The best middle grade books featuring neurodivergent characters

Sara Leach Author Of Slug Days
By Sara Leach

Who am I?

I’ve been an elementary school classroom teacher and teacher-librarian for over 25 years and I’ve had the privilege of teaching many amazing students with neurodiversity. I was inspired to write the Slug Days book when I was teaching a student with Autism Spectrum Disorder. I wrote the book to imagine what life might be like for that student so I could be a better teacher. I believe a school library should represent all our students and I’m always on the lookout for excellent books that feature neurodiverse characters.

I wrote...

Slug Days

By Sara Leach, Rebecca Bender (illustrator),

Book cover of Slug Days

What is my book about?

A charismatic illustrated novel about the ups and downs of school and home life for one little girl with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

On slug days Lauren feels slow and slimy. She feels like everyone yells at her, and she has no friends. On butterfly days Lauren makes her classmates laugh, goes to get ice cream, or works on a special project with Mom. With support and stubbornness and a flair that’s all her own, Lauren masters tricks to stay calm, understand others’ feelings, and let her personality shine.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Why did I love this book?

The main character of this book, Aven Green is a spunky, funny 13-year-old who was born with no arms but has never let it stop her. It is her new friend, Connor, a boy with Tourette’s, who is the reason I’ve included the book on my list. I knew almost nothing about Tourette’s before reading this book, and I learned a ton. It also made me think about how I react to people who are neurodivergent and/or have disabilities. Aven and Connor embark on an adventure to solve a mystery at the amusement park Aven’s family manages. The plot is fun and full of twists and turns, but it was the deepening friendship between the two teens that made this book so good.

By Dusti Bowling,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The paperback edition of the bestselling middle grade novel about a spunky girl born without arms and a boy with Tourette syndrome navigating the challenges of middle school, disability, and friendship - all while solving a mystery in a western theme park. Aven Green loves to tell people that she lost her arms in an alligator wrestling match, or a wildfire in Tanzania, but the truth is she was born without them. And when her parents take a job running Stagecoach Pass, a rundown western theme park in Arizona, Aven moves with them across the country knowing that she'll have…

Fish in a Tree

By Lynda Mullaly Hunt,

Book cover of Fish in a Tree

Why did I love this book?

Ally has fooled her teachers and family into thinking she can read. It isn’t until her new teacher, Mr. Daniels, sees that she might have dyslexia that she’s able to think of herself as anything other than dumb. This beautiful book is full of complex characters, many of whom have un-named learning differences. There are strong friendships, loyalty, and deep emotions. I had tears in my eyes through much of the story. As a teacher myself, I loved Mr. Daniels—he’s the teacher we all wish we’d had and that I aspire to be. There’s also a nasty antagonist who gets her due!

By Lynda Mullaly Hunt,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Fish in a Tree as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Fans of R.J. Palacio's Wonder will appreciate this feel-good story of friendship and unconventional smarts." -Kirkus Reviews

Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions. She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be…


By Cynthia Lord,

Book cover of Rules

Why did I love this book?

12-year-old Catherine’s feelings toward her younger, autistic brother are complicated. She’s protective of him and also appears to be embarrassed by his behaviour. All she wants is a “normal” life. When she becomes friends with a paraplegic boy she’s forced to think about what “normal” really means. This book is hopeful, humourous, thoughtful, and explores what it means to interact with someone who is neurodivergent. The author is the mother of a child with autism and the complex relationships and friendships in the book felt real and captured the mixed-up emotions of middle-graders. 

By Cynthia Lord,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This Newbery Honor Book is a heartfelt and witty story about feeling different and finding acceptance -- beyond the rules.

Twelve-year-old Catherine just wants a normal life. Which is near impossible when you have a brother with autism and a family that revolves around his disability. She's spent years trying to teach David the rules from "a peach is not a funny-looking apple" to "keep your pants on in public" -- in order to head off David's embarrassing behaviors.But the summer Catherine meets Jason, a surprising, new sort-of friend, and Kristi, the next-door friend she's always wished for, it's her…

A Boy Called Bat

By Elana K. Arnold, Charles Santoso (illustrator),

Book cover of A Boy Called Bat

Why did I love this book?

This tenderhearted book is narrated by Bixby Alexander Tam (Bat), a boy who falls in love with the orphaned baby skunk his mom brings home. I love that Bat’s autism has a role in the story—his challenges understanding other people cause friction and school and with his sister—but it isn’t the only focus of the book. Bat’s big problem is convincing his mom to let him keep the skunk kit. Readers are drawn into his unique worldview as he experiences friendship, family, and skunk-parenting.

By Elana K. Arnold, Charles Santoso (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked A Boy Called Bat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first book in a funny, heartfelt, and irresistible young middle grade series starring an unforgettable young boy on the autism spectrum.

For Bixby Alexander Tam (nicknamed Bat), life tends to be full of surprises-some of them good, some not so good. Today, though, is a good-surprise day. Bat's mom, a veterinarian, has brought home a baby skunk, which she needs to take care of until she can hand him over to a wild-animal shelter.

But the minute Bat meets the kit, he knows they belong together. And he's got one month to show his mom that a baby skunk…

Book cover of Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

Why did I love this book?

Narrator Joey Pigza is wired. He can’t sit still or follow the rules. He can’t even listen to the rules. It isn’t that he’s consciously getting into trouble. His body moves before he knows what it’s doing. He bounces off walls (literally), jumps off roofs, and swallows his house key—multiple times. The book is both hilarious and heartwrenching as Joey tries to be good, but things just never go his way. I love Joey’s voice and the insight into what it’s like to live with ADHD.

By Jack Gantos,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Joey is a good kid, maybe even a great kid, but his teachers never know what he's going to do next. He sharpens his finger in the pencil-sharpener and swallows his house key. He can't sit still for more than a minute - Joey is buzzing!

Told from Joey's own unique viewpoint by acclaimed American author Jack Gantos, this is an exceptionally funny and touching story about a boy with severe attention deficit disorder (ADD).

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