21 Realistic YA Books Offer Teaching Insights

By Kasey Short

Reading books written for middle school students provides teachers an opportunity to gain insight into the different ways students experience their late tweens and early teens.

Gaining these insights helps me better understand my middle level students and reminds me that middle school is a complex time that is unique for each child.

I recommend the books below to teachers who are new to middle school or would like to freshen their perspectives. Reading these contemporary novels, short stories, memoirs and poems gives us additional insight into what middle school kids might be feeling. They are also excellent additions to class and school libraries and help build a collection of quality book recommendations for students.

There are many more books that represent the middle grades experience, and I could never capture all of them. TIP: Asking students for book recommendations where they identify with the character is one of my favorite ways to find new books.

Starfish by Lisa Fipps. This novel-in-verse shows the reader the raw feelings of an adolescent girl who is bullied and humiliated by her peers and her family because of her weight, as she learns how to stand up for herself and believe in her own self-worth.


Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson. This novel is a quick, powerful read that explores the lives of six diverse adolescent students. As they share their experiences of having a parent deported or incarcerated, racial profiling, struggling academically, changing family dynamics and more, we see the value of being a safe harbor for those in need.

Free Lunch by Rex Ogle. This memoir explores the author’s own experience growing up in poverty and demonstrates to the reader the far-reaching impacts that poverty has on children’s lives, both inside and outside the classroom. Winner of the 2020 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award.

The Deepest Breath
by Meg Grehan
. This novel by an award winning Irish author is written in verse and shows the reader the intense emotions of an 11-year old girl who is finding ways to manage her anxiety as she questions her sexuality, after having “fizzy” feelings about a girl.


Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee. This novel illustrates the feelings and experiences of a middle school girl who is receiving unwanted touching and comments from boys in her grade. It shows readers the impact of sexual harassment on a middle school child and provides actionable suggestions on how to support adolescents in this situation.

Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes. This novel addresses the school-to-prison pipeline and offers the reader critical insight into one boy’s experience of colorism and racism in his school and community. By the best-selling author of Ghost Boys.


Go with the Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann. This graphic novel explores teen friendships and crushes, normalizes menstruation, and shows the importance of girls having the hygiene products they need in school. High school characters but tagged for ages 10-14.

Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi. This novel imagines the experience of a middle school boy who loves robotics and is part of a strong Muslim community. He experiences bullying and prejudice due to Islamophobia and a hate group in his small Texas town that is targeting Muslim residents.


Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone. This novel shows how an unjust dress code and the targeting of girls based on how they look impacts the experience girls have at school in everything from academic success to friendships. The book also shows the value of young people speaking up for themselves.


A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée. This novel tells the story of an adolescent girl who is navigating friendship changes in middle school, exploring her identity as a young Black woman, and discovering that wearing a black arm band to support Black Lives Matter is worth breaking the school rules.


How to Become a Planet by Nicole Helleby. This book shows the intense and honest emotions of a middle school girl named Pluto who is dealing with severe depression. We see the impact it has on her relationships and ability to navigate day to day experiences and the value of good therapy and good friends.


Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker. This book illustrates the emotions and challenges Zenobia faces after recently moving to a new town, begins living openly as her true gender, and experiences cyber-bullying due to being transgender. Zenobia solves the cyber mystery and finds a true home.


Black Boy Joy edited by Kwame Mbalie. This amazing collection of short stories, poems, and comics from seventeen different authors celebrates examples of joy through the eyes of unique Black boy characters. Jason Reynolds, Jerry Craft, Nebula Award winner P. Djèlí Clark, and Mbalia himself (the Tristan Strong series) are among the contributors.

A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan. This novel alternates between two perspectives – a Pakistani-American girl and a white Jewish girl – both facing their own challenges as their moms study to gain citizenship in America. The book is filled with rich examples of cultural and religious traditions and beliefs and their impact on both sixth grade girls.

Three Keys by Kelly Yang. This story of a Chinese American girl who is navigating school with English as her second language, all while helping her parents run their motel, reveals the impact of immigration laws and discrimination on the lives of young people. Part of Yang’s Front Desk series.

New Kid and Class Act by Jerry Craft. These best selling graphic novels explore a variety of complex middles grades situations at an elite private school, including navigating a new school as one of the few students of color, racism, socioeconomic diversity, complex family dynamics, and figuring out where and how to fit in socially.

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams. This heartbreaking novel tells the story of a girl who deeply dislikes herself and is dealing with internalized racism, colorism, trauma, bullying, and an alcoholic parent. As she works through so much trauma, Genesis begins to find things about herself that she likes. Winner of six major awards.

Us, In Progress: Short Stories about Young Latinos by Lulu Delacre. This multiple award-winning collection of short stories reveals to the reader the diverse experiences of young Latinos from different backgrounds in America. Each story includes a mixed-media portrait of the central character.


Almost American Girl by Robin Ha. This graphic memoir tells Robin Ha’s own story of moving from Korea to Huntsville, Alabama as a young teen and trying to adapt to a new language, culture, school, and complicated mixed-family dynamics. She begins to find her center again when her mom enrolls her in a local comics drawing class.

Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith. This collection of short stories written by Native writers highlights Native pride and traditions while capturing the diverse experiences of life as a Native child living in North America today. The young protagonists interact in the many intersecting stories.

Good Enough by Jen Petro-Roy. This book captures of the feelings and intense struggle of Riley, a 12-year old girl who is suffering from anorexia and trying to find a way to recover and survive. Written for a middle grades audience by an eating disorder survivor and activist, much of story takes place in an inpatient treatment center.


 Kasey Short (@shortisweet3) loves to share ideas from her classroom and writes frequently for MiddleWeb. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a bachelor of arts in middle school education with a concentration in English and history. She went on to earn a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Winthrop University. She is currently an eighth grade ELA teacher and English Department chair at Charlotte (NC) Country Day School.


MiddleWeb is all about the middle grades, with great 4-8 resources, book reviews, and guest posts by educators who support the success of young adolescents. And be sure to subscribe to MiddleWeb SmartBrief for the latest middle grades news & commentary from around the USA.

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