Every child deserves to see themselves represented in children’s books. If you don’t see your experiences in books, the message is, “you don’t matter.” On the reverse, if only one type of child is portrayed in literature it sets up the false premise that that child deserves a better seat at the table. That’s not the message we want to send our kids. That’s one of the reasons why these multicultural early chapter books with diverse characters are so important.
Exposing kids to books that reflect the diverse world around them teaches empathy and helps children become global citizens. With that in mind I have curated a list of multicultural early chapter books that feature a diverse group characters and settings.
I have divided the list into two sections. In the first, I included my favorite multicultural early chapter books that are set in non-western countries, such as India, Nigeria, Singapore, Colombia and more. I populated the second section with beginning chapter books with a diverse cast of characters, but set in western countries (primarily America, as that is what is available to me).
“Early chapter books” are good for kids who have moved beyond easy readers but are not yet ready for middle grade fiction. In general, they are books designed to appeal to ages 6-10, but of course reading levels at this age can differ widely.
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. (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links)
Multicultural Early Chapter Books set in Non-Western Countries
Juana and Lucas by Juana Medina. Juana is a charming and plucky girl who narrates her experience living in 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.
Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins. In Bangladesh, Naimi feels frustrated 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 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.
Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami. The Book Uncle is a friendly gentlemen who helps children in India find just the right book at the street corner lending library he runs. This is a terrific story about one girl’s determination to stand up and protest corrupt politicians who threaten to put Book Uncle out of business. Yasmin’s story will inspire your kids to work towards a goal and learn about the value of community involvement.
The White Elephant. 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 book 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.
Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke (series). 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 series to introduce your children to family life in another culture.
The No 1 Car Spotter (series) by Atinuke is 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.
Precious Ramotswe Mysteries (series) by Alexander McCall Smith. 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 hearty 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(series) by Alexander McCall Smith. 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. McCall Smith conveys the story with real respect for the landscape and wildlife.
Sherlock Sam and the Missing Heirloom in Katong (series) by A J Low. Sam is the Sherlock Holmes of Singapore. Only this time, Watson is his pet robot! Sam is a detective and mystery loving Chinese Peranakan kid from Singapore who is a little obsessed with food. It’s different enough from all the other detective series out there to make it worth reading, and the descriptions of Singapore set a colorful stage for a mystery.
Books set in Western Countries with Diverse Characters
Bobby the Brave (Sometimes) (series) by Lisa Yee. 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.
Meet Yasmin! (series) by Saadia Faruqi is a very early beginning chapter book series about a charming Pakistani-American girl. Each book is divided into four separate stories in which Yasmin uses her creative energy and high imagination to solve problems. Delightful.
Lola Levine (series) by Monica Brown, illustrated by Angela Dominguez. Half-Jewish, half-Peruvian Lola loves to play soccer but is distressed when she accidentally hurts a classmate and the other kids start to call her “Mean Lola Levine.” Lola figures out a plan to change everyone’s mind and show them that she is really a nice person and good friend. I love the way the books in this Lola’s embrace her multiracial heritage.
Dog Days: The Carver Chronicles (series) by Karen English. This is the first title in a 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.
Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith. This early chapter book is a collection of funny stories about a contemporary Seminole-Cherokee boy and his grandfather. I think this book, with its charming tales of the loving intergenerational relationship, works very well as a read aloud.
Zapato Power (series) by Jacquline Jules. 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. 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.
Sophia Martinez (series)by Jacqueline Jules. This diverse early chapter book series is very easy to read, with color illustrations, and very large type with lots of white space. Some words are Spanish (there is a glossary, but their meaning is easily gleaned from the text). Sophie is an appealingly clever (and not annoyingly sassy, thank goodness) girl who likes to enjoy life, help others and make a statement.
Get Ready For Gabí (series)by Marisa Montes. 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 (series) by Leslie Kimmelman. 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 kindness.
Calvin Coconut (series) by Graham Salisbury. Quick, name all the books you know set in Hawaii: go! … Yeah, I thought so. These books are realistic stories about a 4th grader living with his single, working mom and little sister in Paradise. Your kids can imagine themselves having adventures on the Hawaiian shores while they get to know Calvin. Calvin tries to do everything right, but can’t seem to keep out of trouble. As you can imagine, hijinks ensue.
Sassy (series) by Sharon Draper. 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.
Lulu and the Duck in the Park (series) by Hilary McKay. 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.
Simply Sarah (series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. This diverse group of friends have adventures in Chicago, often centering around different ethnic restaurants. The first book is about the apartment-dwelling kids adopting a pigeon on their fire escape.
Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel (series) by Nikki Grimes. 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 (series) by Derrick Barnes. 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.
Jasmine Toguchi (series) by Debbi Michiko Florence. Each book in this fun new series incorporates Jasmine’s Japanese-American heritage into the story line. Intrepid Jasmine tackles pounding muchi rice, Japanese Girls’ Day, Japanese drumming, and more.
Alvin Ho (series) by Leonore Look. Alvin has an anxiety complex: he’s afraid of everything and he’s so afraid of school he doesn’t even talk. Alvin is a highly intelligent boy; his Chinese heritage, love of Henry David Thoreau (yes, you read that right), 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 (series) by Lenore Look. 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.
The Stories Julian Tells (series) by Ann Cameron. When I first brought this book home from the library, my son informed me that his 2nd grade teacher told the class these were some of her favorite books. I haven’t read them all (yet) but I can see why. Imaginative Julian gets into mischief with his tall tales, but fortunately he has a loving, forgiving family.
Gloria Rising (series) by Ann Cameron. Julian’s neighbor, 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.
The Year of the Book (series) by Andrea Cheng. 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 (series) by Mary Hoffman. 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 (series) by Sharon Draper. 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.
My Name Is María Isabel by Alma Flor Ada. 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 by Monalisa DeGross. 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.
Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream by Jenny Han. I love this book, even though the cover makes it look like Clara is a teenager! 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 by Joseph Bruchac. 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.
Need more early chapter books for your 6-10 year olds? All my lists feature books with diverse characters, and here are some more themed lists for your children: