The best middle grade books about total family meltdowns

Why am I passionate about this?

As a kid, I read constantly. After my beloved mother left my abusive father and came out as a lesbian, a homophobic judge took me and my siblings--one of whom has Down syndrome--away from her. Reading was an escape. I loved weekends when I could leave my father’s house near Los Angeles and visit my mother who had a backyard full of trees and gardens. My parents argued constantly but as long as I could grow plants and observe birds, I was okay. Eventually, I moved to Oregon and volunteered to care for owls. I wrote Avenging the Owl to show that in the middle of family meltdowns, kids can turn to the natural world for comfort and inspiration.

I wrote...

Avenging the Owl

By Melissa Hart,

Book cover of Avenging the Owl

What is my book about?

How would you feel if your depressed father made you move away from your perfect life in a Southern California surfing town to a trailer in Oregon, an hour away from an ocean so cold the fish freeze? What would you do if your mother turned into a hippie and traded the family Corvette for a purple Volkswagen bus? 

This is what happens to 14-year-old Solo Hahn. When a Great-horned owl steals the only friend Solo has left, he commits a crime that earns him community service at a raptor rehabilitation center where he's forced to clean up bird poop and feed dead rats to his sworn enemies . . . owls. Will Solo survive his family’s total meltdown? And why is there bird poop on his best surfing shirt?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

Melissa Hart Why did I love this book?

Flora Buckman’s parents have separated, and they’re both behaving in bizarre ways. Flora finds herself bewildered and terrified for her future until she’s befriended by Ulysses, a squirrel with superpowers. In the midst of a wildly dysfunctional family, Flora finds her pessimism turning to hope thanks to her adventures with the charming Ulysses. The author expertly blends pathos with absurdist humor, and the comic-book illustrations bring the characters vividly to life. 

I love this book because it reminds me that even when the family members around us are melting down, we can stay true to ourselves and become curious about the world around us as a way to survive whatever life and our parents throw at us. Also, superhero squirrels rock.

By Kate DiCamillo, K.G. Campbell (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Flora & Ulysses as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

Holy unanticipated occurrences! A cynic meets an unlikely superhero in a genre-breaking new novel by a master storyteller.

It begins, as the best superhero stories do, with a tragic accident that has unexpected consequences. The squirrel never saw it coming - the vacuum cleaner, that is. As for self-described cynic Flora Belle Buckman, she has read every issue of the comic book Terrible Things Can Happen to You! so she is just the right person to step in and save him. What neither can predict is that Ulysses (the squirrel) has been born anew, with powers of strength, flight and…

Book cover of Rain Reign

Melissa Hart Why did I love this book?

This is the story of a girl named Rose, who is autistic and obsessed with homonyms. She lives with her father who’s often impatient with her needs and abandons her to drink at the local bar. Her mother has vanished, and Rose turns to her sympathetic uncle and her beloved new dog for comfort.  When her dad lets the dog out during a storm, Rose and her uncle find the dog and realize it already has an owner. She learns the truth of her mother’s disappearance and moves in with her uncle. 

Once again, here’s a story about the healing relationship that can exist between a kid and an animal. And as the sibling of a person with Down syndrome and a former special education teacher, I’m impressed with the author’s respectful portrayal of a girl on the autism spectrum.

By Ann M. Martin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Rain Reign as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 9, 10, 11, and 12.

What is this book about?

From Newbery Honor author Ann M. Martin, who wrote the Baby-sitters Club series, comes a New York Times-bestselling middle grade novel about a girl, her dog, and the trials of growing up in a complicated and often scary world.

Rose Howard is obsessed with homonyms. She's thrilled that her own name is a homonym, and she purposely gave her dog Rain a name with two homonyms (Reign, Rein), which, according to Rose's rules of homonyms, is very special. Not everyone understands Rose's obsessions, her rules, and the other things that make her different―not her teachers, not other kids, and not…

Book cover of Ghost

Melissa Hart Why did I love this book?

Eleven-year-old Castle Crenshaw, the protagonist of Ghost, reminds me a lot of my protagonist Solo Hahn in Avenging the Owl. Both boys “have a lot of scream inside.” Castle suffers from PTSD because he’s witnessed so many fights between his parents. His family has one heck of a total meltdown when his father threatens to shoot him and his mother, and they have to hide in a convenience store. Castle finds adult mentors and begins to run track, which helps him to deal with anxiety and depression. Running cross-country and track saved me, as well; I still run half-marathons today. I love the messages going on in this book about the importance of finding trustworthy mentors, and the equal importance of honoring a passion such as running. 

By Jason Reynolds,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Ghost as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

Running. That's all Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons -until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medallist who sees something in Ghost: crazy natural talent. If Ghost can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed, or will his past finally catch up to him?

Ghost. Lu. Patina. Sunny. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for…

Book cover of Lily and Dunkin

Melissa Hart Why did I love this book?

This is a book that explores deeply the role that fathers can play in our life. Lily is a transgender girl, which confounds her father and causes friction in their family. Norbert, nicknamed Dunkin, takes meditation for bipolar disorder—the same illness that caused his father to commit suicide. I appreciate this book for so many reasons; Gephart treats the transgender character with deep respect, and she doesn’t shy away from the topic of parental suicide. A children’s librarian once told me that suicide was too heavy for middle-grade fiction, but I disagree. In fact, I based a key plot point in my own novel on the experience of one of my past high school students whose father committed suicide when she was still in middle school.

By Donna Gephart,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lily and Dunkin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?


For readers who enjoyed Wonder and Counting by 7's, award-winning author Donna Gephart crafts a compelling story about two remarkable young people: Lily, a transgender girl, and Dunkin, a boy dealing with bipolar disorder. Their powerful journey, perfect for fans of Wonder, will shred your heart, then stitch it back together with kindness, humor, bravery, and love.

Lily Jo McGrother, born Timothy McGrother, is a girl. But being a girl is not so easy…

Book cover of Sugar

Melissa Hart Why did I love this book?

Wow, I love this book. I read it out loud with my daughter when she was in seventh grade. It’s the story of a 10-year-old girl, Sugar, who works on a plantation with other Black laborers post-Civil War. She’s an orphan, witnessing first-hand the white plantation owner and his family in the midst of a total meltdown brought on by fear and greed. It’s an effective juxtaposition set against Sugar’s supportive and loving community which widens to include Chinese immigrants who arrive to help in the fields. At first, the Black and Chinese laborers regard each other with skepticism, but because of Sugar’s hope and optimism and kindness, they join forces. It’s a powerful historical novel that has stayed with me for years. 

By Jewell Parker Rhodes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sugar as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 8, 9, 10, and 11.

What is this book about?

Ten-year-old Sugar lives on the River Road sugar plantation along the banks of the Mississippi. Slavery is over, but laboring in the fields all day doesn't make her feel very free. Thankfully, Sugar has a knack for finding her own fun, especially when she joins forces with forbidden friend Billy, the white plantation owner's son.

Sugar has always yearned to learn more about the world, and she sees her chance when Chinese workers are brought in to help harvest the cane. The older River Road folks feel threatened, but Sugar is fascinated. As she befriends young Beau and elder Master…

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Book cover of A School for Unusual Girls

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