endures many trials, it becomes a rock that helps them get comfortable in their own skin and learn how they fit into the world. As Alice says, “If you like contemporary books with a sad story, you'll love this amazing tale.”

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  • Each Tiny Spark

    by Pablo Cartaya

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    Set in a small town outside of Atlanta, this story centers on a loving Cuban-American family dealing with challenges within their family and shifting community. Emilia is a big-hearted 6th grader who prefers welding over shopping and deals with inattentiveness and other ADHD-related symptoms. Her mom helps her stay on track with her schoolwork, but when she goes on an extended trip, Emilia must rely on her traditional abuela and her father, who struggles with PTSD from a military deployment. This story tackles the impact of negative stereotypes, the value of listening to others, and honoring individual strengths and differences.

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  • Running on Empty

    by S. E. Durrant

    11-year-old AJ feels overwhelmed with responsibility, but he finds freedom in running track. After his grandfather dies, he must care for his parents, who both have learning disabilities, on top of juggling the stress of school and track practice. AJ narrates his emotions, including his fear that the authorities will take him away from his family. It’s an emotion-packed book that reminds readers help can come in many forms — and it takes courage to accept it.

  • Superpowered: Transform Anxiety into Courage, Confidence, and Resilience

    by Renee Jain and Dr. Shefali Tsabary

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    This practical and comforting nonfiction book by a world-renowned clinical psychologist and an entrepreneur with a master’s degree in positive psychology is a fantastic tool to help young people handle anxiety and stress. It provides relatable examples through stories about real kids and concrete actions to practice healthy emotional regulation. It makes an excellent gift for young people, parents, and educators.

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2018 and updated in 2022.