How to Build a Summer Reading List That Combats Loneliness and Despair

“If you feel like you can never do anything right, you’re just like the characters in the books I write.” A neurodivergent summer reading list may help your child not only sharpen ther skills, but also feel less alone and different and broken. Here, juvenile and middle grade author Cat Patrick offers advice to choosing uplifting titles and building a book culture at home.

Young girl reading a book while lying on her back on a wooden beam at a wooden dock at the lake.
Young girl reading a book while lying on her back on a wooden beam at a wooden dock at the lake.

If kids came with rules, primary among them would be this: Whatever you do, cultivate a love of reading.

But what if your child’s ADHD brain makes reading difficult — and boring? Filling your shelves with stories about neurodivergent characters is an important first step. Here are some of the benefits of “like me” books — and a little about my experience writing one.

When Kids with ADHD See Their Lives Reflected on the Page

#1. Neurodivergent characters foster connectedness. Professor, author, and researcher Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, says, “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

I agree and believe that there’s joy associated with discovering connections, even connections with fictional characters. If you feel like you’re always getting in trouble for forgetting your homework or fidgeting in class or just generally doing things “wrong,” reading about a character in the same boat could make you feel less alone — perhaps even seen, heard, and valued.

#2. “Like Me” books may enable reading comprehension — or reading in the first place. Experts Thomas Brown, Ph.D., and William Dodson, M.D., say that people with ADHD “have great difficulty in activating themselves to get started on tasks that are not especially interesting to them and in sustaining motivation to complete tasks for which the rewards are not imminently available.” Books featuring relatable main characters facing familiar issues could be more interesting to kids with ADHD and therefore motivate them to read more often.

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These books can also help with comprehension. Young children often read their favorite picture books over and over, which promotes vocabulary and comprehension. The books are familiar to them; rereading removes the pressure of a completely new experience.

For ADHD brains, reading about a familiar-feeling main character may similarly help relieve some of the pressure associated with the reading experience — and diminished pressure could allow readers to better focus on, and remember, the details of what they’re reading.

#3. Neurodivergent characters inspire resilience. Life with ADHD can be overwhelming. Reading books about “like me” characters displaying heroic qualities like bravery, determination, integrity, and grit can help inspire resiliency in readers.

I first learned about this concept in one of my favorite self-improvement books, Superbetter (#CommissionsEarned), by Jane McGonigal. Apparently, heroes, even everyday ones, inspire us to act heroic. New York University Researcher Jonathan Haidt says that heroes and heroic action cause an emotional response called “elevation,” which can make us act bravely, too. That doesn’t mean saving the world; but small acts of heroism are incredible, too. To a child with ADHD, a heroic act could be digging deep to finish an overdue project or organize a bedroom.

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Where Did Frankie Come From? How I Wrote a Book about an ADHD-Brained Character

My latest book, Tornado Brain (#CommissionsEarned), is about a 13-year-old ADHD- and ASD-brained girl named Frankie who lives in the tiny town of Long Beach, Washington. Her former best friend, Colette, has disappeared, and Frankie feels that she’s the only one seeing the clues Colette left behind. Frankie enlists her reluctant, neurotypical, twin sister to help her before it’s too late.

Creating the characters in Tornado Brain, I was inspired by my personal experience as a mom of twins —one neurotypical and one neurodivergent. Though the book is a work of fiction, I know intimately what it’s like to raise twins — and to live in the orbit of a child like Frankie.

Writing Tornado Brain, it was important to me that the book was a good story first and foremost — I didn’t want it to be an “issue book” or have a heavy-handed, moral-of-the-story feel to it. I wanted it to be enjoyable for all types of readers. Diagnoses like ADHD and ASD are invisible; I wanted neurotypical readers to learn from Frankie’s perspective what it’s like to see the world as she does — with the marvelous brain she’s got.

And I wanted neurodivergent readers to find in Frankie someone who inspires. She’s an everyday heroine, flawed and fantastic in her own special ways. I wanted people to read about how truly amazing the ADHD brain is. Ultimately, Frankie solves the mystery because of how her brain is wired, not in spite of it.

How My Kids Learned to Love Reading

Even with the best intentions, many parents struggle to get their kids to read. I’m not a doctor, just a mom, and every family is different, but here are a few things that have worked in my home.

  • Start a family book club. Pick a book and read at your own pace, then discuss at a book club “meeting” with snacks that everyone enjoys. Even if the snacks are the biggest draw, even if not everyone finishes the book, it still helps nurture a bookish culture at home. Next on our list is Get a Grip, Vivy Cohen! (#CommissionsEarned) which is about an autistic 11-year-old who just wants to play baseball.
  • Listen to an audiobook on your next road trip. Choose a standout audiobook and kick back and watch the scenery roll by. Discuss what’s happening in the book when you stop for lunch or, if you’re like us, too-frequent potty breaks. The Thing About Jellyfish (#CommissionsEarned) is not only a great read — and a fantastic listen — but features likable and relatable ASD- and ADHD- brained characters.
  • Listen faster to audiobooks. I know a certain child who likes listening to audiobooks at an increased speed. It might be worth a try if your child prefers audiobooks but tends to get distracted while listening.
  • Create a book culture in your home. From creating reading nooks in closets to giving bookmarks as small rewards to having “book nerd” themed birthday parties, it’s about making book culture, and therefore reading, cool.
  • Graphic novels: Gone is the stigma against graphic novels — once not considered “real books.” The faster pace and verbal-plus-visual nature of graphic novels has long made them a staple in our home. While not about ADHD, El Deafo (#CommissionsEarned), features a strong main character who works to overcome her personal challenges — in this case, childhood deafness. It’s a hit in my home.

[Read This Next: 10 Great Middle Grade Books with ADHD Characters]

Books: The Quiet Universe

About one in six kids in the United States has a developmental disability. So, our bright, creative, hilarious, curious, inventive, and inspiring ADHD-brained children aren’t alone — but it doesn’t mean they don’t feel that way.

My hope is that stocking bookshelves with more “like me” books for children with ADHD will help them feel more connected, empowered, and resilient — and ultimately less alone. Because reading is beneficial for all of us — especially kids with busy ADHD brains who might need some calm.

As author Michelle Kuo said in her TED Talk, The Healing Power of Reading, “How do we diminish the distance between us? Reading is one way to close that distance. It gives us a quiet universe that we can share together, that we can share in equally.”

I don’t know about you, but the thought of helping my child retreat to a quiet universe that we can share together sounds pretty lovely to me.

Great Books for ADHD Readers

ADHD and Summer: Next Steps

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