July is The Multiracial Issue, and in wake of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks events and discussion, Girls in Capes invites guests to share five diverse books in different genres with our readers. Today, Emily London from A Spoonful of Words shares some great books for middle-grade readers, featuring characters diverse in race, sexuality, and ability.
It’s no secret that lack of diversity is a problem in children’s literature. But that doesn’t mean sci-fi/fantasy novels with diverse main characters don’t exist. Here’s a very very very short list of my personal favorites to get you started. Happy reading!
The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier
A recent publication, The Night Gardener is a dark and chilling novel about the power of storytelling and the importance of family. The tale follows Irish siblings Molly (14) and Kip (12), who have been separated from their parents and are now hunting for work in the English countryside, eventually settling into a crumbling manor that’s haunted by an evil specter nicknamed the Night Man.
I expected spooky when I picked it up, but what I wasn’t expecting was to find a main character physically disabled in a way that actually impacts the plot of the novel. Kip’s left leg is permanently injured, and while his disability is not the focus of the book, it does play a significant role in Kip’s character development, as does his cane, named Courage, up until the very exciting end. It was satisfying and very moving to watch Kip not only overcome his insecurities about his leg and accept his disability, but work around it to honor the name he gave his cane.
The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan:
When it comes to characters of all kinds of diversity, it’s difficult not to talk about The Heroes of Olympus. The Heroes of Olympus succeeds Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Last Olympian and follows the seven demigods on their quest to stop the mother goddess Gaia from rising. In this series, Greek myth clashes with Roman, introducing a completely different set of problems not previously seen in Percy Jackson and the Olympians.
Riordan is one of my all-time favorite authors for many reasons, one of which being is that he makes it a point to diversify his cast of main characters beyond the fact that they’re all mixed race (what with being demigods and all). There are seven main characters with obvious Native American, East Asian, Hispanic, and African American heritage. Beyond even the inclusion of race diversity, the release of House of Hades (the fourth book in the series) last year gave us one of the rare middle grade books that includes a main character that is in the LGBTQ community.
The Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan:
To be honest, I considered lumping The Kane Chronicles in with The Heroes of Olympus, as the two series are written by the same author and take place in the same altered version of our universe. However, the more I thought about it, the more I felt like these books and their characters deserved their own recommendation.
The story, told in dual perspectives, alternates between siblings Sadie and Carter Kane as they recall learning that they are descendants from two powerful Pharaohs (Narmer and Ramses the Great), and that they have the ability to use ancient Egyptian magic. Upon discovering their powers, the two are forced to fight Egyptian gods and goddesses who have escaped from the confines of the “House of Life,” a school run by a group of Egyptian magicians dedicated to preventing the gods from destroying the world.
What makes this book an important addition to the list of diverse books is the fact that Sadie and Carter are mixed race and, surprisingly, actually look nothing alike. While Sadie takes after her English mother and looks white, Carter takes after their father and looks black. The book addresses their differences too, especially highlighting some of the struggles Carter faces growing up as an African American boy with a white sister. However, despite their physical differences, the family is healthy and works together in order to save the world.
Animorphs by K.A. Applegate:
An oldie, but a goodie! If you missed the Animorphs bandwagon when you were younger and are in the mood for some pretty dark middle grade science fiction, then I highly recommend driving to your closest bookstore and picking up the first in this series.
Animorphs follows a group of kids who inherit the power to shape shift into animals in order to battle a parasitic race of slug-looking aliens called Yeerks which, I’ll be the first to say, are truly, truly creepy. This is another sci-fi series that features multiple people of color. Each book is told in first-person perspective, and the books cycle between the main cast of characters, offering a variety of perspectives on the alien invasion based on each character’s personality and upbringing.
The series was completed in 2001 with a whopping total of 54 books in the series (don’t worry, they’re quick reads), and was also adapted into a two-season TV show on Nickelodeon (which is now streaming on Netflix!).
Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale:
I swear, Shannon Hale is a queen when it comes to fairy tale retellings. Book of a Thousand Days is based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Maid Maleen,” but is told with a central Asian twist.
The book follows Dashti, a young mucker seeking work after her mother’s death. When she becomes Lady Saren’s maid, she discovers that Lady Saren not only wishes to defy her father’s wishes to marry Lord Khasar, but she’s already betrothed herself to another. To punish his daughter, Saren’s father locks Dashti and Saren in a tower for seven years, or until his daughter give into his wishes and marry. The novel is Dashti’s experience with her Lady locked in the tower.
The book is a delicious read, blending fairy tale tradition with central Asian-inspired culture in a well-woven tale of love, persistence, and courage. It received the Whitney Award for Best Speculative Fiction in 2007.
BONUS READ! Wonder by R.J. Palacio:
This last title, Wonder, isn’t speculative fiction, but I can’t help but to recommend it anyway because I think it’s such an important one to read, regardless of age. There’s a reason why this book stayed on the New York Times Bestsellers list for more than 60 weeks and sparked the nationwide movement “Choose Kind.”
Wonder, inspired by an experience Palacio had with her children, is about 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, a boy born with jarring facial deformities whose parents decide it’s time to place him in a real school. Told from several perspectives, not only is the reader given access to Auggie’s thoughts and emotions, but to the people surrounding him. As readers spend time in Auggie’s mind, they live through his pain and embarrassment as though it were their own.
The experience teaches readers not very experienced with the topic that despite our physical differences, on the inside, we all need the same things: love, encouragement, and acceptance. Just as important, by reading Wonder, the reader is treated to the rare lesson that people aren’t always good or bad; sometimes they just don’t understand, and it’s never too late to apologize and change with a few acts of kindness.
Emily London is a graduate student studying publishing at Rosemont College and holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin. In her free time, she writes YA fantasy novels and obsesses over all things Pokemon.
She has previously been a guest at Girls in Capes to talk about Worldbuilding during NaNoWriMo. Find her online at A Spoonful of Words, where she reviews young adult and middle grade sci-fi and fantasy.