Looking for some of the best middle school novels with characters who overcome adversity? Check out my top ten list!
As teachers, we learn firsthand about many of our students’ challenges and struggles. Some of them don’t get breakfast before they arrive, which is why I have a secret stash of granola bars in the bottom drawer of my desk.
Some of them come from broken homes, or one of their parents is currently incarcerated, or they’ve been removed from their family altogether. They’ve seen death and the effects of drug use and hunger.
Our students are no strangers to adversity, and for some of them, it’s an inevitable part of their lives. That’s a lot for a twelve or thirteen-year-old to deal with, and then we expect them to do the whole school thing like nothing awful is waiting for them when they get home.
My students directly inform my instruction and class content, which is why I make a point of regularly introducing them to novels about overcoming adversity.
Some people might say, “But don’t they deal with adversity enough? Why do they need to read about it?”
Although I understand this point of view, I also firmly believe that middle school novels about overcoming adversity are an absolute must for the secondary classroom. If anything, they’re a way for our young people to realize they’re not alone in their struggles. They can relate to the characters on a deeply personal level, and that has immeasurable value.
Middle school books that directly address contemporary issues and how kids of similar ages confront and overcome them are powerful learning tools. That’s why (with the help of my students) I’ve gathered together a list of high-interest reads that will resonate with young readers long after they’re finished reading them.
Best Middle School Novels About Overcoming Adversity
Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
The year is 1793. Young Mattie Cook may not have everything she wants at the moment, but she has great plans for her family’s coffee shop in Philadelphia. She’s certainly not planning on disaster striking and tearing her away from everything and everyone she holds dear. However, that’s exactly what happens when yellow fever strikes the prosperous city and brings it to its knees. Mattie and her grandfather must leave her ailing mother behind, and she’s soon tested in ways she could never have imagined. A particularly relevant novel in the current times.
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
In “A Long Walk to Water,” Park alternates between two stories: one of a South Sudanese boy, Silva, torn from his family, and a South Sudanese girl, Nya, who spends the greater part of her days fetching water for her family. The boy’s tale is full of adversity as he seeks survival and safety. His journey is difficult, but he must find a way to keep moving just as his family would want him to do. Silva promises to return to Sudan one day, which is where his story intersects with Nya’s in a life-changing way.
Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee
Dee’s novel strikes right at the heart of the #MeToo movement and opens up the classroom for some powerful discussions around the topic of sexual harassment in the middle school setting. When a boy in her class asks for a special “birthday hug,” seventh-grader Mila allows it even though it makes her incredibly uncomfortable. When she expresses her concerns to a friend, Mila is told she is overreacting. However, the unsolicited physical contact from boys at her school grows more frequent, and Mila must find a way to stand up for herself and start a much-needed conversation about respect and boundaries in her school.
Tangerine by Edward Bloor
Sometimes adversity appears in normal, expected ways. And other times… not so much. Paul Fisher and his family have just moved to Tangerine County, Florida, and life isn’t exactly going smoothly. For one, Paul has to wear decidedly unfashionable glasses because his vision is so bad. Then there’s his sports star brother, who seems determined to make Paul’s life a living nightmare. Just as Paul starts to find his place in this new town, strange things begin to happen, and his courage is put to the ultimate test.
Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac
Malian, a young Wabanaki girl, enjoys visiting her grandparents’ house on “The Rez” and sees them often. While Malian is spending time with them one day, everything suddenly takes a turn for the worse. Travel completely shuts down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Malian suddenly finds herself stuck on the reservation with the responsibility of protecting both herself and her grandparents. Bruchac weaves a story infused with the hardships indigenous peoples have had to overcome throughout history, along with what happens when a community comes together to support one another.
Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
While some people might think that living in a renovated school bus and traveling the country is one big adventure, Coyote can tell you firsthand that’s a big, fat lie. Coyote and Rodeo, her dad, have been nomads ever since Coyote’s mom and sisters did in a car crash. She had to leave her entire life behind, and for the most part, she’s accepted this new life. That is until she finds out that the park where she and her family buried a priceless memory box is being torn down. With a renewed sense of purpose, Coyote tricks her father into going back home to retrieve it before it’s too late.
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
S.E. Hinton’s timeless novel is one that will always grace my shelves, and students devour it year after year. Ponyboy knows his place in the world, and he knows who has his back. With true friends like Johnny and Two-Bit and Ponyboy’s two brothers, he can take anything the world throws at him, including punches from the Socs, a gang of rich kids who delight in torturing him. However, Ponyboy has to decide where he stands when a line is crossed, and it will ultimately shape his entire future.
Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed
Amal’s most audacious dream in life is to become a teacher, but her hopes are dashed when she unintentionally insults a member of the Khan family, the rulers over her Pakistani village. As penance, Amal is made to give up her hopes of an education and better life to become a servant in the Khan family’s household. Adversity lurks in every corner of the massive estate, but Amal’s resourcefulness and courage help her and the other servants take a stand against tyranny.
Restart by Gordon Korman
There have been many times when I would have loved going back in time and giving my day a do-over. This actually happens to Chase, who wakes up in the hospital with no memory of who he is (or was). As Chase returns to school and sees how different people react to seeing him, he must piece together who he used to be to decide who he will become.
Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin
I’ve found that one of the most impactful ways teens can learn about their autistic peers is through novels because they gain insight into how the character perceives the world around them. Anything But Typical is all about Jason Blake, an autistic twelve-year-old who is keenly aware that he is out of place on the best of days. The only thing that makes sense to Blake is the stories he writes and posts online. When he encounters a fellow writer and makes plans to meet them, Jason can’t help being scared that his first real friend won’t be able to look past his autism to see the person he really is.
I’ve seen the difference that novels about overcoming adversity have with my students. I’ve seen their worlds’ widen and their mindsets shift. I’ve seen them relate to, question, and empathize with these characters. So it comes as no surprise that these are the kinds of books students are begging me to buy for my classroom year after year. When kids read about characters overcoming their obstacles, it gives them hope, courage, and a more positive outlook for the future.
Do you have a few favorite middle school novels about overcoming adversity? I would love to hear what you would add to this list. Leave a comment below or tag me on FB or IG with your favorite recommendations.