“Social justice is the work of narrative reconstruction.” Kimberlé Crenshaw
Nicole Young shared this quote on a recent episode of the podcast Kidlit These Days on the topic of anti-racism, and when I heard it, I knew the next thing I wanted to write: a list some of the middle grade and young adult fiction I love that addresses racism and tells stories of Black lives. The fiction that is speaking to my heart right now.
“Social justice is the work of narrative reconstruction.” With this swell of discussion and interest in the work of anti-racism, there are tons of lists being shared with books to read, especially to help us white folks catch up and educate ourselves. The New York Times best-seller list this week for non-fiction is flooded with titles by Ijeoma Iluo, Michelle Alexander, Ibram X. Kendi, and more. I am a voracious reader of fiction and a slow, cranky reader of nonfiction, so my work right now is to push myself to pick up these titles to deepen my understanding of the issues around racism and white supremacy.
At the same time, stories are my favorite way in to understanding. Last week, I read Nic Stone’s beautiful YA novel Dear Martin. I picked it up months ago at a used book sale, but it sat waiting towards the bottom of my TBR pile. It waited, in part, because I knew that it was about police brutality toward Black teens, I knew it would be hard to read, and I thought I knew how it would make me feel.
But here’s the thing. Until I enter into the story, and get invested in the lives of the characters, and let myself feel all the feelings through the narrative, I don’t really know. Not in my heart. There are studies that show that reading fiction cultivates compassion and empathy (like this one), and this has happened to me countless times. I opened Dear Martin knowing that it was about a Black teen who is a victim of police brutality. And knowing that, I still wasn’t prepared for how I would feel when I turned that page. And then beyond the gut-punch of that moment, reading Justyce’s inner monologues and the conversations he had with his best friend, his mom, his Black teacher, and his white girlfriend all gave me an even deeper understanding, in my heart, about what we’re talking about here. What white supremacy, systemic racism, and police brutality mean in people’s lives. In individuals’ lives, in their lived experiences. I’m not saying that we can’t develop understanding and empathy outside of stories, and from the real-life stories shared in the news, in talks and forums, or in conversations with loved ones. But reading is another way that my white self can find some of this understanding, without a Black person having to repeat their traumas and experiences for my education. Nic Stone did the work once as the author so that all of us can read it, as many people and as many times as we need to.
So. This list is for people, like me, for whom stories are a way in, and for those who might want to put these in the hands of their kids. Some are stories of racism and struggle, and some are stories that are, for a white reader, windows into Black lives. These are also all written by Black authors. (Thank you to Rudine Sims Bishop for the concept that reading provides windows into experiences that differ from our own, mirrors to see our own experiences reflected back, and sliding glass doors that we can look into and then step through as we learn and grow. Read more about it here or watch this video to see Dr. Bishop explain it herself.) I hope you find something that speaks to your heart, too.
Books About Racism, Civil Rights, and Current Issues
Dear Martin, by Nic Stone
High school senior Justyce experiences the injustice and violence of policing in America. Part of the way he processes his experiences is by writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. The teenagers’ voices in this are so good, both in the serious and the lighter moments (like when Justyce finds himself tongue-tied in front of the girl he likes). Definitely YA, 7th grade and up.
One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams Garcia
Ten year old Delphine and her two younger sisters make the journey from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to spend the summer with their estranged mother in 1968, and find themselves in the center of the Black liberation movement there. Their mom is involved with the Black Panthers, and the book gives a rare look into the organization’s focus on feeding the community and educating young people. There are two more books in the series, which focus more on Delphine’s life than the political backdrop, although they do reference the war in Vietnam, women in politics (shoutout to Shirley Chisholm!), and Chinua Achebe’s pivotal Things Fall Apart. Middle grade, 4th-6th.
With the Might of Angels, by Andrea Davis Pinckney
In her small Virginia town in 1954, twelve year old Dawnie is the only student from her all-black elementary school to start at the all-white school on the other side of town after Brown v. Board of Ed, and she isn’t quite expecting the negative reactions that come at her from many different directions. Written in diary-style, this is a very approachable middle grade level, and could be read with 3rd or 4th graders and up. (The story also includes Dawnie’s little brother who is on the autism spectrum, which is a welcome representation of neurodiversity.)
Betty Before X, by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson
This story is a fictionalized account of Betty Shabazz’s girlhood, between 1939 and 1948. A significant part of the story is about her family life and personal challenges, but particularly after she moved to Detroit in 1945, we see racism and activism in this time and place through Betty’s eyes. Figures like Paul Robeson and Thurgood Marshall appear, and Betty becomes a junior member of the Housewives League and joins their work advocating for Black-owned businesses. The book’s backmatter includes a lovely, detailed author’s note from Ilyasah Shabazz (the third of Betty and Malcom X’s six daughters) that tells more of her mother’s grown-up story, as well as background sections on Detroit in the 1940s, the Bethel AME Church, and the historical figures and composite fictional characters who appear throughout the book. It’s a great introduction to some less-discussed pieces of history. Middle grade, 5th-8th.
Piecing Me Together, by Renee Watson
Our protagonist here is Jade, a high school sophomore in North Portland, OR, who attends a mostly-white private school in another part of town on a scholarship. Jade describes the experience of navigating two different worlds, building and maintaining friendships within each, and how it feels when she is presented with opportunities that seem to be based on a presumed deficit or disadvantage. The story culminates when a Black teen from Jade’s neighborhood is a victim of police brutality, and Jade finds a creative way to respond, and to link the two different parts of her life. Beautifully written. YA, 8th grade and up.
The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson
Summer vacation is pretty boring until Candace and Brandon find themselves in the midst of solving a generations-old mystery in their small South Carolina town. It’s a captivating, Westing-Game-esque read. The book includes their own experiences with racism, as well as the overt white supremacy of their town in the 1950s. Upper middle grade, 5th-8th grade.
Books Centering Black Lives
Ghost, and Patina, by Jason Reynolds
Ghost and Patina are both members of a community track team, and these two books in Jason Reynolds’ Track Series tell their stories. Jason’s characters and their voices always ring true, even when they’re kids you’ve never met. Couldn’t love these more, and I promise you’ll care way more about the outcome of middle school track and field than you’d ever imagine! There are also two more books in the series, once you’re good and captivated by these kids. Upper middle grade, 6th and up.
as brave as you, by Jason Reynolds
I read this book by Jason Reynolds before I knew who Jason Reynolds was, and had realized that I was reading almost no books with boy protagonists. The main character, Genie, is twelve, a city kid spending the summer with his older brother at their grandparents’ house in rural Virginia. This is a summer coming-of-age story that explores questions about bravery, masculinity, honesty, and family. (Heads up, there is a scene where Genie learns how to shoot a gun [at cans in the woods] that may be uncomfortable or upsetting for some readers.) Upper middle grade, 5th-7th grade.
Hurricane Child, by Kacen Callender
This is a beautiful, compelling read. Twelve year old Caroline lives on tiny Water Island, a boat ride away from St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. Her mother has disappeared, and Caroline is determined to find out the truth of what happened. At the same time, a new girl starts at Caroline’s school, where she is something of an outcast, and they develop an intimate friendship that becomes something more. Upper middle grade, 6th and up.
Brown girl dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Brown girl dreaming is really a memoir written in verse, though since it begins with the author’s birth, it’s in part pieced together from family stories and bits of her own imagination, so it doesn’t feel wrong to include it in this fiction list. It’s so gorgeous, and tells of her childhood in the south and her family’s move north, and also her journey from struggling reader to finding her heart as a writer. Middle grade with broad appeal, 6th grade and up.
Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson
This story is framed as August, the main character, remembering back to her teenage years in Brooklyn in the 1970s, with her three best friends. Their lives were just opening up before them, but (and I’m going to borrow from the jacket notes here), “beneath the hopeful promise there was another Brooklyn, a dangerous place where grown men reached for innocent girls in dark hallways, where mothers disappeared, where fathers found religion, nad where madness was a mere sunset away.” So, this is a heavy story, told with love and care. YA, high school and up.
Harbor Me, by Jacqueline Woodson
When my friend described this book to me, I knew I would like it, but I didn’t know how deeply it would get into my heart. Haley is twelve, and she is looking back on her 6th grade year, particularly the time spent sharing in a circle with five other kids, kids who went from being classmates to being family. They are together in class because they struggle in school, and given time apart to share because their teacher knows they need it. This book is gorgeous. Upper middle grade, 5th-6th.
Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
This book takes place in the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans, and ends the morning after the storm is over. The narrator is Lanesha, who lives with her grandmotherly guardian in the city’s Ninth Ward. Both have a connection to the world of spirits, creating a layer of magical realism to the story. We see the community preparing for the approaching storm, many neighbors leaving, while Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya stay in their home. The chapters describing the storm itself are like nothing I’ve ever read. Powerful storytelling. Upper middle grade, 5th-7th.
Stars Beneath our Feet, by David Barclay Moore
Twelve year old Lolly is building a city of Legos, and it is taking over his Harlem apartment and driving his mother crazy. He eventually gets permission to move it to an unused room in the community center where he goes to an after-school program, where he can’t quite hide it from the curious eyes of friends and foes alike. Building his Lego city is a therapeutic outlet for Lolly, who has recently lost his teenage brother, and also helps his forge an unexpected friendship with Rose (another neurodiverse secondary character well-portrayed). Upper middle grade, 6th-8th grade.
Miami Jackson series, by Patricia McKissack, and the Nikki & Deja series, by Karen English
I’m putting these together because they are not quite middle grade, but accessible series for readers who have graduated from early readers. (Magic Tree House is a popular series at a similar level.) Nikki and Deja are best friends who go on little adventures, navigate friendships, and learn lessons; in the first book in the series, they start a neighborhood newsletter. Miami Jackson is similar, a real-life kid dealing with real-life problems, like getting the strictest teacher ever, trying to make the all-star baseball team. Great for readers in 2nd-4th grade.
Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.