Way back in 2017, I started working on a list of diverse MG fantasy novels. It took three years to compile the first list, and since many books on it begin a series, it has only been growing ever since. But finding a stopping point was also difficult because I kept coming across more books. Certainly there were some I’d overlooked or had not been able to access, but there was another reason my list of recommended diverse fantasy novels was quadruple what I’d scraped together five years ago – new releases!
We are living in a time when MG fantasy is rapidly diversifying. With the success of a few bold publishers and authors, others seem more willing to consider diverse fantasy, or are just interested in market share of an uncornered niche. Or maybe even, people have been pushing for diversity a long time and the environment is finally right. I’m not sure why now but this explosion of diverse literature is wonderful.
Today there is no excuse for a fantasy list that does not have even a single book with a character of color, let alone diverse authors. And there are enough books and series to make not just one, but many lists of diverse MG fantasy! I did make one change – on this list I included a few white fantasy novels with main characters who had disabilities, were LGBTQ, or had diverse living circumstances. This list also includes books in translation, and a handful of out-of-print but (as of this writing) still obtainable books.
“Up until now, we hadn’t told anyone about the Sight – at least not anyone who hadn’t already known about it.” page 59
Double Cross (Twintuition #4) by Tia and Tamera Mowry. Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2018. MG fantasy, 202 pages. Lexile: 600L . AR Level: 4.2 (worth 5.0 points) . NOTE: Review will contain spoilers for previous books in the series.
The final installment of a quartet about tween twins with visions of the future.
I’m glad I persisted with this series as this last book was definitely the best of the four. Honestly, if the social hijinks of sixth graders don’t highly interest, an older reader could probably skip ahead and read just this book without missing too much. All the major plot points important to this finale are summarized within the text somewhere anyway.
“I can still be sorry that you had to experience that. No child or woman should ever be treated like you, Suzie, and your mom were. It helps me understand a little bit why you think you wouldn’t be any good at fancy dancing.” page 9
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Heartdrum, HarperCollins, New York, 2021, my edition 2022. MG short story anthology, 312 pages including back matter. Lexile: not yet leveled AR Level: 5.0 (worth 9.0 points) . NOTE: This review is longer than usual since I discuss each piece and the book as a whole. Also see note on accent marks.
An anthology of pieces centered around one powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Despite having left school library life some time ago, I still get excited to see new collections and anthologies like this one published, because they are such important additions to the classroom. Ancestor Approved manages to take this to the next level by having the stories and poems all connected, despite most being by different authors. If it’s difficult as a reader to wrap your head around the many linkages and connections, just imagine the work Cynthia Leitich Smith did to bring this book together!
There are 18 different pieces by 16 different authors (and Nicole Neidhardt who contributed the excellent cover illustration is also rightfully acknowledged). Most are short stories although the book closes and opens with poems. There’s also considerable supportive matter, including a foreword, glossary broken down by story, notes, acknowledgements, and brief biographies of all contributors. As is my custom for anthologies and collections, I’ll discuss each of the individual pieces briefly before returning to the discussion of the work as a whole.
“Haroun noticed that old General Kitab himself, mounted on a winged mechanical horse very like Bolo’s, was flitting from Barge-Bird to Barge-Bird to keep in touch with the various discussions; and such was the freedom evidently allowed to the Pages and other citizens of Gup, that the old General seemed perfectly happy to listen to these tirades of insults and insubordination without batting an eyelid.” page 119
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. Granta Books London, Penguin Books, New York, originally published 1990, my edition 1991. MG fantasy, 216 pages. Lexile: 940L . AR Level: 6.9 (worth 7.0 points) . NOTE: This is longer than my usual review, as I had much to say about this book. The final paragraphs will contain content warnings and my overall thoughts as usual.
Twelve year old Haroun’s father has fallen into a pit of deep despair and he himself can’t focus for longer than eleven minutes at a time. This causes a problem when Rashid Kalifa the Ocean of Notions is expected to speak at a politician’s rally and can’t perform. Catching a Water Genie uninstalling the tap from the Sea of Stories makes Haroun question if his father’s stories might actually have an element of truth to them, and he is determined to set his family right.
I wanted to love this book but did not. Rushdie has good elements in an increasingly frustrating telling. The Biggest Thing for me, this Reviewer, were the Lots of Unnecessary Capitals (LUC) and the Frequency of Pointless, Unclear, Initialisms (FoPUI). Was that sentence nearly unreadable for you? Now imagine an entire book. If I wanted all the nouns to be capitalized, I would read it in German.
It was difficult to finish this book because of the random unneeded capitalizations in particular. If I had not already purchased this and the sequel, I would probably have given up. Eventually I pushed through by rewarding myself with a different book after every two chapters read. It is one of the few fiction books reviewed here that I have not fully read twice.
“I could still feel my sister glaring at me. But I forced a smile as Ms. Xavier patted my shoulder, thankfully without bringing on a vision this time. I mean, what was I supposed to do?” page 75
Double Dare (Twintuition #3) by Tia and Tamera Mowry. Harper, HarperCollins, New York, 2017. MG fantasy, 204 pages + excerpt. Lexile: 610L . AR Level: 4.4 (worth 5.0 points) . NOTE: This review may contain spoilers for previous books in the series.
Twins Cassie and Caitlyn Waters can see into the future, but they never anticipated a surprise grandmother showing up or a classmate taking on a life-or-death prank. Can they balance foretelling training, using their visions to prevent disasters, and their schoolwork without becoming social pariahs?
Finally some action. Although some MG fantasy novels appeal to a wide range and can be enjoyed by older readers or read aloud to younger children, this is definitely meant to be read alone by the target audience.
After being teased about the family legacy for two whole books, there are finally some answers (and more questions, there’s still another book). The future visions this time were showing a legitimately dangerous possibility and had real consequences while also feeling like something that could happen in middle school.
This book ends on what I’d normally consider a pretty heavy cliffhanger… if the result hadn’t been so heavily foreshadowed that it’s inevitable.
“I no more wanted Parz’s help than I wanted to be helpless. I didn’t want him – or anyone – to see me as weak.” page 54
Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell. Harper, HarperCollins Children’s Books, New York, 2013. MG fantasy, 328 pages. Lexile: 770L . AR Level: 5.4 (worth 10.0 points) .
A princess’ work is never done, even if said princess is visibly disabled, especially if said princess is the only heir to valuable property. When Tilda’s cousin steals her lands, she sees it as the perfect excuse for freedom and adventures. She’ll be free of all her onerous duties, and her people will be free of her and won’t have to whisper horrid comments behind her back. But even as she learns about dragons, the wild hunt, and other magics, she also learns a lot about herself and what she truly wants.
Tilda is a princess (and as a sole heir, will inherit despite her gender and disability) but she secretly dreams of living in a monastery. This is partly because she doesn’t know the realities of that life, thus can idealize it, but it’s also because of the realistically awful yet appropriate for the time period way she’s treated.
“Dante nodded, and Pao immediately felt bad for using her phony posh voice. Emma never sounded like that. That was her life, the same way this ones was Pao’s. It just felt strange that they were so far apart sometimes, like Emma was in a world Pao couldn’t reach.” page 24
Paola Santiago and the River of Tears (Paola Santiago #1) by Tehlor Kay Mejia. Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 354 pages. Lexile: 840L . AR Level: 5.9 (worth 15.0 points) .
Paola loves space and finds her mother’s fantastical beliefs embarrassing – there’s no scientific reason why she and her friends shouldn’t meet up near the Gila River. But then Emma never arrives at their rendezvous, so Paola teams up with their best friend Dante to mount a rescue that involves little science or logic, and a whole lot of mythology.
I’ve been wanting to read more Latine MG fantasy novels, and Mejia certainly delivered with this series starter. Paola is a practical dreamer who wants to be a scientist but knows it’s going to take hard work to get there. She has two best friends; Dante lives in the apartment above her with his abuela, and Emma joined their circle when she moved to the area from Colorado a few years ago. Although we hear a lot about Emma and Pao even talks to her parents, Emma herself is not present – it’s her disappearance that leads her friends into the magical world.
“We could have plenty of fun then, except that now we have two grown-ups telling us no instead of only one.” page 7
A Wave in Her Pocket: Stories From Trinidad by Lynn Joseph, illustrated by Brian Pinkney. Clarion, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1991. MG stories, 52 pages. Not leveled.
A collection of Trinidadan stories tied together by the narrator Amber, and her incredible Tantie who tells these tales to her and her cousins.
First I must make a note on the classification, because these books are the sort that would wake me in the middle of the night back when I did cataloging for school libraries. Joseph is retelling 6 different Trinidadan stories, but she uses the conceit of a first-person narrator, and formats them similarly to short stories. This method is very effective, but much like Kadir Nelson’s famous Heart and Soul, raises the question on where they should be shelved.
In fact, I am not the first librarian to feel conflicted by this dilemma, as the copyright page has the Library of Congress suggesting PZ for juvenile fiction, and a Dewey Decimal Classification of 398.2 under folklore. One can make a reasonable case for this book either way, so if you happen to be a librarian Googling, shelve this wherever you think it’s likely to circulate best, and don’t hesitate to recatalog if needed!
Luckily, I no longer have to worry about how to catalog these types of books and can shelve items wherever I please in my home library. This book contains fantasy, horror, and historical fiction within a realistic fiction framework, although most likely to appeal to students who like speculative fiction or mythology with some creepiness.
“The video shows me shot in the back. People knew. This is the first time the lawyer has said it, but everyone knew this moment would come.” page 131
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2018. Middle grade fiction, 214 pages. Lexile: HL360L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? ) AR Level: 3.0 (worth 3.0 points) . NOTE: this is a work of historical/fantasy fiction, not to be confused with the 2013 disability memoir Ghost Boy. Also, this review deviates somewhat from my usual style as I found this novel difficult to unpack.
Ostensibly the story of twelve-year-old Jerome, an unarmed Black boy shot in the back by a white police officer while playing with a toy gun – but really the story of Sarah, the police officer’s daughter and the only one who can see Jerome’s ghost. The ghost of Emmett Till also plays a peripheral role.
This is the fourth book by Jewell Parker Rhodes that I’ve read, and while each of the previous books I liked more than the last, unfortunately this one sorely disappointed me.Sugar was not my favorite on initial reading, but over the years has truly stuck with me and is now one I regularly recommend. The historical fantasy and ghosts of Ninth Ward wasn’t my cup of tea, but I adored Bayou Magic and included it on my first list of diverse middle grade fantasy novels. Ghost Boys returns to ghostly visitation, and I suppose I should have been prepared to dislike this given that her previous ghost story was my least favorite of her books.
“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.