The best middle grade books that use magic to explore trauma

Who am I?

It took me a long time to realize that the books I write have always (always) been about trauma. (I write fantasy, so the link wasn’t immediately apparent to me.) But now that I’ve seen it, I can’t unsee it. Likewise, it took me a long time to notice that all my favorite magical books were the ones that seemed to be trying to find a new language for the terrible things that can happen to and around us. Magic provides a powerful language for psychological pain. It can make it more real. It can make it more digestible. It can help us to see it more clearly. Fiction tells lies that make reality bearable and understandable—and magical fiction is no different. Which is why it will probably always be my favorite kind.

I wrote...

The Sisters of Straygarden Place

By Hayley Chewins,

Book cover of The Sisters of Straygarden Place

What is my book about?

Seven years ago, the Ballastian sisters’ parents left them in the magical Straygarden Place, a house surrounded by tall silver grass and floating trees. They left behind a warning saying never to leave the house or go into the grass. Ever since then, the house itself has taken care of Winnow, Mayhap, and Pavonine—feeding them, clothing them, even keeping them company—while the girls have waited and grown up and played a guessing game. 

Until one day, when the eldest, fourteen-year-old Winnow, does the unthinkable and goes outside into the grass, and everything twelve-year-old Mayhap thought she knew about her home, her family, and even herself starts to unravel. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Why did I love this book?

Karen Foxlee is—hands down—one of my favorite writers ever. She writes so beautifully and compassionately about what it feels like to be lost or sad or afraid, and Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is no exception. This retelling of The Snow Queen takes place in a snowbound museum filled with arcane objects. The main character, Ophelia, is grieving the loss of her mother. And even though she doesn’t consider herself very brave, she volunteers for a quest that will change the world—and begin to heal her heart. I love this book for its gentleness, its beauty, its snowy cosiness, and its powerful portrayal of a girl moving within—and through—grief. 

By Karen Foxlee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Magic is “messy and dangerous and filled with longing,” we learn in this brave tale of grief, villainy and redemption that borrows from the story of the Snow Queen. Set in a vast, chilly museum, the tale brings together a valiant girl, a charmed boy, a magical sword and a clock ticking down to the end of the world.”—The Wall Street Journal

This is the story of unlikely heroine Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard who doesn't believe in anything that can't be proven by science. She and her sister Alice are still grieving for their dead mother when their father takes a…

Book cover of The Dollmaker of Krakow

Why did I love this book?

The Dollmaker of Kraków is about a doll named Karolina who finds herself in the human world after her homeland—the Land of the Dolls—is ravaged by an army of rats. To be more specific, she finds herself in a dollmaker’s shop. In Kraków. In 1939. World War II has just begun, and Karolina watches as the horrors of the Holocaust unfold before her eyes. Glistening with folklore and fairy tales, this historical fantasy shines with hope and beauty. It never fails to remind me how art can save us, over and over, even—or especially—in the darkest of times. 

By R.M. Romero,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Dollmaker of Krakow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A timeless fantasy set in the Second World War that weaves together magic, folklore and history, perfect for fans of The Book Thief, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Goodnight Mister Tom.

One night a little doll named Karolina comes to life in a toyshop in Krakow, Poland, in 1939 and changes the life of the gruff, broken-hearted Dollmaker. And when the darkness of the Nazi occupation sweeps over the city, Karolina and the Dollmaker must bravely use their magic to save their Jewish friends from a terrible danger, no matter what the risks. This powerful story is about…

The Land of Yesterday

By K.A. Reynolds,

Book cover of The Land of Yesterday

Why did I love this book?

This book is unlike anything you will ever read—and, at the same time, it’s so comforting and familiar. When Cecelia Dahl’s little brother dies, her mother goes to the Land of Yesterday to bring him back. It’s up to Cecelia to rescue her mother before she loses her, too. This is a story about grief and forgiveness and irrecoverable loss. But it is also a story about gnomes who fly in hot-air balloons and a girl with sentient blue hair and giant cats and moaning houses and children who turn into paper. It’s like a Miyazaki movie for the brokenhearted. And I absolutely love it.

By K.A. Reynolds,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Land of Yesterday as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A tender and fantastical adventure story perfect for fans of Coraline.

After Cecelia Dahl’s little brother, Celadon, dies tragically, his soul goes where all souls go: the Land of Yesterday—and Cecelia is left behind in a fractured world without him.

Her beloved house’s spirit is crumbling beyond repair, her father is imprisoned by sorrow, and worst of all, her grief-stricken mother abandons the land of the living to follow Celadon into Yesterday.

It’s up to Cecelia to put her family back together, even if that means venturing into the dark and forbidden Land of Yesterday on her own. But as…

Back to Blackbrick

By Sarah Moore Fitzgerald,

Book cover of Back to Blackbrick

Why did I love this book?

One night, Cosmo’s grandfather—who has started to forget things—gives him a key and tells him to go to Blackbrick, a crumbling estate on the edge of town. When Cosmo arrives there in the middle of the night and unlocks the front gate, he finds himself stepping back in time—and making friends with his fifteen-year-old grandfather. Back to Blackbrick is about time travel. It’s about love. It’s about learning to live with loss. It’s quietly tender and deeply emotional. And it’s one of the most life-affirming books I’ve ever read.

By Sarah Moore Fitzgerald,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Back to Blackbrick as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cosmo must journey to the past to understand his future in this humorous, heartbreaking, and brilliantly original debut novel.

Cosmo’s granddad used to be the cleverest person he ever knew. That is, until his granddad’s mind began to fail. In a rare moment of clarity, his granddad gives Cosmo a key and pleads with Cosmo to go to the South Gates of Blackbrick Abbey, where his granddad promises an “answer to everything.” In the dead of night, Cosmo does just that.

When Cosmo unlocks the rusty old gates, he is whisked back to Blackbrick of years past, along with his…

A Monster Calls

By Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd, Jim Kay (illustrator)

Book cover of A Monster Calls

Why did I love this book?

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is a riveting and heartbreaking novel about facing the truth and letting go of denial. When Conor wakes up in the middle of the night to find a monster outside his window, he is terrified. But the monster keeps coming back. And it keeps telling him stories. It’s trying to tell him something—a truth Conor needs to face. I love this book for its sparse, elegant prose, its complex depictions of grief and grieving, its fables, and its presence. This is a book that feels wise when you hold it in your hands. It’s nothing short of life-changing.

By Patrick Ness, Siobhan Dowd, Jim Kay (illustrator)

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked A Monster Calls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The bestselling novel and major film about love, loss and hope from the twice Carnegie Medal-winning Patrick Ness.

Conor has the same dream every night, ever since his mother first fell ill, ever since she started the treatments that don't quite seem to be working. But tonight is different. Tonight, when he wakes, there's a visitor at his window. It's ancient, elemental, a force of nature. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. It wants the truth. Patrick Ness takes the final idea of the late, award-winning writer Siobhan Dowd and weaves an extraordinary and heartbreaking…

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