How can talk about race with our children? How can we educate children so they’re anti-racist and advocates for social justice?
One way to do this is through books –which is why I’m recommending this list of books from which to choose.
What I like about books so much, and it’s especially important as a white person, is that we get to read stories about other people’s lives and experiences.
Sometimes the books will be mirrors into our own life while other times, the books will open doors and windows into the lives of others. Seeing what other people experience builds our empathy and our understanding of the world.
These excellent middle grade books for ages 8 to 12 deal with race, racism, prejudice, and social justice. They’ll give readers insight, empathy, and spark deep thinking about human rights and inequality. And they can be a starting point for discussions and reflections.
Racism is taught. Let’s be sure we’re not teaching it inadvertently. Let’s keep learning and growing in this area. And teach our kids well.
I want to be clear that I stand against racism. And I denounce the systemic inequalities and violence perpetuated on the black citizens of our country.
Social justice means we see and value every individual in our communities. It means the systems in our society are fair and equitable for all people.
I want to be part of the social justice movement in this country that will fix the wrongs happening every day.
One of the best middle grade books that I’ve read that helped me learn about racism and reflect on my own biases is This Book is Anti-Racist— it’s eye-opening and I highly recommend it for YOU and for the children in your lives. My daughter and I are currently rereading it together.
If you’re looking for young adult books for ages 13 and up about systemic racism, race, police brutality in the 20th century, and gender, I highly recommend reading starting with these amazing novels:
- The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas
- Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
- All American Boys by Jason Reynolds
- Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin
- The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
As far as terms go, here are a few you should know about as defined by Tiffany Jewell in her book, This Book is Anti-Racist.
“Racism is the personal prejudice and bias and the systemic misuse and abuse of power by institutions.”
“Prejudice is the personal side of racism. It is an attitude towards an individual or group of folx based on the social group they belong to. Prejudices can be based on stereotypes, misinformation, or fear, and –while they are not always negative–they most often are.”
I am not an expert. I’m continuing to listen, learn, and grow. With that in mind, I’m sharing books with you that have been helpful, insightful, and powerful for me, a white woman, to read and share with kids.
Anti-Racist Book Lists for Kids Ages 8 – 12
Anti-Racist Nonfiction Book
This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell, illustrated by Aurelia Durand
If you’re going to read one relevant, anti-racist book right now, start with this one. The writing is straightforward and understandable and the activities push readers to think and interact with the information about what it means to be against racism, including what racism and prejudice are, the history of racism, and responses to racism. It’s an excellent book.
This Book is Anti-Racist Journal: Over 50 Activities to Help You Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work by Tiffany Jewell, illustrated by Aurelia Durand
Because it’s so important that we all apply the anti-racist lessons to our own lives, this journal’s guided questions and thinking opportunities will spark growth and reflection on a person’s journey to becoming more anti-racist. The journal begins with prompts to think about self and identity. The journal begins with prompts to think about self and identity. It continues with information and guided questions about topics like power, privilege, history, books, creativity, and taking action. “Kindness won’t end racism,” writes Jewell on the last page. She quotes Opal Tometi who says, “What we need now more than ever is a human rights movement that challenges systemic racism in every single context.” Beautifully designed, this is a must-read, well-written book that will be a step in helping readers move toward an anti-racist life.
Anti-Racist Books About Black Lives
Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Quills and Selina Alko
Fictional classmates, one black and done white, write poems for a school project about identity, race, hair, police brutality, and diversity. Their project about difficult topics helps them learn about each other, becoming friends in the end.
What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado
Short and fast-paced, this is the story of a boy who learns to think for himself and define who he is himself, instead of being influenced by friends. Stephen notices he’s living in a world that treats him differently than his white friends. His journey in this book ends with the conclusion that only he gets to decide what lane he’s in as a young black man– not the world or his peers who are judging him by the color of his skin.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
On her 12th birthday, Zoe, a girl who loves to bake, discovers a letter to her from her incarcerated biological father, Marcus. She decides to write him back, even daring to ask him about the murder he’s in jail for — did he really do it? Zoe learns that he’s innocent and determines to prove it. You won’t be able to put down this winsome story with a heroine you can’t help but adore; a story that illuminates social justice with themes of family, friendship, and love.
A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée
Middle school is hard enough with friend drama but 12-year-old Shayla is also dealing with not being black enough drama, personal and community race-related drama, and boy drama. She experiences micro-aggressions from teachers and when a jury finds a cop innocent in the shooting death of a black boy, Shayla decides to take a stand and support the Black Lives Matter movement calling for equality for black Americans. It’s a powerful coming of age story about social justice.
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson
Harbor Me tackles very big issues including race, immigration, bullying, learning differences, friendship, and forgiveness. The story is about six diverse children with learning differences. They bond during a special group, kids-only time on Friday afternoons where they share their stories, many of which Haley records on a tape recorder.
It All Comes Down to This by Karen English
Experience the 1960s in Los Angeles, a turbulent time of racism and burgeoning activism, from the perspective of Sophie, a sweet black girl who lives in an all-white neighborhood. Her parents’ marriage is in trouble, her sister is about to leave for college, and her best (white) friend has abandoned her. Surprisingly, Sophie’s strict, disapproving housekeeper becomes her ally, something Sophie needs during the challenges of life and growing up.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Written in verse, Woodson shares her experience of growing up as an African American girl in the 1960s and 1970s. This Own Voices historical memoir is a Newbery Honor Book. Woodson shows how her love of stories and words helps her as she grows up during the Civil Rights Movement, dealing with racism, and finding her voice.
Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds
Miles’ spidey sense is whacking out when he’s at school, especially in his history class. Add to that, he’s worried he will turn out like his criminal uncle. So, Miles, who is Puerto-Rican and African American, stops being Spider Man. Until he discovers a chilling plot of men named Chamberlain who work under the control of The Warden. Now, he must use all his skills to save the world from a racist threat. You’ll love the diversity, the two-parent family, and the complexity of Mile’s character– this is a GREAT book.
Midnight Without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson
Williams Jackson masterfully tells the history of the 1950s in Mississippi with compelling characters and an interesting plot. Rose Lee Carter is a girl who is raised by her grandma and father, works in the cotton fields, and is best friends with the preacher’s son. She dreams of leaving Mississippi for the north like her mom and aunt, especially after the white men who killed Emmett Till are found not guilty in a real-life historical trial.
Young, Gifted and Black Meet 52 Heroes from Past and Present by Jamia Wilson, illustrated by Andres Pippins
If you’re like me, you’ll immediately love the eye-catching, colorful design and illustrations. Then, you’ll read about influential people like George Washington Carver, Stevie Wonder, Oprah Winfrey, and Serena Williams. There’s about half a page to a full page of text for each biography making the information easily accessible for growing readers.
Anti-Racist Books About Muslim Lives
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas
Although it may sound like a heavy book, this is a funny, realistic story about growing up and living in a culture that is not your own. It’s the late 1970s and Zomorod (Cindy) and her family are back in the U.S. from Iran –again. Nevertheless, she’s desperate to fit in with the other kids despite facing both family pressures and anti-Iranian prejudice.
Amina’s struggling when her friend, Soojin, wants to change her name to be more American and be friends with other kids. Her troubles are put into perspective though when Amina’s mosque is attacked, dimming her worries about middle school drama. In a heartening turn of events, the community, including her friend Soojin, supports the mosque by providing a place for everyone to gather and helps them rebuild.
Stories About Native American Lives
Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell
Indian No More is an emotional, important antiracism story for kids about when the United States government arbitrarily made certain Native American tribes no longer tribes without reservations or legal rights. It also shows the historical landscape of prejudice and stereotypes towards people of color. I love the close-knit, loving family based on the author’s own life, a family who values each other and their survival.
Books about Jewish Lives (and Anti-Semitism)
The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman
Refugee by Alan Gratz
Three distinct, alternating stories narrate children who are displaced from their countries, on the run, and in danger. First is a young Jewish boy who escapes from Nazi Germany on a ship to Cuba, only to be turned away from the Cuban port and sent back to Europe. Next is a Cuban girl in the 1990s who, with her family and neighbors, flees in a homemade raft to the United States at great peril. Finally, is a story about a Syrian boy fleeing his home country.
Chinese and Japanese Immigrant Stories
Mia’s parents take a new live-in job at a motel, working around the clock for very little pay. Mia helps out by working at the front desk. She befriends the weekly tenants from a variety of racial groups and uses her English skills to write letters advocating other people in tough spots. A memorable, antiracist, coming-of-age immigrant story, it’s also about tolerance, determination, and diversity.
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
This book is both sad and beautiful. Katie’s sister, Lynn, tries to help Katie make sense of the racism and challenges that their Japanese-American family faces in Georgia in the 1950s. When Lynn gets very ill, Katie tries to emulate her sister’s positive outlook.
Books about Latinx Lives
Santiago’s Road Home by Alexandra Diaz
Santiago is thrown out of his cruel tia’s home in rural Mexico with nowhere to go. He unexpectedly meets a kind woman and her daughter who let him join with on their journey to el Norte. Santiago is a keen survivor and helps them find a trustworthy coyote but when their group is attacked, they must find the route without the coyote’s help. The heat and lack of water almost kill them but he and his adopted little sister are rescued and taken to internment camps. This book is amazing — unflinchingly honest about the situation of illegal immigrants with a heroic main character whom you’ll love.