I don’t like sad books. I avoid them like the plague, even. But once in a while, some books trick me by being so well-written, I’m already immersed before I realize it’s going to be a tear-jerker. While making this list of middle grade books to make you cry, I chose most of my favorites. These stories are enrapturing, sad, but also satisfying. They’re not a continuous drag of sadness but are often interspersed with humor, heartwarming scenes, and end on a bright, hopeful note. If that sounds like your kind of sad story, then this is for you.
Red, White, and Whole
Published: February 2, 2021
Reha feels torn between two worlds: school, where she’s the only Indian American student, and home, with her family’s traditions and holidays. But Reha’s parents don’t understand why she’s conflicted—they only notice when Reha doesn’t meet their strict expectations. Reha feels disconnected from her mother, or Amma. Although their names are linked—Reha means “star” and Punam means “moon”—they are a universe apart.
Then Reha finds out that her Amma is sick. Really sick.
Reha, who dreams of becoming a doctor even though she can’t stomach the sight of blood, is determined to make her Amma well again. She’ll be the perfect daughter, if it means saving her Amma’s life.
Forever, and a Long, Long Time
Published: March 7, 2017
Flora and her brother, Julian, don’t believe they were born. They’ve lived in so many foster homes, they can’t remember where they came from. And even now that they’ve been adopted, Flora still struggles to believe that they’ve found their forever home. Though Flora is trying her best to trust two new people, when she finds out that there will be a new baby, she’s worried that there won’t be enough love for everyone.
So along with their new mother, Flora and Julian begin a journey to go back and discover their past—for only then can they really begin to build their future.
In the Beautiful Country
Published: June 14, 2022
Anna can’t wait to move to the beautiful country—the Chinese name for America. Although she’s only ever known life in Taiwan, she can’t help but brag about the move to her family and friends.
But the beautiful country isn’t anything like Anna pictured. Her family can only afford a cramped apartment, she’s bullied at school, and she struggles to understand a new language. On top of that, the restaurant that her parents poured their savings into is barely staying afloat. The version of America that Anna is experiencing is nothing like her dreams. How will she be able to make the beautiful country her home?
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise
Published: January 8, 2019
That’s how long Coyote and her dad, Rodeo, have lived on the road in an old school bus, criss-crossing the nation.
It’s also how long ago Coyote lost her mom and two sisters in a car crash.
Coyote hasn’t been home in all that time, but when she learns that the park in her old neighborhood is being demolished―the very same park where she, her mom, and her sisters buried a treasured memory box―she devises an elaborate plan to get her dad to drive 3,600 miles back to Washington state in four days…without him realizing it.
Along the way, they’ll pick up a strange crew of misfit travelers. Lester has a lady love to meet. Salvador and his mom are looking to start over. Val needs a safe place to be herself. And then there’s Gladys…
Over the course of thousands of miles, Coyote will learn that going home can sometimes be the hardest journey of all…but that with friends by her side, she just might be able to turn her “once upon a time” into a “happily ever after.”
A Song Called Home
Published: March 15, 2022
Lou and her family don’t have much, but for Lou it’s enough. Mom. Her sister, Casey. Their apartment in the city. Her best friend, Beth. It would be better if Dad could stop drinking and be there for her and Casey, and if they didn’t have to worry about money all the time. But Lou doesn’t need better—she only needs enough.
What’s enough for Lou, however, is not enough for Mom. Steve, Mom’s boyfriend, isn’t a bad guy, he’s just…not what Lou is used to. And now, he and Mom are getting married, and that means moving. Packing up life as they’ve known it and storing it in Steve’s garage. Lou will be separated from everything in her small but predictable life, farther from Dad than ever.
Their last night in the city, Lou receives a mysterious birthday gift: A guitar, left for her by their front door. There’s nothing saying who left it, but it must be from Dad. And as she leaves the only place she’s ever known, she starts to believe that if she can learn how to play it, maybe she can bring a piece of him, and of her old life, home.
Has Anyone Seen Frenchie?
Published: February 15, 2022
Eleven-year-old Aurora Petrequin’s best friend has never spoken a word to her. In fact, Frenchie Livernois doesn’t talk.
Aurora is bouncy, loud and impulsive—“a big old blurter.” Making friends has never come easily. When Frenchie, who is autistic, silently chose Aurora as his person back in third grade, she chose him back. They make a good team, sharing their love of the natural world in coastal Maine.
In the woods, Aurora and Frenchie encounter a piebald deer, a rare creature with a coat like a patchwork quilt. Whenever it appears, Aurora feels compelled to follow.
At school, Aurora looks out for Frenchie, who has been her classmate until this year. One morning, Frenchie doesn’t make it to his classroom. Aurora feels she’s to blame. The entire town begins to search, and everyone wonders: how is it possible that nobody has seen Frenchie?
At the heart of this story is the friendship between hyper-talkative Aurora and nonvocal Frenchie. Conflict arises when Aurora is better able to expand her social abilities and finds new friends. When Frenchie goes missing, Aurora must figure out how to use her voice to help find him, and lift him up when he is found.
A Place to Hang the Moon
Published: February 2, 2021
It is 1940 and William, 12, Edmund, 11, and Anna, 9, aren’t terribly upset by the death of the not-so-grandmotherly grandmother who has taken care of them since their parents died.
But the children do need a guardian, and in the dark days of World War II London, those are in short supply, especially if they hope to stay together. Could the mass wartime evacuation of children from London to the countryside be the answer?
It’s a preposterous plan, but off they go– keeping their predicament a secret, and hoping to be placed in a temporary home that ends up lasting forever. Moving from one billet to another, the children suffer the cruel trickery of foster brothers, the cold realities of outdoor toilets and the hollowness of empty stomachs.
But at least they find comfort in the village lending library– a cozy shelter from the harshness of everyday life, filled with favorite stories and the quiet company of Nora Müller, the kind librarian. The children wonder if Nora could be the family they’ve been searching for. . . . But the shadow of the war, and the unknown whereabouts of Nora’s German husband complicate matters.
Glitter Gets Everywhere
Published: May 4, 2021
After Kitty’s mother dies on an inappropriately sunny Tuesday, all Kitty wants is for her life to go back to “normal”—whatever that will mean without her mum. Instead, her dad announces that he, Kitty, and her sister are moving from their home in London to New York City, and Kitty will need to say goodbye to the places and people that help keep her mother’s memory alive.
New York is every bit as big and bustling as Kitty’s heard, and as she adjusts to life there and befriends a blue-haired boy, she starts to wonder if her memories of her mum don’t need to stay in one place—if there’s a way for them to be with Kitty every day, everywhere.
The Line Tender
Published: April 16, 2019
Wherever the sharks led, Lucy Everhart’s marine-biologist mother was sure to follow. In fact, she was on a boat far off the coast of Massachusetts, collecting shark data when she died suddenly. Lucy was seven. Since then Lucy and her father have kept their heads above water–thanks in large part to a few close friends and neighbors. But June of her twelfth summer brings more than the end of school and a heat wave to sleepy Rockport. On one steamy day, the tide brings a great white–and then another tragedy, cutting short a friendship everyone insists was “meaningful” but no one can tell Lucy what it all meant. To survive the fresh wave of grief, Lucy must grab the line that connects her depressed father, a stubborn fisherman, and a curious old widower to her mother’s unfinished research on the Great White’s return to Cape Cod. If Lucy can find a way to help this unlikely quartet follow the sharks her mother loved, she’ll finally be able to look beyond what she’s lost and toward what’s left to be discovered.
One for the Murphys
Published: May 10, 2012
Carley uses humor and street smarts to keep her emotional walls high and thick. But the day she becomes a foster child, and moves in with the Murphys, she’s blindsided. This loving, bustling family shows Carley the stable family life she never thought existed, and she feels like an alien in their cookie-cutter-perfect household. Despite her resistance, the Murphys eventually show her what it feels like to belong–until her mother wants her back and Carley has to decide where and how to live. She’s not really a Murphy, but the gifts they’ve given her have opened up a new future.
Published: April 12, 2016
When eleven-year-old Thyme Owens’ little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.
After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush, and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours, and days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.
Bridge to Terabithia
Published: May 2, 2017
Jess Aarons has been practicing all summer so he can be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. And he almost is, until the new girl in school, Leslie Burke, outpaces him. The two become fast friends and spend most days in the woods behind Leslie’s house, where they invent an enchanted land called Terabithia. One morning, Leslie goes to Terabithia without Jess and a tragedy occurs. It will take the love of his family and the strength that Leslie has given him for Jess to be able to deal with his grief.
Ms. Bixby’s Last Day
Published: June 21, 2016
Everyone knows there are different kinds of teachers. The boring ones, the mean ones, the ones who try too hard, the ones who stopped trying long ago. The ones you’ll never remember, and the ones you want to forget. Ms. Bixby is none of these. She’s the sort of teacher who makes you feel like school is somehow worthwhile. Who recognizes something in you that sometimes you don’t even see in yourself. Who you never want to disappoint. What Ms. Bixby is, is one of a kind.
Topher, Brand, and Steve know this better than anyone. And so when Ms. Bixby unexpectedly announces that she won’t be able to finish the school year, they come up with a risky plan—more of a quest, really—to give Ms. Bixby the last day she deserves. Through the three very different stories they tell, we begin to understand what Ms. Bixby means to each of them—and what the three of them mean to each other.
The Bridge Home
Published: February 5, 2019
Four determined homeless children make a life for themselves in Padma Venkatraman’s stirring middle-grade debut.
Life is harsh in Chennai’s teeming streets, so when runaway sisters Viji and Rukku arrive, their prospects look grim. Very quickly, eleven-year-old Viji discovers how vulnerable they are in this uncaring, dangerous world. Fortunately, the girls find shelter–and friendship–on an abandoned bridge. With two homeless boys, Muthi and Arul, the group forms a family of sorts. And while making a living scavenging the city’s trash heaps is the pits, the kids find plenty to laugh about and take pride in too. After all, they are now the bosses of themselves and no longer dependent on untrustworthy adults. But when illness strikes, Viji must decide whether to risk seeking help from strangers or to keep holding on to their fragile, hard-fought freedom.
Counting by 7’s
Published: August 29, 2013
Willow Chance is a twelve-year-old genius, obsessed with nature and diagnosing medical conditions, who finds it comforting to count by 7s. It has never been easy for her to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, but that hasn’t kept her from leading a quietly happy life . . . until now.
Suddenly Willow’s world is tragically changed when her parents both die in a car crash, leaving her alone in a baffling world. The triumph of this book is that it is not a tragedy. This extraordinarily odd, but extraordinarily endearing, girl manages to push through her grief. Her journey to find a fascinatingly diverse and fully believable surrogate family is a joy and a revelation to read.
Beverly, Right Here
Published: September 24, 2019
Beverly Tapinski has run away from home plenty of times, but that was when she was just a kid. By now, she figures, it’s not running away. It’s leaving. Determined to make it on her own, Beverly finds a job and a place to live and tries to forget about her dog, Buddy, now buried underneath the orange trees back home; her friend Raymie, whom she left without a word; and her mom, Rhonda, who has never cared about anyone but herself. Beverly doesn’t want to depend on anyone, and she definitely doesn’t want anyone to depend on her. But despite her best efforts, she can’t help forming connections with the people around her — and gradually, she learns to see herself through their eyes. In a touching, funny, and fearless conclusion to her sequence of novels about the beloved Three Rancheros, #1 New York Times best-selling author Kate DiCamillo tells the story of a character who will break your heart and put it back together again.
Lemon Drop Falls
Published: February 15, 2022
Morgan is devastated by her mother’s sudden death. Before, Mom’s amazing organizational skills kept the family on track, and her bowl of lemon drops was always on hand to make difficult conversations easy, turning life’s sour into sweet. After, there’s no one to help Morgan navigate her new role caring for her younger siblings, her worries about starting junior high, and her increasingly confusing friendships. All she can do is try to fulfill her mother’s final request: Keep them safe, Morgan. Be brave for them. Help them be happy.
When Dad insists on taking the family on their regular summer camping trip, and Morgan’s efforts to keep her promise to Mom seem doomed to fail, Morgan’s anxiety spirals into a panic attack, and Dad treats her like she’s impossibly broken. Unable to share her fears and needs with Dad, and desperate to prove she’s got the strength to hold the family together, Morgan sets off alone to hike a flooding canyon trail. But somewhere on that lonely and dangerous journey, Morgan will encounter the truth about the final words her mother left her, the power in finding her own voice, and the possibility of new beginnings.
Closer to Nowhere
Published: October 6, 2020
For the most part, Hannah’s life is just how she wants it. She has two supportive parents, she’s popular at school, and she’s been killing it at gymnastics. But when her cousin Cal moves in with her family, everything changes. Cal tells half-truths and tall tales, pranks Hannah constantly, and seems to be the reason her parents are fighting more and more. Nothing is how it used to be. She knows that Cal went through a lot after his mom died and she is trying to be patient, but most days Hannah just wishes Cal never moved in.
For his part, Cal is trying his hardest to fit in, but not everyone is as appreciative of his unique sense of humor and storytelling gifts as he is. Humor and stories might be his defense mechanism, but if Cal doesn’t let his walls down soon, he might push away the very people who are trying their best to love him.
Told in verse from the alternating perspectives of Hannah and Cal, this is a story of two cousins who are more alike than they realize and the family they both want to save.
Published: April 2, 2019
Cat and her brother Chicken have always had a very special bond–Cat is one of the few people who can keep Chicken happy. When he has a “meltdown” she’s the one who scratches his back and reads his favorite story. She’s the one who knows what Chicken needs. Since their mom has had to work double-hard to keep their family afloat after their father passed away, Cat has been the glue holding her family together.
But even the strongest glue sometimes struggles to hold. When a summer trip doesn’t go according to plan, Cat and Chicken end up spending three weeks with grandparents they never knew. For the first time in years, Cat has the opportunity to be a kid again, and the journey she takes shows that even the most broken or strained relationships can be healed if people take the time to walk in one another’s shoes.
The Benefits of Being an Octopus
Published: September 4, 2018
Some people can do their homework. Some people get to have crushes on boys. Some people have other things they’ve got to do.
Seventh-grader Zoey has her hands full as she takes care of her much younger siblings after school every day while her mom works her shift at the pizza parlor. Not that her mom seems to appreciate it. At least there’s Lenny, her mom’s boyfriend—they all get to live in his nice, clean trailer.
At school, Zoey tries to stay under the radar. Her only friend Fuchsia has her own issues, and since they’re in an entirely different world than the rich kids, it’s best if no one notices them.
Zoey thinks how much easier everything would be if she were an octopus: eight arms to do eight things at once. Incredible camouflage ability and steady, unblinking vision. Powerful protective defenses.
Unfortunately, she’s not totally invisible, and one of her teachers forces her to join the debate club. Even though Zoey resists participating, debate ultimately leads her to see things in a new way: her mom’s relationship with Lenny, Fuchsia’s situation, and her own place in this town of people who think they’re better than her. Can Zoey find the courage to speak up, even if it means risking the most stable home she’s ever had?
Clues to the Universe
Published: January 12, 2021
The only thing Rosalind Ling Geraghty loves more than watching NASA launches with her dad is building rockets with him. When he dies unexpectedly, all Ro has left of him is an unfinished model rocket they had been working on together.
Benjamin Burns doesn’t like science, but he can’t get enough of Spacebound, a popular comic book series. When he finds a sketch that suggests that his dad created the comics, he’s thrilled. Too bad his dad walked out years ago, and Benji has no way to contact him.
Though Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners, the pair become unlikely friends, and Ro even figures out a way to reunite Benji and his dad. But Benji hesitates, which infuriates Ro. Doesn’t he realize how much Ro wishes she could be in his place?
As the two face bullying, grief, and their own differences, Benji and Ro try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.
The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl
Published: May 1, 2018
Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning. She doesn’t remember it, but it changed her life forever. The zap gave her genius-level math skills, and ever since, Lucy has been homeschooled. Now, at 12 years old, she’s technically ready for college. She just has to pass 1 more test–middle school!
Lucy’s grandma insists: Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that’s not a math textbook!). Lucy’s not sure what a girl who does calculus homework for fun can possibly learn in 7th grade. She has everything she needs at home, where nobody can make fun of her rigid routines or her superpowered brain. The equation of Lucy’s life has already been solved. Unless there’s been a miscalculation?
Hope in the Holler
Published: January 9, 2018
Right before Wavie’s mother died, she gave Wavie a list of instructions to help her find her way in life, including this one: Be brave, Wavie B! You got as much right to a good life as anybody, so find it! But little did Wavie’s mom know that events would conspire to bring Wavie back to Conley Hollow, the Appalachian hometown her mother tried to leave behind. Now Wavie’s back in the Holler–and in the clutches of her Aunt Samantha Rose. Life with the devilish Samantha Rose and her revolting cousin Hoyt is no picnic, but there’s real pleasure in sleeping in her own mother’s old bed, and making friends with the funny, easygoing kids her aunt calls the “neighborhood-no-accounts.” With their help, Wavie just might be able to prevent her aunt from becoming her legal guardian, and find her courage and place in the world.
Ten Thousand Tries
Published: July 13, 2021
Twelve-year-old Golden Maroni is determined to channel his hero, soccer superstar Lionel Messi, and become captain of his soccer team and master of his eighth grade universe…especially since his home universe is spiraling out of orbit. Off the field, Golden’s dad, once a pro soccer player himself, is now battling ALS, a disease that attacks his muscles, leaving him less and less physically able to control his body every day. And while Mom says there’s no cure, Golden is convinced that his dad can beat this, just like any opponent, they just have to try.
Golden knows that if you want to perfect a skill you have to put ten thousand tries in, so he’s convinced if he can put that much effort in, on and off the field, he can stop everything from changing. But when his dad continues to decline and his constant pushing starts to alienate his friends and team, Golden is forced to confront the idea that being master of your universe might not mean being in control of everything. What if it means letting go of the things you can’t control so you can do the most good for the things you can?
Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero
Published: August 18, 2020
Isaiah is now the big man of the house. But it’s a lot harder than his dad made it look. His little sister, Charlie, asks too many questions, and Mama’s gone totally silent.
Good thing Isaiah can count on his best friend, Sneaky, who always has a scheme for getting around the rules. Plus, his classmate Angel has a few good ideas of her own–once she stops hassling Isaiah.
And when things get really tough, there’s Daddy’s journal, filled with stories about the amazing Isaiah Dunn, a superhero who gets his powers from beans and rice. Isaiah wishes his dad’s tales were real. He could use those powers right about now!
The Shape of Thunder
Published: May 11, 2021
Cora hasn’t spoken to her best friend, Quinn, in a year.
Despite living next door to each other, they exist in separate worlds of grief. Cora is still grappling with the death of her beloved sister in a school shooting, and Quinn is carrying the guilt of what her brother did.
On the day of Cora’s twelfth birthday, Quinn leaves a box on her doorstep with a note. She has decided that the only way to fix things is to go back in time to the moment before her brother changed all their lives forever—and stop him.
In spite of herself, Cora wants to believe. And so the two former friends begin working together to open a wormhole in the fabric of the universe. But as they attempt to unravel the mysteries of time travel to save their siblings, they learn that the magic of their friendship may actually be the key to saving themselves.
Published: March 30, 2021
A sparkly, moving middle grade novel from Sarah Allen, and a big-hearted exploration of sisterhood, dreams, and what it means to be there for someone you love.
Olivia is on the road trip of her dreams, with her trusty camera and her big sister Ruth by her side. Three years ago, before their family moved from California to Tennessee, Olivia and Ruth buried a time capsule on their favorite beach. Now, they’re taking an RV back across the country to uncover the memories they left behind. But Ruth’s depression has been getting worse, so Olivia has created a plan to help her remember how life used to be: a makeshift scavenger hunt across the country, like pirates hunting for treasure, taking pictures and making memories along the way.
All she wants is to take the picture that makes her sister smile. But what if things can never go back to how they used to be? What if they never find the treasure they’re seeking? Through all the questions, loving her sister, not changing her, is all Olivia can do―and maybe it’s enough.
Before the Ever After
Published: September 1, 2020
For as long as ZJ can remember, his dad has been everyone’s hero. As a charming, talented pro football star, he’s as beloved to the neighborhood kids he plays with as he is to his millions of adoring sports fans. But lately life at ZJ’s house is anything but charming. His dad is having trouble remembering things and seems to be angry all the time. ZJ’s mom explains it’s because of all the head injuries his dad sustained during his career. ZJ can understand that–but it doesn’t make the sting any less real when his own father forgets his name. As ZJ contemplates his new reality, he has to figure out how to hold on tight to family traditions and recollections of the glory days, all the while wondering what their past amounts to if his father can’t remember it. And most importantly, can those happy feelings ever be reclaimed when they are all so busy aching for the past?
The Distance to Home
Published: June 28, 2016
Last summer, Quinnen was the star pitcher of her baseball team, the Panthers. They were headed for the championship, and her loudest supporter at every game was her best friend and older sister, Haley.
This summer, everything is different. Haley’s death, at the end of last summer, has left Quinnen and her parents reeling. Without Haley in the stands, Quinnen doesn’t want to play baseball. It seems like nothing can fill the Haley-sized hole in her world. The one glimmer of happiness comes from the Bandits, the local minor-league baseball team. For the first time, Quinnen and her family are hosting one of the players for the season. Without Haley, Quinnen’s not sure it will be any fun, but soon she befriends a few players. With their help, can she make peace with the past and return to the pitcher’s mound?
We Dream of Space
Published: May 5, 2020
Cash, Fitch, and Bird Nelson Thomas are three siblings in seventh grade together in Park, Delaware. In 1986, as the country waits expectantly for the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, they each struggle with their own personal anxieties. Cash, who loves basketball but has a newly broken wrist, is in danger of failing seventh grade for the second time. Fitch spends every afternoon playing Major Havoc at the arcade on Main and wrestles with an explosive temper that he doesn’t understand. And Bird, his twelve-year-old twin, dreams of being NASA’s first female shuttle commander, but feels like she’s disappearing.
The Nelson Thomas children exist in their own orbits, circling a tense and unpredictable household, with little in common except an enthusiastic science teacher named Ms. Salonga. As the launch of the Challenger approaches, Ms. Salonga gives her students a project—they are separated into spacecraft crews and must create and complete a mission. When the fated day finally arrives, it changes all of their lives and brings them together in unexpected ways.
There they are: 30 tear-jerking middle grade books if you need a good cry. Which of these books have you read and cried for? If you need a flood of suggestions, check out the replies to author Stacy McAnulty’s tweet
QUESTION:— Stacy McAnulty (she/her) (@stacymcanulty) April 20, 2022
I’m working on a presentation. What kids books have made you cry?