Some parents and educators may assert that addiction and alcoholism are inappropriate topics for children's books. I strongly disagree. Books are an excellent way for kids to encounter tough subjects like addiction, mental illness and divorce. This list of middle grade books about addiction and its effect on the the lives of individuals and communities is a good resource if you are looking for a way to start a conversation with your kids.
The sad truth is, with the prevalence of drug addiction and alcoholism in the world, some readers will see aspects of their own lives reflected back at them. It could be a struggling parent, sibling or friend. Reading about parallel experiences will help children feel heard and understood.
Other children, who have fortunately not encountered the challenges of addiction, will develop empathy for others. In addition, these books cover a range of experiences all around the world.
And the stories are not all doom and gloom. Talented authors expertly weave humor, pathos, dynamic and memorable characters into the text. Even if you aren't looking specifically for books about addiction, your children will love these books. Most of the titles are recommended for ages 9/10 and up, but a few could be appropriate for 8 year olds.
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Sure Signs of Crazy
by Karen Harrington
When Sarah was 2 years old, her mother tried to drown her. Now 12, and with her mother living in a mental health institution, Sarah goes from town to town, living with her alcoholic father. As she experiences her first crush, a changing body, and love of words, Sarah shares her thoughts in letters she writes to Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. But Sarah also worries if she will grow up to be "crazy" like her mother or an alcoholic like her father.
The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins
by Gail Shepherd
I really enjoyed this book. Lyndie and her parents move into her grandparents house. Lyndie's father, a Vietnam veteran can't hold down a job, is an alcoholic and has trouble with family relationships. Her mother spends much of her time in her room with headaches. Lyndie's grandmother is now trying to turn Lyndie into a "Southern Belle." Meanwhile, Lyndie makes a new friend, D.B., at school who is from a juvenile detention center. Her relationship with D.B. sparks Lyndie to uncover the secrets of her own family.
MORE: Graphic novels about tough topics
Girl of the Southern Sea
by Michelle Kadarusman
In Indonesia, 14-year-old Nita wants to continue her education so she can become a writer but her family lacks the funds. Nita is determined, however. When her father falls ill, Nita takes over the food cart where he sells banana fritters to support the family. Her father, however, can't stop spending money on alcohol so Nita must assert her independence and make choices that separate herself from her father. All the while, Nita uses her talents to imagine up stories about Dewi Kadits, a Javanese princess in traditional folklore. This was a wonderful book that will take readers to a part of the world they don't frequently have the opportunity to visit in literature.
The Seventh Wish
by Kate Messner
Charlie goes ice fishing and she catches a fish who says it will grant her wishes if she will release him back into the water. Charlie hopes for a lot of things, both for herself and for her friends, but the most poignant of all involves her sister. Abby is in college and is struggling with an addiction to heroin. Abby's disease disturbs the whole family and Charlie experiences dashed hope and false promised. The topic of opioid addiction may not be something you wish to read about in a children's books, but millions of children see it in their lives and Messner has tackled the subject with age-appropriate sensitivity.
Train I Ride
by Paul Mosier
13-year-old Rydr is on a train from California to Chicago. She is being sent to live with an elderly uncle she has never met because her grandmother has recently passed away. Several years earlier, Rydr lost her mother to drug addiction. On the train, Rydr is being supervised by Dorothy, an Amtrak escort. Rydr's assertiveness helps her make several important and life-saving friendships on the train ride. Although the subject of the book is tough, it is still a positive story and a great book to put in the hands of your teenager who prefers short novels.
Sunny Side Up
by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm
This graphic novel is a wonderful book to gently introduce the subject of addiction and how it affects the family of those struggling with dependence. Sunny is sent to spend the summer with her Grandfather in Florida. She's not too thrilled with living in an "old person's" neighborhood but she meets Buzz, and the two of them have some crazy adventures you could only have in Florida! Sunny is certain that there is a mysterious reason she has been sent away to Gramps' place and she learns that her older brother is struggling with substance abuse. I like the message of the book that addiction should not be kept secret but addressed out in the open so people can heal.
The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade
by Jordan Sonnenblick
This is a really wonderful book! Maverick carries a sheriff's badge with him, a gift from his father who died in Afghanistan. He hopes it will help him to be courageous and stand up to bullies, making school a better place for everyone. His mother's boyfriends are abusive and alcoholic and Maverick is not always perfect himself. Sonnenblick has created relatable characters, written in laugh-out-loud humor and given the story a huge amount of heart. Highly recommended.
Bringing Me Back
by Beth Vrabel
Noah's mom is in prison for six months and the whole school hates him. The previous school year his mom was arrested for driving under the influence, and the school's football season was cancelled due to Noah's actions that resulted in another player's injury. Noah's now living with his mother's boyfriend who provides a surprising degree of stability. Noah, however, refuses to visit his mom, instead focusing on finding and rescuing a bear that has a bucket stuck on its head.
Beverly, Right Here
by Kate DiCamillo
Fourteen-year-old Beverly has run away. Now that her beloved dog is buried, she wants to escape from her alcoholic mother who offers her no love or affection. Beverly wants to live without the help of others, but finds herself making friends and gathering a community of people around her. Beverly's new friends form a eclectic support group. Although Beverly's mother's addiction to alcohol is only mentioned a few times in the text, it looms large in the background and Beverly's motivations.
My Fate, According to the Butterfly
by Gail Villanueva
Ten-year-old Sab lives with her sister, mother and mother's boyfriend in Manila. Her mother is out of town and when Sab sees a black butterfly she is convinced it is a sign of looming death. Sab wants to know why her sister, Ate Nadine, won't speak to their father so Sab and her best friend, Pepper play at being spies in an attempt to get to the bottom of things. Eventually Sab and Ate Nadine attend an art show that reveals the truth about her father, who is a recovering drug addict. Readers will learn about the harsh war on drugs in present day Philippines and the important role forgiveness plays in recovery.
Genesis Begins Again
by Alicia D. Williams
This poignant book looks at a host of issues as they concern the thoughful, 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 attempt harmful actions to try and lighten her skin with lemons or 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!
More books on tough topics:
Amber Wildman says
I absolutely agree that these hard issues are things that should be addressed with all children - my general rule is, :If these are issues that are affecting children around my daughter's age, then it's not to soon for me to tackle them with her.: We're in a position of extreme privilege if reading about these issues is the first experience our kiddos have, and I think fiction is a meaningful way to approach the issues that are affecting children worldwide and in every corner of our lives. This is how we prepare our children to be good human beings, valuable advocates and sources of support and strength for others. If something looks a little deep, I read it alone first because I can them arm myself with all the information and answers to all the questions I know my little warrior child will ask. We don't want to normalize the subjects at hand but we do want to make talking about them and responding compassionately second nature to our future legislators, social workers, teachers, advocates and friends. And we want to ensure that children in these situations know that there are others like them and people who care.