Many kids at the upper end of middle grade enjoy fantastic adventures and brave kids saving the day, but there are also plenty of 11-12 year olds who want realism in their reading. One of the best writers of middle grade fiction that tackles tough topics is Jo Knowles. Her characters are in the midst of adolescence, with all the social anxiety that entails (there’s some thinking about romantic relationships and dating, but with a feel that it’s practice for later). On top of that, the protagonists of her books are coping with bigger, harder, problems. For kids going through tough times of their own, it can help to know they aren’t alone, and for kids that aren’t, the books tug on the heartstrings and encourage empathy and understanding. And when these tough issues are paired with relatable, lovable characters and splashes of humor, you get stories kids will love!
Here are her three books for kids not quite ready to leave “middle grade” for the YA shelves.
See You at Harry’s
Fern is used to being mortified by her father’s use of the family to promote their family restaurant, Harry’s. She’s used to having to look after her little brother, Charlie, when the rest her family seems too busy to do their share, and she’s ready to tackle the social challenges of seventh grade. But her older brother, Holden, is facing challenges of his own in 9th grade; he’s realized he’s gay, and so have the bullies who are making his life miserable. And when tragedy strikes her family, and little Charlie dies, Fern blames herself. Can her family, loving but flawed, hold itself together when sadness is pulling them apart? You’ll need Kleenex, but there is warmth and hope, the start of healing, and even humor here to keep it from being too much to bear.
Still a Work in Progress
Middle school is full of social uncertainty (and bad smells). Noah could cope with that, but things at home are scary; his big sister Emma has an eating disorder that reached a crisis point a few years back. It still hangs over the family, though they don’t talk about it, and all the signs are there that Emma is relapsing. When she ends up back in the hospital, Noah struggles to cope with grief, guilt, confusion, frustration, and anger. Middle school gets even harder to bear, but Noah is able to find comfort in his growing artistic talent, and even his immature and sometimes annoying friends are able to help (a bit). There’s no magical happy ending, but there is hope that Emma, and Noah’s family, will be ok. The tension of Emma’s eating disorder is balanced by the ordinary and sometimes funny happenings at school, and Noah is a relatable character to cheer for.
Where the Heart Is (just published!)
The summer that Rachel turns 13 is one of change for her and her family. Money has always been tight at home, the aptly-named Bittersweet Farm, and Rachel’s happy to find work looking after the new neighbors’ hodge podge bunch of farm animals. But with her mother out of work, and the bills piling up, there’s nothing she can do that will help save her home. Her relationship with Micah, her best friend for years, is threatened too—he wants more than just friendship, and she just can’t offer him that. Instead, she’s wondering if she’s feeling attracted to another girl. The inevitable happens, and Bittersweet Farm is foreclosed, and Rachel has to learn that it’s where the heart is that matters most. This coming of age story doesn’t shy away from the tough topic of a family facing financial hardship, but it’s mainly a gentle and sensitive look at a young girl forced to deal with the stress of change and growing up that will resonate with many readers.