With thousands of books to read, it can be overwhelming for parents. Parentology turned to Melissa Hart, author of the newly released Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens to get her perspective on some of the best diverse books for kids in 2021. Recommendations range from a variety of topics and experiences, and written by a diverse set of voices.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Parentology is an Amazon Affiliate, so we may get paid if you you make a purchase from one of the links. However, that affiliate program did not influence our selections for this article.
The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz
This middle-grade novel follows the lives of a tween and a teen in Guatemala who are forced to leave and make the dangerous journey to the United States because of threats of gang violence and the death of their cousin.
“[The author] has Cuban immigrant parents and she brings such sensitivity and complexity to this story. From page one she humanizes immigrants from Central America,” Hart tells Parentology. Although the author of The Only Road lives in New Mexico, the book is in the Oregon Battle of the Books pick lists of the year. Hart loves this book so much that she was delighted when the author spoke at her daughter’s school. “She brings a fresh and passionate voice to the debate on immigration and our country, which strikes me as particularly important right now.”
Lily and Duncan by Donna Gephart
The story follows one transgender teenage girl, and a boy experiencing bipolar disorder. The relationship starts rocky but eventually they become more than friends. “We are talking about two difficult topics [which are] incredibly relevant to kids today and it’s handled with such sensitivity and such compassion with no stereotypes,” Hart says.
Wish Tree by Katherine Applegate
This middle-grade book is perfect for children to better grasp anti-muslim sentiment in the US. “[The author’s] approach is charming, hilarious, and critical in building compassion for Muslim immigrants. [It emphasizes] the ways that really small actions that kids and adults alike can take to mitigate racism and hate speech and hateful actions.”
In the case of this book, Hart’s daughter has friends who are Muslim. Their family has heard of anti-muslim activities outside of her city. “We talk about all of this. We talk about how kids can make such a difference by getting together and standing up in favor of people from marginalized communities, supporting them in creative and beautiful ways.”
Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
Author Sharon M. Draper is an African American author who drafted the forward to Hart’s Better With Books, and who was also named a teacher of the year. Out of My Mind is based on her daughter who has cerebral palsy.
The protagonist in the book is non-verbal and in a wheelchair. She doesn’t have the ability to communicate her genius thoughts until someone gives her a computer for text-to-voice. The protagonist has limited mobility in her hands, but as soon as she gets that computer a whole world opens up to her.
“I think what I love the best about the ending of the book is that it is not happy,” Hart says. “The protagonist comes out empowered as hell but it is not a happy ending. It feels real. I’m excited that people may be reading it and may be talking about why she chose to end the book [the way] she did.”
Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
This is the story of three siblings, two of whom have been adopted separately from one another, and the different stories of each child. One is a sixteen-year-old who has just given birth and explores why she put her baby up for adoption. Another sibling goes to a really wealthy couple who are pretty dysfunctional. The third sibling bounces from a dozen foster homes, facing some of the racism that is associated with adoption and foster care.
“It’s a rich, complex book that gives teens and adults a great thing to think about regarding adoption, foster care, teen pregnancy, race… It’s a powerful book,” Hart says.
Best Diverse Children’s Books
While the topics in the above books may seem heavy, Hart notes there is one constant in all of them: humor.
“When I describe them they might sound like they are full of pathos but all of those books are tempered with wit,” she says. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I love them. I do believe that we can have both wit and pathos in the same book. It’s a really lovely balance that keeps kids engaged.”
You can find more great book recommendations in Hart’s Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens.