It is comforting to read books which have, at their heart, a family that loves each other, even when times are difficult. These middle grade books, whether they are funny, serious, fantastical or realistic, feature such families.
Diverse here means blended, adoptive, single parent, families of color, mixed-culture families, while "strong" means the parents, children, siblings and sometimes extended family members, are supportive of each other. It doesn't mean they always get along. They may argue or even separate for a while, but the bonds they share are unbreakable.
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AN OCCASIONALLY HAPPY FAMILY by Cliff Burke
Theo is not looking forward to a camping vacation with his dad and sister in the desert. It's also clear that something suspicious is going on since his dad is keeping part of the vacation plans a secret. I read this book out loud to my son and although there is a serious side to Theo's story, we spent much of the time in stitches, laughing at the hilarious characters that Theo encounters and the misadventures that befall him. Ages 9 and up.
MAÑANALAND by Pam Muñoz Ryan
It's summer in the fictional country of Santa Maria and Maximiliano is ready to work with his father in construction, and eager to try out for the local fútbol team. However, when Max needs his birth certificate to try out for the team, secrets surrounding his parents are slowly revealed. His grandfather's been telling stories about La Reina Gigante, a stone tower used as a hideout by the Guardians, a secret group that helped refugees from neighboring countries. Ages 8 and up.
BOY, EVERYWHERE by A. M. Dassu
After Sami's mother and sister are injured in an explosion at the mall, his family decides to flee Syria and travel to England. The journey is difficult and dangerous and once they reach England, his father requests asylum at the border. The family is then separated and detained by the authorities while they work to present their case. Moving, eye-opening and hopeful. Ages 10 and up.
EFRÉN DIVIDED by Ernesto Cisneros
12-year-old Efrén loves to watch his Ama make milagras for him and his twin siblings every morning. It seems like she is always making a miracle breakfast out of nothing. After his Ama is deported in a surprise raid, Efrén must look after the household, including his sibling who has a cognitive disability, while his Apa works hard to earn the money needed to bring Ama back to the family. Efrén's secret almost costs him his best friend, a white boy who lives with his grandmother, as well as his academic success. Readers will empathize with the struggles of living with immigration difficulties and the emotional chaos of being forcibly separated from a parent. Ages 9 and up.
THE LOTTERYS PLUS ONE (series) by Emma Donoghue
The quirky Lottery family live in a rambling house they bought after winning the lottery (also the source of their surname), homeschool and do chores by drawing lots. The family was "born" when two dads and two moms decided to merge their families of multiethnic, adopted children. Suddenly the family must add a new member to their household. Grandfather, "Grumps," who doesn't quite know what to do with the eclectic family is suffering from early dementia and must come to live with the Lotterys. The narrative is told through the eyes of Sumac, one of the middle children. This is a fun book with a lot of diverse topics: gay parents, a possibly transgender child, blended, multi-racial families, special needs kids, cross-generational relationships. But somehow it all comes together! Ages 8 and up.
THE BLOSSOMING UNIVERSE OF VIOLET DIAMOND by Brenda Woods
Violet's father was killed in a car crash before she was born and she sometimes feels like an outsider with her blond-haired mom and sister, despite their close, loving relationship. Violet decides she wants to meet her African-American grandmother, a well-known artist. She goes for a visit to Los Angeles to stay with her "new" relative and meets cousins and aunts who thoroughly welcome her into the family. Ages 8 and up.
THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Curtis' book is a tender and very funny portrait of a loving African-American family living in Flint, Michigan. Young Kenny’s parents decide to drive the family down to Birmingham where older brother Byron will spend the summer with grandma in an attempt to correct his delinquent behavior. Most of the action takes place before the family gets to Birmingham and despite the serious undercurrents of the story, there are many moments of this book which are laugh-out-loud funny. Highly recommended and very enjoyable. Ages 9 and up.
INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS (series) by Dusti Bowling
This funny and moving book is fantastic! Aven Green and her family move from Kansas to Arizona, where her dad has taken a job as the manager of a western theme park. Aven, who was adopted as an infant, was born without any arms but that hasn't stopped her from accomplishing anything–she just does it with her feet! Aven narrates her own tale with a humorous, clever and truth-telling eye. With the help of her new friends, she sets out to solve a mystery and learn the secrets of Stagecoach Park. Ages 9 and up.
ROLL WITH IT by Jamie Sumner
Ellie loves to bake! Her cerebral palsy means her mom is a bit overprotective, and that she has to spend more time than she would like with doctors. Ellie's grandfather has Alzheimer’s disease and so Ellie and her mom move in with her grandparents to help out. Starting a new school means Ellie finally finds some good friends and feels like she fits in somewhere. Roll With It is a marvelous book, tackling so many themes, but with good humor and likable characters. Ages 9 and up.
DEAR SWEET PEA by Julie Murphy
Sweet Pea's divorced parents live next door to each other in an effort to co-parent their daughter. Sweet Pea acknowledges that she is a little "plump." While Sweet Pea's friendships are undergoing a transition, a neighbor asks her to look after her mail. The neighbor is an advice columnist and Sweet Pea can't resist answering a few of the letters. Understandably, she gets into a bit of a pickle! Funny and heartwarming. Ages 9 and up.
MARTIN MCLEAN, MIDDLE SCHOOL QUEEN by Alyssa Zaczek
Seventh grader, Martin McLean, is trying to figure out where he fits in. He loves being on the Mathletes team and he embraces his mixed race, Afro-Cuban and white, identity. He's particularly close with his Tío Billy, who supports Martin's desire to enter a drag queen contest. Now that Martin has found a way to express himself he wants to figure out a way to tell his friends. This is a wonderful, readable story which presents diverse racial, cultural and gender identities in a positive light. Ages 9 and up.
AS BRAVE AS YOU by Jason Reynolds
We loved this book about 11-year-old Genie and his brother who have come to rural Virginia to spend the summer with their grandparents. Genie is a boy who loves to ask questions and when he learns about his grandfather's blindness he has a lot to ask! During the summer Genie struggles with making sure he makes the right decisions as he uncovers the secrets of his family's history. Ages 9 and up.
SURVIVING THE APPLEWHITES (series) by Stephanie S. Tolan
Jake has gotten kicked out of his last school and is now living with the eccentric, artistic, homeschooling Applewhite family. The father is directing a local production of "The Sound of Music" and no one is more surprised than Jake when he discovers he loves performing. I loved the quirky characters and the boundless energy of this book. When the family has to pull together to get the show up after they are blackballed by a local stage mom, the results are hilariously successful. I really enjoy how the story reinforces the necessity of cooperation when putting on a play. Ages 9 and up.