When your kids want to take a trip around the world but need to do so from the comfort of the sofa, these middle grade books set in different countries offer amazing adventures.
It's easy to find books for tweens set in the US or the UK, but what about Uganda, Chile, or Tibet? We've got your flight booked (get it?) to those countries and more. All you need is your library card.
Most of these titles are good for ages 8-13. We've made an attempt to primarily (but not exclusively) include authors who have lived in the countries they are writing about.
These contemporary realism and historical fiction stories give readers insight into the history, geography and cultures of each country and will spark conversations about the similarities and differences between your kids lives and the one they read about.
Plus, all of these books set in foreign countries are excellent read aloud selections!
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Countries are arranged by continent. To prevent this book list from becoming unwieldy and yet still allowing me to include most of the books I wanted to recommend, at the end of each section, you'll find further reading to extend your virtual trip! Do you need a printable list to take to the library? Grab one at the end of the post.
Africa is not a country! Be sure your child's reading reflects that reality.
Ghana: The Kaya Girl by Mamle Wolo
Abena leaves her upper class home to spend the summer with her Aunt Lydia, who runs a fabric and sundries shop in a bustling market in downtown Accra, Ghana. Abena meets Faiza, a migrant Muslim girl who works as a kayayoo, or porter, carrying purchased goods in a bucket on her head for customers. The two become fast friends in spite of their differences and initial language barrier. Both girls learn about lives outside their own experiences, how society treats them differently, and how to speak up for themselves. Ages 9 and up.
Kenya: When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
I could not put down this graphic novel memoir. Jamieson and Mohamed tell the story of Mohamed's experience as a refugee living in a camp in Kenya. Readers will learn of the difficult life in a refugee camp but relate to the hopes of Omar and Hassan. Omar faces tough choices that could affect his future as well as his family and although the experiences of Omar and Hassan are likely to never be known by most readers of this book, readers will not soon forget them. Ages 9 and up.
Uganda: Orange for the Sunsets by Tina Athaide
1972 Uganda is not the typical setting for a children's novel, and yet, readers will draw many parallels between the shocking events in which the Ugandan government expelled ethnic Indians from the country, and present-day xenophobic tensions and arguments over national borders. The narration, which alternates between two friends–Indian Asha and Ungandan Yesofu–explores the nature of loyalty, nationality and allows the reader to view the country's chaos through two different lenses. Powerful and moving. Ages 9 and up.
More middle grade books set in Africa:
- Sudan: A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
- Nigeria: Anna Hibiscus by Anituke (ages 6-10)
- Ghana: Fibbed by Elizabeth Agyemang (graphic novel)
- South Africa: Small Mercies by Bridget Krone
- Ghana: The Door of No Return by Kwame Alexander (verse novel)
- Tunisia: Benny and Omar by Eoin Colfer
There has been an explosion of middle grade books set in Asian countries in the last ten years, but there is always room for more. I hope this selection gives your kids a great start on reading about lives in this vast continent!
Tibet: Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth
How many books set in Tibet have your kids read? Well, here's the opportunity to change all that! Tash and her family live their lives, hiding their Buddhist faith from the Chinese soldiers that occupy her village in Tibet. But one day, the startling actions of a man disrupts the peace and Tash's parents are taken away. Tash, disguised as a boy and her friend, Sam, along with two goats, flee the village, making a harrowing journey across snow covered mountains. Intertwined with this page-turning adventure are questions about freedom, courage and the teachings of the Dali Lama. Terrific. Ages 10 and up.
Japan: Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba
Originally published in Japan, Kashiwaba's novel is part summer adventure, part ghost story (not scary at all), part friendship tale. One night, Kazu sees a girl he's never seen before leaving an altar room. The same girl appears at school the next day and everyone but Kazu remembers her and insists she's always been a classmate. Kazu decides to do his summer project on Kimyō Temple Alley, which has links to ghosts and stories about the dead coming back to life. He befriends the mystery girl, Akari, and meets some of the older residents of the neighborhood who help him with his quest to solve the mystery of the alley. A suspenseful story that will introduce families to a fascinating world. Ages 9 and up.
Indonesia: Girl of the Southern Sea by Michelle Kadarusman
In Indonesia, fourteen year old Nita wants to continue her education so she can become a writer but her family lacks the funds. Nita is determined, however. When her father falls ill, Nita takes over the food cart where he sells banana fritters to support the family. Her father, however, can't stop spending money on alcohol so Nita must assert her independence and make choices that separate herself from her father. All the while, Nita uses her talents to imagine up stories about Dewi Kadits, a Javanese princess in traditional folklore. This was a wonderful book that will take readers to a part of the world they don't frequently have the opportunity to visit in literature. Ages 10 and up.
Bangladesh: Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins
In Bangladesh, Naimi feels frustrated that she is constantly told she cannot work to earn money for her family because she is a girl. When she accidentally ruins her father’s rickshaw she disguises herself as a boy so she can work, and meets someone who will change her life. The book includes a glossary and an author’s note about micro-finance. There's also now a Rickshaw Girl movie!
Singapore: Lizard's Tale by Weng Wai Chan
Half-Cantonese, half-British Lizard went to live with his Uncle Archie after his parents died. However, when Uncle Archie disappeared unexpectedly, Lizard finds his way to Chinatown in Singapore, surviving by doing odd jobs. One of those jobs involves stealing a mysterious teak box and delivering it to an individual. When things don't go according to plan, Lizard is left with the box. He and his friend try to understand the mystery of the box, which somehow connects to the war, secret codes and the disappearance of Uncle Archie. Lizard's Tale has a lot going for it. An uncommon setting of 1940 Singapore, themes of belonging, prejudice and friendship, surprising turns of events and character revelations make this a book not to be missed. Ages 9 and up.
Pakistan: Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed
I could not put this book down! In her Pakistani village, Amal dreams of becoming a teacher one day, but an unfortunate event results in her being sent to 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. She is determined to achieve her goals, despite her circumstances. Ages 9 and up.
Also read these middle grade books set in Asia:
- Japan: A Place to Belong by Cynthia Kadohata (Japan)
- Vietnam: Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai (Vietnam)
- The Philippines: My Fate, According to the Butteryfly by Gail D. Villanueva
- India: The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
- Korea: Brother's Keeper by Julie Lee
- China: Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan
- Oman The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye
- Hong Kong: A Spoonful of Murder by Robin Stevens
- Afghanistan: Ground Zero by Alan Gratz
My absolute favorite Australian middle grade book is The Adventures of Nanny Piggins by R.A. Spratt, but as that is not exactly realism, I haven't included it. But you should still read it!
Australia: Pie in the Sky by Remi Lai
Lai's novel about a boy who immigrates to Australia with his mom and younger brother will touch your heart and tickle your funny bone. Woven into the narrative are comics revealing 11-year-old Jingwen's emotional experiences as he grapples with learning a new language and navigating an unfamiliar culture. Jingwen is suffering from grief over losing his father and copes by baking cakes with his little brother. Ages 8 and up.
New Zealand: Dawn Raid by Pauline Vaeluaga Smith
12-year-old Sofia is half-Samoan, half-white, and through her diary entries, she describes her experience living in New Zealand in the 1970s. When her brother, Lenny, tells her about actions of the government against Pacific Islanders, Sofia becomes interested in activism and civil rights. I love the way author Pauline Vaeluaga Smith has created a wholly realized character in Sofia for us to love. Yes, Sofia is becoming more aware of her ability to use her voice for a greater cause, but she is also a young teen experiencing all the familiar anxieties of youth. Excellent. Ages 9 and up.
- Australia: Music for Tigers by Michelle Kadarusman
- Australia: All Four Quarters of the Moon by Shirley Marr
- Australia: A Fly on the Wall by Remy Lai
As it's easy to find books set in the UK (especially England), I'm not including those titles. You may also notice the absence of books about WW2. There are many, many historical fiction books about the second world war worth reading, but I wanted to allow kids to have a break from that topic!
France: The Pear Affair by Judith Eagle
This wonderful historical mystery takes readers to 1960s Paris, France. 12-year-old Nell has left her English boarding school in an attempt to find out what happened to her beloved nanny, "Pear," whom her unpleasant parents dismissed just before Nell went off to school. Once in Paris, Nell teams up with Xavier, a bellhop at a luxury hotel. Like Enola Holmes, Nell gets drawn into a second mystery–the suspicious contamination of baked goods at boulangeries across the city. (Anyone who has been to Paris, knows that would be a dire situation, indeed!) Ages 8 and up.
Belgium: Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh
13-year-old Max, an American boy whose family has come to live for a year in Brussels, Belgium, is resentful that he has to repeat a grade and go to a French-speaking school. Ahmed, a 14-year-old Syrian refugee was separated from his father on the water crossing to Greece. He is able to make his way to Belgium and hides out in Max's basement. When Max discovers him, the two become friends and hatch a plan to help Ahmed get out into the world again. A timely, sensitive book about friendship, family and taking charge of one's life. Ages 10 and up.
Estonia: Oksar and the Things by Andrus Kivirähk
I adored this book, and while it may be hard to find at libraries and bookstores in the US, it is absolutely worth hunting down a copy. When his parents go out of town, Oskar stays with his grandmother in the countryside. When he realizes he has forgotten to bring his phone with him he thinks there will be nothing to keep him entertained. However, when he picks up a wooden block and pretends it is a phone, he discovers that he can have conversations with inanimate objects like teacups and shovels. The objects begin to ask Oskar for help solving their problems. This book is full of joy and imagination. Your whole family will love it. Ages 8 and up. (Read aloud all ages.)
The Genius Under the Table by Eugene Yelchin
Yelchin's illustrated, semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in the USSR is hilarious. Yevgeny’s ballet-obsessed mother wants him to be a dancer like her beloved Baryshnikov. His family is aware that displaying talent leads to small freedoms that may otherwise be elusive in their restricted society. Little does she know that Yevgeny spends his evenings drawing on the underside of the dining room table. Yevgeny’s Jewish family lives in such a small apartment that, as the youngest, he sleeps under the table. The discovery of Yevgney's talent provides the family with some hope. Yelchin's writing and illustrations masterfully walk the line between tragedy and comedy. Very enjoyable! Ages 9 and up.
Norway: Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr
We fell in love with Astrid in this Norwegian import and this book is by far one of our favorite read alouds. Plucky Astrid, with her nickname, "The Little Thunderbolt," may remind you of other intrepid heroines like Pippi Longstocking or Anne Shirley. She loves to explore her beloved Glimmerdal, and her best friend is her crotchety old godfather, Gunnvald. One winter, a family comes to stay in the holiday cottages and Astrid finally gets some local friends to go adventuring with. But then she learns a secret about Gunnvald and things might never be the same. Ages 8 and up.
Spain: A Ceiling Made of Eggshells by Gail Carson Levine
Taking place just before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Levine's intensely moving and suspenseful tale follows the adventures of Paloma as she grows up in a relatively well-off Jewish family. Loma's grandfather is well-connected and famed for his ability to deal with Christians. Loma accompanies him on his travels around the country as religious and political tensions grow, facing dangers, prejudice and the constant threat of forced conversions. This is a page-turning book with an extremely strong girl at its heart. Ages 10 and up.
Also these middle grade books set in European countries:
- Ukraine/USSR: The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman
- Italy: Da Vinci's Cat by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
- Sweden: The Children of Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren
- Spain: All You Knead is Love by Tanya Guerrero
- Denmark: When Mischief Came to Town by Katrina Nannestad
- Ireland: A Slip of a Girl by Patricia Reilly Giff
- Germany: Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
- Netherlands: The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
- Romania: The Story that Cannot Be Told by J. Kaspar Kramer
Remember, North America is not just the "big three" of the United States, Canada and Mexico, but includes the island countries and territories in the Caribbean. I'm not including books set in the 50 United States.
Mexico: Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes
For the first time, Paloma Marquez is going to visit Mexico, the homeland of her deceased father. While in Mexico City, Paloma visits Casa Azul, the former home of artist Frida Kahlo, where she plans to take language and art classes. Paloma befriends locals Gael and Lizzie and the three of them set about solving the mystery of Frida Kahlo's missing ring. Ages 8 and up.
Haiti: Serafina's Promise by Ann E. Burg
This is a moving verse novel. Serafina, an 11-year-old living in Haiti, dreams of becoming a doctor. She works hard in her impoverished, isolated village to earn money for school fees and the uniform. Although she has supporters, her dreams are challenged when a flood and an earthquake bring devastation to her island home. This is a beautifully written book and will remind children that education is a privilege. Ages 9 and up.
Cuba: Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar
I could not stop turning the pages of this excellent epistolary novel. In 1938, Esther leaves her mother and brother in Poland and joins her father in Cuba. Esther tells her story in a series of letters to her sister. Making the journey by herself, as a Jewish refugee, Esther looks forward to her new home. Once in Cuba, she falls in love with the island and her neighbors. Her father has been working as a peddler, but Esther is a talented seamstress and finds success selling sought after dresses so that she and her father are finally able to send for the rest of the family. Behar based the book on the story of her grandmother and introduces readers to an incredibly diverse population. Ages 9 and up.
Canada: Weird Rules to Follow by Kim Spencer
This coming of age story set in 1980s British Columbia follows Mia, an 11-year-old Indigenous girl, as she navigates the ups and downs of growing up. The story is structured as a series of vignettes in which Mia narrates her observations about the differences between Indigenous and white families, how her friendship with her best friend, Lara, changes over time and her sometimes chaotic family life. This book was one of my favorite reads of the year, not just because of Mia's strong voice but because I think even grown-up readers will come away richer after reading it. It will also make a wonderful read aloud. Ages 9 and up.
Also read these middle grade books set in North America:
- Mexico: Beast Rider by Tony Johnston & María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads
- Canada: Sorry for Your Loss by Joanne Levy
- Dominican Republic: Rooting for Rafael Rosales by Kurtis Scaletta
- Puerto Rico: Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya
- Canada/US Border: Borders by Thomas King (graphic novel)
We need more middle grade books set in South American countries, please!
Chile: The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan, illustrations by Peter Sís
Ryan's book is inspired by the childhood of Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Neftali is pressured by his authoritarian father to study practical pursuits. But Neftali is a dreamer; he looks at the world and sees all its wonder. He spends his time writing about his observations, daydreaming and feeding his artistic soul. This book is absolutely beautiful. The lovely illustrations are an integral part of the storytelling. This book would also be a terrific read aloud for parents with middle school aged kids.
Colombia: Juana & Lucas (series) by Juana Medina
Juana is a charming and plucky girl who narrates her experience living in Bogotá, Colombia. She has to learn English at school and she doesn't like it! But then her grandparents tell her they are going on a trip where English will come in handy and Juana discovers that learning English gets easier the more you practice. I love the mingling of Spanish and English in this book and Juana's way of expressing herself is wonderfully dramatic and charming. This is a good choice for advanced younger readers. Ages 7 and up.
More books set in South America:
- Ecuador: Tree of Dreams by Laura Resau
- Bolivia: Treasure of the World by Tara Sullivan