Belonging is a big theme of many middle grade books for a good reason. Readers of these books—typically 3rd to 8th graders—are starting to wrestle with big questions like: Who am I? What group do I fit in with? Who are my real friends? How am I the same or different than my family? At the core of these questions is the desire to have a connection with others, or as academic researchers define belonging, to feel “respected, valued, liked, cared about, and known.”
Young people who are part of an underrepresented cultural, ethnic, or racial group often struggle with an added layer of “otherness” from their peers at school. Seeing non-white characters tackle issues of belonging and related challenges like social isolation, bullying, microaggressions, and even overt racism can make readers feel less alone.
I highly recommend these engaging and entertaining middle grade books with multicultural protagonists who seek a sense of belonging and connection. They are excellent “window and mirror” books that can help build cultural awareness and empathy. The stories also provide an opportunity for readers to see their own cultures and traditions celebrated.
1. Amina’s Voice by Hena Kahn
After her mosque is vandalized, Amina, a Pakistani-American, must figure out how to stand up for herself and her community while also blending into her mostly white town. Overcoming fears and discovering your own strength are big themes in this richly drawn story.
2. Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui
Nimra Sharif only ever attended a tiny Islamic school before switching to a “real” middle school. Luckily, she has her neighborhood best friend Jenna to show her the ropes … or does she? In this tender and upbeat story, Nimra faces issues many kids will relate to—navigating friendship drama, discovering new interests, and questioning your family’s values.
3. Dream, Annie, Dream by Waka T. Brown
This warm-hearted book chronicles the ups and downs of middle school through the eyes of a Japanese-American girl living in Kansas in the 1980s. Annie (aka Aio) loves theatre, basketball, and hanging out with her friends. She knows the food her family eats at home is different, and her mom doesn’t hang out with the other moms, but she’s always felt a part of her community. However, when some say she’s only given a role in a local production of The King and I because of her ethnicity, she starts to question who her real friends are.
4. The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora by Pablo Cartaya
Thirteen-year-old Arturo is ready for a fun summer of hanging with friends and working in his Cuban-American family’s restaurant. But, when a flashy real estate developer comes to town and threatens his family’s business, Arturo finds himself at the center of a citywide fight. Inspired by poetry and a new crush, is he setting himself up for an epic fail, or can he be the hero he wants to be? Fans of laugh-out-loud stories filled with madcap adventures, a strong sense of community, and a touch of romance will love this book.
5. Falling Short by Ernesto Cisneros
Sixth graders Isaac Castillo and Marco Honeymon, both from Mexican-American families, have been best friends forever. Despite their obvious differences—Isaac is tall, athletic, and the star of the basketball team, Marco is short, brainy, and star of the chess team—they have always supported each other through hard times. When they start middle school, their deep friendship helps them overcome challenges like bullies, tough coaches, and disappointing parents. A great pick for fans of sports stories that celebrate the importance of friendship and teamwork.
6. The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez
Twelve-year-old Malú is a Mexican-American girl who loves rocking out, skateboarding, and creating zines. When she moves to a new school, she finds herself at odds with the most popular girl and struggles to be the “good señorita” her mom wants her to be. The importance of being yourself and standing up for what you believe in are central to this upbeat and heartwarming story told through text and enhanced with black and white drawings.
7. Front Desk by Kelly Yang
Mia Tang, a spunky and clever 10-year-old, manages the front desk of her family’s motel. She and her parents left a large family in China to move to Los Angeles for a better life. They often struggle to pay their bills but enjoy a wonderfully diverse group of friends that have become like family. This is the first book of a series that captures the experience of many immigrant families in the 1980s (and today) with a huge dose of humor and heart.
Buy it: Front Desk at Amazon | Front Desk at Bookshop
8. Ghost by Jason Reynolds
High school student Ghost (aka Castle Cranshaw) is usually running into trouble or running away from things. When the track coach sees how fast he is, he recruits him to join an elite track team. But, to succeed in the future, Ghost must face the hardships of his past, including the memory of being chased by his dad waving a gun. This is the first book in a four-part series of page-turning, humorous, and powerful stories about what it means to be part of a team.
Buy it: Ghost at Amazon | Ghost at Bookshop
9. Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina
Confident and bright, 11-year-old Merci Suarez is finding it hard to balance family and academic responsibilities in middle school. As a Cuban-American, and a scholarship student at a fancy private school, she feels different than her wealthy peers. At home, her beloved Lolo seems to be forgetting everything. On top of it all, she just wants to earn money to get a bike! This Newbery Award-winning book offers a warm and touching coming-of-age story with highly engaging characters.
10. Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
During a time of violence and upheaval, Jude and her mother flee Syria for the United States, leaving her dad and brother behind. As she grieves the loss of her old life and navigates her new life in Midwest America, she learns important lessons about the true meaning of home. This beautiful story written in verse has poignant themes about seeing the good in yourself and others, even in the face of hatred and ignorance.
11. Partly Cloudy by Tanita S. Davis
With finances tight at home, Madalyn moves to a new town in California to live with her Papa Lobo. She’s not used to being the only Black person in her school and must deal with microaggressions while trying to make new friends and cope with being apart from her parents. When a natural disaster hits her new home, she learns the true power of community and the value of optimism.
12. Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan
This story is told from the perspective of two boys: Ravi, who recently moved from India to New Jersey, and Joe, who has lived in New Jersey all his life. The boys have nothing in common except they both feel alone and isolated. When they realize they have a common enemy, they team up to defeat the bully and discover what true friendship can give you.
13. Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres
Twelve-year-old Stef hates being known at school as the “Taco Queen” because of her dad’s beloved food truck, Tia Perla. As a first-15 Engaging Children’s Books About Identity and Belonginggen kid, she can get annoyed at having to always translate for her parents. But, when her family’s livelihood is threatened, Stef must step up even more to save her family’s business. Values of loyalty, creativity, and standing up for what you believe are at the heart of this book.
14. Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi
Yusuf is excited to start sixth grade in his hometown of Frey, Texas, and participate in the school robotics team. When he starts receiving notes in his locker around the 20th anniversary of 9/11 that say “Go Home,” and a local bully spews hate messages about his Muslim community, he must make a choice—do nothing or stand up for himself and others. This book tackles a tough and timely issue in a kid-appropriate way.
15. Wishing Upon the Same Stars by Jacquetta Nammar Feldman
Anyone who has moved to a new school will be able to relate to 12-year-old Yasmeen, whose family has just moved from Detroit, Michigan, to San Antonio, Texas. She is both embarrassed by and proud of her Arab-Christian family with their unique traditions, food, and dances. Unexpected friendships, including one between Yasmeen and her Israeli-American neighbor, show the beauty and wonder of humanity when we see each other as people first.
Looking for more diverse books to add to your classroom? Check out 10 books to read if your kids love Encanto!