The best middle grade books about families, changes, and challenges

Cathy Carr Author Of 365 Days to Alaska
By Cathy Carr

Who am I?

I’ve been a writer a long time and a reader for even longer. But, above all, I’m someone who has always been interested in people. The book universe is filled with fast-moving, plot-driven fiction, but I find myself drawn to stories focused on layered characters and complex relationships. Since I think families are so basic to our experiences as people, I’m always interested in those stories too. What the five books here have in common are big family changes—mostly caused by adults—that challenge the books’ main characters—who are all kids.

I wrote...

365 Days to Alaska

By Cathy Carr,

Book cover of 365 Days to Alaska

What is my book about?

Eleven-year-old Rigel loves her life in off-the-grid Alaska. She hunts rabbits, does school through the mail, and plays dominoes with her family in their two-room cabin. But when her parents get divorced, Rigel and her sisters have to move with their mom to the Connecticut suburbs to live with a grandmother Rigel doesn’t even know. Rigel’s holding fast to the secret pact that she made with her father before she left Alaska: if she can stick it out in Connecticut for one year, he’ll bring her back home. But can Rigel make it for that long? And even if she does, will she be the same person at the end of 365 days? 

The books I picked & why

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The Fourteenth Goldfish

By Jennifer L. Holm,

Book cover of The Fourteenth Goldfish

Why this book?

Books that use humor to explore serious issues are delightful, and this one tops my list. Eleven-year-old Ellie isn’t the biggest fan of change. Then one day her mom is called to pick up Ellie’s grandfather from the police station and comes home with...a thirteen-year-old boy?! Ellie’s grandfather has managed to reverse the aging process, and now he’s enrolled in her middle school. Ellie and her grandfather form a strong bond over their shared interest in science. She even helps him break into his old lab so he can retrieve the specimen he needs to publish his findings. But Ellie becomes uneasy with the possible applications of her grandfather’s discovery. Maybe change isn’t always the worst thing after all? This light-hearted book will make you laugh—and think. 

Merci Suárez Changes Gears

By Meg Medina,

Book cover of Merci Suárez Changes Gears

Why this book?

For me, there’s something special about books that embrace the messy complexity of real life—especially when those messes aren’t resolved too neatly. Sixth grade is off to a rocky start for Merci. She’s a scholarship student who doesn’t feel like she fits in at her private school, and now she’s gotten off on the wrong foot with her bossy classmate, Edna. At home, her beloved grandfather Lolo is acting weirdforgetting important things, falling off his bike, and mixing up people’s names. The adults are having whispered arguments and no one in the family will talk to Merci about what's really going on. But when Lolo’s secret finally comes to light, Merci’s family and new friends at school are the ones who understand her anger and help her find her way forward to acceptance. This story about a loving, imperfect family rings true.

A Place to Hang the Moon

By Kate Albus,

Book cover of A Place to Hang the Moon

Why this book?

Painstaking research, great characterizations, and lovely writing come together to make this book sing for me. Orphaned siblings William, Edmund, and Anna aren’t exactly broken-hearted when their distant grandmother dies suddenly. But since she was their guardian, they face the awful prospect of being separated and sent to different homes. When the British government decides to do a mass wartime evacuation of children from London to protect them from the 1940 Blitz, the siblings see an unexpected opportunity. Can they take advantage of Operation Pied Piper to find a new home for all of them? Life in their new town can be cold and harsh, but a growing friendship with the kind local librarian offers a glimmer of hope that their dream might come true. This is a warm-hearted story that earns its happy ending. 

While I Was Away

By Waka T. Brown,

Book cover of While I Was Away

Why this book?

In my experience, a truly unique book is rare, and I’m always excited to find one that stands apart because of premise and setting. Waka is happy in her sixth-grade class in Kansasuntil her parents notice she’s losing her Japanese language skills and decide to take action. They send Waka to Tokyo to spend several months living with her grandmother and attending a local public school. In Japan, Waka struggles with reading and writing kanji, feels awkward around her reserved grandmother, and can’t figure out the social scene at school. Japan may be her parents’ birth country, but in Tokyo, Waka is an outsider. Where is Waka’s real home, and who will she be once she figures that out? An unforgettable memoir with lots of fun 1980s flavor. 

New Kid

By Jerry Craft,

Book cover of New Kid

Why this book?

This novel made me laugh out loud, and the lessons it offers in grace under pressure linger long after reading. Budding cartoonist Jordan Banks wants to go to art school for seventh grade, but his mom enrolls him in a prestigious private school known for strong academics instead. Not only does he have to get used to a new school, Jordan is one of the only kids of color in his whole grade. Making the long commute from his Washington Heights apartment to the Riverdale Academy Day School, he finds himself torn between two worlds—and feeling like he might not really fit in anywhere. Can Jordan figure out a way to navigate his new school while staying true to himself, his family, and his neighborhood friends? This vibrant graphic novel is full of wisdom, humor, and honesty. 

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