35 Multicultural Early Chapter Books for Kids

Recently there has been increased recognition of the paucity of multicultural children’s books. Publishers have been very slowly responding to the public’s demands for more good books with diverse characters but I was able to find some great early chapter books to share with you.

List of multicultural early chapter books for kids

The selections on this list feature a diverse group of Latino, African-American, Asian-American, Native American characters, as well as boys and girls living in other parts of the world. Exposing kids to books that reflect the diverse world around them teaches empathy and helps children become global citizens.

“Early” or “first chapter books” are good for kids who have moved beyond easy readers but are not yet ready for middle grade fiction. That covers a wide range of reading levels as kids move up in reading confidence. (Full disclosure: I’m not a reading specialist). My older son is moving beyond this level and my younger child is not yet reading so this may be the last list of chapter books for ages 6 to 10 (roughly 1st to 4th grade) for a while. For that reason I decided to make it a giant list! I’ve gathered a few titles from earlier book lists, but included a number of fresh titles. In order to make the post manageable I left many choices off, so I encourage you to explore the other lists (all those links are at the bottom of this post).

If you find yourself getting lost when looking for age appropriate, on-level books for your child, you may find my tips for parents looking for early chapter books useful (Click on that link to go to the post). If your young reader likes to read on an e-reader, you are in luck, most of these are available in digital format.

I also want to give a big shout out to Mary at Sprout’s Bookshelf who so graciously helped me with a few of these titles. Her blog is awesome and her single title reviews are thoughtful and thorough. Definitely pay her a visit! Newcomers (hey there!) can find an index of all my book posts here –> Master Book List. {Note: My kids and I chose all the books ourselves, affiliate links are included.}

Multicultural Chapter Book {Series}

Series books are great for getting kids to keep reading. Once they find a character they connect with, they will want to read more and more.


Bobby the Brave. This is actually the second book in the series (I haven’t read the first one, yet but I love its premise of a boy-girl friendship). I brought it home from the library and started reading it aloud to my 5 year old. My older son (age 9) started listening in, even though he had already read it so that’s a good recommendation for you! Bobby Ellis-Chan struggles the fact that he is not interested in football even though his dad is a retired professional. “The Freezer”, as his dad is known, is now a stay-at-home dad and while the siblings have their usual back-and-forths, it is a functional, loving family. Bobby’s family is bi-racial and his friends come from different ethnic backgrounds but it is not a focus of the book at all. In fact, I couldn’t help thinking it reflected my own sons’ diverse classrooms. This is a funny, charming book with non-stock characters and I’m looking forward to reading more books in the series.


Dog Days: The Carver Chronicles. This is the first and just-published book in a brand-new series about third-grader Gavin, who is starting a new school. When he and his friends get into trouble his punishment is to take care of his aunt’s annoying little Pomeranian. The bow-bedecked dog is seriously interfering with his attempt to prove himself “cool”! I think a lot of kids will relate to Gavin. I liked this realistic book and look forward to more in the series.


Zapato Power series. I have a great love for Freddy Ramos. After all, he and his mom love to read together. It’s also nice to see a Latino superhero, do you know many of those? One day Freddy receives a mysterious pair of shoes which turn out to have magical powers and Freddy, being the kind of boy he is, uses their power for good. This series was also on my list of Superhero Picture and Chapter Books. The Zapato Power series is one of my favorites.


It appears The White Elephant is only in print now in Kindle format, but I got a copy from my library. Newbery award-winner Sid Fleischman has crafted an engaging story about Run Run, an orphan in Siam who works as an elephant trainer. When he upsets the prince his punishment is the gift of a rare white elephant which he must take care of, but cannot put to work. Run Run is at first a reluctant owner, but Sahib, the elephant and the boy form a bond and taking care of Sahib allows Run Run to move forward. This books is so well written and there is a lot of information about elephants that animal loving kids will really enjoy it. This is also a great read aloud. 


Get Ready For Gabí . Go out looking for books at this level with Latina main characters and you won’t find much (got any to recommend?). In the first book of the series, Gabí gets into a muddle and mixes up her English and Spanish. It’s really a story about your average girl dealing with a boy who is teasing her about her name. I love that there is a glossary of the Spanish words and phrases used in the book! There are quite a few and it makes the book readily accessible to kids with no exposure to Spanish.


Sam and Charlie. This series straddles the line between easy reader and early chapter book but I wanted to include a book reflecting Jewish life. The book establishes a theme by opening with a verse from Leviticus – “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Sam and Charlie are neighbors and each of the six short chapters shows the two friends working through issues like sharing, forgiveness and so on. I’m not the biggest fan of didactic books, and Sam and Charlie could be a little more sophisticated, but all in all it’s a nice book with a Jewish theme for early readers. I’m not so sure I’d be as willing to give up the last bite of my prune hamentaschen as Sam, though. Those things are pretty tasty.


Calvin Coconut. Quick! Name all the children’s books you know that are set in Hawaii. Not too many, I’m afraid. 4th grader Calvin  lives with his single, working mom and little sister in Paradise. My son really liked this series.


Sassy. If honesty is the best policy I must tell you I was quite put off by these covers (my love for a certain 80s teen magazine not withstanding). Sparkles, pink swirls.. ugh. However, it had two things going for it: author Sharon Draper and the fact that it was on our library’s summer reading list. Fourth grader Sassy is annoyed that her family calls her “Little Sister”. In fact, she doesn’t like much that comes with being the youngest child. She is determined to change things and the contents of her sparkly handbag that her grandmother gave her come in handy on that quest. Kids (especially girls — not to stereotype it but it’s true) will like this one and I say it’s definitely worth a better cover.


Lulu and the Duck in the Park. Previously published in the UK, this series from established author Hilary McKay, has received good reviews. I really loved this sweet and funny story about Lulu, an animal lover who, unable to leave an abandoned duck egg in the park, hides it under her sweater and brings it to school.


Jackson Friends. This series was recommended by Mary at Sprout’s Bookshelf. I’ve not had a chance to read it yet, but I enjoyed another book by the same author, Stinky Stern Forever. It follows the adventures of a diverse group of children who attend Jackson Magnet school.


Milo & Jazz Mysteries was on my list of mystery and detective early chapter books. This is a great series for the youngest readers ready for early chapter books. At first Milo is uncertain that Jazz will be a good partner, but they end up working well together. I love how each book ends with some extra brain-teasers and mysteries to solve.


Simply Sarah. As I write this, 3 of the 4 the books in this series are only $1 for the Kindle, (always check pricing) which is great news since it appears to be out of print. This diverse group of friends have adventures in Chicago, often centering around different ethnic restaurants. The first book, though, is about the apartment-dwelling kids adopting a pigeon on their fire escape. You can read a full review of that one on my much neglected book blog, Storied Cities.


Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel. Dyamonde is one of the most optimistic characters in early chapter books! She has a single mom, lives in a small apartment and is starting a new school. Yet through it all she is a go-getter, a can-do gal. This is the first book in the series and as the new kid in school, Dyamonde sets out to make friends with the other newbie, despite his grouchy attitude. Don’t stop with this one, read the rest of the series, too.


Nikki and Deja. Karen English’s lovely series about two friends was a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year. It’s funny, sweet,  and all girls who have a BFF will be able to relate to Nikki and Deja’s friendship and the lessons they learn.


Ruby and the Booker Boys. 8 year old Ruby has three rowdy older brothers, but Ruby’s energy matches theirs. She’s an enthusiastic and talented singer. I love the portrait of supportive family life as Ruby attempts to make her own mark in the world.


Song Lee in Room 2B. Song Lee first appears in the Horrible Harry, but the Korean-American heroine was so appealing she warranted her own series.  Song is a creative, spunky girl who holds her own in the 3rd grade class.


Alvin Ho. Alvin has an anxiety complex: he’s afraid of everything and he’s so afraid of school he doesn’t even talk. This may seem like a dubious premise for young readers, but my son really enjoys this series. Alvin is a highly intelligent boy; his Chinese heritage, love of Henry David Thoreau (yes, Thoreau), attempts to be a gentleman and loving family make for some great reading. There are loads of cultural references (my favorite is is dad’s penchant for Shakespearean curses) which are defined in a humorous glossary. We listened to a stellar audiobook version on a long car trip which kept us giggling.


Ruby Lu, Brave and True. There aren’t a lot of children’s books featuring Asian-American heroines, so the ebullient Ruby Lu is a welcome addition to the field. Ruby Lu’s Chinese heritage is an important part of the stories, especially when her cousin, Flying Duck comes to stay. I love the fun little flip book built into the first book as well as Ruby’s unique way of describing the world around her. (Side note: Grace Lin’s trio of Pacy Lin books is another series for a just-ever-so-slightly-higher reading level if you’re looking for Asian-American heroines.)


Anna Hibiscus. This is an absolutely wonderful series about a girl living with her extended family in Africa. It’s gotten loads of praise by all the critics, and deservedly so. It’s a lovely way to introduce your children to family life in another culture.


The No 1 Car Spotter is also set in Modern Africa and written by the author of Anna Hibiscus. Oluwalase Babatunde Benson has been nicknamed the No. 1 Car Spotter because he likes to watch cars as they drive by the village. He has other talents, too, including his quick thinking inventiveness which helps his neighbors and family in tricky situations. I really loved this series and highly recommend it.


The Great Cake Mystery: Precious Ramotswe’s Very First Case. Precious Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book series for grown-ups solved her very first case in Botswana when she was just a girl. When her friends’ lunchtime treats go missing Precious is on the job and when she discovers the surprising thief a nice chuckle is had by all. This book is nice way of exposing young readers to other cultures and includes a reading guide, glossary, activity ideas and even a recipe!


Akimbo and the Lions. Akimbo’s father is the head ranger on a Game Preserve in Africa. Each book in the series focuses on a different wild animal. Akimbo helps care for the animals and problem solves when the inevitable scrapes arise. I can’t think of another children’s book that is set on an African game preserve and McCall Smith’s conveys the story with real respect for the landscape and wildlife.


Julian, Secret Agent. When I first brought this book home from the library, Kiddo informed me that his 2nd grade teacher told the class these were some of her favorite books. I haven’t read them all but I can see why. I was tempted to judge the book by its cover (I am not a fan of photo-covers) but am glad I gave these well-written books a chance. Imaginative Julian gets into mischief with his tall tales, but fortunately he has a loving, forgiving family. There are also books about Julian’s sister, Gloria (see below) and his younger brother, Huey.


Gloria Rising. Julian’s younger sister Gloria has a few books of her own. The short stories they contain follow the typical story lines about school and family. They are well-written, charming and I particularly like the emphasis on the relationship between the parents and their children.


Anna Wang series. Bookworm Anna Wang struggles with social drama at school, identifying with her Chinese heritage and embarrassment over her parents.  A touching and compassionate story. In the second book, The Year of the Baby, her family adopts a child from China.


Starring Grace. Summer is the perfect time for Grace and her friends to have some wonderful, imaginative adventures right in her own backyard. This is a solid early chapter book about the heroine of the much loved picture book, Amazing Grace.


Clubhouse Mysteries. A diverse group of four boys call themselves the “Black Dinosaurs”, build a clubhouse, decode secret messages and solve mysteries. This is a solid series from Sharon Draper that kids will like. There’s a bit of humor, appealing characters and, of course, some mystery.


Miami Jackson Sees It Through .This is a cute series, not particularly memorable but kids will find it funny and certainly be able to relate to Miami’s conflicted feelings towards life as a fourth grader.

Multicultural Chapter Books {Single Title}


Rickshaw Girl. In Bangladesh, Naimi feels frustrated that as a girl she is constantly told she cannot work to earn money for her family. When she accidentally ruins her father’s rickshaw she disguises herself as a boy and meets someone who will change her life. The book includes a glossary and an author’s note about micro-finance. This is one of my favorites on the list and has earned a number of honors.


My Name Is María Isabel. María Isabel Salazar López loves her name but when she starts a new school, her teacher decides to call her Mary in order to distinguish her from the other Marías. This is a short, sensitive story about a child’s fears about fitting in and respecting cultural differences.


Donavan’s Word Jar. Donovan loves words so much he keeps them on slips of paper in a jar. When he sees a new word, he drops it in his jar. He begins to worry about the jar filling up, does that mean he won’t be able to learn any new words? I was enamored of the idea of the word jar and I love the conclusion Donavan comes to about the benefits of sharing words with others.


Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes is based on the true story of a girl who contracts cancer as a direct result of the atomic bomb. In the hospital she begins to fold 1000 origami cranes but only reaches 644 before her death. The subject matter makes it a better book for the older end of the age range of this list and I encourage parents to read it with their children. It is a sad book, of course, but books teach us empathy by showing us stories from all walks of life.  (Sidenote: I miss the old cover of this book.)


Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream. Another bad cover redesign which makes the character of the book look like a teenager. Ugh. Jenny Han is best known as a YA author, but she has a couple of outstanding books for younger readers.  After Clara Lee’s grandfather tells her that her bad dream means she will have good luck, this charming Korean-American girl looks at the rest of her day and her participation in the Little Miss Apple Pie contest in a positive light.


Children of the Longhouse. I didn’t realize Bruchac (several of his folktales appear in my series of multicultural folktale book lists) wrote chapter books. This is a historical novel (it’s short but on the middle grade edge of this reading level) narrated in alternating viewpoints between Ohkwa’ri and his twin sister Otsi:stia. The siblings are Mohawks living in the 15th century in what would later become upstate New York. Ohkwa’ri tells the elders he heard another boy planning activity that would break a peace accord with a neighboring tribe. His resentful new enemy plans to get his revenge during a game of what we might call lacrosse. There is so much wonderful information about Native American life, culture and traditions in this book. I highly recommend it and look forward to more of Bruchac’s chapter books.


The Toothpaste Millionaire. The practical side of math is highlighted when sixth-graders Rufus and Kate decide to invent a superior toothpaste, sell it and make their fortunes. First published 40 years ago, Jean Merrill’s book (she also wrote The Pushcart War) is still a highly entertaining celebration of the imaginative spirit. After reading this book, don’t be surprised to see

Visit my other early chapter book lists for more titles:

Early Chapter Books – Animals
Early Chapter Books – Girl Protagonists, Single Titles
Early Chapter Books – Girl Protagonists, Series
Early Chapter Books – Boy Protagonists, Single Titles
Early Chapter Books – Boy Protagonists, Series
Early Chapter Books – Friends and Families
Early Chapter Books – Mysteries

Pragmatic Mom also has a dense collection of multicultural titles. She’s collected links to most of her posts at this page, and you can hop around her blog to find all sorts of great recommendations for additional age ranges.

What about you? Have you discovered any great new multicultural chapter books lately?

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Comments

  1. Love this list, Erica (and thanks for the shout-out)! So nice to see all the diversity here – what a great resource for parents, teachers & librarians! :)

  2. We’ve just read Splash, Anna Hibiscus and enjoyed it so much that I’ve just ordered the chapter book.

  3. Thank you for such an amazing list!

    I do volunteer work in Cambodia and have a book recommendation:
    A Song for Cambodia by Michelle Lord
    It isn’t a chapter book; however, the topic is definitely not for young children. It is the first book I found suitable to share with children explaining what happened during The Killing Fields. I know it is a heavy topic but the author handles it very well! A Song for Cambodia is the inspirational true story of Arn Chorn-Pond.

    Thanks for letting me share my love for the people of Cambodia!

  4. Wonderful list of books! I’ve already added a few to my list of library books to get on my next trip!! Thanks for sharing at the After School Linky!

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