Five Diverse Books for Middle Grade Shelves
Wanting to add more diversity to your bookshelf but not entirely sure where to begin? These books are all written with middle school students in mind. Most of them have been out for awhile and are perennially popular among the kids I work with. They’re listed alphabetically by author.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Kenny Watson and his family are in for the vacation of a lifetime when they decide to drive down from their home in Michigan to visit their grandmother in Alabama. Little do they suspect that the trip won’t have the same sorts of hilarity and hijinks they’re used to in Flint; that summer, tragedy struck the town of Birmingham. The first time I read this book, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I was absolutely riveted for the final third; I stayed up too late because there was no way I was stopping until I got to the last punctuation mark on the last page. Don’t let the main character’s age fool you—this book deals with some tough situations. It absolutely belongs on every middle-school shelf.
Schooled by Gordon Korman
Capricorn has always lived with his grandmother on their farm, which years previously hard been a bustling commune. Cap has never watched TV (“a waste of time”), had a real haircut (he likes his dreadlocks just fine), or even seen the inside of a real school, since everything he’s ever needed to know he has learned from his grandmother. When she has an accident and ends up in the hospital, though, Cap finds himself thrust into the unfamiliar world of a modern foster family and the daunting hallways of middle school. He deals with bullying and his increasingly conflicted feelings about returning home. Told in alternating voices, this book makes a great read-aloud. It also lends itself to creative writing projects or journal entries, such as asking the class to retell the same event with their own perspective.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Semi-autobiographical, this novel-in-verse depicts Hà’s family’s flight from war-torn Vietnam in 1975 and their subsequent life in Alabama. Her struggles with English and bullying are heartbreaking, as is her longing for a home that no longer exists. However, her spirit and determination lead to an uplifting conclusion. It can be used as part of a curriculum of simply as a class-wide read-aloud. The language is even at an appropriate level for struggling readers, though some might need additional support. This book can lead to timely conversations about immigration and refugees.
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Auggie doesn’t look like other kids. He was born with Treacher Collins Syndrome, which, despite a lifetime of surgeries, has left him with severe facial deformities. Due to his frequent hospital visits, he’s always been home-schooled. However, he agrees to try attending a private middle school in town. He knows it won’t be easy, but he’s determined to hang in there and prove that he’s just like everyone else on the inside. This book can be difficult to read in places because the bullying is awful and Auggie is such a sweet, sympathetic, and vulnerable character. However, this is the kind of story that can bring a class together when used as part of an empathy-building curriculum. I’ve yet to run across a student who dislikes it.
Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick
Steven wants nothing more than to live a normal life, but his world is thrown into turmoil when his baby brother, Jeffrey, is diagnosed with leukemia. Surprisingly funny, this book will have readers rooting for the brothers and cheering at the end. It’s a great title for discussions on character dynamics and understanding that plot diagrams don’t always show every up and down within a story. Cliff-hanger chapters also make it a good option for read-alouds.