A few years ago, in homeschooling our children, I learned a valuable lesson.
Literature is for all of us. whether that literature is picture books, early reader chapter books, teen fiction, something in the young adult category, or a good piece of non-fiction.
Every piece of literature is for all of us.
As a 30-something adult, I had allowed myself to fit neatly into the literary categories that were expected of me. Much like we put children into carefully crafted and organized school grades, as a society we like to categorize growth and learning into cubbies – you read picture books when you’re 5 or 6 years old maybe until you’re 9, hone your reading skills and expand your attention span with some early chapter books, move on to age-appropriate chapter book content, then teen, on to YA or young adult, and “graduate” to adult fiction and non-fiction, proving your ability to embrace true literature.
I might be sarcastically exaggerating, and it might be under my own assumptions I operated, but homeschooling opened my reading world. I found I loved picking out picture book biographies from our local library. The artwork captured my attention and I loved quickly being able to get to know a change-maker, leader, discoverer, or inventor. Then, I discovered I could put on an audio book appropriate for all the ages of our children while we ran errands, while I chopped vegetables for dinner, or while we quieted ourselves for bed at night.
It was in this act of listening and chopping and resting and discussing with my husband and kids I found the gift that is helping people understand mental health, family dynamics, and emotional and relational struggles through middle readers.
At its basic, “middle reader” or “middle grade” fiction is not a genre, but it is fiction intended for 8- to 12-years-old. However, I would agree with a newer understanding of this genre we are seeing from publishers: it sets a protagonist in that vague age range and deals with topics that kids are actually going through in their lives, such as struggles in family life and common physical and emotional changes, but because it is one person’s story, it feels personal and individualized.
What we call “mental health” isn’t a rarity.
NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) tells us that 1 in 5 adults, and 1 in 5 children, live with a diagnosable mental health concern. If you know me and follow my writing, you know I would take that a few steps farther to remind you that we all have mental health. It’s part of our bodies. Mental health involves our brains and our emotions, our ideals, our hormones, and so much more. We all have mental health to tend to and grow in and address. And so do kids.
Because the goal of most modern middle readers is to address one or more aspects of things kids are actually going through, these stories introduce, with just the right amount of depth for most of us, many topics we could all use a little more education on and a little more perspective on. The purpose of fiction is entertainment, but almost every author will also tell you they want you to walk in another person’s shoes for the length of the time it takes you to read their book. They want you to do and be things you may never do and be in this life — not to change who you are inherently, but to widen your lens and to allow you to grasp onto some compassion you would not have had without taking the time to read their work.
I’d like to introduce you to a few of my favorite mental health middle readers. Print or screen shot this list, head to the local library, and enjoy some deep characterizations, moving plotlines, growth in understanding, and embedded definitions and explanations for various mental health issues. I’ll also leave some very brief descriptions to keep this list trauma informed. These topics are all sensitive for many of us, so know what you and your children can read, discuss, and wrestle with well. I’ll keep them very brief though, so there are no spoilers!
(The link for each title is connected to my Amazon Affiliate account, so if you go through that link and buy a title, I do receive a small commission. These commissions go back into my fund for running the website and developing more resources on mental health, relationships, and Jesus.)
Heidi’s Favorite Mental Health Middle Readers
Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan – loss, the Autism Spectrum, non-traditional families
The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller – depression, family dynamics, ethnicity
A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass – the sensory system, neurodiversity, belonging and peer acceptance
Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord – foster care, family, identity, diversity of life experience
Blended by Sharon M. Draper – race, divorce, friendship, identity
The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Series) – childhood abuse and trauma, loss, foster care
Al Capone Does My Shirts (Series) by Gennifer Choldenko – special needs siblings, imprisonment, family
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry – loss, death, fear, discrimination
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi – bravery, trauma, resilience
Timothy of the Cay by Theodore Taylor – loss, trauma, friendship, mentoring, disability, resilience
What middle reader books would you add to the list?
What fiction books have left an impression on you or have taught you something?
I love hearing from you!
Look for more book lists to come on various mental health topics in the future, as well as some mental health music playlists. Holler if you utilize one, and share them with your friends if you find them helpful. This may be a small step, but even what we read and share builds awareness and ends the stigma surrounding mental health.
Up next week on the blog: Growing a Friend
In the meantime: Check out our Mental Health Monday series on youtube