11 Books About Family That Will Make You a Better Parent

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Stack of books with hopi storytelling statue representing "books about families"

I sat frozen in place after I finished the last pages of the book, tears streaming down my cheeks. My heart physically ached as I contemplated Lydia’s parents living forever with regrets and wished for do-overs they would never have.

I avoided looking in the mirror, afraid to see their parental guilt reflected in my face.  

Celeste Ng’s book, Everything I Never Told You, is a gut-wrenching novel exploring the nuances of imperfection. Imperfect children, imperfect parents, imperfect souls striving for perfection but invariably coming up short.  

If only we had infinite do-overs.

The power of a novel 

I walked around for several days with this book weighing heavy on my heart. Ng’s book brought to mind other searing novels that left me pondering my parental ineptitude. The times I fell short, I did not hear, I was not present, or I failed miserably to connect with my child.  

We have all been there, feeling like we failed our children. Kids are, fortunately, resilient, and most survive our periodic failings. And, as parents, we may not get do-overs, but we can keep growing. While usually overlooked, reading fiction is one way to foster this growth – by cultivating empathy skills.

You do have time time to read

We often believe there is no time to read or that there is no value in reading fiction. Some other demand always seems more pressing. I’ve been there. For many years when all my children were young, I barely had time to finish a single book.  

But you can make reading possible, even with a busy life. 

  • Audible books have been a Godsend to me. Finishing a book a week is possible if you have any time in a car, or waiting to pick up children from practices, or waiting for games to start, or rehearsals to end.  Tip – if you have a hard time paying attention to audiobooks, try speeding them up. The faster speed forces you to listen with more attention, at least that is my experience.
  • When I walk the dogs I listen to a book.
  • When I walk to exercise, I have an audiobook playing.
  • As I washing dishes, sweeping or vacuuming, I listen to a book.
  • Before I retired, my commuting time was audiobook time. Much healthier than listening to loop after loop of the same news.
  • My day starts with a book. I shut off the screens (except my kindle) and read. A hot cup of coffee and a book is a wonderful way to wake up.
  • My day ends with a book. I may fall asleep after 2 pages, but those are 2 pages read.
  • I belong to book clubs – it pushes me to have reading goals.
  • I have joined book challenges on Goodreads – another way to hold yourself accountable.

I admit I am a voracious reader. You may not be, but you can become a regular reader by integrating even one or two of the above suggestions into your routine. Today is a great day to start a reading habit.

Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”

Malorie Blackman

However and whenever you read, consider it time well spent. Think of it as a study in empathy—homework for becoming a better parent. Parents typically pick up how-to books or surf web sites with their parenting questions, but, alternatively, good fiction can be even more effective – and more enjoyable. 

Scientific studies abound supporting the conclusion that reading fiction improves our ability to understand others, reading novels builds empathy skills. Further, stronger empathy skills can positively affect attachment and other behaviors in children. Reading good fiction is a win-win for everyone in a family.

An author’s angst

Think about how authors pour all their angst and family baggage into their works. Every novel is a peek into the psychological workings of another human being. 

Therefore, a carefully curated list of books exploring family and parenting struggles can teach you more psychology than any textbook. Because it is a story, you will remember it better as well. The more you relate to the characters in a book, the more you will remember.

Because I believe this so strongly, I want to share with you a list of my favorite books about family relationships. Each left me with a lasting lesson about children, parenting, siblings – about how families work and often don’t work. I hope they do the same for you.  

1. Everything I Never Told You

11 Books About Family That Will Make You a Better ParentEverything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Published by Penguin Press on June 26, 2014
Pages: 292
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Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.
A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

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2. When We Were Vikings

11 Books About Family That Will Make You a Better ParentWhen We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald
Published by Scout Press on January 28, 2020
Pages: 326
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A heart-swelling debut for fans of The Silver Linings Playbook and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Sometimes life isn’t as simple as heroes and villains.
For Zelda, a twenty-one-year-old Viking enthusiast who lives with her older brother, Gert, life is best lived with some basic rules:
1. A smile means “thank you for doing something small that I liked.”2. Fist bumps and dabs = respect.3. Strange people are not appreciated in her home.4. Tomatoes must go in the middle of the sandwich and not get the bread wet.5. Sometimes the most important things don’t fit on lists.
But when Zelda finds out that Gert has resorted to some questionable—and dangerous—methods to make enough money to keep them afloat, Zelda decides to launch her own quest. Her mission: to be legendary. It isn’t long before Zelda finds herself in a battle that tests the reach of her heroism, her love for her brother, and the depth of her Viking strength.
When We Were Vikings is an uplifting debut about an unlikely heroine whose journey will leave you wanting to embark on a quest of your own, because after all...
We are all legends of our own making.

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3. On the Come Up

11 Books About Family That Will Make You a Better ParentOn the Come Up by Angie Thomas
Published by Balzer + Bray on February 5, 2019
Pages: 447
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Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighborhood one day. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it—she has to make it.
On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’s homage to hip-hop, the art that sparked her passion for storytelling and continues to inspire her to this day. It is the story of fighting for your dreams, even as the odds are stacked against you; of the struggle to become who you are and not who everyone expects you to be; and of the desperate realities of poor and working-class black families.

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4. All We Ever Wanted

11 Books About Family That Will Make You a Better ParentAll We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin
on June 26, 2018
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In the riveting new novel from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of First Comes Love and Something Borrowed, three very different people must choose between their family and their values.
Nina Browning is living the good life after marrying into Nashville’s elite. More recently, her husband made a fortune selling his tech business, and their adored son has been accepted to Princeton. Yet sometimes the middle-class small-town girl in Nina wonders if she’s strayed from the person she once was.
Tom Volpe is a single dad working multiple jobs while struggling to raise his headstrong daughter, Lyla. His road has been lonely, long, and hard, but he finally starts to relax after Lyla earns a scholarship to Windsor Academy, Nashville’s most prestigious private school.
Amid so much wealth and privilege, Lyla doesn’t always fit in—and her overprotective father doesn’t help—but in most ways, she’s a typical teenage girl, happy and thriving.
Then, one photograph, snapped in a drunken moment at a party, changes everything. As the image spreads like wildfire, the Windsor community is instantly polarized, buzzing with controversy and assigning blame.
At the heart of the lies and scandal, Tom, Nina, and Lyla are forced together—all questioning their closest relationships, asking themselves who they really are, and searching for the courage to live a life of true meaning.

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5. Speak No Evil

11 Books About Family That Will Make You a Better ParentSpeak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala
Published by HarperAudio on March 6, 2018
Pages: 7
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A revelation shared between two privileged teenagers from very different backgrounds sets off a chain of events with devastating consequences.
On the surface, Niru leads a charmed life. Raised by two attentive parents in Washington, D.C., he’s a top student and a track star at his prestigious private high school. Bound for Harvard in the fall, his prospects are bright. But Niru has a painful secret: he is queer—an abominable sin to his conservative Nigerian parents. No one knows except Meredith, his best friend, the daughter of prominent Washington insiders—and the one person who seems not to judge him.
When his father accidentally discovers Niru is gay, the fallout is brutal and swift. Coping with troubles of her own, however, Meredith finds that she has little left emotionally to offer him. As the two friends struggle to reconcile their desires against the expectations and institutions that seek to define them, they find themselves speeding toward a future more violent and senseless than they can imagine. Neither will escape unscathed.

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6. Did You Ever Have A Family?

11 Books About Family That Will Make You a Better ParentDid You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
Published by Scout Press on September 1, 2015
Pages: 293
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The stunning debut novel from bestselling author Bill Clegg is a magnificently powerful story about a circle of people who find solace in the least likely of places as they cope with a horrific tragedy.
On the eve of her daughter's wedding, June Reid's life is completely devastated when a shocking disaster takes the lives of her daughter, her daughter's fiancé, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke - her entire family, all gone in a moment. And June is the only survivor.
Alone and directionless, June drives across the country, away from her small Connecticut town. In her wake, a community emerges, weaving a beautiful and surprising web of connections through shared heartbreak.
From the couple running a motel on the Pacific Ocean where June eventually settles into a quiet half-life, to the wedding's caterer whose bill has been forgotten, to Luke's mother, the shattered outcast of the town - everyone touched by the tragedy is changed as truths about their near and far histories finally come to light.
Elegant and heartrending, and one of the most accomplished fiction debuts of the year, Did You Ever Have a Family is an absorbing, unforgettable tale that reveals humanity at its best through forgiveness and hope. At its core is a celebration of family - the ones we are born with and the ones we create.

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7. Have You Seen Luis Velez?

11 Books About Family That Will Make You a Better ParentHave You Seen Luis Velez? by Catherine Ryan Hyde
on May 21, 2019
Pages: 315
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Raymond Jaffe feels like he doesn't belong. Not with his mother's new family. Not as a weekend guest with his father and his father's wife. Not at school, where he's an outcast. After his best friend moves away, Raymond has only two real connections: to the feral cat he's tamed and to a blind ninety-two-year-old woman in his building who's introduced herself with a curious question: Have you seen Luis Velez?
Mildred Gutermann, a German Jew who narrowly escaped the Holocaust, has been alone since her caretaker disappeared. She turns to Raymond for help, and as he tries to track Luis down, a deep and unexpected friendship blossoms between the two.
Despondent at the loss of Luis, Mildred isolates herself further from a neighborhood devolving into bigotry and fear. Determined not to let her give up, Raymond helps her see that for every terrible act the world delivers, there is a mirror image of deep kindness, and Mildred helps Raymond see that there's hope if you have someone to hold on to.

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8. Sing Unburied Sing

11 Books About Family That Will Make You a Better ParentSing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Published by Scribner on September 5, 2017
Pages: 285
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A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award–winner Jesmyn Ward.
In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.
Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.
Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

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9. Far From the Tree

11 Books About Family That Will Make You a Better ParentFar from the Tree by Robin Benway
Published by HarperCollins on October 3, 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Family, Adoption, Siblings, Social Themes, Pregnancy
Pages: 384
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National Book Award Winner and New York Times Bestseller!
Perfect for fans of NBC's "This Is Us," Robin Benway’s beautiful interweaving story of three very different teenagers connected by blood explores the meaning of family in all its forms—how to find it, how to keep it, and how to love it.
Being the middle child has its ups and downs.
But for Grace, an only child who was adopted at birth, discovering that she is a middle child is a different ride altogether. After putting her own baby up for adoption, she goes looking for her biological family, including—
Maya, her loudmouthed younger bio sister, who has a lot to say about their newfound family ties. Having grown up the snarky brunette in a house full of chipper redheads, she’s quick to search for traces of herself among these not-quite-strangers. And when her adopted family’s long-buried problems begin to explode to the surface, Maya can’t help but wonder where exactly it is that she belongs.
And Joaquin, their stoic older bio brother, who has no interest in bonding over their shared biological mother. After seventeen years in the foster care system, he’s learned that there are no heroes, and secrets and fears are best kept close to the vest, where they can’t hurt anyone but him.
Don't miss this moving novel that addresses such important topics as adoption, teen pregnancy, and foster care.

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10. This is How it Always Is

Also my “best book of 2019”

11 Books About Family That Will Make You a Better ParentThis Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
Published by Flatiron Books on December 4, 2018
Pages: 338
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An alternative cover edition for this ASIN can be found here and here.
This is how a family keeps a secret…and how that secret ends up keeping them.
This is how a family lives happily ever after…until happily ever after becomes complicated.
This is how children change…and then change the world.
This is Claude. He’s five years old, the youngest of five brothers, and loves peanut butter sandwiches. He also loves wearing a dress, and dreams of being a princess.
When he grows up, Claude says, he wants to be a girl.
Rosie and Penn want Claude to be whoever Claude wants to be. They’re just not sure they’re ready to share that with the world. Soon the entire family is keeping Claude’s secret. Until one day it explodes.
This Is How It Always Is is a novel about revelations, transformations, fairy tales, and family. And it’s about the ways this is how it always is: Change is always hard and miraculous and hard again, parenting is always a leap into the unknown with crossed fingers and full hearts, children grow but not always according to plan. And families with secrets don’t get to keep them forever.
"This is a novel everyone should read. It’s brilliant. It’s bold. And it’s time.” ―Elizabeth George, #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Banquet of Consequences

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11. Brown Girl Dreaming

11 Books About Family That Will Make You a Better ParentBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Published by Nancy Paulsen Books on August 28, 2014
Pages: 337
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Jacqueline Woodson, one of today's finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

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Reading and sharing books about family

This list is far from comprehensive. Dozens of additional books about family could be included. If you have a favorite not listed, share it with us in the comment section below. Many of these books are perfect book club selections, as well. You will gain even more by discussing them with others. If you have read any of these books, tell us what you thought. I want to hear!

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