The best middle grade books about total family meltdowns

The Books I Picked & Why

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

By Kate DiCamillo, K.G. Campbell

Book cover of Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures

Why 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.

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Rain Reign

By Ann M. Martin

Book cover of Rain Reign

Why 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.

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Ghost, Volume 1

By Jason Reynolds

Book cover of Ghost, Volume 1

Why 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. 

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Lily and Dunkin

By Donna Gephart

Book cover of Lily and Dunkin

Why 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.

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By Jewell Parker Rhodes

Book cover of Sugar

Why 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. 

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