Over the last few years, I’ve set a personal reading goal to read more #ownvoices stories. This hashtag movement, started on Twitter, is used “to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.” As a children’s librarian, I love to remind parents that reading fosters empathy and boosts emotional intelligence. Reading, especially reading stories about characters different from ourselves, helps us become compassionate people who understand others better.
Now, as much as ever, it is important to find books that provide a window into a world that is different than our own. In a predominately white community, like our own, they can be an especially important gateway to empathy. As you have discussions with your children about racism, turn to #ownvoices stories like these, from Black authors, that encourage anti-racism and teach readers (of all ages) compassion.
By Jewell Parker Rhodes
Any book by Jewell Parker Rhodes could easily fit on this list, but GHOST BOYS is especially timely. This emotionally-charged book tells the story of 12-year-old Jerome from Chicago. At the beginning of the book, Jerome is playing with a toy gun in an empty lot when he is shot and killed by a white police officer. As a ghost, Jerome meets the ghosts of other boys whose lives were cut short by bigotry and racism, including Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till.
This book is a visceral representation of the Black Lives Matter movement, and though I first read it almost two years ago, it has stuck with me. The story, inspired by the real-life death of Tamir Rice, handles themes of implicit bias and police brutality in a direct and honest way. This thoughtful book is a great way to start discussions with middle grade readers.
A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE
By Lisa Moore Ramée
Shayla would be happy for things to stay the same in middle school, but as soon as school starts she and her diverse group of friends are pulled in different directions and Shay’s older sister criticizes her for not spending more time with the other black kids at school. After attending a protest over the wrongful shooting of a black man by a white police officer, Shay decides to wear an armband to school to speak up for Black Lives Matter – in violation of her school dress code. Though Shay is shy by nature and usually hesitant to speak up, she realizes that standing up for things that are important to her matters more than following the rules. In her debut novel, Lisa Moore Ramée touches on a lot of powerful subjects through the eyes of a believable, young narrator. This book is perfect for readers who aren’t quite ready for THE HATE U GIVE.
By Jerry Craft
All Jordan Banks wants is to draw cartoons in his sketchbook and go to an arts school -- instead, his parents insist he attend the prestigious Riverdale Academy Day School. This means that Jordan has to ride a bus from his apartment in Washington Heights all the way to R.A.D. where he is one of a handful of black students and where his homeroom teacher keeps calling the black students by the wrong name -- because she can’t tell them apart. This book, the first graphic novel to win a Newbery award, deals very realistically with the microaggressions and overt racism that students face everyday in school. Likable, three-dimensional characters bring this story to life. This is a humorous and engaging graphic novel, but one that opens the doors to deeper discussion.
GENESIS BEGINS AGAIN
By Alicia D. Williams
This is the powerful story of Genesis Anderson – a middle schooler who keeps a list of the 96 reasons she hates herself, believing that if only she was light-skinned with “good hair” then her life would be easier. When her family is evicted (again), Genesis moves to a new neighborhood and finds a way to navigate the pain she carries by singing. This is a book that sensitively deals with very heavy subjects in an age-appropriate way. Genesis’ hateful self-image is a shocking reminder of the hate we often project onto others. Alicia D. Williams, in one of the most decorated children’s books of 2019, approaches Genesis’ story with a “day in the life” lens that gives readers an opportunity to appreciate experiences that may be different than their own.
FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON
By Janae Marks
On her 12th birthday, Zoe Washington receives a surprise letter from Marcus – her biological father who’s been imprisoned for murder since before Zoe was born. Against her mother and stepfather’s wishes, Zoe secretly begins a correspondence with Marcus with the help of her maternal grandmother. As Zoe gets to know Marcus, he proclaims his innocence which prompts Zoe to learn about inequality in the criminal justice system, and how, because of systemic racism, black people like her and Marcus are more likely to be wrongfully convicted. Another incredible debut novel that will facilitate conversations about racial profiling with middle grade readers.