Within the last several years, the publishing world has been producing more profound and relevant diverse stories perfect for middle grade and young adult readers. The increase of diverse stories being told by authentic “own voices” authors gives young people more opportunities to read about marginalized characters from someone within that same marginalized group.
If you think back to your middle school and high school required reading lists, you’ll likely see a plethora of classic book titles written by white males — titles like Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, and Macbeth come to mind. While those books are important works of literature, there are now many other voices in the literary world that kids need to hear from.
With the new school year on the horizon, now is a great time for educators to update their reading materials in classrooms and libraries, as well as lesson plans, with more representative books. In doing so, children of all backgrounds benefit from seeing characters whose experiences are different from (and the same as!) their own.
Books we recommend children should match the current world in which we live. If we want children to enjoy reading and be engaged, why not give them stories where they see themselves being represented? A good place to start is by exploring diverse stories written by “own voices” authors, like the ones I’ve highlighted here.
The First Rule of Punk
In The First Rule of Punk, readers learn from Maria Luisa (also known as Malú), a free-spirited Mexican-American girl, that the first rule of punk is to be yourself. After relocating to Chicago for her mother’s job, Maria struggles with trying to find her place in the world while still staying true to herself. This book offers an interesting look into many issues tweens and teens may face, including taking pride in your heritage, standing up for what you believe in, self-identity, friendship, family, and dealing with problems specific to mixed-race children in America.
Count Me In
Told from alternating perspectives, this riveting story tells of a friendship between a second generation Indian-American girl, her grandfather, and her white next-door neighbor. After being a witness to a hate crime against her grandfather and friend by an angry racist man, Karina becomes an activist by sharing pictures on social media from the scene. She starts tagging her posts with #CountMeIn and learns to use social media to make a positive difference in the world. Karina decides to speak up against hate, violence and injustice. An excellent and meaningful story of friendship, racism, xenophobia, and the goodness of humanity.
My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich
Twelve-year-old Ebony-Grace is a space-loving girl who has to leave her grandfather in Alabama and spend the summer with her dad in Harlem. Ebony-Grace has to learn to adapt to all the changes going on in her life while also trying to fit into her new environment. This imaginative tale is great for Star Trek fans and space enthusiasts.
The Night Diary
Set in 1947, The Night Diary is a fictional story based on real-life events that happened during the time of partition and the end of British rule. Twelve-year-old Nisha lives in a country that’s about to be divided into two: present-day Pakistan and India. Can you imagine being told to leave your home and travel many miles (on foot) to start your life over? Told in the form of letters addressed from Nisha to her late mother, this is a very emotional and insightful tale filled with vivid imagery and beautiful language.
Every week, six fifth-grade tweens from Brooklyn, NY meet in a classroom for one hour to discuss their issues. Throughout their time together, heavy topics emerge — including police shootings, racial inequalities, loss of parents, immigration, grief, and prison. A powerful book that many will find very relatable and prevalent given the state of the world today.
It’s Trevor Noah: Born a Crime
Trevor Noah shares his humorous and raw story of growing up in South Africa with a black South African mother and white European father. In this YA adaptation (suitable for middle grade readers, too), readers will have a better understanding of what it was like to grow up in South Africa during the apartheid and learn about the effects poverty and racism can have on a society.
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Julia believes she will never measure up to her “perfect” sister Olga who has recently passed away. As a result, Julia suffers from anxiety and depression while still being haunted by her sister’s death. Several tough issues are explored here, including cultural conflicts and following your dreams in spite of your parent's wishes.
The Downstairs Girl
The Downstairs Girl is a beautiful historical fiction YA novel featuring a diverse cast that’s set in 1890s Atlanta, Georgia. Readers are introduced to Jo Kuan, a Chinese-American girl who starts writing an anonymous advice column called Miss Sweetie. It turns out her advice column is a hit! I loved the historical accuracy in this book and how well the author tackled the topics of racism and gender equality.
Patron Saints of Nothing
Jay is a Filipino-American boy who has one semester left of high school when he finds out his cousin in the Philippines has been killed. He convinces his parents to send him back to his aunt and uncle’s house in the Philippines so he can try to piece together the puzzle of what lead to his cousin’s death. Patron Saints of Nothing is an emotional rollercoaster type of book from the start. It opens your eyes to the war on drugs in the Philippines and addresses other topics — like family, faith, friendship, and grief.