Unlike the diverse fantasy middle grade book list, it was much, much easier to create a book list filled with diverse historical middle grade fiction! With the understanding I can’t possibly cover every topic but I’ve made the effort to spread a wide net. You will find diverse books that take place in many different locales, from India to the Philippines to England and beyond. The books cover centuries of history.
These historical fiction book feature characters from diverse backgrounds, faiths, cultures, ethnicities and abilities. A note on age appropriateness: in general, these books are recommended for ages 8 and up, although I would say that most of them are best for ages 9/10 and up. Use your best judgement. (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
Ahimisa by Supriya Kelkar. In 1942, Anjali’s mother joins Gandhi’s resistance movement in India. This means some big changes for 10 year old Anjali and her family’s way of life, and Anjali must work to overcome her prejudices against some of India’s lower classes, like the “untouchables.” Despite her dedication to nonviolence, Anjali’s mother goes to jail and Anjali must decide if she is going to take up her work. This is a moving story of a girl’s journey towards learning about inequality and the importance of social justice. (Also, look how pretty the cover is!)
The Wind Called My Name by Mary Louise Sanchez. During the Great Depression, Margarita Sandoval’s family farm in New Mexico is devastated by drought and her father takes a job with the railroad, moving the family to Wyoming. Her new community doesn’t appreciate the Sandoval’s Hispanic heritage, her father works to organize rail workers into a union and her family must prevent the loss of Abuelita’s land in New Mexico. This book fills a much needed gap in children’s literature by portraying the diversity of the American frontier.
The Birchbark House (series) by Louise Erdrich. I adore this series! Erdrich’s writing is simply marvelous. This first book takes place on an island in Lake Superior in 1847 where 7-year-old Omakayas, “Little Frog” and her Ojibwa family live. Erdrich describes the daily life and experiences of the Ojibwa as well as their sorrows and joys. Excellent, and a must read for kids.
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park. In 12th century Korea, Tree-Ear, an orphan, lives under the bridge with the disabled Crane-man. The two survive from day to day but Tree-Ear is fascinated by the local revered potter, Min. Circumstances collide and Tree-Ear becomes Min’s apprentice. Tree-Ear must learn patience, an appreciation for hard work, as well as suffer Min’s bad temper. When Min sets about creating pottery to impress an emissary, Tree-Ear is determined to help him succeed and undergoes and important, life-changing journey. An utterly fantastic book.
The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Ami and her mother live on Culion, an island in the Philippines that was designated a leper colony in 1906. But Ami doesn’t have leprosy like her mother does. When she is 12 years old, the government decides to removed the “clean” inhabitants from Culion, which means Ami will be separated from her mother, friends and the island she loves. A beautiful story of compassion and love.
It Ain’t So Awful Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas. In 1970s California a young Iranian immigrant figures out how to be American without rejecting her heritage. Zomorod Yousefzadeh’s (who now wants to be called “Cindy”) attempts to fit in with her peers. Her father works for the oil industry and the Iranian revolution features prominently in her family’s life. I loved this moving and funny book and I think all kids will relate to Zomorod, I mean, “Cindy.”
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani. I could not put this book down! Nisha and her twin brother are half-Muslim, half-Hindu siblings living with their father in India just before the time of Partition. When the word comes that their town is to become part of the new Pakistan state, Nisha, her brother, her Hindu father and grandmother must make the harrowing and dangerous journey to the Indian border. Each chapter is an entry in Nisha’s diary as she leaves her comfortable life behind and struggles with her own questions of identity. Highly recommended!
The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim. In medieval China, Li Jing has a hard life. Her poor family sells her off to a family who intends to marry her to their toddler-son and she goes off to live with her new in-laws who turn out to be cruel and treat her as a slave. When she refuses to submit to them, they sell her off to a house for courtesans but she escapes and goes on a journey to find refuge. Li Jing is a fiercely strong girl character who increasingly gains confidence in herself and takes control of her own destiny. Probably best for ages 11 and up.
Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper. One night, Stella and her brother witness the KKK burning a cross and it becomes a catalyst for the action in this heartbreaking and compelling story set in Jim Crow South. As the narrator, Stella describes the terror her community lives every day, when walking down the street and looking at a white person could land them in jail, or how a white man can slap her with impunity any time he wants. The intelligent Stella is always questioning the way things are strives to get her thoughts down on paper. She meets with kindness in small ways and makes connections in unexpected places. Draper’s unflinching dedication to depicting the fear Stella and her community experience makes this a book to put on the reading list of every child ages 9 and up.
Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar. In the 1960s, Ruthie and her family are recent Jewish-Cuban immigrants living in New York City. After a car accident, Ruthie suffers terrible injuries and she is placed in a full body cast. Confined to bed and totally dependent on others, Ruthie’s physical world narrows, but as others come to visit her, Ruthie begins to collect stories and her emotional and intellectual world expands. The author based the story on her own experiences and this is a wonderful, moving book.
Sees Behind Trees by Michael Dorris. This is a beautiful story! Walnut can’t see very well but the challenge to earn his adult name includes a test of accuracy with a bow and arrow. His mother teaches him how to see with his ears and his uncle declares a new challenge of seeing what can’t be seen. But Walnut learns more about what it means to be adult than just passing a challenge and he earns his new name, “Sees Behind Trees.” Set in 16th century North America.
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson. Chains is a fascinating view of slavery in New York, where books about slavery are most often set in the South. During the American Revolution a 13 year old slave belonging to a ruthless Loyalist family, Isabel, yearns for freedom. She meets Curzon who encourages her to spy for the Rebels.
The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. Wow. Ada, born with a club foot, has never left the apartment that she shares with her younger brother and cruel mother. When her mother sends her brother out of London to the countryside at the start of WWII, Ada runs away with him. In the country they begin to make a new life with Susan, a woman who reluctantly takes them in. The three of them form a bond and Ada finally gets to truly live. This is one of the best books I have read in recent months, with interesting historical details and a compelling narrative voice.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. It’s 1968 when 11 year old Delphine and her sisters travel from New York to Oakland to stay with the mother who abandoned them seven years earlier. Their mother, who is not exactly happy to host them, enrolls them in a day care run by the Black Panthers. Williams-Garcia’s writing is splendid, with interesting characters. It was a hard-to-put-down kind of book and an great non-preachy story to show kids how politics infuses daily regular life.
Bud, Not Buddy. Christopher Paul Curtis is one my favorite middle grade authors and I loved reading this aloud to my 9 year old. I’ve expressed my devotion to his book, The Watsons go to Birmingham several times and it’s time to recommend another Curtis novel. 10 year old Buddy runs away from a series of unpleasant foster homes and sets out to find his father, whom he believes to be a jazz musician. Set in the depression, Curtis’ writing is filled with humor as well as serious truths. Ultimately, it’s an optimistic book, full of laughs and one cannot help but fall in love with Buddy.
Paper Wishes, by Lois Sepahban, is a story that addresses a too-often overlooked and shameful period in American history: the Japanese internment camps. I still find it shocking that the government forcibly relocated people of Japanese decent (and citizens, no less!) to the remote camps. Disgraceful. But independent from my soap box pronouncements, this is a wonderful book. 10 year old Manami and her family live on Bainbridge Island in Washington state when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. The U. S. government transports her family and others to a camp in the desert. When an attempt to smuggle her dog, Yujiin, under her coat fails, Manami stops talking. At the camp, she holds onto the hope that she will see Yujiin again one day. Her teacher at the camp helps her cope by giving her drawing paper so she can paint her feelings. A moving and powerful book.
Lawrence Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles is a 10 book series which tells the story of the Young family over many generations and two centuries. I haven’t read all 10 books yet, just a few, and they have all been page turners. My most recent read was Dragon’s Gate, set in 1867. Otter has always been in awe of his father and uncle who work for the railroad companies across the sea. When he gets there himself, however, working conditions, the bitter cold, racism and his uncle’s behavior serve to disillusion him. You don’t need to read the series in order (I haven’t) to enjoy them and Yep is a skilled author. You won’t want to put the book down. Best for ages 11 and up.
Judith Kerr based When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit on her own experiences leaving Nazi Germany and living in Switzerland and France, before finally heading towards England. As a young Jewish girl, Anna is aware that something unsettling is happening in her home country, and her father’s livelihood is threatened, but she doesn’t quite understand the threat posed by Hitler. While in Zurich and Paris, young Anna must learn how to navigate new schools and cultures, make new friends and accept that her family life is irrevocably changed. Through it all, Anna hangs on to the idea that as long as their family is together, that is all that matters. Although it is inevitable that any book set in Europe during WWII will involve some discussion of the horrific fate of the Jewish population, this book is appropriate for parents whose children are not ready to discuss those horrors in detail.
More diverse middle grade novels:
- Contemporary diverse middle grade books
- Diverse fantasy chapter books
- Historical fiction books for kids
- 6th grade reading for globally conscious kids