Movements like #weneeddiversebooks and #ownvoices has led to a rise in diverse middle-grade books in recent years. From biographies of people who changed the world, to fictional adventures with protagonists of different backgrounds and abilities, here are some of the best diverse middle-grade books for this holiday season.
The Zee Files by Tina Wells
This middle-grade series follows MacKenzie “Zee” Carmichael as she begins life at her new boarding school in London. Zee is a biracial thirteen-year-old with big dreams, and she’s counting on The Hollows Creative Arts Academy to bring her closer to becoming a professional singer. But starting a new school has its challenges, especially in a new country. Away from her parents for the first time, stuck with a chilly roommate, and far from her friends, Zee wonders when or if she’ll feel like she belongs.
We spoke with Tina Wells, author of The Zee Files series, earlier this month to discuss the craft and intention behind the series, including the importance of diversity in children’s literature.
“Everything I write must be diverse,” said Wells. “My intention is to increase the representation of diverse characters in middle-grade fiction. I also want to target at-risk readers and engage them. The world is diverse and there’s no reason why all younger readers shouldn’t have access to diverse stories.”
Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green
This winner of the 2018 ALA Schneider Family Book Award, Middle Grade category features sixth grader Macy McMillan who is about to have her world turned upside down. Macy is losing everything familiar as she prepares to gain a new family and a new home. As if gaining a new stepfather and twin stepsisters weren’t change enough, Macy’s mother has put their house up for sale. She’s also tasked Macy with helping their neighbor, the elderly Iris Gillan, with packing for her own move to an assisted living facility. But how is Macy supposed to communicate with Iris, who doesn’t know sign language? Macy’s deafness won’t deter this odd and unexpected friendship from blossoming, however, as Macy and Iris communicate through books, notes, cookies, and time spent together. Preteens will connect with this heartwarming story about bridging differences and embracing change despite the challenges that come with it.
Girl of the Southern Sea by Michelle Kadarusman
This #ownvoices story follow fourteen-year-old Nia in Jakarta, Indonesia. Nia wants nothing more than to continue her education and become a writer, but her father’s earnings from selling banana fritters mostly fund his drinking habit. The money left barely supports Nia and her brother’s upbringing in the Jakarta slums. They would never cover the expensive fees required for Nia to continue her education in high school. But when Nia survives a minibus accident unharmed, rumors swirl that she is blessed with ‘good luck magic.’ She uses her reputation to her advantage, doubling the cost of her family’s friend bananas. But her good luck can only get her so far before the tides turn against her favor. Can she summon the courage needed to write her own future?
The Undercover Book List by Colleen Nelson
Jane MacDonald’s best friend Sienna has moved to the other side of the country, but she left Jane a way to connect with a new bookish friend. When Tyson Flamand finds Sienna’s hidden message in a library book, he knows it can’t be meant for him. His reputation as a troublemaker makes teachers and students alike think the worst about him. But anonymity gives him the courage to respond. Soon, Jane and Tyson have formed a secret two-person book club, and their hidden identities just might hold the key to finally feeling truly seen.
Blancaflor, The Hero with Secret Powers: A Folktale from Latin America by Nadja Spiegelman, Sergio García Sánchez (Illustrator), and F. Isabel Campoy (Introduction by)
This middle-grade graphic novel retells a classic Latin American folktale and highlights the strength and resourcefulness of women. Blancaflor’s ogre father always warned that if she displays her considerable powers, she’ll frighten off all her suitors. It’s not like a prince will fall from the sky and wake up in her lap. Until he does. Spellbound by the prince, Blancaflor is determined to help the young man, even if she struggles to conceal her powers in the process. Nadja Spielgelman’s writing and Sergio Garcia Sanchez’s illustrations bring this empowering love story to life in a way sure to engage readers ages 9 to 12.
The Street Belongs to Us by Karleen Pendleton Jimenez
Tomboy Alex and her best friend Wolf turn dug-up Muscatel Avenue into their summer battleground as they engage the neighborhood kids in a gleeful street war. Alex’s grandmother warns that some things prefer to remain buried, but the children ignore her warning and unearth more than they bargained for. This novel brings the people and land to life in a story that weaves together Mexican-American identity and experience, youthful summer adventures, and themes of family, friendship, and acceptance.
Drawing with Whitman by Kristin McGlothlin
Thirteen-year-old Cat’s life is changed in an instant when a car accident injures her and her mother. Cat suffers two broken legs and must use a wheelchair. Her mom’s wounds are harder to see as she begins to struggle with depression. As Cat’s older brother prepares to leave for college, Cat takes it upon herself to restore her family’s happiness. She enlists the help of a painter named Benton who takes up residence in the family’s studio-barn.
As Cat learns about art, she also learns about Benton’s ancestor, the writer Walt Whitman, who serves as another source of creative inspiration for Cat. Cat’s journey of discovery expands beyond just art and literature as she finds her own inner strength to help her family heal. This middle-grade book shines brightly colored lights on important, difficult subjects around mental health, creative expression, family relationships, and personal growth.
Young, Fearless, Awesome: Twenty-Five Young People Who Changed the World by Stella Caldwell
Who says only adults can change the world? This book features 25 young people from around the world with inspiring talent and bravery. Explore 25 stories of passion and courage from recent historical figures like Anne Frank and Claudette Colvin, to modern-day activists like Greta Thunberg, Felix Finkbeiner, and Emma Gonzalez. These true stories will embolden young readers to shape the future they want to see.
Paul Robeson: No One Can Silence Me by Martin Duberman and Jason Reynolds
This adaptation of the praised autobiography takes young readers through the life and triumphs of civil rights activist Paul Robeson. After graduating college ranked first in his class, Robeson began a law career, but it was his career as an actor and singer that propelled him to international stardom. His civil rights activism, however, alienated him in the entertainment industry and caused considerable backlash. Still, Robeson did not compromise his values. Sidebars, explanations of key terms, and photographs accompany this inspiring story of artistry, conviction, bravery, and conflict that still speaks to young readers today.