"Imagine a world in which all children can see themselves in a book."
If you have been following this blog or my Twitter journey for a time, you know of my passion in bringing diverse books into our school and classroom libraries. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Decatur Book Festival this weekend to meet Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give), Nic Stone (Dear Martin), Becky Albertalli (Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda), and more. Not only was I major fangirling during book signings and deeply enthralled (and thinking poignantly about my own uncomfortableness I would love to discuss with you at another time) by passionate discussions on exploring societal point of views of those other than my own, I was reminded of the deep importance of diverse books in our libraries and in the hands of our youth.
I met Jace as a sixth grade language arts/social studies teacher, keenly aware of how uncomfortable he was in the rural, faith-based, Georgian middle school he studied in every day. When I became a media specialist at the same school while Jace was entering 7th grade, I was unaware at just how important my job and platform for advocating for our youth truly is. Throughout the year, Jace and I talked and slowly, he began to confide in me confessions I had only suspected. He was outed in 6th grade as a gay male, who had a crush on a classmate, and was deeply depressed by feeling isolated in a small, rural Georgia school in the middle of the Bible belt. While living as a gay teen in rural Georgia is not automatically a recipe for depression, his classmates tormented him online through social media. The library became his safe haven, where he found a core group of friends across grade levels who were all dealing with one thing or another, but he was still suffering from depression and isolation. During his 8th grade year, Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda was released. I knew he had to read it. I purchased a copy for the library and it was not until a couple years later that I got a message from Jace saying that reading that book saved his life...was the reason he did not commit suicide.
While I was at the Decatur Book Festival on Friday evening, I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting the author the aforementioned novel, Becky Albertalli, during a signing and told her a snapshot of Jace's story. She was almost in tears and asked to record a video for him, which I sent to him later that evening. The next day, I am walking around booths at the festival with my own kiddos when all of a sudden I hear a loud, "Mrs. B!" and felt a huge bear hug. Jace drove up from his small town to meet Becky and saw me at one of the booths. He was visibly shaken after having just met her, but we talked for a while about life and how Albertalli, her book, and our library made a difference in his life.
Friends, diverse books are important. At the least it allows our readers, our children, to view themselves when they may not be able to in real life. These books offer mirrors for many and windows into other lives, perspectives, and can make us think critically about our places and interactions with others in this world. As educators, we may never understand the breadth of our reach and influence, but I was lucky enough to see one small ripple this weekend. Often diverse books are questioned, challenged, and torn apart, but I believe that stems from uncertainty and a feeling of uncomfortableness we need to learn how to live in so that we can move forward. Diverse books matter. They are essential. And we need them in our schools.
So, in honor of the amazing young man I was able to catch up with this week, here are my top 10 middle grades diverse books that you need to read NOW.
George by Alex Gino
Other people look at George and see a boy, but George knows she’s a girl. With a little help from a friend and the school play, George comes up with a plan to reveal who she really is. This story moved me in a way few books have.
Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
Jade believes she must get out of her poor neighborhood if she's ever going to succeed. Her mother tells her to take advantage of every opportunity that comes her way. And Jade has: every day she rides the bus away from her friends and to the private school where she feels like an outsider, but where she has plenty of opportunities. But some opportunities she doesn't really welcome, like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for "at-risk" girls. Just because her mentor is black and graduated from the same high school doesn't mean she understands where Jade is coming from. She's tired of being singled out as someone who needs help, someone people want to fix. Jade wants to speak, to create, to express her joys and sorrows, her pain and her hope. Maybe there are some things she could show other women about understanding the world and finding ways to be real, to make a difference.
Amina's Voice by Hena Khan
Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.
Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani-American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.
Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly
In one day, four lives weave together in unexpected ways. Virgil Salinas is shy and kindhearted and feels out of place in his crazy-about-sports family. Valencia Somerset, who is deaf, is smart, brave, and secretly lonely, and she loves everything about nature. Kaori Tanaka is a self-proclaimed psychic, whose little sister, Gen, is always following her around. And Chet Bullens wishes the weird kids would just stop being so different so he can concentrate on basketball.
They aren’t friends, at least not until Chet pulls a prank that traps Virgil and his pet guinea pig at the bottom of a well. This disaster leads Kaori, Gen, and Valencia on an epic quest to find missing Virgil. Through luck, smarts, bravery, and a little help from the universe, a rescue is performed, a bully is put in his place, and friendship blooms.
A Boy Called Bat by Elana Arnold
A funny, heartfelt, and irresistible book about a young boy on the autism spectrum.
For Bixby Alexander Tam (nicknamed Bat), life tends to be full of surprises—some of them good, some not so good. Today, though, is a good-surprise day. Bat’s mom, a veterinarian, has brought home a baby skunk, which she needs to take care of until she can hand him over to a wild-animal shelter.
But the minute Bat meets the kit, he knows they belong together. And he’s got one month to show his mom that a baby skunk might just make a pretty terrific pet.
Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed
Life is quiet and ordinary in Amal's Pakistani village, but she had no complaints, and besides, she's busy pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher one day. Her dreams are temporarily dashed when--as the eldest daughter--she must stay home from school to take care of her siblings. Amal is upset, but she doesn't lose hope and finds ways to continue learning. Then the unimaginable happens--after an accidental run-in with the son of her village's corrupt landlord, Amal must work as his family's servant to pay off her own family's debt.
Life at the opulent Khan estate is full of heartbreak and struggle for Amal--especially when she inadvertently makes an enemy of a girl named Nabila. Most troubling, though, is Amal's growing awareness of the Khans' nefarious dealings. When it becomes clear just how far they will go to protect their interests, Amal realizes she will have to find a way to work with others if they are ever to exact change in a cruel status quo, and if Amal is ever to achieve her dreams.
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Inspired by the author's childhood experience as a refugee—fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama—this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child's-eye view of family and immigration.
Hà has only ever known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope—toward America.
This is a moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing.
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya
Save the restaurant. Save the town. Get the girl. Make Abuela proud. Can thirteen-year-old Arturo Zamora do it all or is he in for a BIG, EPIC FAIL?
For Arturo, summertime in Miami means playing basketball until dark, sipping mango smoothies, and keeping cool under banyan trees. And maybe a few shifts as junior lunchtime dishwasher at Abuela’s restaurant. Maybe. But this summer also includes Carmen, a poetry enthusiast who moves into Arturo’s apartment complex and turns his stomach into a deep fryer. He almost doesn’t notice the smarmy land developer who rolls into town and threatens to change it.
Arturo refuses to let his family and community go down without a fight, and as he schemes with Carmen, Arturo discovers the power of poetry and protest through untold family stories and the work of José Martí.
Refugee by Alan Gratz
JOSEF is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world . . .
ISABEL is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety in America . . .
MAHMOUD is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe . . .
All three kids go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers -- from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, shocking connections will tie their stories together in the end.
This action-packed novel tackles topics both timely and timeless: courage, survival, and the quest for home.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Jin Wang starts at a new school where he's the only Chinese-American student. When a boy from Taiwan joins his class, Jin doesn't want to be associated with an FOB like him. Jin just wants to be an all-American boy, because he's in love with an all-American girl. Danny is an all-American boy: great at basketball, popular with the girls. But his obnoxious Chinese cousin Chin-Kee's annual visit is such a disaster that it ruins Danny's reputation at school, leaving him with no choice but to transfer somewhere he can start all over again. The Monkey King has lived for thousands of years and mastered the arts of kung fu and the heavenly disciplines. He's ready to join the ranks of the immortal gods in heaven. But there's no place in heaven for a monkey. Each of these characters cannot help himself alone, but how can they possibly help each other? They're going to have to find a way―if they want fix the disasters their lives have become.
If you are looking for a good read aloud to start the discussion on diversity, I highly recommend reading Red by Michael Hall. Picture Books are a great way to reach our middle schoolers to begin tough and important discussions.
I'll be writing a post about my favorite young adult diverse books soon so be on the lookout.
Check out more information on diverse books at diversebooks.org/!