If you’ve kept up with the young adult book world recently, you have certainly noticed that diverse YA books with big, important topics are exploding right now. I love that many middle grade books have also started to embrace today’s tough subject matter without shying away from the difficulties of growing up in a complicated world.
I have recently found myself gravitating more toward contemporary middle grade books with diverse characters because they oftentimes provide me, as well as young readers, with the opportunity to think long after the final page is turned about themes ranging from important social issues to difficult-to-grasp concepts to universal experiences related to adolescence. Below I’ve rounded up a list of diverse books for tweens that truly feel contemporary. They all do a great job of making the middle grade “voice” sound as authentic and real as possible and they resonate with the times in which we live today.
A sixth grader named Bryan from the projects gets all wound up when he’s constantly told he needs to be “hard” when he’d rather go with the flow and stay chill. Bryan’s mom has always encouraged his quiet, thoughtful nature, but his dad thinks it’s time for his tween son to toughen up.
The First Rule of Punk
The First Rule of Punk seriously rocks (pun intended)! Twelve-year-old punk-rocker Malú has to navigate her identity at a new school and in a new home in this fun story with themes of friendship, finding your place, and learning to rock out like no one’s watching.
Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish
Marcus is the biggest kid in eighth grade. He’s six feet tall, weighs 180 pounds, and has a mustache. Due to his mature appearance, he’s often perceived as a bully. Marcus is trying to cope with many personal issues, including the fact that his dad left him and his family when he was a little boy. After an incident at school, his mom decides it’s time for a trip to Puerto Rico to regroup and visit family. Marcus sees it as a perfect opportunity to find and confront his estranged father.
The House That Lou Built
Lou Bulosan-Nelson shares a room with her mom in her grandmother’s house, but longs for a place of her own where she can escape her crazy but lovable extended Filipino family. So she plans to spend her summer building a 100-square-foot tiny house. In the end, Lou finds herself constructing a deeper meaning of home and family.Preorder from:
I think Harbor Me is a breathtakingly beautiful and well-written story about a diverse group of middle school students who become unlikely confidantes through storytelling. Woodson poses the interesting question: “If the worst thing in the world happened, would I help protect someone else? Would I let myself be a harbor for someone who needs it?” I love how each of the characters finds safe harbor in each other’s stories.
See You in the Cosmos
Follow science-loving Filipino American Alex Petroski and his dog on an adventure of recording what life on Earth is really like (and rocketing their recording out to space for alien life forms to hear). As Alex journeys across Colorado, New Mexico, and California, he meets remarkable people that lead him to uncover the secrets of his own life. A bittersweet story of love, hope, determination, and understanding.
The novel follows a Pakistani girl named Amal who finds herself bound in servitude to an upper class family. Written from a young girl’s perspective, this novel centers on the heavy issue of indentured servitude and the power of girl education in Pakistan. A beautiful celebration of resistance and justice.
In this first installment of Reynolds’s Track series, follows a boy nicknamed Ghost who is fast. When he unintentionally ends up participating in a local track team’s practice, he leaves the other runners in the dust. Coach offers Ghost a spot on the team — but it means he’s going to have to work hard and follow all the rules in order to compete. Ghost is a rich, relatable story about true resilience.Preorder from:
Zoe in Wonderland
Zoe G. Reindeer often spends time in daydreams — her experiences as “Imaginary Zoe” are way more exciting. In real life, she has a hard time making friends and trying to find her place. Her family owns a plant nursery on the property where they live. One day an intriguing man comes to the nursery and changes her life and her world forever. It’s a charming read about self-discovery and self-confidence.
The Science of Breakable Things
Natalie Napoli is a 12-year-old girl who is convinced she can fix her mother who is a botanist suffering from depression. If she can just win the egg drop, win enough money for tickets to New Mexico, show her mother the miracle Cobalt Blue Orchid — a flower she hopes will bring her back to life — then everything will be solved. A moving book centered on themes of family, friendship, mental health, and STEM subjects.
The Stars Beneath Our Feet
Twelve-year old Wallace “Lolly” Rachpaul lives in Harlem is dealing with a lot after his older brother’s unexpected, tragic death. Family, friends, community, and a passion for building with LEGOs all help him navigate his own way in this poetic story about grief, anger, and coping with the tough breaks in life. (Shout out to the various representations of diversity in this one!)