One of my favorite tasks as a classroom teacher was buying books for my students. Whether they were for our classroom library, for lit circle selections, or for my favorite part of each class, our read aloud, I loved picking out books! I tried to choose stories that would not only entertain my students, but books that would also help them grow their reading skills, their empathy for others and their understanding of the world.
More than ever there is a push for diversity in the books we as authors, educators and booksellers offer to children. The ultimate goal is to write, share and sell books that will allow kids of all backgrounds to see themselves on the printed page. This call for diversity goes far beyond the racial and cultural issues that dominate our news. One trusted resource available for teachers, parents and even writers, is We Need Diverse Books. The goal of his organization is to help promote literature for children and young adults that features a diverse cast of characters.
I’ve tried to help these efforts in a few small ways.
My forth-coming illustrated chapter book, Theo Geo and the Bigfoot Blunder, features a main character that wears hearing aids, a character I felt comfortable creating since my own son struggles with auditory issues. If you are a writer or illustrator, I challenge you to include well-researched characters from diverse backgrounds in your own writing and illustration as well. As a part of my work for Big Shared World, a cultural connectivity company, I curated a diverse book list showcasing books that celebrate diversity. If you are looking for additional recommendations beyond this post, the Big Shared World website is another great place to go.
Before resigning to focus on my writing, I taught middle school reading and language arts for a decade. In that time, I realized that my students needed not only books that had diverse content and characters, but also that they needed diverse genres and styles of storytelling. Not every child is excited by fat fantasy tomes or diary-styled storytelling. Just as our tastes differ for foods, students like to sample different flavors of text. Offering them a wide variety of choices is one way you can positively influence their desire and motivation to read.
This additional point is not meant to take away from the importance of racial, gender or ability diversity, but included because choice in reading material goes hand in hand with the topic. It is an important point of consideration when creating your classroom library because kids should be able to pick and choose the books they like, regardless of genre, and see their lives and selves reflected in its pages.
To conclude this blog post I want to share a list of my favorite middle grade books featuring diverse characters, varied reading levels and various text formats. By no means is this list exhaustive, merely, they are books that I have read, loved and noticed the role diversity played in the story. They are books that have opened my eyes and heart to individuals who lead lives different than mine. Below the chart you will see specific reasons why I have chosen to include these books amongst my favorites.
Diverse Books List
Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose
In addition to it’s diversity contributions, I really enjoyed this book because it taught me pieces of little known history in relation to a very well known historic event. Everyone knows about Rosa Parks, but do you know about Claudette Colvin? If you are looking to add a great book to your nonfiction line up, then this award winning title would be a great selection. Learn more here.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds
I had the privilege of meeting Jayson Reynolds a couple of years ago and was blown away by his passion for words. It seemed to just radiate from his core. When I read his books, I can feel that power and it influences his stories in the best possible ways. I loved this story because it offered me a view of a life very different from my own. Plus, it’s also a sports story, so it’s a great gateway topic for engaging student interest. Learn more here.
Goodbye Vietnam by Gloria Whelan
I read this story as a part of a historical fiction unit when I taught 7th grade ELA. It was incredible to read and learn about the immigration experience of people coming from Vietnam to the United States. Because I had many Hmong students I found it particularly insightful in attempting to understanding their (and their parents) lives and the journeys they had been on prior to arriving in my classroom. Learn more here.
Hidden by Helen Frost
This novel in verse is brilliantly written in unique poetry formats that get to the heart of the story quickly. The raw and honest content of the book grabs even my most reluctant students readers, which instantly makes it a favorite in my book. The fact that it highlights emotions connected to the tricky issues of parents in prison and poverty make it even more valuable. Learn more here.
Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
Sometimes it is easy for students and staff in a school to identify if a student has Autism or Aspergers. Understanding the world through their eyes? Much more difficult. This book tackles that challenge as well as the serious topics of death and school shootings. This book would be a great way to start tough conversations around these topics. Learn more here.
One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
I read this book about foster care just after I had my own personal experience related to the topic. That’s probably why I found it so powerful. I even bought a copy for each of my family members so that they could better understand the emotions surrounding the people involved in foster care. We read to understand, right? To view a situation from multiple perspectives. To learn from other people’s triumphs and failures, so that when we are in the situation, we can make an informed decision. This book did that for me and I am forever grateful. Learn more here.
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
BRILLIANT! This book is absolutely a must read for anyone who steps foot in a school. It teaches readers that even the most basic assumptions could be dead wrong. As you read, it forces you to consider different perspectives and hold room for new ideas. I promise if you read this book, you will never look at special needs individuals in the same way. Learn more here.
The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
Like many other books on this list, The Running Dream, shows readers that first impressions can be wrong and there is more to an individual than what you see on the outside. In addition to its contributions to the physical and learning disability forms of diversity, I also love this book because it is about working hard and dreaming big. Learn more here.
Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Mental Illness is a hard thing. Hard to live with. Hard to understand. Hard for not just the individual experiencing it, but for those in their lives as well. This book gives readers an inside look at how mental illness can spiral out of control and dramatically affect a family. Again, it provided me a window into a world that I knew very little about. Learn more here.
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is one of my favorite authors because she is not afraid to tackle tough topics. She is also my favorite because she is able to accomplish this feat in a way that is appropriate for middle grade readers. But my absolute number one reason I love this book and this author is that the book is not about physical disabilities, Reactive Attachment Disorder, homosexual relationships, or alcoholism. These topics are a part of the story without shouting them out on a soapbox. Learn more here.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
This book, more than any other, has taught me the power of both bullying and acceptance. It also shows readers that outward appearances are not always what they seem. Perfect as a read aloud for any middle grade classroom, this book is a great way to bring people together. Learn more here.
I hope that this collection of thoughts, resources and will help you provide the young readers in your life with stories in which they can either see themselves or learn something new about a person they may otherwise never meet outside the pages of a story. Happy reading!
** One final note. Please realize that this is a list of books I have encountered and read and found valuable. It is not a “best of” list in any other sense of the word. Please do not be offended if a title you consider vitally important was not included. If you have other great titles you’d like to suggest to readers of my blog, drop them in the comments below. Thanks in advance for your suggestions! **
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