Two weeks ago, my 11-year-old brother asked me to help pick out some great books, and I realized that I didn’t know would be a good fit for him! Thankfully, I knew just who to ask. Hopefully some insight from Black Children’s Books and Authors‘ Stacy Ladonna will help y’all as well.
I know a lot of educators, and the mere mention of the words “middle school” tends to elicit groans, moans, and all sorts of monosyllabic utterances. It’s that awkward developmental stage—ages 11 to 13—where a child’s physical, social, and emotional growth is all over the place. Cognitively, however, they are growing “increasingly competent at adult-style thinking.” Middle school English Language Arts teachers have an awesome responsibility to use literature as windows that will allow students to peer into other worlds as well as mirrors that reflect their own. Middle school literature can include both middle grade and young adult books. Both categories deal with self-discovery—identity, awareness, relationship to others—as well as national and global issues.
Literature can help broach much-needed discussions about the divisive and scary issues that center around race, ethnicity, and culture—police brutality, immigration, religious discrimination—that are going on in our country and abroad. At the root of those issues are privilege, intolerance and an unwillingness to understand those who are different. That’s why it is imperative that educators provide their students with a multicultural, literature-rich environment; but is this happening? I don’t know. Marley Dias sure didn’t think so. Last year, the 11-year-old elementary student announced that she was weary of reading stories about white boys and dogs. I’m guessing she’ll be entering middle school this year. Will she be reading more of the same classics, or are educators finally listening to the Marleys of the world? Are educators adding authors like Jason Reynolds, Nnedi Okorafor, Brenda Woods, or Varian Johnson to their reading lists or classroom libraries?
As a new school year begins, many Black girls and boys will enter into their middle school stage of life, one that typically produces social angst and self-consciousness. Reading can offer a sense of inclusion and stave off feelings of otherness, which is also true for all children of color as well as those with diverse abilities and orientations. Scholar Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop said, “literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” I created Black Children’s Books and Authors to promote awareness of Black writers of children’s and young adult literature. What the writers do is so important because it allows Black children to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Our stories matter. The books listed include genres such as poetry, historical, science, and contemporary fiction.
Books (Summaries pulled from Amazon)
- The Crossover – Kwame Alexander | “With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . . The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood.
- Game World – C. J. Farley | Dylan Rudee’s life is an epic fail. He’s bullied at school and the aunt who has raised him since he was orphaned as a child just lost her job and their apartment. Dylan’s one chance to help his family is the only thing he’s good at: video games. The multibillion-dollar company Mee Corp. has announced a televised tournament to find the Game-Changers: the forty-four kids who are the best in the world at playing Xamaica, a role-playing fantasy game that’s sweeping the planet. If Dylan can win the top prize, he just might be able to change his life.
- The Rock and the River – Kekla Magoon | For thirteen-year-old Sam it’s not easy being the son of known civil rights activist Roland Childs. Especially when his older (and best friend), Stick, begins to drift away from him for no apparent reason. And then it happens: Sam finds something that changes everything forever. Sam has always had faith in his father, but when he finds literature about the Black Panthers under Stick’s bed, he’s not sure who to believe: his father or his best friend. Suddenly, nothing feels certain anymore.
- Ghetto Cowboy – G. Neri | A street-smart tale about a displaced teen who learns to defend what’s right-the Cowboy Way.
- Eighth-Grade Superzero – Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich | Ever since a deeply unfortunate incident earlier this year, Reggie’s been known as “Pukey” McKnight at his high-intensity Brooklyn middle school. He wants to turn his image around, but he has other things on his mind as well: his father, who’s out of a job; his best friends, Ruthie and Joe C.; his former best friend Donovan, who’s now become a jerk; and of course, the beautiful Mialonie. The elections for school president are coming up, but with his notorious nickname and “nothing” social status, Reggie wouldn’t stand a chance, if he even had the courage to run.
- Unlocking the Truth: Three Brooklyn Teens on Life, Friendship and Making the Band – Unlocking the Truth & Charisse Jones | A rock band on the cusp of massive stardom, Unlocking the Truth is made up of three thirteen-year-old African American boys: Malcolm, Jarad, and Alec. When not in school they spend their time as rock stars opening for the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, Motorhead, and Guns N’ Roses, and crowd surfing at Coachella. They are currently working on their soon to be released debut EP. The key to their success: hard work, dedication, passion, and focus on their art.
- The Jumbies – Tracey Baptiste | The jumbies are coming! Corinne La Mer isn’t afraid of anything. Not scorpions, not the boys who tease her, and certainly not jumbies. She knows that jumbies aren’t real; they’re just creatures parents make up to frighten their children. But on All Hallows’ Eve, Corinne chases an agouti all the way into the forbidden woods. Those shining yellow eyes that follow her to the edge of the trees, they couldn’t belong to a jumbie. Or could they?
- Out of My Mind – Sharon M. Draper | Possessing a photographic memory in spite of an inability to walk or speak, Melody is mistaken as mentally challenged by those who cannot see beyond her cerebral palsy, impelling her to discover a way to communicate.
- The Perfect Place – Teresa E. Harris | Treasure’s dad has disappeared and her mom sets out to track him down, leaving twelve-year-old Treasure and her little sister, Tiffany, in small-town Virginia with their eccentric, dictatorial Great-Aunt Grace. GAG (as the girls refer to her) is a terrible cook, she sets off Treasure’s asthma with her cat and her chain smoking, and her neighbors suspect her in the recent jewel thefts. As the hope of finding their dad fades, the girls and their great-aunt begin to understand and accommodate one another.
- Tituba of Salem Village – Ann Petry | Several girls have been taken with fits, and there is only one explanation: Someone in the village has been doing the devil’s work. All eyes are on Tituba, the one person who can tell fortunes with cards, and who can spin a thread so fine it must be magic. Did Tituba see the future that day at the watering trough? If so, Could she actually be hanged for practicing witchcraft?
- The Red Pencil – Andrea Davis Pinkney | Finally, Amira is twelve. Old enough to wear a toob, old enough for new responsibilities. And maybe old enough to go to school in Nyala— Amira’s one true dream. But life in her peaceful Sudanese village is shattered when the Janjaweed arrive. The terrifying attackers ravage the town and unleash unspeakable horrors. After she loses nearly everything, Amira needs to dig deep within herself to find the strength to make the long journey— on foot— to safety at a refugee camp. Her days are tough at the camp, until the gift of a simple red pencil opens her mind—and all kinds of possibilities.
- You Got This!: Unleash Your Awesomeness, Find Your Path, and Change Your World – Maya S. Penn | Everyone is talking about the entrepreneur, animator, eco-designer, and girls’ rights activist Maya Penn. Her TEDWomen Talk has been viewed over 1,200,000 million times (and is one of the top 15 TEDWomen Talks of all time). Now this amazing teenager has written an inspirational handbook for teens and young adults to help them discover their passions and maximize their full potential for a creative, successful life.
- Same but Different: Teen Life on the Autism Express – Holly Robinson Peete, Ryan Elizabeth Peete, & R.J. Peete | Being a teen is hard enough. But when you have autism–or when your sibling is struggling with the condition–life can be a topsy-turvy ride. What happens when you come face-to-face with dating, parties, sports, body changes, school, and kids who just don’t get you? Where do you turn when your sibling with autism is the butt of jokes, the victim of misunderstood social cues, and the one everyone thinks is weird?
- M+O 4EVR – Tonya Hegamin | There are two constants in Opal’s life: her dad’s grungy green baseball cap, and her troubled pal, Marianne, whom Opal loves as a best friend . . . and even more. But nothing stays the same forever. When Opal receives the horrifying news that Marianne is dead, she suddenly must live her life and make decisions based on the needs of one person instead of two. Only with the help of her family and the story of Hannah, a runaway slave, can Opal begin to free herself from the weight of her memories, her ghosts, and her own truth.
- Flygirl – Sherri L. Smith | All Ida Mae Jones wants to do is fly. Her daddy was a pilot, and years after his death she feels closest to him when she’s in the air. But as a young black woman in 1940s Louisiana, she knows the sky is off limits to her, until America enters World War II, and the Army forms the WASP-Women Airforce Service Pilots. Ida has a chance to fulfill her dream if she’s willing to use her light skin to pass as a white girl. She wants to fly more than anything, but Ida soon learns that denying one’s self and family is a heavy burden, and ultimately it’s not what you do but who you are that’s most important.
Stacy Ladonna is president/CEO of Black Children’s Books and Authors. She is a teacher and writer whose life’s motto is, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”