Does your child like contemporary fiction? I see a lot of emphasis placed on great fantasy or historical fiction for kids, but plenty of middle grader readers enjoy a good contemporary fiction novel! It's for those kids that I curated this list of contemporary diverse middle grade books. I do try to include books with diverse characters on all my book lists, but I've made it the special focus of this list.
These books tell funny, heartwarming, adventurous realistic fiction tales with diverse main characters. I've tried to include a good mix with people of color, LGBTQ characters, socio-economic class, children with disabilities, adoptees, immigrants and families with underrepresented faiths.
I know I didn't include everyone but I'm planning some more specifically focused diverse book lists in the future (and see below for links to some I've already made) but these diverse middle grade books will get any child on the road to reading happiness. (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
Front Desk by Kelly Yang. Gosh, I loved this book. Mia Tang lives in a motel where her immigrant parents are the managers for an exploitative owner. Mia wants to be a writer but worries about her English skills. She takes over running the front desk of the motel and makes friends wherever she goes. She dreams of winning a writing contest so her parents can own their own hotel instead of working endlessly for little pay. Yang based the novel on her own experiences growing up in similar circumstances. A winning, funny and heartwarming novel; not to be missed.
Charlie & Frog by Karen Kane is a wonderful novel for learning about Deaf culture. Charlie, a hearing boy, lives with his grandparents while his parents are far away, working. He meets, Frog (Francine), a deaf girl, working at the Flying Hands Cafe, which is also part of the Castle School for the Deaf. They team up to solve a mystery involving a curious woman's frantic sign language message. The plot moves along quickly and readers will contemplate what it means to listen and hear, no matter what your physical limitations.
Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed. I could not put this book down! It is an important book to remind our children that there are still boys and girls around the world who are denied an education and the freedom that comes with living in a developed country. In her Pakistani village, Amal dreams of becoming a teacher one day but an unfortunate event changes her life and she must live as an indentured servant in the household of the village's corrupt landlord. Amal is a strong protagonist who takes matters into her own hands, determined to achieve her goals, despite her circumstances.
Ana María Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle by Hilda Eunice Burgos. Ana María lives in a tiny New York apartment with her three sisters and another sibling on the way. Ana María is determined to win a scholarship to a private school but that means she will have to practice the piano as much as possible, which seems all but impossible, given the amount of chaos that is going on in her family!
The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: Spirit Week Showdown by Crystal Allen. This book is excellent for kids on the younger end of middle grade fiction. Mya has promised her friend Naomi that they will work together to earn VIP tickets to the Fall Festival, but then Mya gets paired for Spirt Week with Mean Connie! I loved the focus on all the different levels of friendship that develop (and sometimes devolve) throughout the book, and Mya is one likable, funny girl!
No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen. Felix Knutsson lives in Canada with his single mother, but when his grandmother dies and Felix's mother can't keep things together they start living out of their van. Felix, who is bi-racial, has a knack for facts and makes it on to a popular quiz show. In the end, Felix and his mother find the help they need from friends and a refugee couple who understand their plight. Despite the themes of poverty, mental illness and parental inadequacy, Felix's narration is actually quite funny and this was an enjoyable book to read.
Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez. 11 year old Tyler’s Vermont family farm in trouble and in order to make ends meet they hire a family of undocumented workers. One of the girls is Tyler’s age and the two become friends, learning from each other. The is a wonderful book that addresses what it means to have compassion for others, the meaning of family and what it means to be honest. The narration alternates between Tyler’s perspective and letters written by Mari.
Ghost by Jason Reynolds. Ghost is the first book in a series of sports-themed novels. Castle Crenshaw, nicknamed "Ghost" because of his talent for running away, is drawn into the local track team. Ghost, who lives with his hard-working single mother, isn't sure he fits in with the team. He's not the only one on the team that struggles, however, but with the help of supportive adults, the kids find their way. I enjoyed this book and appreciated the way Reynolds created complex individuals who struggle with difficult choices, even when they make the wrong decisions.
The Red Pencil contains some tough subject matter, but it is a marvelous book. 12 year old Amira lives in the Darfur region of Sudan on her family's farm. It is 2003, just as war is breaking out in the area. She loves her family and dreams of going to school. When the Janjaweed arrive in her village, the survivors make the long walk to the refugee camp, where conditions are hard. Amira receives the gift of a red pencil and yellow notepad which becomes a catalyst of sorts, both for her spirit and for her mind. The most difficult scene in the book is when the Janjaweed terrorize the village and Amira sees the death of her father. The ending of the book leaves a lot of questions unanswered but curious and thoughtful children will want to learn more.
Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time (series) by Lisa Yee. I've mentioned other books in this companion book trilogy before but the academic struggles Stanford faces make it a great choice for this list. Stanford loves basketball, but he won't be able to play anymore if he doesn't improve his grades. Plus, he worries that Emily Ebbers (who has her own book) won't like him anymore if that happens. To top it off, he has to be tutored by an annoying girl genius, Millicent (who also has her own book)!
The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. After her parents' divorce, Candace and her mother move from Atlanta to spend the summer in South Carolina, where her grandmother used to live. Candace is lonely and misses Atlanta. She makes friends with Brandon, a shy 11 year old neighbor and the two of them set out to solve a historical mystery involving Candace's grandmother. Along the way they uncover a history of racial tension in the small town and an intriguing story of identity and fortune.
The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon. To brothers Caleb and Bobby, Styx Malone is super cool. Styx comes into their lives one summer and they get caught up in a grand bartering scheme that leads to hijinks and reveals secret ambitions. Funny, heartwarming and rather extraordinary.
Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart. This is a marvelously written story told in alternating voices. Lily Jo knows she is a girl, but most of the world knows her as Tim. She has the support of her mom, sister and best friend but Lily needs the love and support of her father in order to gain the confidence (and medication) she needs. Dunkin is the new kid in town but he has a secret. He struggles to come to terms with his bipolar disorder and find out where he fits in, too. The two protagonists may have difficulties that most kids won’t experience, but their journeys to express themselves, find their own way and make the right friends will resonate will all middle schoolers.
The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya. 13 year old Arturo works part-time in his family’s Cuban restaurant. But then a sketchy land developer, Pipo, wants to buy the lot next door and convince the city to let him develop a huge project with no room for the restaurant. Arturo, with the help of his friend Carmen work to undermine Pipo’s plot. I loved the way Arturo finds inspiration to fight the good fight from the poetry of Cuban poet José Martí, as well as old letters written by his grandfather. Any teenager will laugh out loud at Arturo’s antics.
The Sky at Our Feet by Nadia Hashimi. Jason was born in America, but he learns that his single mother is in the country on an overstayed visa from Afghanistan. When he sees is mother being led away he panics and an accident lands him in the hospital where he meets Max, a girl with epilepsy. The two team up to escape and find Jason's aunt, which takes them on a nail-biting journey around New York City. This is not just an engrossing story, it is an important one.
Eagle Song by Joseph Bruchac. When Danny moves from the Mohawk reservation to Brooklyn he faces teasing by his classmates. His father visits the class and tells the story of he great peacemaker Aionwahta (aka Hiawatha) and Danny takes this as an example to try and be a peacemaker himself. This is a good diverse book choice for readers on the early end of middle grade books.
Karma Khullar's Mustache by Kristi Wientge. Karmajeet Khullar is going to be starting middle school soon, but she is worried about the 17 new dark hairs on her upper lip. She is anxious to get the help and advice from her best friend, but she has been acting so different lately and Karma feels lost. Karma's Indian father is learning how to be a stay at home dad, and her white mother is very busy with work. The book addresses themes of middle school friendships and bullying and I love how Karma's interfaith Sikh-Methodist household plays an integral role in her journey.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy made me laugh out loud. A family of 2 dads and 4 adopted sons (all together they span several ethnicities and religions) lead a rather disordered and hilarious lifestyle. The boys all have different personalities, which could lend themselves to stereotypes, but thankfully do not. After finishing this book I wanted to move right in to the Fletcher household, if only to try out their DIY hockey rink. (You’ll have to read it to find out.)
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman. Tara is getting ready for her Bat Mitzvah, but she is conflicted about her cultural identity and her faith. Her Indian mother converted to Judiasm before Tara was born so Tara knows that “technically” she is Jewish, even though a girl at school tries to make her think otherwise. Tara is navigating middle school waters for the first time, re-evaluating her relationship with her best friends and having in-depth conversations with the Rabbi about God. Even though Tara experiences the typical early teen angst in her relationship with her parents, it is clear that they are a supportive unit and her extended family, also living in NYC, are an integral part of their family life. This is a terrific read, especially for kids who come from similarly complex backgrounds, but also to teach kids about the diverse experiences of multicultural families.
Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan. A thoughtful story about a Pakistani-American middle schooler Amina, who must balance the love of her cultural identity with her anxieties about fitting in with her peers. An attack on the local mosque puts the community on edge and Amina, her family and friends struggle with their feelings. No matter what their cultural or religious identity, all readers will relate to Amina’s coming of age story.
Superstar by Mandy Davis. Up until now, Lester Musselbaum has been homeschooled by his mom. But after his astronaut father is killed in a shuttle accident, his mother goes back to work and Lester is headed to public school. Lester is on the autism-spectrum and has a lot of difficulty with the new sensory experience of the classroom. He doesn’t always understand ordinary school dynamics, but he does understand science and he looks forward to the upcoming science fair project. Lester narrates the book so readers see the world through his eyes in this sensitive story about finding your way when you don’t fit into the box.
Want more diverse contemporary books? Try these lists:
- If you like this classic book, try this diverse book!
- Books for Asian-American Heritage Month
- Native American Middle Grade Books
- Diverse 6th grade reading list
Visit the index of all our book lists.