Lately I’ve seen several of those “What to Read After Harry Potter” type booklists*, mostly aimed at parents of middle grade readers who zoomed through that intense seven book series and are now voracious readers who aren’t quite ready for the heavier content in YA fantasy novels yet.
However, scanning through list after list, I quickly noticed few of those lists had even a single book with a character of color, let alone diverse authors. In some ways, that makes sense. While we’ve seen some improvements in children’s literature lately, genre fiction can be slower to change, and the “classics” haven’t caught up to new tastes in reading. But there ARE amazing diverse fantasy novels, many by #ownvoices authors, some that have been around for decades, and I was incredibly sad that those weren’t better known.
So this is one librarian mama’s list of diverse fantasy novels.** I considered these to be appropriate for middle grade readers, so generally not too much romance or graphic violence, but please click on the title of any book to read my full review including length, reading level, and age appropriateness – a few do skew towards older or younger MG readers.
Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliot, illustrated by Geneva B.
The Dragon Thief by Zetta Elliot, illustrated by Geneva B.
(forthcoming) The Witch’s Apprentice by Zetta Elliot.
I started preparing this list after reading the synopsis/preview of Wish After Midnight and wishing Zetta Elliot had something for my younger kids. Google told me she had one coming out soon, so I immediately preordered. (You can see how long it’s taken to review the books and write this list by the fact that the second book is now available.) A delightful take on urban magic with dragons, children who ask too many questions, and a troublesome little sister – this one skews towards lower MG/upper elementary or hi-low readers.
A beautiful Chinese-American fantasy series with intricate layers. The first book follows Minli’s quest for the Old Man of the Moon. The next two books could technically be read independently and follow different characters, but overlap in curious ways.
Another immersive and gorgeous fantasy, this tale inspired by Fillipino folklore is set on a small island called Sanlagita – not a pleasant place to live. Lalani and her friends have many ideas to better their lives, but after things go terribly wrong, the dangerous journey to nearby Isa looks more and more like the best option.
Over the last 20 years, this slim historical fantasy has become something of a classic. While it’s truly more of an elementary book than MG, older readers can still find much to love about this story of Chinese-American Steve and his very special paintbrush.
They might not be for everyone, but our family has loved these quirky epistolary novels that combine practical real-life chicken farming advice with the hijinks of superpowered chickens. Biracial main character Sophie has a white father and a Mexican-American mother.
A darker (but still MG-appropriate) fantasy/horror story based on Caribbean legends. Corinne has always lived near the forest, but never entered it… until her deceased mother’s necklace is stolen and tied to a forest creature’s neck. The stakes get higher with each book in the series!
Maddy’s turn has finally come for a bayou summer with her grandmother, and it turns more magical than she expected! Technically the third book in a trilogy, but so loosely connected this easily stands alone, and the other two are historical fiction. Mild spoiler, but an especially wonderful pick for kids who love black mermaids.
An unusual example of diverse urban fantasy, this 578 page British novel has frequently been marketed to adults, and many MG readers won’t have the stamina to make it through all the twists and turns. Even adding it to this list is a bit of a spoiler for the first major twist. But fantasy lovers will enjoy the way this one spins the genre, and it’s great for voracious readers.
Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo.
Charlie Hernández and the Castle of Bones by Ryan Calejo.
Page-turning adventure about a boy whose parents have vanished in a mysterious fire, whose crush might suddenly be talking to him, and who is growing horns. Just the thing to make him fit right in to middle school, right? A mysterious object leads him to discover that the creatures of American legends are ALL true, and he has to navigate his own place in this newly magical world.
Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi.
Aru Shah and the Song of Death by Roshani Chokshi.
Aru Shah and the Tree of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi.
Aru Shah and the City of Gold by Roshani Chokshi.
(forthcoming) Aru Shah and the Nectar of Immortality by Roshani Chokshi.
This girl-centered take on Indian mythology started the Riordan Presents imprint off right. Based on the Pandava brothers story but with a female, modern, Indian-American twist, Chokshi strikes just the right balance of adventure and magic in these books.
Leonora Logronos is the youngest girl in a family of Latina bakers with a magical secret. In the first book of the Love Sugar Magic series, she finds out when the plans for Dia de los Muertos festival baking don’t go quite right. Can she solve her problems, help her friends, and become part of the family magic tradition – without letting her family find out she’s been sneaking around?
The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta.
Game of Stars by Sayantani DasGupta.
The Chaos Curse by Sayantani DasGupta.
Kiranmala’s parents are so weird. They’ve always been telling her these crazy made up stories about how she’s really a princess from another world, which she of course ignores… until a rakkhosh demon and two handsome princes show up at her door. This one skews a bit older as she has romantic interest.
The Savage Fortress by Sarwat Chadda.
The City of Death by Sarwat Chadda.
(UK only) The World of Darkness by Sarwat Chadda.
Like the previous and next series, these skew towards the older end of MG, as the themes are much darker, there are crushes and mild romance, and definitely more violence than I’d prefer for 4th or 5th graders. But Chadda wrote a MG trilogy based on Indian mythology before that was popular. I also wanted to included these since this list was skewing heavily towards female protagonists – boys can star in fantasy novels too! Unfortunately the third book was never released in the US, although I hope all three will be rereleased.
Two girls connect as they both read and write in a magical book that weaves a story across time and space. One girl is biracial (white/Pakistani) and spending the summer with relatives in Pakistan.
This unusual book is more horror than fantasy and suggested for older MG readers who’ve loved The Jumbies series. Hoodoo is a boy named after magic who can’t do magic, which starts off embarrassing but quickly turns deadly after a stranger comes to town. Set in 1930s small-town Alabama, this would be a great bridge for middle school students who enjoy historical fiction and want to try horror.
Mafi tends to evoke a strong opinion, whether positive or negative. These books are unique and incredibly fast-paced, brimming with magic and strange settings. Read an excerpt to see how you feel about Alice’s adventures in Furthermore or Laylee’s struggles in Whichwood. I debated quite a bit over including the second volume on this list, as it is considerably more gruesome than the first and introduces mild romance – not for younger or sensitive MG readers.
The original Earthsea trilogy and earliest published books on this list follow events in a magical archipelago, with each novel focusing on a different quest or journey. Though the protagonist of book two and the author are white, Earthsea is a world where most people have plenty of melanin in their skin. This universe has since been expanded to include more stories aimed at older readers. These three deal with tough topics but generally remain MG appropriate.
A dark-skinned boy with characteristics similar to autism tries to solve a magical mystery and keep his master’s shop running while also figuring out interpersonal relationships. This book unexpectedly made me cry twice on the first reading, so be prepared for some twists and strong emotions on Oscar’s journey.
This is a lovely fantastical re-imagining of the Nutcracker, a perfect Christmastime read-aloud. Most of the characters in this book are white Europeans, but the author is African-American.
Another excellent choice for Christmas, these focus on Milo, a domestic Asian adoptee with white parents. While his heritage is never ignored, the focus is more on the mysterious guests invading their home, a marvelous smuggler’s inn with a few magical secrets. The first book is more of a mystery but with definite fantastical elements, while the second mystery incorporates magic from the start.
Especially when we consider that many fantasy novels are set in imaginary magical worlds, it makes no sense for everyone to always be white. (Or straight, or able-bodied, or Christian, or so on.) When I first started intentionally reading diverse, I turned away from my favorite genre in disgust. Even when I finally started reading fantasy authors such as Octavia Butler, most didn’t have works I could read with my younger children.
In creating this list, I read and researched so many novels, even many that have not made it onto the blog yet. Some turned out to actually be historical fiction, mystery, science fiction, or even just realistic fiction that sounded like urban fantasy in the blurb. Some were problematic. A few were just okay and didn’t make it on to this list.
Many, despite being tagged as middle grade at some point, had too much sexual or violent content or too much adult language for me personally to consider them MG reads. And although I spent a lot of time searching, there were still some books that I just could not get a copy to read, and I’m sure others that I missed entirely. There definitely are enough books out there now to expand this list or write a second one! In fact, over the two years I was researching and writing this list and reviewing the books on it, diverse MG fantasy has seen an amazing explosion, so stay tuned for more reviews and hopefully another list.
I decided not to include individual books from a series unless the series was either diverse from the first book or had a diverse author. I’ve drawn from all eras, so this includes books from 1968 all the way up to today. It was important to me to include a mix of stand-alone novels, completed, and ongoing series. With the exception of some books in continuing series that I haven’t gotten to yet, these are all books I’ve read and would feel comfortable letting my children read (if they haven’t already), but as always, please read my full review, check out other reviews, and pre-read for yourself, because what’s right for my family might not work for yours.
I’d love for this list to be spread to everyone, however copy-pasting my work removes my motivation to create reviews and lists like this one, so if you enjoy this list please link to this page instead (and comment if you found this helpful). If you know of a great diverse MG fantasy book, let me know!
*I know Harry Potter is in contention since Rowling’s theft of indigenous stories for her recent North American writing. But those are the lists I saw… and here are some better choices. [2020 update – unexpectedly, she’s in even more disfavor now than when I originally wrote this post.]
** After much internal debate, I decided not to include graphic novels on this list. But if you search my blog, you’ll find reviews of some wonderful diverse fantasy graphic novels. Perhaps a future list idea. Some of the books on this list do have illustrations, but the story is mainly told through text.