Mental Health: Character Mental Health: Middle Grade

Ann Jacobus and Nan­cy Bo Flood, authors and edu­ca­tors, devel­oped this list of pic­ture books with men­tal health as a focus. They are main­tain­ing it, so if you have sug­ges­tions, please let us know in the com­ments. Ann and Nan­cy are avail­able for work­shops on this impor­tant top­ic for librar­i­ans, edu­ca­tors, and men­tal health orga­ni­za­tions. Ann Jacobus. Nan­cy Bo Flood.


Count­ing by Sev­ens
writ­ten by Hol­ly Gold­berg Sloan
Roar­ing Brook Press, 2017
(pre­sumed autism) 

Wil­low Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diag­nos­ing med­ical con­di­tions, who finds it com­fort­ing to count by 7s. It has nev­er been easy for her to con­nect with any­one oth­er than her adop­tive par­ents, but that has­n’t kept her from lead­ing a qui­et­ly hap­py life … until now.

Sud­den­ly Wil­low’s world is trag­i­cal­ly changed when her par­ents both die in a car crash, leav­ing her alone in a baf­fling world. The tri­umph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extra­or­di­nar­i­ly odd, but extra­or­di­nar­i­ly endear­ing, girl man­ages to push through her grief. Her jour­ney to find a fas­ci­nat­ing­ly diverse and ful­ly believ­able sur­ro­gate fam­i­ly is a joy and a rev­e­la­tion to read.

Dad’s Girl­friend and Oth­er Anx­i­eties
writ­ten by Kel­lye Crock­er
Albert Whit­man, 2022

Anx­i­ety has always made Ava fear­ful of change, but plung­ing head­first into a new sit­u­a­tion might be just what she needs.

Dad has­n’t even been dat­ing his new girl­friend that long, so Ava is sure that noth­ing has to change in her life. That is, until the day after sixth grade ends, when Dad whisks her away on vaca­tion to meet The Girl­friend and her daugh­ter in ter­ri­fy­ing Col­orado, where even the squir­rels can kill you! Man­ag­ing her anx­i­ety, avoid­ing alti­tude sick­ness, and sur­viv­ing the moun­tains might take all of Ava’s strength, but at least this trip will only last two weeks. Right?

The Dreamway
writ­ten by Lisa Papademetri­ou 
Harper­Collins, 2018

Every night, your sleep­ing body stays in your bed, while the you of you trav­els deep beneath the earth to ride the com­plex rails of the Dreamway….

Stel­la Clay thought it was just anoth­er ordi­nary day at her drab gray school. Then her twin broth­er, Cole, is attacked by a shad­owy crea­ture on their way home, and Stel­la’s world turns pos­i­tive­ly pecu­liar. Sud­den­ly, her broth­er seems dif­fer­ent, almost dim­mer, like a can­dle about to flick­er out.

And then a talk­ing mouse shows up in her bedroom.

Stel­la dis­cov­ers that the real Cole has been tak­en pris­on­er in the Dreamway. Deter­mined to find him, she sets out with the “help” of a stuck-up rodent, a ner­vous drag­on­fly, and a mys­te­ri­ous pirate, and finds her way to the dark­est edge of the Dreamway to bring her broth­er home … before he’s trapped forever.

Find­ing Per­fect
writ­ten by Elly Swartz
Far­rar, Straus & Giroux, 2016
(obses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der, OCD) 

To twelve-year-old Mol­ly Nathans, per­fect is:

  • The num­ber four
  • The tip of a new­ly sharp­ened No. 2 pencil
  • A crisp white pad of paper
  • Her neat­ly aligned glass ani­mal figurines

What’s not per­fect is Molly’s moth­er leav­ing the fam­i­ly to take a far­away job with the promise to return in one year. Mol­ly knows that promis­es are some­times bro­ken, so she hatch­es a plan to bring her moth­er home: Win the Lakeville Mid­dle School Poet­ry Slam Con­test. The win­ner is hon­ored at a fan­cy ban­quet with white table­cloths. Mol­ly is sure her moth­er would nev­er miss that. Right…?

But as time pass­es, writ­ing and recit­ing slam poet­ry become hard­er. Actu­al­ly, every­thing becomes hard­er as new habits appear, and count­ing, clean­ing, and orga­niz­ing are not enough to keep Mol­ly’s world from spin­ning out of con­trol. In this fresh-voiced debut nov­el, one girl learns there is no such thing as perfect.

The Gold­en Hour (graph­ic nov­el)
writ­ten by Niki Smith
Lit­tle Brown Ink, 2021
(obses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der, OCD)

Strug­gling with anx­i­ety after wit­ness­ing a har­row­ing instance of gun vio­lence, Manuel Soto copes through pho­tog­ra­phy, using his cell-phone cam­era to find anchors that keep him ground­ed. His days are a lone­ly, latchkey monot­o­ny until he’s teamed with his class­mates, Sebas­t­ian and Caysha, for a group project.

Sebas­t­ian lives on a grass-fed cat­tle farm out­side of town, and Manuel finds solace in the open fields and in the antics of the new­born calf Sebas­t­ian is hand-rais­ing. As Manuel aides his new friends in their prepa­ra­tions for the local coun­ty fair, he learns to open up, con­fronts his deep­est fears, and even finds first love.

The Gold­fish Boy
writ­ten by Lisa Thomp­son
Eerd­mans Books for Young Read­ers, 2015
(obses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der, OCD) 

In this riv­et­ing debut, a boy strug­gling with OCD is unique­ly qual­i­fied to solve a kidnapping.

Lisa Thomp­son’s debut nov­el is a page-turn­ing mys­tery with an emo­tion­al­ly-dri­ven, com­plex char­ac­ter study at its core — like Rear Win­dow meets The Curi­ous Inci­dent of the Dog in the Night-Time.Matthew Corbin suf­fers from severe obses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der. He has­n’t been to school in weeks. His hands are cracked and bleed­ing from clean­ing. He refus­es to leave his bed­room. To pass the time, he observes his neigh­bors from his bed­room win­dow, mak­ing mun­dane notes about their habits as they bus­tle about the cul-de-sac. When a tod­dler stay­ing next door goes miss­ing, it becomes appar­ent that Matthew was the last per­son to see him alive. Sud­den­ly, Matthew finds him­self at the cen­ter of a high-stakes mys­tery, and every one of his neigh­bors is a sus­pect. Matthew is the key to fig­ur­ing out what hap­pened and poten­tial­ly sav­ing a child’s life … but is he able to do so if it means expos­ing his own secrets, and step­ping out from the safe­ty of his home? 

writ­ten by Tor­rey Mal­don­a­do
Nan­cy Paulsen Books / PRH, 2023
(trau­ma, abuse) 

Trev would do any­thing to pro­tect his mom and sis­ters, espe­cial­ly from his step­dad. But his stepdad’s return stress­es Trev — because when he left, he threat­ened Trev’s mom. Rather than live scared, Trev takes mat­ters into his own hands, lit­er­al­ly. He starts learn­ing to box to han­dle his step­dad. But every­one isn’t a fan of his plan, because Trev’s a tal­ent­ed artist, and his hands could actu­al­ly help him build a bet­ter future. And they’re let­ting him know. But their advice for some dis­tant future feels use­less in his real­i­ty right now. Ulti­mate­ly, Trev knows his future is in his hands, and his hands are his own, and he has to choose how to use them.

Joey Pigza Swal­lowed the Key
writ­ten by Jack Gan­tos
Far­rar, Straus & Giroux, 1998

They say I’m wired bad, or wired sad, but there’s no doubt about it — I’m wired.”

Joey Pigza­’s got heart, he’s got a mom who loves him, and he’s got “dud meds,” which is what he calls the Rital­in pills that are sup­posed to even out his wild mood swings. Some­times Joey makes bad choic­es. He learns the hard way that he should­n’t stick his fin­ger in the pen­cil sharp­en­er, or swal­low his house key, or run with scis­sors. Joey ends up bounc­ing around a lot — and even­tu­al­ly he bounces him­self all the way down­town, into the dis­trict spe­cial-ed pro­gram, which could be the end of the line. As Joey knows, if he keeps mak­ing bad choic­es, he could just fall between the cracks for good. But he is deter­mined not to let that happen.

In this antic yet poignant nov­el, Jack Gan­tos has per­fect pitch in cap­tur­ing the humor, the off-the-wall inten­si­ty, and the seri­ous chal­lenges that life presents to a kid deal­ing with hyper-activ­i­ty and relat­ed disorders.

The List of Things That Will Not Change
writ­ten by Rebec­ca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books, 2020
(char­ac­ter in therapy) 

After her par­ents’ divorce, Bea’s life became dif­fer­ent in many ways. But she can always look back at the list she keeps in her green note­book to remem­ber the things that will stay the same. The first and most impor­tant: Mom and Dad will always love Bea, and each other.

When Dad tells Bea that he and his boyfriend, Jesse, are get­ting mar­ried, Bea is thrilled. Bea loves Jesse, and when he and Dad get mar­ried, she’ll final­ly (final­ly!) have what she’s always want­ed — a sis­ter. Even though she’s nev­er met Jesse’s daugh­ter, Sonia, Bea is sure that they’ll be “just like sis­ters anywhere.”

As the wed­ding day approach­es, Bea will learn that mak­ing a new fam­i­ly brings ques­tions, sur­pris­es, and joy.

writ­ten by Wes­ley King
Paula Wise­man Books, S&S, 2021
(obses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der, OCD) 

Daniel is the back-up punter for the Erie Hills Ele­phants. Which real­ly means he’s the water boy. He spends foot­ball prac­tice per­fect­ly arrang­ing water cups — and hop­ing no one notices. Actu­al­ly, he spends most of his time hop­ing no one notices his OCD habits — he calls them Zaps: avoid­ing writ­ing the num­ber four, for exam­ple, or flip­ping a light switch on and off dozens of times over. But every­thing changes when a girl at school, who is unkind­ly nick­named Psy­cho Sara, notices him for the first time. She does­n’t just notice him: she seems to peer through him.

Then Daniel gets a note: “I need your help,” it says, signed, Fel­low Star Child — what­ev­er that means. And sud­den­ly Daniel, a total no one at school, is swept up in a mys­tery that changes every­thing for him.

With great voice and grand adven­ture, this book is about feel­ing dif­fer­ent and find­ing those who understand.

Trou­ble With a Tiny T 
writ­ten by Mer­ri­am Sar­cia Saun­ders
Cap­stone Edi­tions, 2021

Twelve-year-old West­in Hop­per gets in trou­ble — a lot. At home, at school, at his grand­par­ents’ house…. His ADHD always seems to mess with his brain, mak­ing him do impul­sive things. So when West­in finds a mag­ic bag that makes his thoughts come alive, he thinks it’s the tick­et to fix­ing his life.

Instead, his wan­der­ing brain strikes again, con­jur­ing up a mini T. rex, an army of head­less plas­tic men, and a six-inch Thor. Now they all live in his bed­room, eat­ing lunch meat, wreak­ing hav­oc, and grow­ing. And West­in does­n’t know how to make them go away.

He enlists his fel­low social out­cast, Leno­ra, to help him make things right. Leno­ra helps West­in real­ize that his tal­ent for draw­ing could be the key to solv­ing his prob­lems. If West­in can focus while draw­ing, maybe he can learn to con­trol the mag­ic and get rid of the crea­tures in his room. But he’d bet­ter learn quick­ly. Tiny T is grow­ing — and fast.

Some Kind of Happiness
writ­ten by Claire Legrand
Simon & Schus­ter, 2016
(anx­i­ety, depression) 

Things Fin­ley Hart does­n’t want to talk about:

  • Her par­ents, who are hav­ing prob­lems. (But they pre­tend like they’re not.)
  • Being sent to her grand­par­ents’ house for the summer.
  • Nev­er hav­ing met said grandparents.
  • Her blue days — when life feels over­whelm­ing, and it’s hard to keep her head up. (This hap­pens a lot.)

Fin­ley’s only retreat is the Ever­wood, a for­est king­dom that exists in the pages of her note­book. Until she dis­cov­ers the end­less woods behind her grand­par­ents’ house and real­izes the Ever­wood is real — and holds more mys­ter­ies than she’d ever imag­ined, includ­ing a fam­i­ly of pirates that she isn’t allowed to talk to, trees cov­ered in ash, and a strange old wiz­ard liv­ing in a house made of bones.

With the help of her cousins, Fin­ley sets out on a mis­sion to save the dying Ever­wood and uncov­er its secrets. But as the mys­ter­ies pile up and the fright­en­ing sad­ness inside her grows, Fin­ley real­izes that if she wants to save the Ever­wood, she’ll first have to save herself.

writ­ten by Lisa Fipps
Nan­cy Paulsen Books, 2021
(char­ac­ter in therapy) 

Ever since Ellie wore a whale swim­suit and made a big splash at her fifth birth­day par­ty, she’s been bul­lied about her weight. To cope, she tries to live by the Fat Girl Rules — like “no mak­ing waves,” “avoid eat­ing in pub­lic,” and “don’t move so fast that your body jig­gles.” And she’s found her safe space — her swim­ming pool — where she feels weight­less in a fat-obsessed world. In the water, she can stretch her­self out like a starfish and take up all the room she wants. It’s also where she can get away from her pushy mom, who thinks crit­i­ciz­ing Ellie’s weight will moti­vate her to diet.

For­tu­nate­ly, Ellie has allies in her dad, her ther­a­pist, and her new neigh­bor, Catali­na, who loves Ellie for who she is. With this sup­port buoy­ing her, Ellie might final­ly be able to cast aside the Fat Girl Rules and starfish in real life — by unapolo­get­i­cal­ly being her own fab­u­lous self.

A Thou­sand Min­utes to Sun­light
writ­ten by Jen White
Far­rar, Straus & Giroux, 2021
(anx­i­ety, fam­i­ly sub­stance abuse) 

A sen­si­tive­ly-writ­ten mid­dle grade nov­el about a girl strug­gling with anx­i­ety, fam­i­ly secrets, and the mean­ing of friend­ship.

Cora is con­stant­ly count­ing the min­utes. It’s the only thing that stops her brain from rat­tling with wor­ry, from con­vinc­ing her that dan­ger is up ahead. Afraid of the unknown, Cora spends her days with her feet tucked into sand, mar­veling at La Quin­ta beach’s giant waves and her lit­tle sis­ter Sun­shine’s bound­less ener­gy.

And then dan­ger real­ly does show up at Cora’s doorstep―her absen­tee uncle, whose sud­den pres­ence in the mid­dle of the night makes her par­ents ner­vous and secre­tive. As dawn breaks once more, Cora must piece togeth­er her fam­i­ly and her­self, one minute at a time.

What Jamie Saw
writ­ten by Car­olyn Comen
name­los, 2009
(trau­ma, domes­tic violence) 

Jamie’s moth­er is there to catch the baby —this time. She does what she must to keep her fam­i­ly out of harm’s way, but still the shock waves of Van’s act rever­ber­ate through their lives. What Jamie Saw is a mov­ing, vis­cer­al drama­ti­za­tion of vio­lence in the home, told not from the point of view of a vic­tim, but as wit­nessed by a nine-year-old boy. The impact of observed vio­lence per­pe­trat­ed against loved ones is pro­found and destruc­tive, and alto­geth­er too com­mon. Draw­ing on his mother’s des­per­ate strength, his own deter­mi­na­tion, and help from an unex­pect­ed friend, Jamie con­fronts his fear and anx­i­ety — learn­ing, adapt­ing, and triumphing.

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