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. 

The books I picked & why

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Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

By Karen Foxlee,

Book cover of Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Why 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. 

The Dollmaker of Krakow

By R.M. Romero,

Book cover of The Dollmaker of Krakow

Why 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. 

The Land of Yesterday

By K.A. Reynolds,

Book cover of The Land of Yesterday

Why 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.

Back to Blackbrick

By Sarah Moore Fitzgerald,

Book cover of Back to Blackbrick

Why 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.

A Monster Calls

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

Book cover of A Monster Calls

Why 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.

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