The best children's (and adult) books featuring every kind of person.
I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.
“Tonight’s stranger had worn a suit like that, one of plain, darkest jet, but also unmistakably a uniform, along with smoked-glass spectacles. The sandy tone of his skin had been not quite the same as the tan burnish all sailors got from the sun. There had been something slightly off, slightly unnatural, about the way he’d moved.” page 41
The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. Square Fish, Henry Holt and Company, Macmillan, New York, 2016, my edition 2017. MG alternate world historical fantasy, 378 pages. Lexile: 810L . AR Level: 5.8 (worth 16.0 points) . NOTE: This book is a direct sequel to Bluecrowne and the review will necessarily contain spoilers for that plot.
Finally back to her ship even if unfortunate circumstances brought them there, Melusine Bluecrowne (call her Lucy, please) and family are on a particular mission of discovery for a young philosopher, but studying science in the midst of war is dangerous. Teen Maxwell Ault is that natural philosopher, determined to carry out his deceased father’s mission. Oliver Dexter is a new midshipman determined to prove his mettle on his first command… even though he’s only just turned twelve. As their three paths cross, well they be able to assemble the war-stopping engine? And if so, who will gain control of this dangerous weapon?
Well, we’re four books deep into the world of Greenglass house as far as blog reviews, and while the series as a whole continues to be more diverse-adjacent than diverse (with the exception of the twobooks on Milo), I’m sort of committed to reading them now and also happen to love interconnected novels that aren’t necessarily a series, so I suppose I’ll go on reviewing them.
I wrote a bit in my review of Bluecrowne about how I accidentally purchased and read this book first, not understanding that it is indeed a direct sequel to that book. The publisher has done their bit to confuse readers by trying to promote Bluecrowne as the third book in the Greenglass House series (when really it’s more of a prequel and stands separately from the Greenglass books), and then initially promoting Thief Knot as a standalone (when really it’s quite dependent on knowledge, characters, and such from the two Greenglass books and reads like a continuation of that series with a different protagonist and slightly different setting).
Returning to this particular volume, The Left-Handed Fate takes a different tack to any of the other books I’ve read so far. First, while they do make landfall at times, the majority of the book takes place on the boat where Lucy’s made her home most of her life. Second, it’s rather more historical than any of the other books. Bluecrowne also was set in the past, and Milo’s books delve into Nagaspeake’s history, but this book is set around the War of 1812, which is an actual historical event that gives the story a somewhat different feel.
“It was meant to help other children experience the joy of magic. To guide them. The book finds those with true hearts. Hearts that love. Souls that are kind. Minds that believe.” page 156
The Way to Rio Luna by Zoraida Cordova. Scholastic, New York, 2020 MG fantasy, 238 pages. Lexile: 710L . AR Level: 5.0 (worth 10.0 points) .
Danny Monteverde has been in foster care for as long as he can remember, but it’s been much worse since his older sister Pili ran away. For years he took comfort in the book she left him, but since losing that he’s felt like giving up on fantasy.
I first came across this book through a review on Charlotte’s Library, and was intrigued as there aren’t many fantasy novels about children in foster care (enough to make a short list, but certainly nowhere near the level or quality of representation one could wish for). Thankfully, in most respects this book solidly delivers!
“Hard to think that there might someday be a time when everyone could go back to ordinary things, like mending a torn undershirt.” page 22
Beast of Stone (Wing & Claw #3) by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by James Masden. Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2018, my edition 2019. MG fantasy, 360 pages. Lexile: 700L . AR Level: 5.3 (worth 9.0 points) . NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for previous books in the series.
Raffa finds himself imprisoned and separated from his friends – even worse, his parents are frustratingly close but in danger. Feeling alone except for his beloved bat friend, Raffa wonders how he could possibly escape in time to prevent the Chancellor from using botanicals and wild animals to attack the people of Obsidian, let alone figure out why she’s doing such evil deeds.
Linda Sue Park sets the standard high for what a fantasy trilogy should be. The first book was very good, the second stronger than most mid-series installments. I didn’t love that Cavern of Secrets ended with a cliffhanger, but after reading this book I can understand why Park ended at that point.
“It was like every single fear I’d ever had had gotten tangled into one huge knot. I wanted to hide under my bed and explode at the same time.” page 21
Xander and the Dream Thief (Momotaro #2) by Margaret Dilloway, illustrated by Choong Yoon. Disney Hyperion, New York, 2017. MG fantasy, 330 pages. Lexile: not leveled AR Level: 4.1 (worth 10.0 points) . NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the previous book in the series.
After his surprising victory, Xander is now fully the Momotaro. Having magic powers is great and all, but also means oni attack constantly, his mother had to stay away from him, he’s got a new foster sibling, and has so many nightmares he can’t sleep. So Obachan gives him a baku charm, warning to only use it on the worst nightmares lest the creature take all his dreams.
I enjoy stories of antiheroes or deeply flawed heroes or heroes who don’t want the power. Xander is definitely that in this book, but it’s entirely reasonable that a 12 year old who just inherited unlimited magical power (and is much better at using it than his father) might have that go to his head. Of course, oni are constantly testing him and watching for these kinds of slip-ups.
Luckily, the reckless energy and exuberant imagination that got him into this might also help him get out – with assistance from friends old and new, and if he can manage to get his dreams back. I’m not sure the target audience will be as interested in reading about a not-so-heroic kid as I am, but it’s refreshing when the legendary chosen one is all too human (and a person of color besides).
Dilloway’s second novel again follows a Riordan-ish plot, but full of references to Japanese mythology and culture. Kintaro, Fudo-Myoo, Daruma, and Kaguya-hime are among the featured characters. He also learns/remembers a tiny but crucial bit about his Irish heritage.
“It is easy to understand the child’s bafflement. One has only to listen to an animated conversation in an unfamiliar language – our own language is built of discrete blocks, everyone else’s of quicksilver. It seems as hard to grab a word out of a foreign tongue as to clutch a fistful of water from a pond.” page 87
Genie: A Scientific Tragedy by Russ Rymer. HarperPerennial, HarperCollins, New York, originally published 1993, my edition 1994. Adult nonfiction, 222 pages. Not leveled.
The story of a girl used for scientific research, the scientists who worked with her, and the way their interactions changed many lives.
The story behind this is so poignant that I couldn’t help wishing again and again that it had been a bit better told. Indeed, if the blurb had not interested me so highly, I would not have persevered beyond the frankly boring first chapter. This was a frequent theme as Rymer often went into digressions which, even when intended to illuminate some aspect of the story, were often poorly timed.
And yet… the story here truly is compelling in every sense.
“Genie” as the name chosen to be used in the scientific research on her, had a truly unique and horrifying childhood. Kept entirely in one room and mostly forced into one or two positions by restraints, she spent more than a decade strapped to a potty seat, eating only liquid or mushed food, and only able to move her fingers and toes. Her blind mother finally escaped from her abusive father with her in tow and entirely accidentally ended up in social services by accident instead.
“The woman flickered, her eyes glowing a bright white. The face Lucely knew as if it were her own was now contorted with terror.” page 19
Ghost Squad by Claribel Ortega. Scholastic, New York, originally published 2020, my edition 2021. MG fantasy, 246 pages + excerpt. Lexile: 810L . AR Level: 5.5 (worth 7.0 points) .
Lucely Luna’s father Simon might be in the business of ghost tours, but the way her Dominican family’s ancestors appear as firefly ghosts is a secret known only to her best friend Syd – who has a witchy grandmother of her own. But with the family finances leaving their house (and magical tree) in peril, the mayor acting weird, and helping Syd hunt for a spellbook through all the town’s graveyards, Lucely is more than stressed. Would a strange spell make everything right or will it add to their problems?
Ortega is definitely an author to watch. I appreciated so many aspects of this. Lucely is being raised by a single dad. This comes up a few times, especially as she still struggles with how her mother suddenly left without warning and has almost no contact with them now, but it isn’t part of the main plotline and isn’t magically fixed by the end of the book. Although I no longer work in schools, this is a problem I recall – some students are being raised by single dads (or even grandpas) yet few books reflect that reality.
Lucely isn’t popular at school, but does have a strong support network between her many ghost relatives, her father, and her best friend’s family. The family is financially struggling, but they still make a large breakfast for their extended family who are deceased (since virtuous ghosts can still taste food and enjoy eating).
“I got to thinking that poems were like people. Some people you got right off the bat. Some people you just didn’t get – and never would get.” page 29
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon & Schuster BFYR, New York, 2014 (originally published 2012). YA novel, 360 pages. Lexile: HL380L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? ) AR Level: 2.9 (worth 8.0 points) . NOTE: This book is intended for mature teens despite the reading level.
Two loner Mexican-American boys meet at the local swimming pool and strike up a friendship in the late 1980s. Dante is secure, if not always happy, in who he is, and has many talents while Aristole (or Ari) is struggling with the secrets and silence in his family – including those around his brother in prison and those he’s keeping himself. This novel takes place over two years.
I’ve owned this book for at least five years now. It came highly recommended and has won many awards. The majority of reviews rave about it, yet I DNF’d it over and over. Finally read it all the way through… and still didn’t love it. So the poor thing went on my shelf of books that have been read but will be reread, reviewed, and generally dealt with later. Well “later” in this case is 2022, since clearing off that shelf is one of my main goals for the year.
So I had to reread it with an eye for why possibly this wasn’t the book for me, even if it was so clearly beloved by many other readers. Perhaps then a review could be useful even for those who adored this story. As there is already so much written about this novel elsewhere, I’m going to break from my usual formats somewhat and focus mainly on how this particular novel very much didn’t work for me – as perhaps that might help some people decide if it might be a good fit for them or not.
“Raffa couldn’t help laughing. He didn’t know why he felt so joyful; there was nothing the bat could do to help. Maybe, he thought, maybe people just don’t like to be alone when they’re in trouble.” page 55
Cavern of Secrets (Wing and Claw #2) by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by James Madsen. Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2017. MG fantasy, 312 pages + excerpt. Lexile: 700L . AR Level: 5.3 (worth 8.0) . NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for the previous book in the series.
Having narrowly survived the adventures of the last book, Raffa and his human and animal friends now have important decisions to make about what to do next – about the Chancellor and her animal captives, about the families waiting for them, and about their own relationships.
Park wisely skips over the grim struggle for survival over the winter the three children spent in the mountains and opens her story as most of the trio’s animal menagerie are awakening from hibernation. Echo does not, which propels Raffa to consider returning home.
I was very impressed with how Park wrote Garith’s hearing loss. At the end of the previous book, we weren’t certain yet how permanent it was, but now we know that it’s long-term if not forever, which means writing a newly Deaf character. And Park does that amazingly well, from Raffa’s irritatingly slow and overly loud talking, to Kuma’s recognition that Garith can still do everything but hear and needs to have tasks and agency just like before.
“Worst of all were the thoughts. It was as if those thousands of fear-filled books all flew off the shelves of her mind and opened at once, as if every single word was being screamed at her, flung at her, piercing and deadly.” page 175
Quintessence by Jess Redman. Square Fish, Farrar Straus Giroux, Macmillan, New York, originally published 2020, my edition 2021. MG fantasy, 362 pages + excerpt. Lexile: 720L . AR Level: 5.1 (worth 10.0 points) .
Alma Lucas was devastated when her family left their hometown of Old Haven for Four Points. Never hugely popular, she had been content with knowing kids at school, spending time with her family, and exploring the natural world around – but with her older brother away at college, her parents busy keeping their new law firm afloat, and a new town she can’t find her bearings in, Alma is wrapped up in anxiety and having frequent panic attacks. Then the mysterious Shopkeeper gives her a quintescope and tells her to save the Starling.
This is on the longer end for MG, although fantasy does tend to run long, but the space is generally well used to unspool the various mysteries and slowly coax Alma into confiding in others and accepting help for her situation.
The kids get into a significant amount of trouble, mostly revolving around sneaking out late at night to ramble around town on star-related activities. It probably bears mentioning to urban or suburban kids that roaming the streets after dark has a different level of risk for them. Four Points, however, is the sort of sleepy town where traffic doesn’t happen in the middle of the night, and the town is small enough to be entirely traversed by kids on their bikes.
“Looking back, Buzz probably should have just owned up to the fact that he hadn’t written the blasted thing. Couldn’t be bothered to write it, because mythology was such a momentous waste of time.” page 14
Secrets of Valhalla by Jasmine Richards. Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2016. MG fantasy, 312 pages + excerpt. Lexile: 690L . AR Level: 4.9 (worth 10.0 points) .
It’s yet another unpleasant Friday the 13th for Buzz, getting bullied by Theo, trying to hang out with his best friend Sam, and meeting a new kid, American Mary, thanks to his sister. But when Buzz and Mary find a famous missing weatherwoman magically tied to a tree in the woods, they tumble in to a Norse god adventure with portals and time loops, talking squirrels and ancient runes. Oh, and the end of their world as they know it, of course.
There are some diverse MG fantasy books that have been on my radar for a while, but are just too new or old, either too far out of print for me to easily get, or so recently released that they are only available in hardcover and have a long list of library holds. If there’s one I haven’t even heard of, usually it’s not a good fit because neither the main characters nor the author are diverse or if they are, the book isn’t that great and I don’t feel comfortable recommending it.
So, when I discover a new-to-me series by a Black British author of diverse MG fantasy and get the first book and it’s perfectly written, I am beyond excited! Not only do I get to recommend Jasmine Richards to all of you, I also have two more books by her to read (and hopefully more if she continues to write).