The best realistic fiction books for kids in tough family situations

Dianna Dorisi Winget Author Of A Million Ways Home
By Dianna Dorisi Winget

The Books I Picked & Why

The Outsiders

By S.E. Hinton

Book cover of The Outsiders

Why this book?

When I was first assigned to read this book in 7th grade, I turned up my nose as did most of the other girls in my class. Why in the world would I want to read a book about three teenage brothers from the wrong side of the tracks? But in no time at all I was swept up in this poignant and powerful story about love, loyalty and family overcoming the injustice of class distinctions and poverty. The Outsiders is a true classic, and an unforgettable story that every middle grade student should read.

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Strays Like Us

By Cecilia Galante

Book cover of Strays Like Us

Why this book?

I first picked up this book because I love dogs and there was a cute dog on the cover. But it wasn’t long before I was engrossed in the story of Fred, a young girl who ends up in foster care while her mother is battling drug addiction. She’s being cared for by a tough, motorcycle-loving foster mother named Margery. At first, they seem like such an unlikely couple. But they end up bonding over their love of animals and art. It’s a sweet and poignant story with a happy ending. 

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Bo at Ballard Creek

By Kirkpatrick Hill, LeUyen Pham

Book cover of Bo at Ballard Creek

Why this book?

I first discovered this little gem of a book while researching a historical fiction novel of my own. Set in the 1920s, it’s about a little orphan girl named Bo who's being raised by two rough and tumble gold miners—both men. It’s a fun and exciting adventure story, while at the same time providing an insightful and authentic look at life after the famous Alaska gold rush. A perfect read for ages 8-12. 

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James and the Giant Peach

By Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake

Book cover of James and the Giant Peach

Why this book?

This is another classic story that has the honor of a spot in my ridiculously small bookcase. It’s the fairy tale-type story of poor James, a young orphan boy being raised by two horrible aunts. One day he discovers a peach tree with a peach as big as a house—full of giant, intriguing creatures. Then one day, the peach falls and takes off on a rollicking journey. It’s a funny, heartwarming, and just plain fun read. 

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By Katherine Applegate

Book cover of Crenshaw

Why this book?

Have you ever had an imaginary friend? Sometimes that’s what it takes to get us through hard times. And this is the case with Jackson, a young homeless boy whose family is forced to live in their mini-van for a time. At Jackson’s lowest point, he’s joined by a giant, sharp-witted, imaginary cat named Crenshaw. This story does a great job of portraying the realities of being homeless, while at the same time being uplifting and hopeful. It’s a great book for young readers facing tough times. 

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