I’m a big crier. Movies, books, and even TV commercials can bring on the tears. Catch me during a milestone for one of my daughters—say, a school play or a graduation—and I’m a mess. “Tears have had a surprisingly prominent place in the history of the novel,” according to The New Yorker. “Readers have always asked about the role that emotion plays in reading: What does it mean to be deeply moved by a book?” These six middle grade contemporary novels have all deeply moved me. So grab a box of tissues and crack one of these stories open.
The Exact Location of Home, by Kate Messner
Kirby “Zig” Zigonski deeply misses his father, a wealthy developer who hasn’t visited him for more than a year. After their landlady evicts 13-year-old Zig and his mom for not paying the rent, they’re forced to move into a local shelter. Zig is so worried that someone in eighth grade might find out where he lives. Zig is really good at fixing things and he wants to fix his life. A companion novel to Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., this is a story about being homeless and finding resilience. I also love this story’s message about protecting the environment.
Lily and Dunkin, by Donna Gephart
In another story about how challenging age 13 can be, we meet Lily, whose birth name was Timothy, a transgendered girl who was “born with boy parts.” In this dual narrative, Lily meets Dunkin, a boy dealing with bipolar disorder. This is such a powerful story with a long list of awards to its name (NPR, New York Public Library, YALSA, and more) with a deeply compassionate storyline about what it means to accept yourself and others, to be brave, and to love.
George, by Alex Gino
Another heartbreaking and beautiful transgender novel, this one is about George, who really wants to be Charlotte in the fourth-grade class play, Charlotte’s Web. The world looks at George and sees a boy, but she knows that she’s a girl. George fears she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. I absolutely love George, and your young reader will, too.
Ghost, by Jason Reynolds
This is the novel that turned me into a Jason Reynolds fan. Ghost, 12-year-old Castle Cranshaw, gave himself this name the night his dad got drunk and threatened Castle and his mom with a gun. Ghost ran that night and he has been running ever since. Now Ghost is going to try out for a track team. This is an emotionally complex, special story about facing your pain and the past. It’s also such a good page turner, but best for older middle grade readers.
Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Rhodes‘ most recent novel tells the story of Jerome, a black boy killed by a white policeman in Chicago who mistakes his toy gun for a real threat. After the cop shoots Jerome in in the back, he dies and becomes a ghost. That’s when Jerome meets another ghost: Emmett Till, a boy from the past, and the two go on a journey to process what happened. This novel is a New York Times bestseller, an IndieBound bestseller, the #1 Kids’ Indie Next Pick, and a Walter Award winner.
Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary Dr. Schmidt
This is the first time middle grade novel I’ve read from the POV of a single teen father, and I couldn’t put it down. Joseph, age 13, is living with a foster family after being abused by his father and falling in love with a 13-year-old girl who got pregnant. This story is narrated by Jack, another foster child who lives on this farm in rural Maine. All Joseph wants to do is find his baby, Jupiter, who’s in foster care, too. This is a moving story about healing, finding love again, and accepting second chances. It is a great choice for older readers who are between MG and YA.