10 Middle Grade Novels That Address Mental Health with Compassion

Not OK? That's OK. A reading list with diverse characters and authentic representation of mental health.

These middle grade titles from the past three years depict compassionate, accurate mental health representation featuring a diversity of characters and diagnoses.

A Song Only I Can Hear. Barry Jonsberg. S. & S. 2020.
In this novel set in Australia, Rob, who is trans, has a huge crush on a classmate, but panic attacks get in the way of his making a connection. Mysterious texts presenting personal challenges push him to work through his anxiety and shyness and help him find himself. Includes a grandfather with PTSD.

Being Clem. Lesa Cline-Ransome. Holiday House. 2021.
This work of historical fiction, set in Chicago in the 1940s, looks at the day-to-day reality of having a parent with an untreated mental illness. Clem navigates fears, friendships, and morals, all while his mother, who lacks support, is mired in grief and depression in the wake of his father’s death in the Port Chicago Disaster.

[Also Read: Not OK? That’s OK. Middle Grade Authors Provide Compassionate Portrayals of Mental Health]

Breathing UnderwaterSarah Allen. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2021.
Thirteen-year-old Olivia works hard to understand her older sister’s increasingly debilitating depression as they travel with family from Tennessee to California to reclaim a buried time capsule of treasured memories. This road trip story is a compassionate, gentle look at how depression can affect a sibling, and it shows that the best way you can help is sometimes just by loving someone.

Five Things About Ava AndrewsMargaret Dilloway. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. 2020.
Biracial (Japanese and white) Ava, a sixth grader, who has anxiety and a heart condition (noncompaction cardiomyopathy), feels lost after her best friend moves away. She finds camaraderie and her voice when she joins an improv group. A strong, positive depiction of therapy and a supportive school that has 504 accommodations.

Give and Take. Elly Swartz. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2019.
While coping with the death of her grandma and the impending loss to adoption of the infant her parents are fostering, Maggie begins hoarding any little thing that feels like a special memory to her. When her parents discover her overflowing boxes, they seek treatment for her anxiety and hoarding disorder. A tender look at change and grief.

The Golden Hour. Niki Smith. Little, Brown. 2021.
In the wake of an act of gun violence at school, Manuel, who is Latinx, is getting help through therapy for the trauma, anxiety, panic attacks, derealization, and PTSD. He finds surprising comfort in new friends, including Sebastian, with whom romance begins to bloom. A beautiful graphic novel about healing in the wake of tragedy.

How to Make Friends with the SeaTanya Guerrero. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2020.
Pablo’s anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder increase when he and his zoologist mother get used to new people and new experiences, including a foster sibling with a cleft lip and selective mutism, in the Philippines. A moving and complex look at identity, connection, and learning how to open up to others.

Sara and the Search for NormalWesley King. S. & S/Paula Wiseman Bks. 2020.
Sara, who has depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, and is selectively mute, struggles with internalized shame and stigma. Not part of mainstream classrooms, she just wants to be “normal” and to stop taking the medications that help her. Therapy, including group therapy, and powerful new friendships help her learn to accept herself as she is.

The Sea in WinterChristine Day. Harper/Heartdrum. 2021.
Native American (Makah/Piscataway) Maisie struggles with depression after tearing her ACL and feeling like her dream of being a dancer is over. Though she feels adrift, her loving and supportive blended family as well as eventually therapy help her through this difficult period.

Stuntboy, in the MeantimeJason Reynolds, illus. by Raúl the Third. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books. 2021.
Portico Reeves starts experiencing an increase in anxiety, or, as he calls it, “the frets,” when his parents split up. His superhero alter ego, Stuntboy, works as a coping mechanism, keeping him busy in his apartment complex of mostly Black people with larger-than-life personalities, but those “frets” can sure be villainous. A lively illustrated novel heavy on humor and full of heart.

Amanda MacGregor currently works at an elementary school library in Minnesota. She blogs at “Teen Librarian Toolbox.”

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