One question I get asked frequently is this: What are great chapter books for children 8 – 12 years old (middle grade) with diversity, in particular with main characters of color? I have my favorites, of course, and I’m sure you do as well but here’s a start — my ever growing list of books with diverse main characters.
For beginning chapter books with diversity, go here.
You might also like these diverse book lists:
- Children’s books that include physical disabilities
- Children’s books with learning differences
- Children’s books about poverty
- Children’s books about immigration
- Mental illness in children’s books
Please comment with any other favorites!
Chapter Books with Diverse Main Characters
Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door by Hilary McKay REALISTIC
This is one of my favorite early chapter books this year! I loved this story of how Lulu and her cousin help their neighbor Arthur learn to love and care for his rabbit. She does this by writing George the rabbit notes and giving him gifts — not from her but from her pet rabbit named Thumper. (I also appreciate that the main characters are diverse – Lulu and her family have brown skin!!)
Zoey and Sassafras Dragons and Marshmallows #1 by Asia Citro, illustrated by Marion Lindsay SCIENCE / FANTASY
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.
Sherlock Sam and the Ghostly Moans in Fort Canning by A.J. Low MYSTERY
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.)
The Year of the . . . book series by Andrea Chang – REALISTIC
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.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan HISTORICAL FICTION
Forced to flee a dangerous situation in Mexico, Esperanza and her mother arrive in California and start working as migrant farm workers. The back-breaking work is only part of their new, challenging life. In this beautifully written, soulful novel, Esperanza learns to thrive no matter what her circumstances.
Star in the Forest by Laura Resau REALISTIC
Star in the Forest introduces readers to the situation of Mexican children illegally in the U.S., kids who are fearful and sometimes even separated from their family members. Readers will learn that friendship comes from the most unlikely of friends and that Zitlally’s love for her father helps her do courageous things.
Twintuition Double Vision by Tia and Tamera Mowry MAGICAL REALISM
I had my doubts about this book. (Just because you’re a celebrity, doesn’t mean you can write – or find a good writer to write for you.) But I read it since it had diverse characters and was quite impressed! The story focuses on identical twins living in a new town who experience flashes of precognition when touching some people. There’s conflict between the duo and challenges around being at a new school. Then, when their policewoman mother faces a serious problem, the twins use their abilities to save her from scandal. Twintuition is a quick, enjoyable summer read and they’ll be more books to come. (This is probably about a 3rd grade reading level.)
Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich & Audrey Vernick REALISTIC
What is it like when your parents are divorced — and one finds a new partner? In this coming-of-age story written from two different points of view, Naomi’s mom is dating a man named Tom who has a daughter also named Naomi. Both girls’ parents push them to become friends. Of course, both girls feel resistant — especially when Naomi’s mom asks her to go by her first and middle name — Naomi Marie — to differentiate the two. It’s a tricky time in these kids’ lives, something the authors made relatable and enjoyable to read. The wisdom the parents give to their kids and their unwavering love of their children is inspiring. This is a story that rings true with a pitch perfect ending.
Eddie Red Undercover Mystery in Mayan Mexico by Marcia Wells MYSTERY
I’m so impressed with this book, the second in the series. It’s an action-packed mystery filled with adventure and lots of español. Eddie, his best friend Jonah, and his parents are on vacation in Mexico. When their new friend Julia’s family’s Mayan mask is stolen from their hotel, an Eddie’s dad is a suspect, Eddie and Jonah decide to solve the mystery themselves. Only they don’t speak Spanish all that well, and there’s more to this mystery than just a stolen mask to they team up with their new Mexican friend. You’ll love the Spanish words throughout, the well-paced action, and the characters.
Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez REALISTIC
I loved this book because it personalizes a very real situation — when parents get deported without their children. When Mari’s parents are deported, she and her sisters are left behind on the farm where her parents worked. Mari and the farm family’s son, Tyler, develop a friendship that helps both of them cope with the growing challenges in their lives while Mari hopes that one day her family will be reunited.
The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg MYSTERY
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 — who took a posh, show-dog from a classmate’s secure house.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai HISTORICAL
This Newbery Honor Book shares the story in verse of a girl, Hà, who is fleeing Vietnam with her family and immigrating to the southern United States where the transition is horrible and hard and sometimes funny.
Flying Lessons and Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh SHORT STORIES
This is a powerful anthology of stories written by talented authors such as Matt de la Peña, Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, and others. The stories are all excellent — some are hilarious (“Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains”), some are inspiring (“How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium”), some are both (“The Difficult Path”), and some are meaningful slice-of-life stories (“Main Street”).
Liberty Porter, First Daughter by Julia DeVillers REALISTIC
This is a light-hearted series about the daughter of the President of the United States. We follow along as she adjusts to living in the White House, having a bodyguard, and the many experiences of being the First Daughter.
Running Out of Night by Sharon Lovejoy HISTORICAL FICTION
I highly recommend this powerful story of two maltreated girls who hope for a better future. The narrator is a white girl in the south who is nothing more than a slave to her family, she doesn’t even have a name. She meets and joins a runaway slave who is escaping the horrific brutality of slavery and separation from her family. Together they find kindness and hope with a Quaker family. “You just keep mending and darning, stichin and stichin. At first, things look all pieced together, but after a while, you don’t even notice the stitched-up spots everywhere; they just look all of a piece. Never like new, but all of a piece and good enough to last a life.”
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson HISTORICAL MEMOIR
This first person memoir written in verse shares the struggles of growing up in the 1960s and 70s as an African American girl — finding her identity in the time of the Civil Rights movement, moving from south to north, living with her mother and siblings, . . . all the experiences that shape who she is.
Shooting Kabul by N.H. Sendai REALISTIC
When Fadi’s family flees Afghanistan, they get separated from his sister, Mariam. Fadi wants to find her and hopes he will win a photography contest that he hopes will help get him back to Afghanistan to find his sister.
Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper HISTORICAL FICTION
Stella watches her father when he registers to vote and then votes. She watches her neighbor’s house burn for voting. She watches her classmates learn even as she struggles with writing down her thoughts. Draper skillfully shares this historical time from Stella’s 11-year old’s perspective. It’s understandable and not too overwhelming – we learn about the KKK but aren’t exposed to the horror that could have been included.
Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate REALISTIC
Kek escaped Sudan but his mother is still there, missing. Now in the United States, he’s lost. He misses his mom and is overwhelmed by the differences in culture. But he finds a connection to home by caring for a neglected cow. This is a haunting and lovely story from one of my favorite authors.
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams Garcia HISTORICAL
It’s a typical southern summer in Alabama 1969 and Delphine and her two sisters are visiting their extended family. Daily life means minding their grandmother, Big Ma, a crotchety matriarch, getting extra loving from their much sweeter great-grandma, Ma Charles, hanging out with neighbor, JimmyTrotter, and working at the tricky business of growing up. No matter what happens, a Vonetta-stealing tornado included, this is a strong family that loves each other and God with all they’ve got. It’s a powerful book that transports you into Delphine’s world, if only for the summer.
Secret Coders: Get with the Program by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes REALISTIC
What’s happening at Hopper’s new school? She and her friends discover something very amazing about the birds — they’re robotic and can be controlled by numbers. Which leads the kids to go up against the scheming, evil janitor. Readers learn some basics of how to use the programming language Logo with sequence, iteration, and selection, and must apply their knowledge to help the characters. I love the interactivity, the diverse main characters, and the progressive way the authors teach the logical thinking of programming. Very well-done!
Rain Forest Relay by Kristin Earhart ADVENTURE
This adventure series is quick to read and filled with constant action. You’ll also find interesting facts about the ecosystem the the creatures who live there throughout.
Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes REALISTIC
I picked this book because of the cat pictured on the front cover — and found it to be absolutely way more powerful meaningful than I had expected.
What the Moon Saw by Laura Resau REALISTIC
Mexican-American Clara Luna doesn’t know anything about her father’s Mexican heritage until she spends the summer with her grandparents in rural Mexico. There, she discovers the beauty of her grandparents life and culture, and grows into her own identity. This is a beautiful, important book, one that I’ve read several times and highly recommend.
8th Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich REALISTIC
I’m in awe of how Rhuday-Perkovich created such a moving story and lovable main character, Reggie McKnight, an unpopular yet thoughtful middle-school student. I love this book!
To Catch a Cheat by Varian Johnson ADVENTURE
Someone is trying to frame Jackson for a prank he didn’t even commit — and they’re doing a great job of it! It will take months to prove the video is falsified and by then Jackson will have missed the robot contest due to his punishment. Jackson and his friends are determined to prove their innocence but it won’t be easy. This is a great adventure filled with twists and turns. I very much enjoyed it.
Peas and Carrots by Tanita S. Davis REALISTIC
This beautiful story will grab your heart! Dess is reunited with her baby brother in his long term foster home. The foster family loves both kids but their biological daughter Hope struggles between jealousy and compassion for her newest sibling, Dess. Then, just as Dess finally starts to trust her foster family, her biological mother wants her back. (Oh, and interestingly enough, the foster family is black and Dess is white.) There’s way more to the story of course but you should know that it’s a thought-provoking coming-of-age book about the meaning of family.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia HISTORICAL
After their mom left them, it’s a summer trip and the first time the kids have seen her in years. Now they’re living in California, trying to stay out of their mother’s way, going to a center run by the Black Panthers, and doing the hard, confusing work of growing up.
Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes REALISTIC
First of all — WOW! Grimes wrote this entire book not just in verse but in tanka poem!! And it worked!! So, there’s that. Which is only so astounding because the story is so engaging that you don’t even notice it’s written in this format. Garvey wants to connect to his father but it seems like it’s a chasm that’s too big — Garvey likes reading and chess while his father likes sports. But when Garvey finds an interest in music, will be the bridge that connects him to his dad? I loved this painful, sweet story of redemption and belonging!
Nowhere Girl by A.J. Maquette FOLKTALE / REALISTIC
Luchi grows up in a Thailand prison cell with her mother but when her mother dies, Luchi is left to fend for herself on the outside — with no idea of what her mother was hiding, or who she really was. Luchi sets off to find out who she is, and learns much about life in the process.
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III, illustrated by James Mark Yellowhawk HISTORICALish / REALISTIC
Jimmy McClean and his grandfather hit the road, following the stories of Crazy Horse — his life, battles, and death. Following the pair traveling to the sites and then hearing the grandfather’s mesmerizing stories made this book easy to read and very interesting. I only wish the book included a map so I could picture it in my head and maybe take my own kids. All in all, it’s a sobering story based on true historical events that will stay with me.
Tortilla Sun by Jennifer Cervantes REALISTIC
Izzy’s life was a series of houses, sadness and secrets – why wouldn’t her mom tell her about her dad who died before she was born? Why did they always move? When Izzy’s mom unexpectedly sends Izzy to her Nana’s in New Mexico, whom she barely knows. Izzy lands in a new culture where she discovers her past, present, and future. Just as Izzy learns to make tortillas with practice and patience, she also learns the story of her dad, her mom, and ultimately her own story. The wisdom mixed with grief mixed with love creates a beautiful story — I cried and celebrated. And, cried some more. Cervantes’ writing is lyrical and sensual.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds REALISTIC
Ghost accidentally gets on a track team and it’s life changing. His coach becomes a mentor and father figure who pushes Ghost to take responsibility for his mistakes (stealing sneakers) and to start dealing with the ghosts of his past. Well-written and hopeful about growing up and growing into yourself.
Olivia Bitter, Spooked-Out Sitter (The Babysitter Chronicles) by Jessica Gunderson REALISTIC
Olivia misses her former best friend who is now obsessed with clothes and boys. She decidees that if she makes money and buys “cool” clothes, she’ll get her friend back. So, she accepts a babysitting job with a new family in her neighborhood who live in a creepy-looking house. As the story progresses, Olivia learns both who she is now and who she wants to be. Each chapter begins with “Sitter Smarts” that relate to a lesson learned in the chapter and will help readers in their own potential babysitting pursuits. For example, “Plan activities to keep the kids from getting bored” is one suggestion.
The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan REALISTIC
The class’s assignment is to write poems that will go in the time capsule when Emerson Elementary is closed. The diverse group of students have mixed feelings — some are very upset that the school is closing while others aren’t. When the kids learn about protesting, they do and take their cause to the school board. Not only did I love this story, I loved that it was written from the students’ unique voices –in verse. This is a quick read with some interesting topics to discuss.
Planet Middle School by Nikki Grimes REALISTIC
Written in free verse, we hear from a sports-loving teenage girl who goes through the typical angst of hormones and finding her identity. I love the interaction with her little brother and her best friend, Jake – as well as how Joylin finds out who she is.
That’s a good name for it.
It’s the end of life
as I know it.
As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds REALISTIC
I haven’t read this book yet but I know that it tackles the big issue of bravery — what it is, and who has it — in a story about a boy named Genie who is spending his summer with his blind grandfather in Virginia.
Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes MAGICAL REALISM
Now that I’ve read this book, I can’t wait to read all of Jewel Parker Rhodes other books — this was amazing! We follow the youngest daughter of sisters as she visits her grandmère in the bayou for the first time. There, she discovers that she’s inherited her grandmother’s special connection (magic, if you will) with nature. Maddy loves loves everything about the bayou, including her new best friend, Bear, who has a father with severe alcohol issues. Trouble comes to the bayou when the big rig spills oil. Maddy calls upon her magical connection with the river goddess to stop the spill and save the Bon Temps bayou.
Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier GRAPHIC NOVEL / REALISTIC
A ghost tour outing with a neighbor boy sends Catrina’s sister Maya who has cystic fibrosis to the hospital. Cat feels very guilty and fears for her sister, knowing that her sister’s lungs will never improve. However, as the neighbor introduces Cat to the beautiful Day of the Dead celebration, Cat starts to see death and life differently and with less fear. Beautifully written and illustrated, this story deftly deals with big issues in an interesting, unique way.
It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas HISTORICAL FICTION
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. She’s desperate to fit in with the other kids but faces both family pressures and anti-Iranian prejudice.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander REALISTIC
Because this is written in verse, this is a fast read but packs a big punch. Basketball player and twin Josh narrates his life in quarters, just like the game he plays. He writes about missing his twin when his twin, Jordan, gets a girlfriend; about getting in trouble when he hits Jordan in the face with a basketball; and about watching his father as his heart fails. This is a coming-of-age, gripping story about a boy who is just trying to figure out life like most boys at age 12.
Booked by Kwame Alexander REALISTIC
I’m AMAZED at how skillfully Alexander writes about the teenage human condition — he just gets it! 12-year old Nick struggles with his parents’ separation, a school bully, and the awkwardness of a first crush. The only thing that feels right is soccer. That is, until he gets injured and can’t play. Written in free verse, this is a lyrical, fast-paced story that feels honest and relatable.
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata HISTORICAL
This book is so sad and beautiful! Katie’s sister, Lynn, helps her make sense of the prejudice and challenges their Japanese-American family faces in Georgia inn the 1950s. When Lynn gets very ill, Katie tries to emulate her sister’s positive outlook.
The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illustrated by Hatem Aly HISTORICAL
This is a story rich with layers of meaning, filled with questions of faith and prejudice about three children: Jeanne, a peasant girl with visions, William, a Saracen oblate with incredible strength, and Jacob, a Jewish boy whose prayers and herbs miraculously heal.
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.
Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban HISTORICAL
This book skillfully shares the evocative story of 10-year old Manami of Washington State, who is sent with her family to a dusty Japanese-American internment camp, leaving behind her beloved dog, Yujiin, and everything else they owned. Devastated, Manami stops speaking. Her story is painful, sprinkled with hope, and all too real. Please read this with your kids– it’s important.
President of the Whole Fifth Grade by Sherri Winston REALISTIC
Brianna believes that being fifth grade president will lead her to big things such as having her own cupcake business and cooking show. Unfortunately, both she and her competition don’t always behave nicely. Will they learn from their mistakes?
Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus HISTORICAL FICTION
An award-winning historical fiction adventure set in the late 1800s about Manjiro, a shipwrecked 14-year old Japanese boy is rescued and adopted by an American ship’s captain. Americans are very prejudiced against him because he’s Japanese but when he returns to Japan, he’s rejected as an outsider there and imprisoned!
Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier by Ying Chang Compestine and Vinson Compestine HISTORICAL FICTION
If your kids aren’t interested in Chinese history, they will be after reading this novel. Ming lives in rural communist China with his father, who finds artifacts for the museum. A discovered terra-cotta soldier who comes to life and befriends Ming. They must work together to protect the soldiers and Emperor Qin’s tomb. The authors weave in historical photos and information throughout the story.
Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova REALISTIC
My 10-year old found this book SO RELATABLE — just like she struggles with confidence and speaking up, so does the main character, Peppi. This well-done graphic novel tackles the issues of friendships and confidence, among other things. (So glad I’m not in middle school anymore!!)
Chains, Forge, Ashes (Seeds of America) by Laurie Halse Anderson
I’m writing this after just closing Ashes, the final book of this historical fiction series about the time of the Revolutionary War as experienced through the eyes of an African-American girl named Isabel and her friend, Cuzon. Enslaved, escaped, or enlisted, these two are determined survivors. The writing is amazing and the stories, captivating. I love and highly recommend these books!