The best middle grade books to help kids build empathy for those in need

Who am I?

I am the author of two middle grade books, and I love writing about kids who may not have much materially but abound in heart and courage. I grew up in a small southern town and my childhood was just like that—low on income but full of love, hope, and friendship. I want kids to know that despite their circumstances there is hope for a better life. Like Wavie’s mom tells her in my book, Hope In The Holler, “You’ve got as much right to a good life as anybody. So go find it!”

I wrote...

Hope in the Holler

By Lisa Lewis Tyre,

Book cover of Hope in the Holler

What is my book about?

Before Wavie's mother died, she gave Wavie a list of instructions to help her find her way in life, including: Be brave, Wavie B! You got as much right to a good life as anybody, so find it! But little did Wavie's mom know that events would bring Wavie back to Conley Hollow, the Appalachian hometown her mother left behind. Now Wavie's back in the Holler—in the clutches of her Aunt Samantha Rose. Life with Samantha Rose is no picnic, but there's real pleasure in making friends with the funny, easygoing kids her aunt calls the "neighborhood-no-accounts." With their help, Wavie just might be able to prevent her aunt from becoming her legal guardian and find her courage and place in the world. 

The books I picked & why

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How to Steal a Dog

By Barbara O'Connor,

Book cover of How to Steal a Dog

Why this book?

This is a wonderful book about homelessness that is full of heart and humor. I love that it explores the question of whether it’s okay to do something wrong, in this case stealing a dog for the reward money, when you’re desperate for money. This is an entertaining way to teach kids about the reality of living out of a car, the choices kids and their parents must navigate when impoverished, and how we often make biased assumptions when we encounter those less fortunate than ourselves.

Front Desk

By Kelly Yang,

Book cover of Front Desk

Why this book?

This is a fantastic book about the hardships many immigrants face, from being taken advantage of by their employers, to language barriers, and of course, racism. What I loved about this book is its portrayal of community. Growing up poor, I know that it’s often those with nothing who give the most. Kids will cheer for Mia as she works the front desk, helps those around her, and stands up to injustice.

The Same Stuff as Stars

By Katherine Paterson,

Book cover of The Same Stuff as Stars

Why this book?

Life is tough for Angel—her dad is in jail, her mom is irresponsible, and she has to take care of her seven-year-old brother. Paterson doesn’t hold back in this unflinching look at family brokenness, but as sad as the circumstances are, there is hope! Angel meets some new adults and through their small kindnesses, she learns that she is stronger than she ever knew. It’s a great message for any kid who is struggling with too much responsibility. It has a redemption arc that I also loved. 

The Bridge Home

By Padma Venkatraman,

Book cover of The Bridge Home

Why this book?

I’ve been to India three times and I love to share books that show its complex, beautiful, and sometimes brutal culture. When sisters Viji and Rukku leave home to escape their abusive father, readers are given a detailed look at what living on the streets of India is like for many children. It’s a realistic lesson on the caste system and abject poverty, all wrapped in a compelling story; and I am always a fan of books that show siblings that care deeply for one another. I also hope it sparks an interest in that amazing country and its inhabitants.

Once You Know This

By Emily Blejwas,

Book cover of Once You Know This

Why this book?

This beautiful book opens with the line, “Every day Mr. McInnis tells us to imagine our future.” Unfortunately, for Brittany, she can’t envision a future that holds anything good. Her mother is in an abusive and controlling relationship and her grandmother suffers from dementia. I love that this book shows a positive teacher, a mom who, despite her own bad choices, truly loves her children, and a family willing to go to bat for one another. Extra points for the intergenerational storyline of a grandmother who lives with the family.

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