We all know that kids are bombarded with messages about the "ideal" body on a daily basis. The messages come through social media, advertising, and even occasionally from well-meaning adults.
It's not easy growing up in such an environment and while parents can help control some of the messaging, girls and boys also need to develop a sense of self-worth, no matter what their body type.
By reading stories about others learning to accept themselves no matter what, kids can help themselves develop a healthy body image, or "body positivity." This list of fantastic middle grade books will help.
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Want a pdf version of this list? You can grab it at the end of the post.
THE SECOND LIFE OF ABIGAIL WALKER by Frances O'Roark Dowell
Abigail gets teased for her weight at school, nagged about diets by her parents and she is tired of it. Abigail is fine with her body and when she stands up for herself, she experiences further rejection by her classmates. Later, she meets Anders, a homeschooled boy whose father is an Iraq veteran struggling with finding peace. A somewhat magical storyline about a fox entwines with Abigail's journey as she finds new contentment. Fantastic. Ages 9 and up.
KARMA KHULLAR'S MUSTACHE by Kristi Wientge
Karmajeet Khullar is going to be starting middle school soon, but she is worried about the 17 new dark hairs on her upper lip. She is anxious to get the help and advice from her best friend, but she has been acting so different lately and Karma feels lost. Karma's Indian father is learning how to be a stay at home dad, and her white mother is very busy with work. The book addresses themes of middle school friendships and bullying and I love how Karma's interfaith Sikh-Methodist household plays an integral role in her journey. Ages 9 and up.
BRACED by Alyson Gerber
Braced is based on Gerber's own experience growing up with scoliosis. Seventh grader, Rachel, is an enthusiastic soccer player but this year her doctor tells her she must wear a corrective brace for her scoliosis for 23 hours a day. Understandably, she is devastated by this. Rachel's journey to acceptance of her condition is touching and relatable as she works through relationships with her classmates and mother. An excellent read. Ages 9 and up.
Also highly recommended: Alyson Gerber's book, Taking Up Space about a middle schooler dealing with self-esteem over body image and an eating disorder.
LILY AND DUNKIN by Donna Gephart
This is a marvelously written story told in alternating voices. Lily Jo knows she is a girl, but most of the world knows her as Tim. She has the support of her mom, sister and best friend but Lily needs the love and support of her father in order to gain the confidence (and medication) she needs. Dunkin is the new kid in town but he has a secret. He struggles to come to terms with his bipolar disorder and find out where he fits in, too. Lily Jo may have body image challenges that most kids won't experience, but her journey, as well as Dunkin's, to express herself, find her own way and make the right friends will resonate will all middle schoolers. Ages 9 and up.
STARFISH by Lisa Flipps
Ellie is tired of being bullied about her weight. It's bad enough coming from her peers, but her mother also doesn't seem to accept her for who she is. Ellie is about to start sixth grade and her best friend has moved away. When Catalina moves in next door, she befriends Ellie and, as a person of color, understands what it's like to be judged by what you look like. Flipps writes Ellie's story in verse, mirroring Ellie's own use of poetry to express herself. A very satisfying story. Ages 9 and up.
SHORT by Holly Goldberg Sloan
I loved this book! Julia is short for her age and one summer she lands a role in a local production of The Wizard of Oz. While playing the part of a munchkin, she befriends several adults with dwarfism as well as her artistic neighbor, Mrs. Chang, who just happens to be a whiz at costuming. Through her new friendships and performing experience, Julia's world bursts wide open. Ages 9 and up.
ALL OF ME by Chris Baron
Written in verse, All of Me is the story of Ari, a Jewish boy is struggling with his body image. He is also preparing for his bar mitzvah and dealing with his parents' difficult relationship. Baron's book digs deep into Ari's frustrations, fears and negative self-image as he must come to terms with how he sees himself and his place in the world. Incredibly moving. Ages 9 and up.
Also recommended: Baron's The Magical Imperfect
WINK by Rob Harrell
Harrell's tender story about a boy dealing with a rare eye cancer is peppered with fantastic illustrations. Seventh grader, Ross, is worried about how cancer will change his body, as well as the way others see him. He wears a cowboy hat to disguise the permanent wink the cancer has caused. He also feels anger at his condition and at the friend who abandoned him. But Ross's story isn't depressing, Harrell's writing is amusing and readers, no matter what their medical history, will relate to Ross. Ages 9 and up.
GENESIS BEGINS AGAIN by Alicia D. Williams
This poignant book looks at a host of issues as they concern the thoughtful, intelligent 13-year-old Genesis. Genesis is concerned that her skin is "too dark." She believes her family and society value lighter brown skin over hers to the point that she attempts harmful actions to try and lighten her skin with lemons and bleach. At home, her father can't stop spending the rent money on gambling and alcohol. But Genesis has started a new school in a "better neighborhood" and meets new friends and teachers who help her learn to value herself. Highly recommended! Ages 9 and up.
INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS (series) by Dusti Bowling
This funny and moving book is fantastic. Aven Green and her family move from Kansas to Arizona, where her dad has taken a job as the manager of a western theme park. Aven was born without any arms but that hasn't stopped her from accomplishing anything–she just does it with her feet! Aven narrates her own tale with a humorous, clever and truth-telling eye. With the help of her new friends, she sets out to solve a mystery and learn the secrets of Stagecoach Park. Ages 9 and up.
DEAR SWEET PEA by Julie Murphy
Sweet Pea's divorced parents live next door to each other in an effort to co-parent their daughter. Sweet Pea acknowledges that she is a little "plump." While Sweet Pea's friendships are undergoing a transition, a neighbor asks her to look after her mail. The neighbor is an advice columnist and Sweet Pea can't resist answering a few of the letters. Understandably, she gets into a bit of a pickle! Funny and heartwarming. Ages 9 and up.
ROLL WITH IT by Jamie Sumner
Ellie loves to bake! Her cerebral palsy means her mom is a bit overprotective, and that she has to spend more time than she would like with doctors. Ellie's grandfather has Alzheimer’s disease and so Ellie and her mom move in with her grandparents to help out. Starting a new school means Ellie finally finds some good friends and feels like she fits in somewhere. Roll With It is a marvelous book, tackling so many themes, but with good humor and likable characters. Ages 9 and up.
MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU by Barbara Dee
Like many of Judy Blume's books, Dee's book address a difficult, but necessary topic. The boys in Mila's seventh grade class are harassing her, making unwanted comments and touching her in a way that makes her feel uncomfortable. Some of her peers think she is overreacting, and Mila doesn't know what to do. With the help of a karate class and a new friend, she gains the confidence she needs to address the situation head on. Few children's books address the subject of sexual harassment, but most girls have experienced in one form or another. Maybe He Just Likes You should be required reading for both girls and boys. Ages 9 and up.
MARTIN MCLEAN, MIDDLE SCHOOL QUEEN by Alyssa Zaczek
Seventh grader, Martin McLean, is trying to figure out where he fits in. He loves being on the Mathletes team and he embraces his mixed race, Afro-Cuban and white, identity. He's particularly close with his Tío Billy, who supports Martin's desire to enter a drag queen contest. Now that Martin has found a way to express himself he wants to figure out a way to tell his friends. This is a wonderful, readable story which presents diverse racial, cultural and gender identities in a positive light. Ages 9 and up.