My friend Nicole—a fellow only child—recently sent me an article from The Atlantic entitled, “Why Are People Weird About Only Children?” Not surprisingly, the piece included the usual tropes associated with onlies: We’re spoiled, selfish, maladjusted weirdos who can’t get along with others or share our toys. We’re also bad at team sports, cooperative projects, and group-socialization in general. Why? Because it’s all about me, me, ME!
This got me thinking about my own only childhood, where I spent Saturday mornings alone in my room, watching TV and scarfing Pop Tarts while my parents slept in. I knew I was lucky to have my own TV, but the shows I watched—The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, Eight Is Enough, Good Times—all featured large, boisterous families whose lives seemed way more exciting than mine. The Partridge family had its own tour bus, for goodness’ sake! But as entertaining as those shows were, I couldn’t relate to them. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to books that featured only children.
Pippi, Fern, Mary, and Harriet…
I started with such classics as Pippi Longstocking, Charlotte’s Web, and The Secret Garden before graduating to Harriet the Spy—a book I’ve reread annually since the age of ten. Harriet resonated particularly deeply, because, like me, Harriet spent a lot of time alone in her room while her parents were busy. (Harriet didn’t have her own TV, though, which could explain why she felt the need to spy on people and write about them in her notebook.) Unlike me, Harriet was sassy, outspoken, and she didn’t always mind her manners. To say I found this thrilling was an understatement.
Are You There, Margaret?
My other favorite book, Judy Blume’s 1974 classic, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, was deeply relatable as well—and not just because the eponymous protagonist spent a lot of time alone in her room (although she spoke to God instead of watching TV). Like Harriet, Margaret had the ability to say what was on her mind, even when she thought no one was listening. The fact that she was flat-chested, had hard-to-manage hair, and yearned for her period was just icing on the cake.
Above all, these books offered me the “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” I craved as an only child. I felt seen, and less alone. Sure, reading books about fellow onlies wasn’t as exciting as crisscrossing the country in a rainbow-colored tour bus. But it came pretty darn close.
Books That Feature Only Children
J.R. Silver Writes Her World by Melissa Dassori
Sixth grade is off to a difficult start for Josephine Rose Silver. Her best friend, Violet, returns from camp with a new best friend; her parents refuse to grant her more independence; and her homeroom teacher, Ms. Kline, is full of secrets. When Ms. Kline unveils a collection of old Gothamite magazines and tells her students to build their writing skills by crafting short stories inspired by the iconic covers, J.R. discovers a peculiar power: The stories she writes come true. Soon J.R. is getting a cell phone, scoring game-winning goals, and triggering school cancellations. But it’s not long before she realizes that each new story creates as many conflicts as it does solutions.
Some Places More Than Others by Renée Watson
All Amara wants for her birthday is to visit her father’s family in Harlem. She can’t wait to finally meet Grandpa Earl and her cousins, and to stay in the brownstone where her father grew up. But New York City is not what Amara thought it would be. It’s crowded, with confusing subways, suffocating sidewalks, and her father is too busy to spend time with her and too angry to spend time with Grandpa Earl. As she explores, asks questions, and learns more about Harlem and her father’s family history, she realizes how she connects with her dad, her home, and her family.
Birdie’s Billions by Edith Cohn
For as long as eleven-year-old Birdie can remember, it’s always been just her and her mom—which means there’s not a lot of extra money to spend on things like new clothes and batons from the fancy gymnastics store. Still, they always find a way to make ends meet. Then Birdie makes one silly mistake that has a big consequence: Mom loses her job. Now things are more dire than ever, and Birdie knows it’s up to her to fix it.
One Kid’s Trash by Jamie Sumner
Hugo is not happy about being dragged halfway across the state of Colorado just because his dad had a midlife crisis and decided to become a ski instructor. But when his fellow students discover his remarkable talent for garbology, the science of studying trash, Hugo becomes the cool kid for the first time in his life. But what happens when it all goes to his head?
Genesis Begins Again by Alica D. Williams
Thirteen-year-old Genesis dislikes herself for ninety-six reasons. She knows the exact number because she keeps a list: Her family is always being put out of their house; her dad has a gambling problem—and maybe a drinking problem, too—and Genesis is convinced this is all her fault. She also knows she wasn’t born looking like Mama, and that she is too Black. Genesis is determined to fix her family, and she’s willing to try anything to do so—even if it means harming herself in the process. But when Genesis starts to find a thing or two she actually likes about herself, she discovers that changing her own attitude is the first step in helping to change others.
My Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties by Kellye Crocker
Dad hasn’t been dating his new girlfriend that long, so Ava is sure nothing has to change in her life. Until the day after sixth grade ends and Dad whisks her away to meet The Girlfriend and her daughter in terrifying Colorado, where even the squirrels can kill you. Managing her anxiety while avoiding altitude sickness might take all of Ava’s strength, but at least this trip will only last two weeks. If she survives…
How to Win a Slime War by Mae Respicio
Alex Manalo and his dad have just moved back to Sacramento to revive their extended family’s struggling Filipino market. While Alex likes helping at the store, his true passion is making slime. Encouraged by a new friend at school, Alex begins to sell his creations, leading to a sell-off battle with a girl who previously had a slime-opoly. But Alex’s dad thinks Alex should focus on “traditional” boy pastimes like sports, since Dad is the new soccer coach. Alex is battling on multiple fronts, and it will be a sticky race to the finish to see who oozes out on top.
Taking Up Space by Alison Gerber
Sarah loves basketball more than anything. It’s the only thing that helps her ignore how much it hurts when her mom forgets to feed her. But lately Sarah can’t even play basketball right. She’s slower now, and missing shots. Her body doesn’t feel like it’s her own anymore. She’s worried that changing herself back to how she used to be is the only way she can take control over what’s happening. Then, when Sarah’s crush asks her to be partners in a cooking competition, she feels pulled in a million directions. She’ll have to dig deep to stand up for what she needs at home, be honest with her best friends, and accept that she doesn’t need to change to feel good about herself.
The Comeback by E.L. Shen
Twelve-year-old Maxine Chen is trying to nail that perfect landing: on the ice, in middle school, and at home, where her parents worry that competitive skating is too much pressure for a budding tween. Maxine isn’t concerned, however―she’s determined to glide to victory. But then a bully at school starts teasing Maxine for her Chinese heritage, leaving her stunned and speechless. And at the rink, she finds herself up against a stellar new skater named Hollie, whose grace and skill threaten to edge Maxine out of the competition. Will Maxine crash under the pressure? Or can she power her way to a comeback?
Life in the Balance by Jen Petro-Roy
Veronica Conway has been looking forward to trying out for the All-Star softball team for years. But right before tryouts, Veronica’s mom announces that she’s entering rehab for alcoholism, and her dad tells her that they may not be able to afford the fees needed to be on the team. Veronica decides to enter the town talent show in an effort to make her own money, but along the way discovers a new hobby that leads her to doubt her feelings for the game she thought she loved so much.
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca
Reha feels torn between two worlds: school, where she’s the only Indian American student, and home, with her family’s traditions and strict expectations. Reha feels disconnected from her mother, or Amma, who doesn’t understand how conflicted she feels. Although their names are linked—Reha means “star” and Punam means “moon”—they are a universe apart. And then Amma is diagnosed with leukemia. Reha, who dreams of becoming a doctor one day despite her aversion to blood and guts, is determined to make her mother well again. She’ll be the perfect daughter, if it means saving Amma’s life.
Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles
Wes Henderson has the best style in sixth grade. That and hanging out with his best friends and playing video games is what Wes wants to be thinking about at the start of the school year–not the protests his parents are always dragging him to. But when a powerful real-estate developer makes an offer to buy Kensington Oaks, the neighborhood Wes has lived in his whole life, everything changes. And Wes isn’t about to give up the only home he’s ever known without a fight.
Many Points of Me by Caroline Gertler
Georgia Rosenbloom’s father was a famous artist. His most well-known paintings were a series of asterisms—patterns of stars. One represented a bird, one himself, and one Georgia’s mother. There was supposed to be a fourth asterism, but Georgia’s father died before he could paint it. Georgia’s mother and her best friend, Theo, are certain that the last asterism would’ve been of Georgia, but Georgia isn’t so sure. Then Georgia finds a sketch her father made of her. Could this finally be the proof that the last painting would have been of her?
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
For the past five years, Coyote and her dad have been crisscrossing the country in an old school bus. It’s also how long 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.
Brave Like That by Lindsey Stoddard
Cyrus Olson’s dad is a hero—Northfield’s former football star and now one of their finest firefighters. Everyone expects Cyrus to follow in his dad’s record-breaking footsteps, and he wishes they were right—except he’s never been brave like that. But this year, with the help of a stray dog, a few new friends, a little bit of rhythm, and a lot of nerve, he may just discover that actually…he is.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
Middle-school baking enthusiast Zoe Washington isn’t sure what to write. What does a girl say to the father she’s never met, hadn’t heard from until his letter arrived on her twelfth birthday, and who’s been in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit? Could Marcus really be innocent? Zoe is determined to uncover the truth, even if it means hiding his letters and her investigation from the rest of her family.
The Miscalculations of Lightnight Girl by Stacy McAnulty
Lucy Callahan’s life was changed forever when she was struck by lightning. She doesn’t remember it, but the zap gave her genius-level math skills, and she’s been homeschooled ever since. Now, at the age of twelve, she’s technically ready for college. She just has to pass one more test–middle school.
Violet and the Pie of Life by Debra Green
Twelve-year-old Violet has two great loves in her life: math and pie. And she loves her parents, even though her mom never stops nagging and her dad can be unreliable. Mom plus Dad doesn’t equal perfection. Still, Violet knows her parents could solve their problems if they just applied simple math.