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I spent a lot of time this year looking critically at our collection. Analyzing. Scrutinizing. I have been in this library for 2 years now, and I have big plans.
I want a library collection reflecting the diversity of students in my school. Like most school librarians, I want students to read about kids like themselves, and about kids like their classmates, and to get so lost in a compelling story that they can’t stop reading. So we need books with diverse characters with diverse experiences, written by diverse authors, and we need a lot of them.
But the truth is, I don’t have that library yet.
The truth is, too many of my students don’t see themselves or their experiences reflected in the collection, so they don’t want to read it.
The truth is, too many of our books are only about white kids. Or if they have African American or Asian American or Hispanic characters, they are historical fiction. Or supporting characters. They don’t address modern-day problems or struggles or bias. Few of them address social justice.
The truth is, students deserve better.
Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.
Finding books with diverse characters is easier now than it has ever been. My tiny book budget really does not allow for mistakes, so every purchase has to count. I select books as carefully as I can. Not only do I want books with diverse characters, I want books that explain what racism looks like in the everyday life of my students of color so white students can understand. Historical context will always be important, but unless the injustices of today are explicitly pointed out to the white majority, many students will grow up thinking the Civil Rights Movement fixed everything. And the truth is, it didn’t.
The books on this list are the results of hours of searching on the computer, crowdsourcing from my Instagram community, combing Amazon.com, and reading, reading, reading. They are generally agreed to be appropriate for middle school, defined as grades 6-8. As any middle school educator will tell you, however, brand new 6th graders and graduating 8th graders are miles apart in maturity. Therefore, the list consists of two parts, titles for ages 11-14, and titles for ages 14 and up, but you know your students better than I do. Some books are historical, and some are set in modern times.
Books about racism for children ages 11-14
Books I have read and recommend:
1. Wishtree by Katherine Applegate--The Wishtree red oak has 216 rings and lives near the sidewalk between the houses of Samar and Stephen. Someone defiles the sanctity of the neighborhood icon when he carves the word “LEAVE” into the trunk, a message for Samar’s Muslim family. The Wishtree’s community feels the weight of this attack throughout and must work through what it means. (Longer review on Instagram)
2. Breakout by Kate Messner--Elidee and her mom move to a small town in New York to be near her brother Troy, an inmate in the prison there. She is one of only two African American students at the middle school, where she is on the track team with Nora and Lizzie. Two prisoners break out, and the whole town goes on lockdown. Through the ordeal, Nora and Lizzie notice how members of the community treat Elidee differently from them. They also wonder why most of the inmates are black. Once they start to question things, they understand that Elidee faces things they have never had to. (Longer review on Instagram)
3. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacquelin Woodson--Woodson writes her memoir in verse.. After Woodson’s mother left her father, the children went to live with on their grandparents’ farm in South Carolina. Woodson describes living in South Carolina, navigating the landscape of the Civil Rights movement in the land of Jim Crow, from a child’s perspective.
4. The Watsons Go To Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis--Ten year old Kenny and his family are headed on a trip! They drive from their home in Flint, Michigan, to Birmingham, Alabama to visit Grandma. And they are in Birmingham on Sunday, September 15, when white supremacists bomb Grandma’s church and 4 little girls are killed.
5. Martin Rising: Requiem For a King by Andrea Davis Pinkney--Martin Rising is a collection of what the author calls “docu-poems,” which document the events of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. While it encompasses the timeline of his entire life, most of the poems are about the events immediately preceding King’s death in the spring of 1968. The added information at the end aid the reader’s understanding of events described in the book. (Longer review on Instagram)
6. Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds--Miles goes to a prestigious boarding school across Brooklyn from his home. He knows Brooklyn Visions Academny is his ticket to a better life, but his history teacher seems bent on keeping Miles and the other African-American students “in their place.” A radioactive spider bit Miles, and now he is Spider-Man. And this is a Marvel book after all, so secrecy, web-slinging, and an evil conspiracy are at the root of the action.
7-10. The Track Series (Ghost, Patina, Sunny, Lu) by Jason Reynolds--Ghost, Patina, Sunny, and Lu are all members of an after-school track team, and each gets his or her own book. The students are African American and they have their own sets of challenges at home, at school, and on the track.
Additional titles :
11. Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan--Amina is a Pakistani-American girl who wants to fit in at her school. Someone burns down her mosque and tensions run high.
12. Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson--Jade wants to take advantage of every opportunity she can, but she tires of people seeing her as “at-risk” and in need of being fixed.
13. Stella By Starlight by Sharon M. Draper--Stella lives in segregated North Carolina during the Depression. One night she and her little brother are out much too late and they see the Klan preparing for something; she’s not sure what, but she knows it can’t be good.
14. Lunch-Box Dream by Tony Abbott--A white family and a black family end up on the same bus. A series of assumptions proven wrong and moments of empathy make the white boy start to question what he has learned about race thus far.
15. The Other Half of My Heart by Sundee T. Frazier--biracial twins Minni and Kiera experience bias within their own family when they visit their grandmother, who encourages them to compete for Miss Black Pearl Preteen of America
16. The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake--Students bully Maleeka at school because of her dark skin until she meets Miss Saunders, who has a rare condition that makes her skin blotchy, and she learns to stand up for herself.
17. The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson--Candice finds an old letter in an attic addressed to her grandmother. The letter talks about an injustice from decades ago in Lambert, South Carolina. Candice and her neighbor Brandon try to solve the clues, which leads them to learn more about their families histories.
18. Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case
by Patricia Hruby Powell--This book in verse gives an account of how Richard and Mildred Loving fell in love, broke the law, and fought to legalize marriage between races and change history.
19. One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes--Nikki Grimes combines original poetry with works from writers from the Harlem Renaissance.
20. Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words by Margarita Engle--In verse, Engle tells the story of Antonio Chuffat, an African, Chinese, and Cuban descendent, who fights for civil rights during a time when Africans and Chinese are either enslaved or indentured servants to the Spanish.
21.The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore--Lolly's brother has been killed in a gang shooting, and Lolly feels the pressure to join up. His mother's girlfriend saves him when she brings him a sack of Legos. Building becomes his refuge from grief and a path away from a violent future.
22. Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac--Navajo Code Talkers spoke in their native language to send coded messages to US Forces during World War II. The government kept their contributions classified for 20 years, but now students can learn about their contributions and what they endured during their time in the war.
23. You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford--This is the story of the African-American pilots of World War II from Alabama, from recruiting to flying, told in verse.
24.It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas--Zomorod, or Cindy, her Americanized name, lives in California in the late 1970's. Her family comes from Iran. Cindy navigates the anti-Iran sentiment while trying to fit in.
Books About Racism for Teens Ages 14 and up
Books I have read and recommend:
25. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas--Starr is an African American girl who studies hard, has friends, and likes to go out on the weekends. She goes to a private school across town because the neighborhood school is unsafe and offers a subpar education. She and her friend Khalil drive home from a party one night when a police officer pulls them over and shoots Khalil. He does not have a gun at the time. Khalil’s death makes national news. The press drags his reputation through the mud, and Starr realizes only she knows the truth about what happened that night, she and the police officer. Starr has to decide what to say and when to say it, and her decision can affect her safety and her life. (Longer review on Instagram or Goodreads here)
26. Dear Martin by Nic Stone--Justyce McAllister attends an elite prep school. He takes great pains to be good: he’s a good student with good friends. His pants don’t sag. Police arrest him at a party one night, and through the injustice of it all, he decides to write letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then, he and his friend Manny drive around town one day in Manny’s car with the music turned up loud. A white off-duty cop doesn’t like this, so he tells them to turn down. Manny turns it up. The cop claims he saw a gun, but the only one at the scene belongs to the cop, and it kills Manny. The rest of the book describes how Justyce copes with the media backlash and how the media villify the black kids instead of the cop who killed one of them. (Longer review on Instagram or Goodreads here)
27. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds--This YA novel in verse tells the story of 15-year-old Will after someone kills his brother Shawn. Will knows the rules and vows to follow them: no crying, no snitching, and revenge. No one will ever talk to the cops who ask questions, and they don’t try real hard to make much headway in solving the crime. In accordance to the rules, Will takes Shawn’s gun, puts it in his waistband, and gets on the elevator in his apartment building with every intention of killing his brother’s killer. The elevator, however, stops on every floor, and at every landing someone from Shawn’s or Will’s past, someone whose life gun violence cut short, gets on. They talk to Will between floors. Will learns that the story of his brother’s death involves much more than he knew. (Longer review on Instagram or Goodreads here)
28.All American Boys by Jason Reynolds--(From Amazon) Two teens—one black, one white—grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension.
29-31. The March Trilogy by John Lewis--This trilogy of graphic novels by Congressman John Lewis describes his experiences during the Civil Rights Era during such events as the March on Washington and Selma.
32.Monster by Walter Dean Myers--One decision changed the life of Steve, who now lives in juvie and on trial. The action unfolds as a screenplay in Steve's mind.
33. How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon--Jack Franklin, a white man, kills Tariq Johnson, a black teen. No two accounts of the killing are the same, and Tariq's death shakes the community.
34. American Street by Ibi Zoboi--Fabiola is a Haitian immigrant who learns the price of freedom when immigration detains her mother and she has to navigate this new country on her own.
35. Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham--In this mystery, Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family's property, which leads back to the Tulsa race riot of 1921, which raises questions about race relations both back then and today.
The truth is, it may take years to create a good collection, one that reflects our diversity and addresses racism and social justice. I will probably host many book fairs and readathons to raise the money to do it, but I am committed to the work of creating a place where all of my students feel welcome and understood.
Share this post with parents, educators, and anyone else who needs these titles. If you have more books to add to this list for middle schoolers, please leave a comment. Happy reading!
My name is Julie Overpeck. A middle school media specialist, mentor, presenter, middle grade book reviewer, and queen of the #libraryhack, I am a Texas girl in North Carolina with 16 years in education and 12 years of public school library experience.