Middle Grade Fiction with Protagonists of Color

Middle Grade Fiction is for readers between nine and twelve. The following are middle grade novels I have read that feature protagonists of color. This list is part of my on-going book list project, in response to the Cooperative Book Center’s statistics regarding the lack of diversity in children’s books. I will be adding to this list as I read more books. Please leave suggestions in the comments!


  • One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (2011 Newbery Honor Book, 2011 Scott O’Dell Award, 2011 Judy Lopez Memorial Award Honor Book)
  • P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia (2014 Coretta Scott King Award)
  • After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson (2009 Newbery Honor Book, 2009 Bank Street College of Education Josette Frank Award )
  • Money Hungry by Sharon G. Flake (2002 Coretta Scott King Author Honor)
  • Locomotion by Jacueline Woodson (2004 Coretta Scott King Author Honor)
  • The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton
  • Toning the Sweep by Angela Johnson (1994 Coretta Scott King Award)
  • Crossover by Kwame Alexander (2015 Newbery Medal, 2015 Coretta Scott King Author honor book)
  • Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Coretta Scott King Author Award 2011)
  • As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds (Schnieder Family Book Award 2017, Coretta Scott King Author Honor 2017)

Native American

  • The Birchbark House by Louise Eldrich (2006 American Indian Youth Literature Award for Best Middle School Book)


  • Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani


  • The Circuit: Stories From the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiménez
  • Look Both Ways in the Barrio Blanco by Judith Robbins Rose

You may also be interested in my Picture Books with Protagonists of Color, Picture Books with Racial or Ethnic Diversity, and International Picture Book lists.


International Picture Books

Continuing my series of book lists to help parents find multicultural children’s books, the following is a list of picture books set outside the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom.  All of these books have human protagonists; while animal stories from around the world can be interesting, they do not address the fundamental problem of the lack of diversity in children’s publishing.

Picture books range widely from stories you can read to your baby to long tales for early elementary students. I have broken the list down by age group.

Continue reading

Series Review: Anna Hibiscus

Anna Hibiscus is a young girl, approximately five years old (she has her first day of school in one of the books), who is a lot like the little kids I know: she likes to climb trees, play with her cousins, listen to her grandparents tell stories, swim at the beach, and sing (although audiences make her nervous).  Unlike most kids I know, Anna Hibiscus also lives in Africa (Amazing Africa!) in a compound with her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and her twin brothers Double and Trouble. The books are real page turners–we find out that Anna dreams of seeing snow in the first book, and by the time she goes to visit her Granny Canada in the fourth book I was just as excited about snowmen and sledding as Anna (and I grew up in Ohio!)

Written by Atinuke, a Nigerian-born storyteller currently living with her family in Wales, the Anna Hibiscus books paint a picture of Africa rarely seen in Children’s Literature: an Africa that is urban, with happy, comfortable people, living out their lives much like people do in the rest of the world. While most of the children’s books set in African countries that I have seen focus on either the triumph of the human spirit in times of catastrophe, like A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park or Brothers in Hope by Mary Williams (both about the Lost Boys of Sudan) or retell folk tales like The Tortoise’s Gift: A Tale from Zambia retold by Lari Don. Of course, there is nothing wrong with either of these types of children’s books per se, but as a whole children are left with a picture of Africa where either everyone is suffering the ravages of starvation or living in a timeless village setting that places Africa outside the flow of history. The Anna Hibisicus books are a welcome change. On her website, Atinuke says that she wrote Anna Hibiscus to because of the ignorance most children in the UK had about Africa. I am willing to guess that children in the United States know as little or less than the children in the United Kingdom, so I am grateful to Atinuke for writing these books.

Anna HibiscusAtinuke does not paper over the real struggles African countries, like other places across the world, have with poverty. In Anna Hibiscus, Anna becomes bored one day and decides to join the “gate girls” in selling oranges along the street outside her family’s compound. She enjoys the hustle of it and is proud of the money she has earned until her uncles come home and wonder why the gate girls haven’t been able to sell any fruit. When Anna confesses to what she has done, her family chastises her for turning the work that those children, many of whom are orphans, do into a game and thereby depriving them of their livelihood. The next day Anna spends all day walking back and forth to the fruit market to get more fruit for the gate girls so that they can make up the money lost the previous day. Thus the poverty some people in African cities face is acknowledged without judgement and without poverty becoming the defining characteristic of African life.  Similarly in Hooray for Anna Hibiscus, Anna wants to see the other side of the city across the lagoon, and when finally allowed to ride the ferry, chooses to wear her best clothes. But when she gets there she learns that the other side of the city is very impoverished and she ends up giving all of the clothes she is wearing to children foraging for food in a trash heap.

But lest you think that the Anna Hibiscus series is too weighty for young readers, Anna also plays flash-light hide and seek with her cousins during a power cut (Hooray for Anna Hibiscus), gets blamed for the antics of her twin brothers (Good Luck Anna Hibiscus!), makes new friends (Have fun Anna Hibiscus!), and finds herself acting mama to a baby chick welcome home anna hibiscus(Welcome Home Anna Hibiscus!).

What makes the Anna Hibiscus stories so wonderful is the way that Atinuke weaves the familiar and the unfamiliar so that children reading the books in the UK or US can see the ways that their lives might seem strange to other people–keeping dogs in the house, sleeping alone in a room–while normalizing things that are different from most Western children’s experiences.  Deep questions of modernity and tradition, poverty and privilege, racism and acceptance, weave seamlessly into stories of visiting relatives, playing children, and making friends.

My only complaint is that Atinuke is not more specific in naming the setting of these books. We are told only that Anna lives in Africa (Amazing Africa!), and while the descriptive details of the story indicate a West African setting–a city with roads and lagoons, Harmattan winds–no explicit country is named. By not naming the setting, Atinuke unwittingly contributes to misconceptions that Africa is one homogenous place, or even a single country.

That one flaw aside, I highly recommend the Anna Hibiscus books to  young readers and anyone interested in seeking out more diverse Children’s Literature.

Queer Picture Books

Families come in many forms and our children deserve books that reflect that. The following is a list of queer picture books, by which I mean books that feature gay and lesbian parents, gender non-conforming and trans* children, or other GLBTQ characters. These books are important, not only for children in the queer community, but also for children who raised in more hetero-normative families. This list focuses on story books that feature queer characters. For books that specifically address types of families, see my We’re All Families list.

The list is divided by age group, and where I felt more explanation is necessary I have included a brief summary in parentheses.  This list is work in progress and will grow as I continue to find and read more queer picture books. Please leave your suggestions in the comments!

Ages 1-3

  • Mommy, Mama, and Me by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Carol Thompson
  • Daddy, Papa, and Me by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Carol Thompson
  • This Day in June by Gayle E. Pitman, illustrated by Kristyna Litten

Ages 4-6

  • Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah S. Brennan (Chloe is sad when Uncle Bobby is getting married, but comes to love her new Uncle Jaime)
  • And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole (the true story of two male penguins and their egg)
  • King and King by Linda Haan, illustrated by Stern Nijland (The Prince rejects all the princesses in favor of another prince)
  • Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, illustrated by Chris Case (Jacob’s mom helps him make a dress)
  • Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino, illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant (Morris likes his tangerine dress because it swishes and is a great color; faces teasing at school)

Ages 7-9

  •  In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco (Life with Marmee and Meema as told by the oldest of three adopted children)
  • 10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert, illustrated by Rex Rey (Bailey dreams of dresses but her family insists that she’s a boy)


This post is part of my Diversity in Children’s Literature list series.

Dad reads

After some research and web chatter focused on how dads are less involved in encouraging their kids to read –  and reading with their kids -the Good Men Project has started a social media campaign called Dads Read to encourage fathers to read to their children (and celebrate the dads that already do). The website doesn’t cite any of this research or web chatter, but that’s ok. First of all, nationally speaking, fathers spend about half as much time as moms on childcare related work in families with two working parents. This is according to a Pew study done in 2013 that seems to assume all two parent families have one  mother and one father. I am not sure what the statistics look like in queer families. SDT-2013-03-Modern-Parenthood-04So it makes sense that fathers are probably also spending less time reading to their kids than moms are. I also don’t really care that the Good Man Project doesn’t have any citations because I think that encouraging parents of both genders to read to their children (and celebrating book culture in families) is a good idea regardless of the numbers on the ground

Without further ado, my contribution to #DadsRead:

On Beyond Zebra

Floob is for Floob-Boober-Bab-Boober-Bubs

I generally consider myself a mother, rather than a father, so to celebrate Father’s Day here is a lovely picture of my husband reading On Beyond Zebra by Dr. Seuss to our two-year-old son.



Book Review: Karma by Cathy Ostlere

karmaA novel in verse, Karma by Cathy Ostlere alternates between the journals of Jiva/Maya – the Canadian born daughter of a bi-religious Indian family –and Sandeep–a Hindu adolescent orphan with amnesia. Karma is the story of a girl from a troubled family navigating troubled times. Born to a Sikh father and a Hindu mother who emigrated to rural Canada to escape the censure of their families, Jiva’s identity is conflicted. Perhaps nothing symbolizes this more effectively than her name: Jiva is the name her father gave her and the name on her birth certificate, but it is Maya–the name her mother gave her in defiance of her father– that she uses throughout the book.  The book opens with Maya and her father on a flight to India with an urn containing her mother’s ashes and as the story unfolds through flashbacks we learn how unhappy her mother was in Canada, in part because of the racism of the community, but also because of the expectations of her husband.

Just after Maya and her father arrive in India, Indira Gandhi is assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for  her decision to send the army into the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a Sikh holy site, to suppress a militant Sikh separatist movement. In response, anti-Sikh mobs instigated an organized pogrom in which at least 8,000 Sikhs were murdered, 3,000 in the city of Delhi alone. Maya and her father are caught up in the violence and separated when their hotel is attacked. Maya disguises herself as a boy, flees Delhi, witnesses several atrocities, and when found by Dr. Parvati Patel, refuses to speak.

At this point the narrative switches to Sandeep’s diary, which he is keeping on the insistence of his adoptive sister, the doctor who treats Maya.  Parvati sends Maya to live with her family and hopes that Sandeep, who is a friendly, sociable guy, will be able to draw Maya out of her shell so they can find out who she is, where she belongs,  and how to get her back home. But Maya is not welcome in Sandeep’s conservative village, and Sandeep’s adoptive father concocts a plan to get her out. During the ensuing adventure in the Thar desert, Sandeep and Maya fall in love.

I read this book in two days and it has taken me just as long to figure out what how to review it. Clearly it pulled me in–there were several times I found myself glaring at my husband for daring to interrupt me while I was reading. But even while I was reading it, I felt vaguely uneasy with it and it took me a while to put my finger on why.

So, first the good stuff. Writing a novel is an ambitious undertaking. Writing a book-length manuscript of poetry is an ambitious undertaking. So writing a novel in verse is doubly ambitious and difficult and I applaud Cathy Ostlere for the simply act of sitting down and writing this book. The language is beautiful and powerful and often moved me to tears (and not just because of the tragic subject matter. Here is one of my favorite poems, from early in the book when Maya first gets to Delhi:


A hand tugs at my arm
holds up a small earthen cup.

chai chai

It belongs to a boy, small,
yet his face is old. he could be
nine or twenty or thirty-seven.

one rupee chai

He puts the chai into my hand,
presses my fingers around
the unbaked clay.

drink now chai chai

The tea is brown like a puddle

one rupee

And swirling like an eddy.

chai rupee rupee chai

I hear voices rising out of the cup.

chai rupee rupee


chai rupee rupee chai


chai rupee chai chai

Like crows plucked alive.

eat rupee rupee eat
aii hungry rupee chai

The air rings with longing
and pain.

aii rupee aii rupee

The ground shakes with heartbreak
and sorrow.

aiii rupee aiii chai

I raise the cup to my lips.

aiii aiii aiii

The tea slides down my throat
and I swallow India.

(p. 46-47)

Ostlere captures the chaotic energy of the Indian capital and the everyday tragedy of poverty in this and other poems. Once the anti-Sikh riots begin, the poems stretch to encompass the horrors of murder and the darkest acts human beings are capable of.

Where she loses me is love.

Sandeep’s diary begins on November 13 and ends on December 4. The diary begins as “a record of the comings and goings of a troubled mute girl” (p 182). In other words, Dr. Parvati Patel has asked her brother to follow Maya around and write down everything she does.  Ostensibly this is in the hopes that Maya will reveal something of her past to Sandeep, either through her actions, or Parvati hopes, through a return to speech prompted by Sandeep’s easy-going nature.  What it actually means is that Sandeep is something between a spy and a stalker, talked into keeping his diary because Parvati describes Maya as “too pretty to be mistaken for a boy” (despite her disguise) and about his age. The final hook? The girl’s name is Maya, the name that Sandeep cries out in his sleep–the only remnant from his forgotten life before the Patel family adopted him. How does Maya feel about all this? Who knows, she’s not talking! But apparently by December 5 when she starts a new diary, she has totally fallen for Sandeep as well.

While Maya’s self-imposed silence may make sense from a trauma perspective, it makes me uneasy in the context of romance.  Voiceless, Maya becomes an object of mystery, an object of pity, and an object to be fought over, but never a subject of her own making. In the roughly 175 pages of Sandeep’s notebook, we see him watching her, overhearing conversations about her, punching people who malign her character, but rarely actually interacting with her. Where does the love come from? Instalove is a common problem in young adult (and well, any romantic) literature, but given the overall weightiness of Karma the superficial nature of the relationship between the two main characters is particularly unfortunate. If this is supposed to be a story about how love can flourish and triumph in the worst of times, the love must be more believable.

Despite these misgivings, I found Karma to be an important and compelling read. The winner of more than half a dozen awards, including the South Asia Book Award Highly Commended Book and the R. Ross Annett Children’s Award, Karma is the kind of book that will stick with you long after you finish reading it. It makes you think about the big questions of human nature, love, and forgiveness.