The best middle grade books featuring neurodivergent characters

Sara Leach Author Of Slug Days
By Sara Leach

The Books I Picked & Why

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

By Dusti Bowling

Book cover of Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus

Why 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.

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Fish in a Tree

By Lynda Mullaly Hunt

Book cover of Fish in a Tree

Why 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!

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By Cynthia Lord

Book cover of Rules

Why 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. 

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A Boy Called Bat

By Elana K. Arnold, Charles Santoso

Book cover of A Boy Called Bat

Why 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.

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Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

By Jack Gantos

Book cover of Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

Why 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.

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