The best middle grade books for countering toxic masculinity

Who am I?

When I was in school, I often struggled to figure out where I “fit”. Yeah, I know that’s a common struggle among angsty teens. But as a biracial, bisexual kid who loved basketball and books, I didn’t feel totally at home in any of the stereotypical Breakfast Club-style categories that showed up even in many of the books I read: jock, nerd, prep, etc. Now, as a dad, coach, and writer, I know those boxes aren’t real. I’m passionate about giving kids stories that challenge old ideas about what boys are “supposed” to be and help them explore the full range of who they can be.


I wrote...

Thanks a Lot, Universe

By Chad Lucas,

Book cover of Thanks a Lot, Universe

What is my book about?

Brian has always been anxious, but things get worse when he and his brother are placed in foster care. Ezra notices Brian pulling away and wants to help, but he worries his friends might figure out he has a crush on Brian. But when Brian and his brother run away, Ezra takes the leap and reaches out. Both boys must decide if they're willing to risk sharing parts of themselves they'd rather hide. If they can be brave, they might find the best in themselves—and each other.

"A glorious ode to the beauty of pre-teen friendship…. By far my favorite middle-grade novel of 2021!" -- Nic Stone, New York Times bestselling author of Clean Getaway

The books I picked & why

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The Boys in the Back Row

By Mike Jung,

Book cover of The Boys in the Back Row

Why this book?

In this frequently hilarious novel about a pair of comic-loving band kids planning a big adventure, Mike Jung delivers a beautiful portrait of middle-grade male friendship. The caring, affectionate relationship between best buds Matt and Eric stands out as they defy stereotypes and preconceptions about how boys are “supposed” to act. And did I mention it’s laugh-out-loud funny?

The Boys in the Back Row

By Mike Jung,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Boys in the Back Row as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Best friends Matt and Eric are hatching a plan for one big final adventure together before Eric moves away: during the marching band competition at a Giant Amusement Park, they will sneak away to a nearby comics convention and meet their idol-a famous comic creator. Without cell phones. Or transportation. Or permission. Of course, their final adventure together is more than just that-really, it's a way for the boys to celebrate their friendship, and their honest love and support for one another. That's exactly what we love so much about The Boys in the Back Row: it's an unabashed ode…


Alan Cole Is Not a Coward

By Eric Bell,

Book cover of Alan Cole Is Not a Coward

Why this book?

Between his cruel older brother and his rigid, overbearing father, Alan Cole doesn’t have it easy—especially when his brother discovers he has a crush on a boy. But with some help from his friends, Alan learns to stand up for himself and challenge his family’s expectations. This is the kind of book I wish I could send back in time to my younger self, and I know a lot of kids will relate to Alan’s struggles—and celebrate his triumphs.

Alan Cole Is Not a Coward

By Eric Bell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Alan Cole Is Not a Coward as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Perfect for fans of Tim Federle and Gary Schmidt, this is a hilarious and poignant tale about the trials of middle school when you’re coming of age—and coming out.

Alan Cole can’t stand up to his cruel brother, Nathan. He can’t escape the wrath of his demanding father, who thinks he’s about as exceptional as a goldfish. And—scariest of all—he can’t let the cute boy across the cafeteria know he has a crush on him.

But when Nathan discovers Alan’s secret, his older brother announces a high-stakes round of Cole vs. Cole. Each brother must complete seven nearly impossible tasks;…


As Brave as You

By Jason Reynolds,

Book cover of As Brave as You

Why this book?

Over the course of a summer with his grandparents and his big brother Ernie in the country, the ever-curious Genie learns more about his family history—including parts the adults don’t like to talk about—and ends up reimagining what bravery really looks like. As you’d expect from award-winning author Jason Reynolds, this book is moving, full of humor, and it will linger with you long after you close the cover.

As Brave as You

By Jason Reynolds,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked As Brave as You as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Kirkus Award Finalist

Schneider Family Book Award Winner

Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book

In this “pitch-perfect contemporary novel” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review), Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award-winning author Jason Reynolds explores multigenerational ideas about family love and bravery in the story of two brothers, their blind grandfather, and a dangerous rite of passage.

Genie’s summer is full of surprises. The first is that he and his big brother, Ernie, are leaving Brooklyn for the very first time to spend the summer with their grandparents all the way in Virginia—in the COUNTRY! The second surprise comes when Genie…


Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

By Carlos Hernandez,

Book cover of Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

Why this book?

This delightfully strange sci-fi romp opens with Cuban-American budding magician Sal Vidon fending off a bully by summoning a raw chicken from another universe, and things only get wackier from there. Among the multi-dimensional hijinks and unusual characters (including a sentient and sarcastic entropy sweeper), Sal stands out as a memorable middle-grade protagonist who’s comfortable and secure in all his weird glory.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe

By Carlos Hernandez,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Sal and Gabi Break the Universe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Best-selling author Rick Riordan presents a brilliant sci-fi romp with Cuban influence by Carlos Hernandez, winner of the 2020 Pura Belpré Award.

"I love this book in every possible universe! With a surprise on every page and two of the most cosmically awesome, vividly unique heroes I've ever read, this sweet, hilarious book made me so happy."--Tui T. Sutherland, author of the New York Times best-selling Wings of Fire series

What would you do if you had the power to reach through time and space and retrieve anything you want, including your mother, who is no longer living (in this…


The Best at It

By Maulik Pancholy,

Book cover of The Best at It

Why this book?

Rahul Kapoor isn’t sure where he belongs as he starts seventh grade as one of the few Indian American kids in his midwestern town, but he latches onto his grandfather’s advice to figure out what he’s “the best” at… with sometimes disastrous results. This sweet, funny novel tackles relatable issues like facing anxiety and discovering your passion, all with a delightful cast. Rahul’s aunties are a force to behold!

The Best at It

By Maulik Pancholy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Best at It as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From award-winning actor Maulik Pancholy comes a hilarious and heartfelt middle grade debut about a gay Indian American boy coming into his own. One of Time Out's “LGBTQ+ books for kids to read during Pride Month,” this is perfect for fans of Tim Federle’s Nate series. A Stonewall Honor Book!

Rahul Kapoor is heading into seventh grade in a small town in Indiana. The start of middle school is making him feel increasingly anxious, so his favorite person in the whole world, his grandfather, Bhai, gives him some well-meaning advice: Find one thing you’re really good at and become the…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in brothers, the Universe, and comics?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about brothers, the Universe, and comics.

Brothers Explore 67 books about brothers
The Universe Explore 44 books about the Universe
Comics Explore 115 books about comics

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Rules, Sisters, and One Giant Leap if you like this list.