By Amadee Ricketts, author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning
Years ago, as a fairly new librarian, I offered a book club at the local juvenile detention center as part of an outreach program. It turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my career, in part because it illustrated how reading and talking about books builds social and emotional skills. Aside from offering insight into specific issues and situations and helping readers build a sense of connection with the wider world, fiction is an unparalleled way to see through the eyes of another person.
At the end of our first series of book club meetings and inspired by the book Sold by Patricia McCormick, which follows a young Nepali girl who has been trafficked into prostitution, the teens wanted to find a practical way to help other young people. They opted to donate the money we would have used for refreshments to a foundation assisting youth in Nepal. The actual donation was small, but the care that went into it was boundless, and the teens were very proud to help others in that way. Those teens are adults now, but I am proud of them to this day.
The value of reading in developing empathy and other social and emotional skills holds true for people of all ages, but I think it is especially powerful for tweens and teens, who feel things deeply and are just forming an understanding of the world and how they fit into it. This summer, I hope the book lists included here will help support the social and emotional development of the young people in your life through engaging fiction and practical, timely nonfiction.
I have included brief descriptions of the novels listed here, but let the nonfiction titles speak for themselves. Books marked with an asterisk are available through Free Spirit Publishing.
Middle School Fiction and Memoir
Out of My Mind and Out of My Heart by Sharon Draper
In Out of My Mind (2010), brilliant fifth grader Melody, who has cerebral palsy, tries to find a way to make her voice heard. In Out of My Heart (2021), set one year later, Melody has a way to communicate and can’t wait to expand her world. Start with Out of My Mind.
Running on Empty by S. E. Durrant
After his grandfather dies, eleven-year-old AJ feels responsible for holding his family together. He finds satisfaction in running, but his worries threaten to overwhelm him.
Starfish by Lisa Fipps
This novel-in-verse explores themes of body image, bullying, confidence, and friendship through the eyes of middle schooler Ellie.
Real Friends, Best Friends, and Friends Forever by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
These graphic memoirs (published 2017–2021) follow Shannon and other memorable characters through middle school, with all the shifting social dynamics and challenges that go with the territory. Recommended for fans of Raina Telgemeier and Cece Bell.
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
This powerful graphic memoir tackles the effects of addiction on families and highlights the life-changing power of creativity and art.
Middle School Nonfiction
- Mindset Power: A Kid’s Guide to Growing Better Every Day by Shannon Anderson*
- Name and Tame Your Anxiety: A Kid’s Guide by Summer Batte*
- Superpowered: Transform Anxiety into Courage, Confidence, and Resilience by Renee Jain and Shefani Tsabary
- Positively Teen: A Practical Guide to a More Positive, More Confident You by Nicola Morgan
- Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Character and Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Challenges by Garth Sundem*
High School Fiction
Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Darius, a high school student in Portland, Oregon, doesn’t feel American enough for his classmates or Persian enough for the family and neighbors he meets on his first trip to Iran. He struggles with depression and is bullied by his peers. In this memorable coming-of-age story, Darius learns about friendship, family, and himself.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
Set in 1950s San Francisco, Last Night at the Telegraph Club follows seventeen-year-old Chinese American Lily as she navigates the intersection of culture, prejudice, and first love with her friend Kath. This gorgeous work of historical fiction will stick with readers long after they turn the last page.
Sunny Song Will Never Be Famous by Suzanne Park
Sunny Song has been internet-famous since she was a small child, and her focus as a high school student is on growing her social media following. When a live-video mishap lands her in digital detox camp, she learns more about herself than she ever expected.
Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
In this gripping prequel to The Hate U Give, seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter has everything under control, until he finds out that he is a father. Trying to balance love, loyalty, and conflicting obligations to his family and the gang he grew up in will take everything he’s got.
Love Is a Revolution by Renée Watson
High school student Nala is a big, beautiful young woman who is confident about her appearance but worries that she may not be enough in other ways. When she develops a crush on activist Tye, she pretends to share his commitment to helping the community, with complicated results.
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
Seventeen-year-old Madeline has grown up with a rare illness that isolates her from the world and means she has never left her house. When a new neighbor moves in and won’t give up on getting to know her, everything changes—for better and worse.
High School Nonfiction
- Mindfulness for Teens in 10 Minutes a Day: Exercises to Feel Calm, Stay Focused & Be Your Best Self by Jennie Marie Battistin
- What’s the Big Deal About Addictions? Answers and Help for Teens by James J. Crist*
- Fighting Invisible Tigers: Stress Management for Teens by Earl Hipp*
- Your Amazing Teen Brain: CBT and Neuroscience Skills to Stress Less, Balance Emotions, and Strengthen Your Growing Mind by Elisa Nebolsine
- Slaying Digital Dragons: Tips and tools for protecting your body, brain, psyche, and thumbs from the digital dark side by Alex J. Packer*
- Find Your Fierce: How to Put Social Anxiety in Its Place by Jacqueline Sperling
If you are looking for more recommendations, or if these titles don’t seem like quite the right fit, talk to the staff at your local public library. They will be happy to help.
Amadee Ricketts received her MLS degree from the College of St. Catherine and has been a librarian since 2002. She is currently the library director at the Cochise County Library District in Arizona. When not working or writing, she enjoys taking photos of insects and other tiny things. She lives with her husband, who is a photographer, and their cat.
Amadee is the author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning.
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