Reading fiction and memoir—regardless of what age we are—is consistently found to develop compassion for others, and for ourselves.
In the midst of homeschooling my second-grade daughter who suffered from profound anxiety and depression, I did some research for an essay I was writing and came across several studies showing a correlation between exposure to literary novels and increased empathy in readers. For example, a study reported in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that reading the Harry Potter series helps children and teens to develop empathy for marginalized groups and people, while another study found that a classroom-wide reading and discussion of R.J. Palacio’s novel Wonder increased children’s empathy for peers different from themselves.
Young people who read novels that feature diverse characters gain compassion for others, but they also gain compassion for themselves. When they’re able to relate to peers with exposed vulnerabilities, they’re empowered to reframe their own perceived limitations as well. As young adult novelist An Na says, ‘Stories are such lifelines for those who feel alone, misunderstood and marginalized. They allow us to connect with ourselves and with others.’
As I write this, my daughter—now a sixth-grader at the local middle-school—has quite literally surrounded herself with preteen novels. She’s built a fortress of sorts on her bedroom carpet, the books stacked six deep. Every evening, she sits down in the middle of the square to read until long past her bedtime. If a fortress is a stronghold, fortified to defend against assault, then the novels she’s reading may just keep her safe as she navigates the treacherous world of middle school. The books she reads feature biracial characters and characters with ADHD or Asperger’s or anxiety, children with glasses or braces or wheelchairs, kids who choose to sport rainbow-hued hair or no hair at all. Above all, they are stories in which kindness and resilience triumph. Here are 10 books for middle-schoolers to help them build self-confidence.
In this illustrated story, Mexican American 12-year-old Malú writes a zine (some of the pages of which appear in the novel) and struggles to fit in at her new school until she starts a band with her classmates and stands up to the school administration to defend her love of punk and punk rock fashion ($12, amazon.com).
On a summer morning, an eighth-grade transgender girl meets the new kid in town—a boy with bipolar disorder. Both kids struggle with parental and peer expectations and with being ridiculed as they come to terms with their particular challenges and find comfort and joy in friendship with each other ($12, amazon.com).
Fourteen-year-old surfer Solo Hahn has to move with his family from Southern California to a trailer in Oregon after his father tries to commit suicide. When Solo accidentally injures a friend with Down syndrome, he must care for injured and orphaned birds of prey and gains confidence through a new passion for the natural world ($5, amazon.com).
Castle Cranshaw suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after his father threatens to shoot him and his mother. Three years after the incident, with his father in jail, a kindhearted track coach invites Castle (aka “Ghost”) to join the team and teaches him about trust and honesty ($12, amazon.com).
In this illustrated story, sixth-grader Abbie Wu struggles with fear and anxiety as the middle child between perfect siblings. When her school forbids junk food, Abbie organizes an underground lunch exchange and finds both self-confidence and a passion for effecting social change ($4, amazon.com).
Tara Feinstein questions how to navigate between Indian and Jewish identities, and whether she should have a bat mitzvah if she’s not sure what she believes. To add to the complexity, she may be developing romantic feelings for her other best friend, Ben-O ($9, amazon.com).
In this graphic novel, preteen Cece overcomes the humiliation of having to wear an enormous hearing aid, while struggling against her mother’s expectations. She works through a series of failed friendships because of the bulky device advertising her impairment, and then finds a girl who becomes her lifelong friend ($9, amazon.com).
Eighth-grader Aven Green, born without arms, has never had an issue with her body and her abilities. But when she moves with her family across the country to an Arizona theme park, she finds herself chafing against peers’ questions and stares until she befriends Connor, a boy with Tourette’s syndrome ($9, amazon.com).
This illustrated memoir by an Australian author describes life as a child born with deformed legs and a tumor in the middle of his face; he deals with bullies, and decides—after multiple surgeries—not to have any more operations ($9, amazon.com).
Overweight junior high student Jensen longs to be a hero and help people, but he struggles with friendship and bullies. When two kids from the school newspaper entice him with social-experiment projects and tales of interpersonal relationships behind the scenes, he’s called upon to find true courage ($9, amazon.com).
© 2019 By Melissa Hart. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens by permission of Sasquatch Books.