Book Recommendations: Black History Month Edition! 10 Black Middle Grade Books

Our Friend is Here: Black History Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of February, where Black authors are invited to celebrate being Black and Black books! Find the introduction post for Black History Month here.

In case you’re new to the Pond’s book recommendation posts, the recommendation posts are brought to you by Varian, the Pond’s very own Toadshifter who is knowledgeable in all kinds of magic! One of Varian’s ambitions is to get better at sewing, hence why whenever Varian has come up with their latest costume, they will always recommend a few books that inspired them!

It’s the last weekend of Black History Month, and we hope that you have enjoyed our celebrations and commemorations of Black literature. To wrap up the week before our last post tomorrow – and it’s going to be an amazing post; we’re so excited about our guest – I want to share some of my favourite Black MG books for today’s weekly book recommendation post!

Let’s quickly recap our awesome week, this week. We were visited by Daven McQueen, who talked about her debut and friendships, Joce had the spectacular Synithia Williams on Black joy and romance, I had YA fantasy extraordinaire Sarah Raughley talk about her upcoming historical fantasy, L.L. McKinney on retellings, anime, and her latest release, Nubia: Real One, and Joce invited Julian Winters to talk about his spectacular books!

If you’ve been a friend at the Pond for awhile, then you’ll know that I adore middle-grade books. I’m especially excited today that I will be getting an opportunity to scream about some Black middle grade books that I adore. So let’s dive right in – and if you love middle-grade just as much as I do, I hope you’ll add some of these to your reading list!

Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles

Wes Henderson has the best style in sixth grade. That–and hanging out with his crew (his best friends since little-kid days) and playing video games–is what he wants to be thinking about at the start of the school year, not the protests his parents are always dragging him to.

But when a real estate developer makes an offer to buy Kensington Oaks, the neighborhood Wes has lived his whole life, everything changes. The grownups are suppposed to have all the answers, but all they’re doing is arguing. Even Wes’s best friends are fighting. And some of them may be moving. Wes isn’t about to give up the only home he’s ever known. Wes has always been good at puzzles, and he knows there has to be a missing piece that will solve this puzzle and save the Oaks. But can he find it . . . before it’s too late?

Exploring community, gentrification, justice, and friendship, Take Back the Block introduces an irresistible 6th grader and asks what it means to belong–to a place and a movement–and to fight for what you believe in.  

I think about this book at least once a day. Take Back the Block is such a spectacular and phenomenal story that just balances everything in a way that feels so satisfying, real, and relatable. I had the pleasure of having Chrystal D. Giles visit us this year for Black History Month, and if you want to feel excited about this book, give the interview a read!

This was a wonderful book about activism – how it can be big and loud like protests, but also involves a lot of behind-the-scenes work, learning, growing, and working with others – and gentrification. I loved that Giles explores and educates both themes in such an accessible and easy-to-understand way through Wes’s eyes.

Add this book on Goodreads, read my book review, or read my interview with the author.

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callendar

Twelve-year-old Kingston James is sure his brother Khalid has turned into a dragonfly. When Khalid unexpectedly passed away, he shed what was his first skin for another to live down by the bayou in their small Louisiana town. Khalid still visits in dreams, and King must keep these secrets to himself as he watches grief transform his family.

It would be easier if King could talk with his best friend, Sandy Sanders. But just days before he died, Khalid told King to end their friendship, after overhearing a secret about Sandy—that he thinks he might be gay. “You don’t want anyone to think you’re gay too, do you?”

But when Sandy goes missing, sparking a town-wide search, and King finds his former best friend hiding in a tent in his backyard, he agrees to help Sandy escape from his abusive father, and the two begin an adventure as they build their own private paradise down by the bayou and among the dragonflies. As King’s friendship with Sandy is reignited, he’s forced to confront questions about himself and the reality of his brother’s death.

If you are looking for a story that has a whole and meaningful and honest depiction of what grief looks and feels like, then you will want to add King and the Dragonflies on your radar – this book is bittersweet and poignant, and a beacon of what it means to be true to yourself.

Despite being a short book, I’m in awe of what this book explores and with such profoundness and depth too, especially its portrayal of what it’s like being a young gay Black boy and coming into one’s sexual identity.

Add this book on Goodreads!

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée

Twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)

But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?

Shay’s sister, Hana, is involved in Black Lives Matter, but Shay doesn’t think that’s for her. After experiencing a powerful protest, though, Shay decides some rules are worth breaking. She starts wearing an armband to school in support of the Black Lives movement. Soon everyone is taking sides. And she is given an ultimatum.

Shay is scared to do the wrong thing (and even more scared to do the right thing), but if she doesn’t face her fear, she’ll be forever tripping over the next hurdle. Now that’s trouble, for real. 

This is the sort of book I hope all kids, especially Black girls, get the chance to read – this book is important and so empathetic to the challenges of growing up. I loved this story for how empowering it was, the importance of solidarity, and its genuine and gorgeous young girl voice.

I just loved this. I’m blown away by how the author has interwoven so many themes and ideas into this book seamlessly – changing friendships, family life, cultural appropriation, crushes, consent, police brutality, protest, racism, and what is ‘Blackness’. Readers will also love how Shayla, the protagonist, grows across the book! She makes plenty of mistakes and she contemplates her priorities and what is important to her; it’s a messy process, but also so empathetic and gentle in its development.

Add this book on Goodreads.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston

Quinton Peters was the golden boy of the Rosewood low-income housing projects, receiving full scholarship offers to two different Ivy League schools. When he mysteriously goes missing, his little sister, 13-year-old Amari Peters, can’t understand why it’s not a bigger deal. Why isn’t his story all over the news? And why do the police automatically assume he was into something illegal?

Then Amari discovers a ticking briefcase in her brother’s old closet. A briefcase meant for her eyes only. There was far more to Quinton, it seems, than she ever knew. He’s left her a nomination for a summer tryout at the secretive Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. Amari is certain the answer to finding out what happened to him lies somewhere inside, if only she can get her head around the idea of mermaids, dwarves, yetis and magicians all being real things, something she has to instantly confront when she is given a weredragon as a roommate.

Amari must compete against some of the nation’s wealthiest kids—who’ve known about the supernatural world their whole lives and are able to easily answer questions like which two Great Beasts reside in the Atlantic Ocean and how old is Merlin? Just getting around the Bureau is a lesson alone for Amari with signs like ‘Department of Hidden Places this way, or is it?’ If that all wasn’t enough, every Bureau trainee has a talent enhanced to supernatural levels to help them do their jobs – but Amari is given an illegal ability. As if she needed something else to make her stand out.

With an evil magican threatening the whole supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she is an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t pass the three tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton.

Seen me talking about this book before? Well, I’ll never stop talking about this book and how I think it’s just one of the most wondrous and imaginative middle-grade fantasies I’ve ever read. I love Amari and the Night Brothers with my whole heart.

I loved how imaginative and creative and visual this book was. This was the sort of book that ignites your imagination and love for reading – and I can absolutely seeing this book being the book that gets young people into reading. In addition, I loved that this was a magical school but mixed with elements of Men in Black. I loved the references to other magical works and mythologies and has paranormal elements too.

Add this book on Goodreads and read my book review.

Isaiah Dunn is My Hero by Kelly J. Baptist

A coming-of-age tale about a boy who discovers a love of poetry after finding his late father’s journal. Adapted from a story that first appeared in Flying Lessons & Other Stories and perfect for fans of The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson.

Isaiah is now the big man of the house. But it’s a lot harder than his dad made it look. His little sister, Charlie, asks too many questions, and Mama’s gone totally silent.

Good thing Isaiah can count on his best friend, Sneaky, who always has a scheme for getting around the rules. Plus, his classmate Angel has a few good ideas of her own–once she stops hassling Isaiah.

And when things get really tough, there’s Daddy’s journal, filled with stories about the amazing Isaiah Dunn, a superhero who gets his powers from beans and rice. Isaiah wishes his dad’s tales were real. He could use those powers right about now!

One of my first anthologies that I ever read was We Need Diverse Book’s Flying Lessons and Other Stories, which ignited my love and passion for diverse anthologies. Isaiah Dunn is My Hero is an adaptation on Baptist’s own story in the anthology.

Where the short story and this book differ: we see more of Isaiah’s school life, we see him grapple and navigate a relationship with his bully-turned-friend, we see Isaiah’s love for writing, and, importantly, we see a lot more of Isaiah’s home life. This book interweaves a lot of themes, which is what makes this book so remarkable: friendship, love for writing and the power of stories, homelessness, grief, and the power of community.

Add this book on Goodreads.

The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi

A trio of friends from New York City find themselves trapped inside a mechanical board game that they must dismantle in order to save themselves and generations of other children in this action-packed debut that’s a steampunk Jumanji with a Middle Eastern flair.

When twelve-year-old Farah and her two best friends get sucked into a mechanical board game called The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand—a puzzle game akin to a large Rubik’s cube—they know it’s up to them to defeat the game’s diabolical architect in order to save themselves and those who are trapped inside, including her baby brother Ahmed. But first they have to figure out how.

Under the tutelage of a lizard guide named Henrietta Peel and an aeronaut Vijay, the Farah and her friends battle camel spiders, red scorpions, grease monkeys, and sand cats as they prepare to face off with the maniacal Lord Amari, the man behind the machine. Can they defeat Amari at his own game…or will they, like the children who came before them, become cogs in the machine?

If you love the idea of a Middle-Eastern inspired middle-grade adventure that blends steampunk with Jumanji, then I think you will be delighted that The Gauntlet is such a book. This is the perfect story if you want to be entertained and excited from start to finish. Readers will love how this story and the mechanical board game of The Gauntlet of Blood and Sand will ignites imagination

The characters are incredible, their growth in the story and how the game tests their mettle, leading them to utitlise their strengths to beat it, is so affirming and a delight to read.

Add this book on Goodreads!

Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia

Seventh-grader Tristan Strong feels anything but strong ever since he failed to save his best friend when they were in a bus accident together. All he has left of Eddie is the journal his friend wrote stories in. Tristan is dreading the month he’s going to spend on his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, where he’s being sent to heal from the tragedy. But on his first night there, a sticky creature shows up in his bedroom and steals Eddie’s journal. Tristan chases after it — is that a doll? — and a tug-of-war ensues between them underneath a Bottle Tree.

In a last attempt to wrestle the journal out of the creature’s hands, Tristan punches the tree, accidentally ripping open a chasm into the MidPass, a volatile place with a burning sea, haunted bone ships, and iron monsters that are hunting the inhabitants of this world. Tristan finds himself in the middle of a battle that has left black American gods John Henry and Brer Rabbit exhausted. In order to get back home, Tristan and these new allies will need to entice the god Anansi, the Weaver, to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster Anansi always comes at a price. Can Tristan save this world before he loses more of the things he loves?

If you love the Rick Riordan Presents series – a series celebrating stories inspired by mythology from around the world, written by ownvoices authors, then I think you’ll love Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky! Inspired by West-African folklore and African-American legends, this is also a story about grappling with grief, Black masculinity, and an awesome adventure.

Add this book on Goodreads!

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Award-winning YA author Brandy Colbert’s debut middle-grade novel about the only two black girls in town who discover a collection of hidden journals revealing shocking secrets of the past.

Beach-loving surfer Alberta has been the only black girl in town for years. Alberta’s best friend, Laramie, is the closest thing she has to a sister, but there are some things even Laramie can’t understand. When the bed and breakfast across the street finds new owners, Alberta is ecstatic to learn the family is black-and they have a 12-year-old daughter just like her.

Alberta is positive she and the new girl, Edie, will be fast friends. But while Alberta loves being a California girl, Edie misses her native Brooklyn and finds it hard to adapt to small-town living.

When the girls discover a box of old journals in Edie’s attic, they team up to figure out exactly who’s behind them and why they got left behind. Soon they discover shocking and painful secrets of the past and learn that nothing is quite what it seems.

Brandy Colbert has never disappointed with her gorgeous and nuanced young adult stories, so I was delighted to hear that she wrote a middle-grade book! The Only Black Girls in Town is absolutely phenomenal – I’m partway reading this and I am just in awe of how layered this book is, in the ways that it explores its themes, while also being a very approachable and readable story about two Black girls who are so different to one another. Absolutely love and recommend this book.

Add this book on Goodreads!

Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson

All Amara wants is to visit her father’s family in Harlem. Her wish comes true when her dad decides to bring her along on a business trip. She can’t wait to finally meet her extended family and stay in the brownstone where her dad grew up. Plus, she wants to visit every landmark from the Apollo to Langston Hughes’s home.

But her family, and even the city, is not quite what Amara thought. Her dad doesn’t speak to her grandpa, and the crowded streets can be suffocating as well as inspiring. But as she learns more and more about Harlem—and her father’s history—Amara realizes how, in some ways more than others, she can connect with this other home and family.

This is a powerful story about family, the places that make us who we are, and how we find ways to connect to our history across time and distance.

After reading the masterpiece that is Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson, my greatest 2021 mission is to read every single book she’s written to date. Some Places More Than Others is a book I have sitting on my shelf right now and cannot wait to dive into this. A story about family relationships, connections to place (in the Amara’s case, Harlem), history, and love, Some Places More Than Others is going to be a book I’m going to love. I can feel it.

Add this book on Goodreads!

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

Zoe Washington isn’t sure what to write. What does a girl say to the father she’s never met, hadn’t heard from until his letter arrived on her twelfth birthday, and who’s been in prison for a terrible crime?

A crime he says he never committed.

Could Marcus really be innocent? Zoe is determined to uncover the truth. Even if it means hiding his letters and her investigation from the rest of her family. Everyone else thinks Zoe’s worrying about doing a good job at her bakery internship and proving to her parents that she’s worthy of auditioning for Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge.

But with bakery confections on one part of her mind, and Marcus’s conviction weighing heavily on the other, this is one recipe Zoe doesn’t know how to balance. The only thing she knows to be true: Everyone lies.

Want a middle-grade book that explores wrongful incarceration from a young Black girl’s eyes? Then you may love From the Desk of Zoe Washington, wherein Zoe herself discovers that her birth father might have gone to jail for a crime he never committed. Having to balance her baking internship, her own investigation about her birth father and friendships, From the Desk of Zoe Washington is balances serious with hopeful in this wonderful book.

Add this book on Goodreads!

Found a book that you want to buy?

Awesome! Thanks to Victoria Lee for this wonderful resource of Black-owned indie bookstores in the US and this list of Black-owned indie bookshops in the UK, you can now purchase these books from this list of Black-owned indie bookshops:

Uncle Bobbie’s (Philadelphia)Mahogany Books (Washington DC)
Ashay By The Bay (California)Semicolon Bookstore (Chicago)
Harriet’s Bookstore (Philadelphia)Detroit Book City (Detroit)
Cafe Con Libros (Brooklyn)Fulton Street (Oklahoma)
Brave and Kind Bookshop (Georgia)Frugal Bookstore (Massachusetts)
Black Stone Bookstore (Michigan)Black Pearl Books (Austin)
The Lit Bar (New York)Eso Won Books (California)
Aframerican Bookstore (Nevada)Brain Lair Books (Indiana)
The Little Boho Bookshop (New Jersey)The Listening Tree (Atlanta)
Books and Crannies (Virginia)A Different Booklist (Toronto, Canada)
New Beacon Books (London)Jacaranda Books (UK)
No Ordinary Bookshop (UK)Round Table Books (London)

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