Reading to teach and heal: More books for 8-12 year olds

Middle-schooler reading book in winter

The holiday season is a time to reflect, find gratitude and show kindness, especially to those who may be struggling. It’s also a great time to escape the chaos and hunker down with a good book.

Why not do both?

Today, there are more and more books about children and teens coping with physical and mental health issues that help young readers empathize with these characters but also relate, especially if they’re faced with a similar condition. We’ve selected five books that will not only make great gifts for the kids on your list, but also will stay with them long after those holiday decorations are put away.

Swing Sideways

Tween books that teach compassionBy: Nanci Turner Steveson

For ages: 11 and up

Medical condition: Eating disorder

In this moving debut novel, 14-year-old Annie suffers from an eating disorder and panic attacks. When her therapist recommends she take an unstructured “summer of freedom” with her parents at their lake house, she meets California, a free-spirited girl who needs Annie as much as Annie needs her.

Says Steveson, “Annie is a dreamer who was stuffed into a mold by outside influences (Mom, Dad, teachers, school friends, a resort community, etc). In order for her to discover who she truly is as a person, and to have the strength and courage to break free, she needed a friend like California to give her ‘permission’ to be herself to accept her for who she was and not who someone else wanted her to be.” This novel is ultimately a story of true friendship, and the power it has to heal.

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Books for middle grade children that teach moralsBy Gennifer Choldenko

For ages: 8 and up

Medical condition: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Set in the 1930s, 12-year old Moose and his family have just moved to Alcatraz island, both for his father’s job and so they can be closer to the school where the family hopes to send Moose’s sister, Natalie, who has autism. While Alcatraz incarcerates the “worst of the worst” convicts, including Al Capone, Moose’s bigger problem is getting his mother to accept Natalie for who she is and stop trying to “fix” her. As much as Moose loves his sister, he resents the fact that he has to watch over her instead of playing baseball.

As someone who grew up with an autistic sister, Choldenko’s vivid descriptions of the helplessness and embarrassment Moose often feels around Natalie are genuine and heartfelt. Told with a balance of laugh-out-loud humor and descriptive historical details, this Newbery Honor Award winning novel is sure to find its way into anyone’s heart.

The War That Saved My Life

Kids' books that teach and healBy Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

For ages: 8 and up

Medical condition: Clubfoot

Set in London during WWII, 9-year-old Ada has never been outside her apartment. Her cruel and abusive mother is too ashamed of Ada’s club foot to let anyone see her. But when Ada’s younger brother Jamie is evacuated from London to escape the war, Ada sneaks out to the country to join him, leaving their mother behind.

With the help of a kind woman, Susan, who is forced to take care of Ada and her brother, Ada grows stronger both physically and emotionally. She soon learns that she can do much more than she ever thought possible, despite her disability. This Newbery Honor historical fiction gem is filled with adventure and suspense, but ultimately it’s a story about learning to love and accept yourself.

Finding Perfect

Books to teach children empathyBy: Elly Swartz

For ages: 8 and up

Medical condition: Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

Molly craves order and predictability. When her life spins out of control she finds comfort in the tip of a newly sharpened pencil, a blank pad of paper, the number four and her perfectly aligned glass animal figurines. But when Molly’s mother moves away for an entire year for work, nothing can help Molly cope as her OCD behavior reaches new heights.

Told with a fresh voice and a delicate hand from debut author Elly Swartz, “Finding Perfect” is a story that any kid who’s tried to keep it all together can relate to — and it will reinforce the notion that sharing your troubles with friends and family is the first step toward healing.

Fish in a Tree

Good books that teach kids kindnessBy Lynda Mullaly Hunt

For ages: 8 and up

Medical condition: Dyslexia

Sixth-grader Ally thinks she’s dumb, but she’s actually so bright she’s able to hide from everyone the fact that she can’t read. When a new teacher, Mr. Daniels, comes along, he recognizes the bright, creative kid beneath Ally’s troubled exterior. Slowly, he begins to earn Ally’s trust and is able not only to help her overcome her dyslexia, but also remind her that she is not alone.

Inspired by the author’s own struggle with reading growing up, Ally’s pain and humiliation is raw and realistic. “With the help of her teachers and her friends, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself, and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of,” says Hunt. “Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.” An award-winning, inspirational novel, “Fish in a Tree” encourages all of us to embrace our flaws and believe in ourselves.

Read on: Find more great books for your 8 to 12 year old.

About the blogger: Patty Lenz Bovie is a freelance writer and an aspiring children’s book author. She’s also an avid reader of children’s books, a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and a mom to two tween/teen daughters. She lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts, with her family.