Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan illustrates a jarring coming of age tale steeped in history. After a tragic incident, Esperanza is forced to abandon her family ranch in Mexico and join a farm labor camp in California. Deplorable work conditions spur a strike, but Esperanza must maintain faith that life will improve. For more inspirational, middle-grade fiction that kindles hope for a better world, check out these 10 novels.
1. The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis
After rebellious older brother Byron tests his parents’ boundaries for the last time, the “weird” Watsons, a middle-class black family from Flint, Michigan, embark on a trip to Birmingham, Alabama. They hope that their Alabama Grandma’s hard-driving, southern sensibilities will whip Byron into shape, while the rest of the family can relax and bond. But it’s a tumultuous time in American society. The civil rights movement is in full swing, and the south–much of which is still segregated and heavily effected by a bigoted mindset–becomes a literal powder keg. Curtis’s novel strikes a balance between timeless schoolyard jokes, the antics of growing up, and social injustices endured by people of color.
2. The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child, by Francisco Jiménez
The Circuit, though set in mid-twentieth century America, is still a highly relevant collection of stories. Jiménez captures the experience of Panchito, a young, undocumented immigrant from Mexico. As he and his family move through their 1947 circuit of farm labor camps–from cotton crops to strawberry fields and then carrot harvests–we see the plight of the migrant farm worker: constant moving, back-breaking labor for even the youngest family members, poor living conditions, and the constant threat of deportation. But even through tough times, Panchito and his family wield admirable strength and determination.
3. Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Newberry Medal and Coretta Scott King Award winner Jacqueline Woodson pens the story of her childhood in Brown Girl Dreaming. Using a series of vivid, emotional poems to describe her adolescent years–torn between South Carolina and New York during the civil rights movement–we get a sense of what it’s like to inhabit two worlds. The author grapples with self-discovery as she maneuvers between north and south, black and white. Her fascinating personal history helps young people navigate the process of growing up and adults remember childhood. Woodson covers a range of coming-of-age tropes including parental fights, finding purpose, making friends, losing friends, and living through social upheaval.
4. One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia
When 11-year-old Delphine’s mom Cecile left seven years ago for a new life in California, Delphine took responsibility for her two younger siblings, Vonetta and Fern. It’s summertime in the 1960s and the trio gets along just fine, bumbling around Brooklyn. But then, the girls’ dad unexpectedly sends them to Oakland to spend the warmer months with their estranged mother. Upon arrival, it’s clear that Cecile wants nothing to do with her daughters as she sends them to The Black Panther People’s Center each day. So much for their dreams of visiting Disneyland and meeting Tinker Bell. As the girls spend the summer decoding the attitudes of the men in black berets, they end up with something much more rewarding than an amusement park trip: new perspectives on the evolving civil rights movement, an ever-tightening sisterhood, and a better understanding of their unconventional mother.
5. A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park
In 1985, Salva is 11, and he is making the treacherous journey to a refugee camp. They call him a lost boy–one of 20,000 kids displaced or orphaned during Sudan’s civil war. On his journey across the African desert, Salva encounters every obstacle–exhaustion, lack of nourishment, armed rebels, hungry lions, and aggressive crocodiles. But he perseveres.
In 2008, Nya is 11, living in Sudan, and walking eight hours per day to fetch water for her family from a pond. When Nya’s only water source becomes contaminated, misery brews. Salva’s story intersects with Nya’s, providing surprising insight into Sudanese tribal dynamics and the future of the water crisis in A Long Walk to Water.
6. Wonder, by R.J. Palacio
Due to a rare set of genetic abnormalities, Auggie has a facial difference. He’s had 27 surgeries, and when people look at him, they scarcely make eye contact and struggle to hide expressions of shock and disgust. When his parents cheerily announce that he will attend Beecher Prep Middle School, rather than homeschool for the next semester, Auggie’s stomach churns. He anticipates sneers and rude comments, but he doesn’t expect the impact he’ll have on his fellow classmates.
Wonder is a wrenching, emotional tale that prompts us to re-evaluate our family dynamics, our often misplaced and misinformed anxieties, and our understanding of those with differences. Palacio manages to create an engaging, humorous narrative appropriate for middle grade and high school-aged readers.
7. Out of My Mind, by Sharon M. Draper
Eleven-year-old Melody Brooks is trapped inside her own body. Cerebral Palsy has taken her ability to walk, talk, and write. Unable to express herself, Melody’s doctors and teachers profoundly underestimate her abilities. One of her doctors wrongfully assumes that she has a severe learning delay, and her school enrolls her in a class that practices elementary basics like the alphabet every day. In reality, Melody has a photographic memory, an astronomical IQ, and she grasps high-level concepts easily. Melody’s gifts are invisible. But she’s got to express her talents somehow…
8. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Arnold is the nerdiest Indian kid on the Spokane Reservation. He’s got a lisp, a stutter, and 10 more teeth than he needs. His parents “came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people.” And his school on the rez is so busted, the students must study the same textbooks their parents read 20 years prior. After chunking his ancient geometry book in frustration, Arnold is suspended. But his teacher offers a suggestion that he takes seriously: Leave. Get off the reservation. When Arnold moves to a mostly white school, things don’t exactly improve. His friends and family from the rez label him a traitor. There’s not one Indian kid in any of his classes, and tragedy unfolds at home.
Alexie’s novel opens an important space to discuss white privilege and inequities suffered by indigenous people.
9. Homeless Bird, by Gloria Whelan
In Homeless Bird, Whelan sheds light on Indian culture and adversities historically borne by Hindu women. At just 13, Koly’s parents arrange for her to marry. Her anxiety spikes as she contemplates living in a world away from her family, with a groom she’s never met, in a village that is not her home. Things go from bad to worse as Koly realizes her future groom Hari is terminally ill. Hari’s parents arranged the marriage solely to collect Koly’s dowry and pay for their journey to the Ganges–a holy river that just might heal their son. But if Koly’s groom dies, her fate as a young widow is bleak. Regardless, Koly combats her worry and strife with a resourceful and resilient spirit.
10. Inside Out and Back Again, by Thanhhà Lai
Lai writes free-verse poems studded with evocative language. Her sparse, lyrical approach immediately rips you into young Kim Hà’s world and illustrates the experience of Vietnam War refugees. In 1975, when the war creeps into Hà’s village, she and her family are forced to flee. They leave behind centuries of tradition, bustling markets, and beloved friends to board a ship to America. After months of sheltering at a refugee camp, the family moves to Alabama. Sometimes Hà’ thinks she might pick war in Saigon over the new, foreign landscape of Alabama. She is constantly bullied at school by Pink Boy, she struggles with English, and she misses her old way of life. Inside Out and Back Again is a portrait of the refugee child, depicting unforgettable moments of sorrow, humor, and resilience.