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Tween

Middle Grade Books for Fans of
Jason Reynolds

by Iva-Marie Palmer

books-for-fans-of-jason-reynolds
Background credit: Sunwards/Shutterstock

“I write to Black children. But I write for all children,” bestselling author Jason Reynolds told The New Yorker in an August 2021 profile. Reynolds, who’s published more than a dozen books, including National Book Award Finalist Look Both Ways and the bestselling Track series, writes the stories he wants to read. And he has a particular reading palate — it took him until age 17 before he found a book compelling enough to finish (Black Boy, by Richard Wright).

While children’s fiction has been overwhelmingly white for many years — failing to represent the true diversity of its readership, Reynolds and the authors collected here write to children who don’t always see themselves on the pages of their favorite stories. Also, these works are an excellent way for all children to connect with characters whose lives reflect different realities than their own.

  • What Lane?

    by Torrey Maldonado

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    As a mixed-race kid with white friends, Stephen doesn’t know where he fits in. He straddles the line of feeling like he can do whatever his friends do and knowing he shouldn’t. When the pals dare each other to sneak into an abandoned building, Stephen gives in to the pressure, despite feeling hesitant. It’s hard to live in a world with two sets of rules, not to mention the conflicting messages he gets from his parents. As Stephen tries to find his “lane,” he swerves between them and questions whether his friends are really his friends. Readers will learn with Stephen as he confronts the realities of American racism.

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  • Before the Ever After

    by Jacqueline Woodson

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    Award-winning writer Jacqueline Woodson brings her incredible talent to this novel-in-verse about the unseen cost professional athletes pay. As a former pro football player, ZJ’s dad is a hero to his fans, friends, and neighbors. But at home, ZJ’s dad suffers from memory loss and bouts of anger. Woodson’s elegant and spare text drives home the toll that football takes on its players’ bodies, minds, and the families who love them. This book is a must-read for avid football fans, and it shows the long-term and severe effects of the hard hits players take on the field.

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  • The Unsung Hero of Birdsong, USA

    by Brenda Woods

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    Given recent history, including the marches and demonstrations in honor of George Floyd, most kids know that this country has a lot of work to do to correct the racism woven into our society. Brenda Woods’s historical middle-grade novel illustrates how even after slavery ended, many Black citizens still did not enjoy true freedom. Gabriel Haberlin thinks his town of Birdsong is close to perfect until he meets Mr. Meriwether Hunter, a Black World War II veteran. As a friendship develops between them, Gabe learns troubling facts about the war and his beloved town’s many imperfections. This coming-of-age tale reminds readers of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.

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  • Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish

    by Pablo Cartaya

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    Readers interested in re-connecting with their roots will appreciate this novel about a boy searching for his father in Puerto Rico. Marcus Vega may have been born on the island, but he’s lived in the United States long enough that he can’t speak Spanish, and his relatives feel like strangers. However, Marcus falls in love with the heritage he didn’t know he’d lost while exploring the island. Pablo Cartaya won the Pura Belpré Author Honor for his debut, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora. He is back with another heartfelt and funny story of family and self-discovery.

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  • The First Rule of Punk

    by Celia C. Pérez

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    Malú doesn’t mean to break every rule (written and unwritten) of middle school on her first day. But it’s not a bad way to make friends. Soon, she forms a band with some fellow outcasts and puts her wild brain to work creating a homemade magazine. With plenty of illustrations throughout, this punk primer for middle graders is triumphant and fierce. Malú might even inspire readers to express themselves through music and art.

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  • Fast Pitch

    by Nic Stone

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    As the only all-Black softball team in town, Shenice Lockwood and her teammates feel they have to prove they belong on the diamond as much as the other teams in the league. But when Shenice’s uncle reveals a long-held family secret, she can’t help but get pulled in by the mystery. As she digs for clues, Shenice works to keep her head in the game and take her team to the regional championship. With her fast-paced storytelling and interesting characters, Nic Stone delivers another irresistible story that even sports-averse tweens will enjoy.

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  • Black Boy Joy

    edited by Kwame Mbalia

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    As more books by Black authors make their way to readers, more and more Black and POC creators are publishing books that celebrate Black joy. Kwame Mbalia (Tristan Strong) has compiled an anthology featuring himself, Jason Reynolds, Lamar Giles, and more than a dozen other authors, each writing a story, poem, or comic about the funny, proud, and cool moments in Black boys’ lives. The bestselling book paints unique pictures of life as a young Black boy and offers up a smile on every page.

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  • Marcus Makes a Movie

    by Kevin Hart with Geoff Rodkey, illustrated by David Cooper

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    This funny novel by actor and comedian Kevin Hart (writing with Geoff Rodkey) teaches about determination and working hard for your dreams. Marcus is thrilled when he gets the chance to make a movie starring the superhero he invented. But it’s an enormous project, and he’ll need help from his friends, classmates, and even a bully to make it happen. Kids with a creative leaning will enjoy this fast-paced novel and its lessons on how to work with others to make your dreams come true.

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  • The Talk

    edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson

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    Readers coming to terms with their privilege can gain a lot from this essay collection published in partnership with Black-owned children’s publishing company, Just Us Books. It features a star-studded lineup, including Meg Medina, Tracey Baptiste, Grace Lin, Nikki Grimes, and Christopher Myers. It engages young people in frank conversations about race, identity, and self-esteem. This volume is an excellent resource for families learning to be anti-racist and work for a better world. To make the most of the book, families should read the pieces together and use them to launch discussions at home.

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  • Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero

    by Kelly J. Baptist

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    Adapted from her story in the Flying Lessons & Other Stories collection, Kelly J. Baptist’s debut novel stars Isaiah, a 10-year-old boy trying to be the man of the house after losing his dad. But it’s more than Isaiah can handle, especially because his mother’s grief consumes her. With the help of his friends, his father’s journal, and a hearty dose of optimism, Isaiah realizes he’s a hero in the ways that matter. Baptist’s novel reminds readers that many kids must grow up before they’re ready, and everyone has their own set of burdens.

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  • For ages 12 and up:

  • Dear Justyce

    by Nic Stone

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    In Nic Stone’s sequel to her bestselling YA novel, Dear Martin, Justyce is now a student at Yale while his childhood friend Quan sits behind bars at a youth detention center. Through a series of letters, we learn more about Quan and how circumstance and systemic racism led to his cruel fate. Many readers have praised this book for how it shines a light on the many facets of Quan’s life – allowing us to see him as a relatable kid in a difficult situation.

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  • Blacktop #1: Justin

    by LJ Alonge, illustrated by Raul Allen

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    The first book in LJ Alonge’s Blacktop Series (for ages 12 and up) follows Justin, a geeky teenage boy who performs better in school than in sports. When his best friend recruits Justin to play on a neighborhood basketball team, he learns about persistence, teamwork, and friendship. Alonge, who’s played basketball all over the world, knows not only his game but also his reader. The four books in the series (each starring a different hooper) are as gracefully executed as an open drive to the basket. Given some instances of strong language and heavy subject matter, this series is best for older readers.

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