The following article comes from Kate Heap, Primary English Consultant.

International Children’s Book Day takes place on or around 2nd April each year – the birthday of beloved author Hans Christian Andersen. Sponsored by one of the countries in the International Board of Books for Young People, it celebrates all things books and reading. This year’s host country is Greece with the theme ‘I am a book, read me’.

This gorgeous poster is a collaboration between author Vagelis Iliopoulos and illustrator Photini Stephanidi. Together, they wanted to celebrate the power of children’s books in promoting values of equality, diversity and inclusion, as well as connecting people through tolerance and understanding.

In honour of the day, I’d like to share ten fantastic middle grade & teen books that support this theme and help all children to see themselves in the books they read.

The Great Food Bank Heist by Onjali Q. Rauf (Barrington Stoke)

The Great Food Bank Heist is a very special book giving valuable insight into life when the fridge isn’t full. Nelson and Ashley’s mum does her best to make ends meet on her nurse’s salary but sometimes there are just too many bills to pay. That’s when they have to visit the best kind of bank – the Food Bank.

Nelson and Ashley aren’t the only ones. Other kids at their breakfast club use the Food Bank too. When they all find that what is available at the Food Bank is getting less and less and they hear rumours that someone has been stealing from the donation trolleys, they start to get worried. Instead of being embarrassed about needing to rely on the generosity of others, it’s time to team up with their friends, take action and solve the mystery. These thieves don’t stand a chance when faced with such creative, resilient kids!

Inspired by the work of Marcus Rashford, The Great Food Bank Heist shows children that they are not alone in their experiences and builds empathy in those who have never experienced food poverty. Hopefully, books like this can make huge steps in getting rid of the stigma that has historically been attached to needing to ask for help and show children and adults the importance of helping one another. Detailed information at the back of the book explains what food banks are and how we can help.

Published by Barrington Stoke, The Great Food Bank Heist is an engaging and accessible read. With dyslexia-friendly font, spacing and page tint, even the most reluctant reader will be drawn in.

A percentage of the royalties of the sales of this book will go to Trussell Trust Food Banks, the Greggs Foundation Breakfast Programme and selected grassroots Food Bank charities.

Toby and the Silver Blood Witches by Sally Doherty (Soaring Skies Publishing)

Unexpected witches, a brilliant little bat, broomsticks, wands, spells and a Golden Retrieagle called Cuddles – all the ingredients of a fantastic middle grade fantasy adventure with a whole lot of heart!

Twelve-year-old Toby is a young carer, looking after his mum who struggles with M.E. He loves her so much and wants to do all he can to make life easier for her, even if it makes his own life more difficult. Toby’s greatest fear is that someone will find out they aren’t coping and he will be taken into care. When school bullies threaten his precariously balanced life, Toby knows he has to do something to stop them.

Just when life couldn’t get any more difficult, a witch crash-lands in his attic. That’s right, a witch! The Wyline Clan have been hiding away in their own city in the sky – Little Witchery – to escape the persecution witches have traditionally faced on Earth. But despite their attempts to protect themselves, some witches have gone missing. They need Toby to help them – and maybe he’ll be able to help himself in the process.

This is an exciting and uplifting story full of magic and fun. Toby is incredibly caring, brave and the kind of boy anyone would want as a friend. His relationship with his mum is very special and models just how much a child will sacrifice to make sure their mum is alright. This story is sure to build empathy in its readers, helping them to understand the struggle some children go through just to get to school. They’ll be cheering for Toby every step of the way as he tries to save the witches and solve the secret of the strange building just over the road.

The Hunt for the Nightingale by Sarah Ann Juckes (Simon & Schuster Children’s UK)

The Hunt for the Nightingale is a wonderfully unique story of loss, grief and the healing power of the natural world for anyone who has ever lost someone special.

Bird-loving Jasper is waiting for his big sister Rosie and their beloved nightingale to return to their garden. When they don’t arrive, he decides the only thing to do is to go out and find them. According to his parents, Rosie has gone to “a better place”. If only, he can get there, everything will be ok again. What follows is challenging journey in which Jasper meets all sorts of interesting people – each has lost something important and teaches Jasper about life and love.

Full of beautiful imagery and a young boy who is trying to make sense of the sudden death of his sister, this story carries readers on an emotional journey right along with Jasper. The metaphor of the nightingale flies through the book reminding us that even in the darkest of moments, a nightingale’s song can be heard. Jasper will find hope if he can push through the darkness and accept the truth.

“When you lose something you love, you do everything you can to find it.”

The Night Animals by Sarah Ann Juckes (Simon & Schuster Children’s UK)

Sarah Ann Juckes’ middle grade novel, The Night Animals, is a beautiful exploration of our determination to always be strong and “fine”, even when faced with difficult circumstances. Through gentle story-telling that shimmers with hope, readers see that everyone needs help sometimes and come to understand what it really means to be strong.

Nora’s mum struggles with PTSD from her job as a paramedic. She is haunted by stressful situations and often hides away to try to cope. Nora is left to care for her mum, but also for herself. She feels alone but is hesitant to ask for help. They are “fine”.

When Nora is visited by ghost animals, she starts to realise that things need to change. With her new friend, Kwame, she begins to discover what she didn’t know she was looking for. Together, they are brave, determined, and hardest of all, honest.

The irridescent fox, hare, raven and otter who visit Nora at different times in her journey are full of wonderful symbolism. Each has something to reveal to Nora and teach her about her life with her mum. As she allows these creatures to lead her, she discovers so much about who she is and what she needs to do to survive.

The Night Animals would be a lovely class book for building empathy and challenging children to look at their friends with an attitude of helpfulness. Who isn’t really “fine”? Who feels alone? Who is sad? Who can I make a difference to today? With accessible writing that will draw in every listener, it would be perfect for Year 4 or 5 to share together. This story will also challenge adults to watch for the Noras in their own classes. Often, we don’t know the full story of what is going on at home. Children may be wanting to tell us but don’t know how to share that things are “fine”.

The rainbow-edged ghost animals, illustrated by Sharon King-Chai, are beautiful. Children will love them. There is so much scope for discussion about why they have appeared, the symbolism of each creature and how they help Nora. Art, writing, the symbolism of animals in other cultures, and PSHE discussions about mental health will develop so naturally from this wonderful text. It is the kind of book teachers can let breathe in the classroom – see what questions arise, follow children’s lead, give it time and space to develop into a meaningful shared experience.

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll (Knights Of)

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll is a story of identity, strength and finding your voice. 11 year-old Addie wants nothing more than to be understood and to be heard. She lives in a world where only a very few people truly understand how she thinks and feels but there are many people who don’t (and don’t really try). When Addie learns about the local witch trials, she realises that she understands how the accused women might have felt – how it feels to be different, misunderstood and without a voice. She uses all of her bravery and fight to try to convince the town to create a memorial for these forgotten women. Along the way, Addie learns about real friendship, being true to herself and standing up for what is right. Life doesn’t come with a set of instructions so Addie must rely on the people she trusts and her own instincts to make her way through the trials she faces.

This is a wonderfully powerful story of individuality, trust and respect. The characters of Addie and her sister, Keedie, give incredible insight into living as an autistic girl in modern day Scotland.  Through Addie’s thoughtful first-person narrative and the caring advice of her sister, readers can begin to understand what life is like with such a wide, sensitive mind.

Throughout the story, essential lessons are learned and shared: being nice is more important than being good; people are more alike than they are different; and, just like the ocean needs all kind of fish, the world needs all kinds of mind. These lessons are valuable for any reader but should be used as the foundation for many important classroom discussions and the creation of a community where everyone feels valued and heard.

A Kind of Spark has recently been adapted for television by the BBC.

A Flash of Fireflies by Aisha Bushby (Farshore Books)

A Flash of Fireflies is a completely enchanting twist on fairy tales, forests and witches.

Hazel’s world is turned upside-down. Sent on her own from Kuwait to England while her parents prepare for the family’s move, she must find a way to settle into a new life with her very old-fashioned Great Aunt. Everything is different and to make things worse, she has to go to summer school.

Their summer school topic is “fairy tales” and all the themes and typical tropes that go along with these familiar stories. As Hazel and her new friend, Ruby, research dark forests, curses and enchantments, she finds herself being pulled into her own magical adventure. She must find a way to complete the quest set out for her by the terrifying creatures who draw her in. As she learns to battle the darkness, she realises that she is the one in control and she has strength she never imagined.

Themes of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and seeking support for difficulties are cleverly woven into this story of self-discovery. It is perfect for children age 9+, giving them so much food for thought.

The Boy Whose Wishes Came True by Helen Rutter (Scholastic)

Heart-warming, inspirational and empathy-building, The Boy Whose Wishes Came True is a book every child and every teacher needs to read.

When Archie Crumb was little, his mum used to tell him to make a wish every chance he got – birthday candles, a rainbow, a snowflake, everything was wish-worthy. He had no idea the road his life would take and how much he would need those wishes.

Now, his life is anything but easy. His parents have split up, his dad has a new family and his mum isn’t well enough to get out of bed. Thrust into the role of young carer, Archie has no choice but to try his best to look after his mum, the house and all the jobs that come with it. Being the kid with dirty uniform, empty cupboards and a messy house makes each day a challenge. When his dad left, his parents promised him that everything would be ok but they couldn’t have been more wrong.

Archie’s home life is a secret. Not even his best friend, Mouse, realises just how difficult things are for him. He spends every second weekend with his dad but no matter what he does, he just doesn’t feel welcome. The only thing he enjoys is his collection of football cards and following the legendary player Lucas Bailey.

One day, Archie falls off his bike, hits his head and wakes up to find none other than Lucas Bailey standing next to him. Like a genie, he offers Archie nine wishes. Is this for real? Is this really Archie’s chance to change his life? Will wishes fix everything or are there some things only he can fix for himself?

This story is emotional and real. Readers will find themselves cheering for Archie as he navigates the twists and turns of his new powers, willing his wishes to come true. The issues facing young carers are presented sensitively without shying away from the difficulties they encounter. For children who are living a similar life to Archie, the importance of asking for help and accessing resources is gently woven into the text.

The Boy Whose Wishes Came True is a book that will stay with you. There are so many Archie Crumbs in the world who need to be seen and supported with compassion, friendship and love.

Fight Back by A.M. Dassu (Scholastic)

Fight Back by A.M. Dassu is an important and powerful story. It should be read by adults as much as by the young people for whom it was written. In a similar vein to A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll, it reveals issues of identity, respect, community and empowerment that need to be recognised and addressed in British society. Teachers especially would benefit greatly from reading this book.

A word of caution – Fight Back starts with a fictional terrorist bombing at a concert venue. For some readers, this may be distressing, particularly for those with a personal connection to the Manchester Arena bombing. Adults recommending this book must be very mindful of who is reading it and what support they may require. I would suggest this book is more suitable for secondary school children. The publisher has labelled its audience as “upper middle-grade & teen”.

13-year-old Aaliyah and her diverse group of friends are obsessed with their favourite K-pop band. When they get the chance to go to a concert, they can’t wait! Excitement turns to terror when a bomb explodes in the arena. What follows is a time of fear, bullying, harassment, racism and broken relationships. Aaliyah and her family are targeted because they are Muslim, blamed for the attack. Instead of hiding who she is, Aaliyah decides it is time to stand up for herself and wear a hijab. She wants to show her community that they have more in common than they are different and they can work together to get rid of hatred.

Fight Back sensitively reveals what it’s like to be a Muslim in a society where news often shows only negatives. It will build empathy for individuals, families and community groups who want to create a positive, diverse community based on mutual respect and unity.

Needle by Patrice Lawrence (Barrington Stoke)

Needle explores the reality of the foster care system so many children experience. Feelings of abandonment, loneliness and the need to protect herself at all costs run through Charlene’s story as she tries to do the right thing and struggles to say “Sorry” when she doesn’t.

Charlene loves knitting – it keeps her calm and helps her to feel connected to her little sister who she hasn’t seen since their mum died two years ago. When her foster carer’s aggressive son destroys the blanket she’s knitting for Kandi, Charlene loses controls. She stabs him in the hand with a knitting needle and finds herself at the police station.

This book is essential reading for children and teachers in every secondary school in the country. Developing empathy for children in care and being able to see life from their point of view is crucial for helping all children feel loved, accepted and understood. I’ve taught a number of children who are in care and can see their stories mirrored in Charlene’s experiences. In reading this, I’m sure they would feel validated and valuable.

Published by Barrington Stoke, Needle has a reading age of 8 but a Teen interest level.

One to watch for in 2024…

The Bravest Word by Kate Foster (Walker Australia)

The Bravest Word is a powerful and honest book. Addressing mental health, anxiety and depression in young people through the beautiful story of a boy and his dog, it helps children to recognise symptoms in themselves. Readers will see that they are not alone and there is a way to cope with these frightening and confusing feelings.

11 year-old Matt is finding life hard. Thoughts of “I can’t do this” overwhelm him, leading to panic attacks and avoidance. Everything has become too much and he doesn’t understand why. Moving to secondary school has been tough, his self-confidence has disappeared and he feels scared most of the time. What is going on?

When out for a walk with his dad, they come across an abandoned and mistreated dog. This anxious pup does more for Matt than he could ever imagine. Together they begin to heal and find strength in each other. Matt finds the courage to tell someone how he feels and takes the first steps in getting help.

“…you will have good days and bad days, but as long as you are always moving forwards and making it to the end of every day, you should be proud of yourself.”

The Bravest Word is such an important book for children, teachers and parents. It dispels the myth that children who seem to have everything can’t get depressed and shows how important it is to recognise these dark feelings. Matt finds he isn’t the only one who struggles with his mental health and that talking to others really does help. He is allowed to rest and begin to heal surrounded by love and support.

This book is currently only available in Australia but will be published in the UK in 2024. Not only will it develop essential empathy for this often silent condition but will empower young people to seek help for themselves. Every child deserves to see themselves in a book. This one could make so much difference to children who struggle with anxiety and depression.


Kate Heap, Primary English Consultant

Kate Heap is an experienced Primary English Consultant from Leeds.  She is passionate about helping children be inspired in their learning through adventure and imagination. Kate is also an author for teachers with her Developing Reading Comprehension Skills series published by Brilliant Publications.

Read more from Kate on her blog (, and follow her on Twitter @KateHeap1.