It’s important for books to reflect the diversity in our world. First, because when kids read stories with characters that look like them, it feels affirming. Second, because all kids need to read about the diversity in the world around them. This builds empathy and understanding.
Which is why we need quality books with culturally and racially diverse main characters! (Note to publishers: keep publishing more books like these!!)
Please know that I value all kind of diversity (neurodiversity, physical diversity, and so forth) but this list focuses on books featuring with non-white, BIPoC characters.
If your child is learning to read or struggling with reading, or you’re a teacher, I highly recommend Reading Simplified’s resources and membership site. Dr. Ginsberg streamlines the reading research into understandable activities that get results!
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Beginning Chapter Books with Diverse Main Characters
Happy Paws: Layla and the Bots by Vicky Fang, illustrated by Christine Nishiyama
Layla wants to help her amusement park owner friend keep the park open. She investigates the problem then figures out a solution…people want to bring their dogs. She brainstorms ideas and invents new rides that help solve the problem. An entertaining, STEM-focused story.
Meet Yasmin! by Saadia Faruqui, illustrated by Hatem Aly
Yasmin is an exuberant girl who is interested in everything from exploring to building to fashion. This book tells four short stories from Yasmin’s life, all in chapters with lively, full-color illustrations. Each story shows Yasmin as a creative problem solver even when things get hard. Her Pakistani American culture is embedded throughout the story such as the foods Yasmin’s family eats like naan or how she calls her father Baba.
Mia Mayhem Is a Superhero! by Kara West, illustrated by Leeza Hernandez
When Mia gets accepted into the Superhero training program, she learns that she is SUPER. She even learns that her parents are, also. After school at her new superhero training, she has a disastrous first day and learns that it takes work to become a superhero. Black and white illustrations, bigger print, and an exciting story make this a winning series for growing readers.
Katie Woo’s Neighborhood by Fran Manushkin, illustrated by Laura Zarrin
Short stories about cheerful, positive Katie, a girl who visits the dentist, bakes cupcakes, visits a farm, and rescues a kitten.
King and Kayla and the Case of the Lost Tooth by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Nancy Meyers
King is Kayla’s beloved dog. He’s not just her best friend but in this story, he also helps her find her missing lost tooth.
The Year of the Book by Andrea Chang
Growing up is challenging and in the first novel, The Year of the Book, Anna turns to books for company while she learns how to make friendships in real life. The subsequent books in the series are just as realistic and well-written. I highly recommend them.
Zoey and Sassafras Dragons and Marshmallows #1 by Asia Citro, illustrated by Marion Lindsay
This is an entertaining and well-written story with the coolest mix of science and magic, a diverse main character, and fantastic illustrations that will get kids reading and learning. Zoey, like her mom, can see magical creatures and is tasked to care for any injured creatures that might need help. In this story, she uses her science skills (including research and the scientific method) to figure out how to care for a sick baby dragon.
Sadiq and the Desert Star by Siman Nuurali, illustrated by Anjan Sarkar
Not only is this a great STEM story about a young boy who finds the stars to be fascinating, but it’s also a story with diversity because Sadiq’s Muslim family is originally from Somalia. The story is also about how after a field trip to the planetarium, Sadiq and his friends start a space club and work together to raise money for a DIY telescope. Growing readers will enjoy the friendship, teamwork, STEM topics, and diversity found in this first book of the Sadiq series from Capstone Publishing’s Picture Window Books.
Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest Episode 1: The Quest for Screen Time by Marti Dumas
What kid doesn’t want more screen time? Jaden has a plan for convincing his parents that he needs more time — and he’s going to use his big brain and his fellow kindergarteners to help. So happy to see a GOOD story with a diverse main character and family!
My Life in Pictures (Bea Garcia) by Deborah Zemke
Sadly, Bea’s best friend and next-door neighbor moves away. When a new, mean boy named Bert moves in, Bea survives by drawing pictures of her life and her hopes for the future — including imagining Bert in various horrible geographic places. When her teacher finds Bea’s drawings, instead of getting in trouble, Bea’s artistry is celebrated. I like the diverse main character and the relatable topic.
Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business by Lyla Lee, illustrated by Dung Ho
Mindy and her dad recently moved to Florida after her mom’s death. When the other kids at school make fun of her seaweed snacks at lunch, Mindy and her new friend Sally start a snack business to save money for a puppy. This doesn’t go as planned yet it’s a big learning experience showing Mindy to be herself and be proud of her Korean-American culture.
Danger on the Reef by Jake Maddox
What an exciting adventure with great pacing. Jasmine and Arjun are siblings with scientist parents who are helping explore and clean up a coral reef. Arjun misbehaves while diving, putting himself and his sister in danger from a shark. It’s up to Jasmine to save his life and help him do better. In addition to a great adventure, you’ll also learn about ocean pollution and coral reefs.
Emma Is On the Air Party Drama! by Ida Siegal
Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door by Hilary McKay
This is one of my favorite early chapter books! Lulu and her cousin help their neighbor Arthur learn to love and care for his (neglected) rabbit. She doesn’t want her neighbor to feel bad so she writes George the rabbit notes and gives him gifts from her pet rabbit named Thumper.
Ellray Jakes Walks the Plank by Sally Warner, illustrated by Jamie Harper
I bet a lot of kids will relate to this story about Ellray and his little sister. Little sister overfeeds Ellray’s class fish and kills it. Ellray takes the blame to protect his sister, after all family is family, and gets to help find a new class pet.
Perfecto! My Vida Loca is a warm-hearted beginning chapter book about the adventures of a spunky girl named Sophia — from her singing (that annoys everyone except abuela) to a cooking mishap of arroz con leche that her familia helps her fix. I love the bright pink text that indicates the Spanish words (maybe 1 or 2 a page). Illustrations are fun, capturing the emotions and action perfectamente.
The Story of Olympic Diver Sammy Lee by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Dom Lee
Don’t miss this interesting biography about a Korean American diver, Sammy Lee. Growing up, Sammy could only use the swimming pool one day a week, the day it was for people of color. During the rest of the week, he used a sand pit in his coach’s backyard. Gack! His hard work paid off and you’ll read all about his many challenges leading to eventually competing in the Olympics. He was the first Korean American to win gold for the United States. This biographical book is an amazing example of growth mindset.
Polly Diamond and the Super Stunning Spectacular School Fair by Alice Kulpers, illustrated by Diana Toledano
Book-loving Polly Diamond has a magic journal. Whatever she writes in it comes true — which she learned the hard way in the first book, can have a way of backfiring. Now Polly’s planning for her school fair. Only maybe she didn’t quite remember what can happen when she writes everything in her magic book. Because this school fair is about to be a magic-carpet-ride, dragon- and fairy-filled event to remember! What’s even worse is that Polly can’t find her book to write everything back to normal.
The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg
What a lovely surprise this Sherlock inspired book is– it’s so well, written and tells a great story that kids will enjoy as much as me. John Watson moves with his mom who has recently left both the military and John’s dad to Harlem. There, he meets a very unique girl named Shelby Holmes who reluctantly allows him to tag along with her as she solves her latest crime which is to figure out who took a posh, show-dog from a classmate’s secure house.
Shai and Emmie Star in Dancy Pants! by Quvenzhane Wallis with Nancy Ohlin, illustrated by Sharee Miller
Truman the Dog (My Furry Foster Family) by Debbi Michiko Florence, illustrated by Melanie Demmer
Introduce readers to fostering pets until they find a forever home. This story shows the tentative beginnings followed by bonding and a growing relationship, then the feelings that come when the pet finds a forever home. Kaita’s experience helping a labrador named Truman feels true-to-life and might just inspire you to become a foster family for a pet, too.
Squishy Taylor and the Bonus Sisters by Alisa Wild, illustrated by Ben Wood
Sugar Plum Ballerinas by Whoopi Goldberg and Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Maryn Roos
First in the series of ballerina stories, this is about a 9-year old new girl, Alex, whose mom forces her to take ballet. Which she’s terrible at. Friendships grow as Alex perseveres but will her stage fright end everything she’s worked for?
Danger! Tiger Crossing #1 by Lin Oliver
When 10-year old Tiger and his friend, Luna, investigate an unusual neighbor woman’s house, they discover a magical golden frame that transports them into famous paintings. They get stuck in a Henri Rousseau painting where they meet a boy who was trapped there 50 years prior. Will they be able to escape the painting before they’re trapped forever?
Princess Pink and the Land of Fake-Believe by Norah Z. Jones
This is a funny series that messes up familiar fairy tale stories. The cartoon-like illustrations and speech bubbles make it especially fun to read.
Sherlock Sam and the Ghostly Moans in Fort Canning by A.J. Low
Set in Singapore, Sherlock Sam and his friends use their brains to solve mysteries. In this case, they’re determined to discover the cause of the ghostly sounds from an abandoned military fort. Could it be a ghost? Their adventures are funny and exciting; this is a well-written chapter book in a new series. (See also: Sherlock Sam and the Missing Heirloom in Katong.)
Stella Diaz has Something to Say by Angela Dominguez
The Story of Environmentalist Wangari Maathai by Jen Johnson, illustrated by Wellington Sadler
Absolutely inspiring with beautiful African-inspired illustrations, this exceptional narrative biography story is about a woman named Wangari who studied biology in her native Kenya and later in the United States. When she returned to Kenya, she realized that the deforestation was ruining farmer’s ability to grow crops so she started a tree-planing movement. Facing lots of opposition, Wangari was arrested and jailed. Once released, she continued her work of planting trees and eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize. Helpful informational insets detail facts about deforestation, school in Kenya, and more.
Lola Levine Is Not Mean by Monica Brown
Second-grade soccer-loving Lola, daughter of a Peruvian mom and Jewish dad, is misunderstood. Her classmates think she’s mean but really she’s just a competitive person. When she accidentally hurts someone’s ankle playing soccer, she feels terrible especially since her classmates say she’s mean. But, things turn around for Lola when her class does science time with her brother’s kindergarten class. Many kids will be able to relate to this charming story.
Lily and the Great Quake: A San Francisco Earthquake Survival Story by Veeda Bybee
In the early 1900s in San Francisco, California if you were of Chinese descent, it was illegal to live anywhere else except for Chinatown. When a huge earthquake hits California, its destruction caused fires to burn Chinatown to the ground. The earthquake’s destruction forces young Lily and her family to leave Chinatown for Oakland amidst the chaos. Throughout her story of life in Chinatown and evacuating during the fires, we see the prejudice she faces due to her looks and culture. Very well done.
Have Fun, Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke
Anna Hibiscus lives in amazing Africa but in this story, she goes by herself to visit her Granny Canada in Canada where it’s snowy and cold. Anna gets to wear warm clothes and eat new foods. She even gets comfortable with Granny Canada’s dog and makes new friends. This is a delightful story of a sweet girl on an exciting new adventure.
Freddie Ramos Takes Off (Zapato Power) by Jacqueline Jules and Miguel Benitez
Freddie’s new shoes (zapatos) give him super speediness. My teacher friend in Denver Public Schools tells me her students totally love this beginning chapter book series with diversity.
Magical Land of Birthdays by Amirah Kassem
Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
This is one of the classic adventure/fantasy stories for beginning readers. The first story is about a boy (now a father retelling the stories to his son) who rescues a dragon held hostage on a wild island.
The Amazing Life of Azaleah Lane by Nikki Shannon Smith, illustrated by Mari Lobo
8-year-old Azaleah helps her little sister find her favorite stuffed animal even though she needs to work on her diorama for the upcoming zoo field trip. It’s a sweet story about mysteries, family dynamics, and life.
Key Hunters and the Mysterious Moonstone (Key Hunters #1) by Eric Luper
Have you seen this fantastic new easy mystery series for early elementary students yet? In this first book, two friends discover a letter from their favorite librarian saying she’s trapped in a book. They decide to go into a book to rescue her. They arrive in 19th century England to help a detective find a stolen gem. Here the story starts racing along with perfect pacing and entertainment value. If you like this story, there are already five more books in the series to keep you reading.
Star in the Forest by Laura Resau
Star in the Forest is a good introduction to the situation of Mexican children illegally in the U.S., who are fearful and sometimes separated from their family members. We learn that friendship comes from the most unlikely of friends, even someone like Crystal who despite her lies, is a loyal friend. And, we find that Zitlally’s love for her father helps her do courageous things.
Keena Ford and the Second Grade Mix-Up by Melissa Thomson
Written in journal form, we find that life for Keena, like most 2nd graders, is filled with challenges and life lessons.
The Buried Bones Mystery by Sharon M. Draper, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson
In this book, the group of diverse best friends, aka. the Black Dinosaurs, find a box of bones that leads them to a mystery to solve.
Ruby and the Booker Boys #1: Brand New School, Brave New Ruby by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
Ruby, age 8, is the youngest of four kids. Her life is full of brothers, third grade, and a best friend named Theresa.
Little Shaq Takes a Chance by Shaquille O’Neal
Trying new things isn’t what Little Shaq wants to do. Only when he does, he learns that they can be fun.
Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things by Lenore Look
Second grader, Alvin Ho, is afraid of everything, especially school. A school he’s quiet but at home, he’s Firecracker Man, superhero. While not the most compelling read ever, I like that the main character deals with fears like many children.
Nikki and Deja by Karen English, illustrated by Laura Freeman
This is a slice of life story about third-grade friends who feel anger, jealousy, and meanness when a new girl arrives on their block.
MVP #1 The Gold Medal Mess by David A. Kelly, illustrated by Scott Brundage
It’s almost time for Olympics field day at school but someone is threatening the activities. These friends decide to solve the mystery so the games can go on.
Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by R. Gregory Gregory Christie
She’s the new girl but Dyamonde is determined to make friends, even with the boy she calls “Rude Boy.”
Little Robot by Ben Hatke
This is a lovely, heart-warming story about the friendship between a little girl and a robot. The little girl takes good care of the robot she finds and even makes him robot friends. As always, Ben Hatke’s artwork is gorgeous.
Little Dee and the Penguin by Christopher Baldwin
A group of seemingly random animals (penguin, dog, brown bear, polar bears, vulture) and the little girl, Dee, are off on a world adventure. It’s fun and silly with a big message about belonging.
West Meadow Detectives: The Case of the Snack Snatcher by Liam O’Donnell, illustrated by Aurelie Grand
Myron’s new school isn’t too bad because there’s a mystery — who is stealing the snacks every morning? He and his new friend, Hajrah, both in a special class for half the day, determine to get to the bottom of this mystery. I liked the diversity of students in this well-paced and interesting story.
Little Rhino My New Team by Ryan Howard and Krystle Howard
You’ll find the themes about making friends and dealing with bullies to be both realistic and helpful. Little Rhino joins a little league baseball team only to discover that the boy who bullies him is on his same team. His wise grandfather and daily lunch at the dinosaur table help Rhino and his shy friend gain new social skills and the confidence to deal with the bully.
Max Loves Muñecas by Zetta Elliott
Muñecas means dolls in Spanish. Max is fascinated by the dolls made in Señor Pepe’s shop and learns the story of how Pepe grew up and learned to sew for dolls. Soon Max doesn’t feel ashamed that he also wants to work with his hands to make dolls anymore. Great writing.
Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11 by N. Griffin, illustrated by Kate Hindley
Falsely accused of stealing the class 11 hamster, who she admittedly doesn’t like, third-grader Smashie decides to find the real thief and clear her name. She and her friend Dontel look for clues and try to put them together to solve the crime.
Dog Days by Karen English, illustrated by Laura Freeman
It’s tough being the new kid at Carver Elementary. Gavin had lots of friends at his old school, but the kids here don’t even know that he’s pretty good at skateboarding, or how awesome he is at soccer. And when his classmate Richard comes over and the boys end up in trouble, not only does Gavin risk losing his one new friend, he has to take care of his great aunt Myrtle’s horrible little dog as punishment.
Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol: The Haunted House Next Door by Andres Miedoso, illustrated by Victor Rivas
STAT: Standing Tall and Talented: Home Court by Amar’e Stoudemir, illustrated by Tim Jessell
Based on the real story of Amar’e Stoudemire, this is the story of when he was 11, a skateboarder, a basketball player, and a worker with his dad’s landscape company. When other kids start trash talking his friends, he uses his intelligence and basketball skills to find a solution.
Pedro First Grade Hero by Fran Manushkin
Four short stories tell all about the adventures of Pedro, a diverse bug-loving, soccer player with great friends from first grade. This is a fun, easy and light-hearted chapter books with colorful illustrations.
Ashley Small & Ashlee Tall Brushes and Basketballs by Michele Jakubowski
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