The best middle grade books about kids caught in a family crisis

The Books I Picked & Why

The Great Gilly Hopkins

By Katherine Paterson

Book cover of The Great Gilly Hopkins

Why this book?

Kids coping with a family in crisis is a theme that resonates with young readers. These middle-grade books can be gut-wrenching, but always hopeful too. The Great Gilly Hopkins is a classic in this genre. There is heartbreak, humor, and lots of quirky characters like Mr. Randolph, the blind, elderly neighbor with an impressive library of books. Eleven-year-old Gilly Hopkins is feisty and irrepressible. She is determined to find a way to reunite with the mother who abandoned her by sabotaging each foster care placement, until she lands in Mrs. Trotter’s house. She finds in Mrs. Trotter an insurmountable force who refuses to let Gilly fail again. Every troubled kid needs a Mrs. Trotter in their lives.

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One for the Murphys

By Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Book cover of One for the Murphys

Why this book?

One for the Murphys is another story about a kid in foster care, but this time it isn’t due to abandonment. Carley Connors has been betrayed by her mother in the worst possible way. Still, Carley is terrified of being placed in a new family, confirming that sometimes you think the horror you know is better than the one you imagine. The author takes us on a roller coaster ride of emotions as Carley learns what give-and-take in a stable family means. I love the message of hope even though the ending wasn’t what I was wishing for, but then again, this book is not a fairytale.  

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Where the Watermelons Grow

By Cindy Baldwin

Book cover of Where the Watermelons Grow

Why this book?

One can’t read about families in crisis and not confront the devastation and stigma of mental illness. I think this theme resonates with many people, who are close to someone dealing with this illness, including me. In Where the Watermelons Grow, the consequences of mental illness in a family are stark as seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Della, whose mother is on the verge of a serious breakdown. Della is thrust into new responsibilities for her baby sister and on the family farm. Despite this, Della is still a child who believes in magic and searches for a cure to heal her mother. Of course, there is no magical cure, but there is magic in understanding and acceptance.

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Where You'll Find Me

By Natasha Friend

Book cover of Where You'll Find Me

Why this book?

This next book is gritty in its authenticity. It isn’t for the faint of heart to read about the heartbreaking struggles of thirteen-year-old Anna Collette whose mother tries to take her life and is hospitalized. Anna has to live with her distant father, his new wife, and their baby where she doesn’t feel like part of the family. But the author gives us a warm and loving character in her stepmother who shows Della what family can be. I’m enthralled by true and complex characters in this book who represent the highs and lows of real life.

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Bricktown Boys

By Pete Fanning

Book cover of Bricktown Boys

Why this book?

Bricktown Boys is a story of a family in crisis from a boy’s point of view. Thirteen-year-old Sam Beasley lives with his dysfunctional mother, her abusive boyfriend, and drugs. He assumes the role of his mother’s protector and will do anything to save her from herself which is near impossible. Fanning gives us a counterpoint to Sam’s mother in Mrs. Coleman, the bible quoting, grammar stickler widow on his street. Mrs. Coleman is full of spirit and kindness, but also has a no-nonsense approach which Sam gravitates to. She is his rock in an upside-down world. This book has wonderful street-wise dialogue and a fascinating group of diverse characters.

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