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Middle School Monday: The Big 4 (part 1) by Julie Stivers

MSM11I love advocating for books that reflect the wonderful reality that is our diverse schools and then putting those books in the hands of all students.  You too?  Awesome.

Sometimes, in our collections, books that feature diverse characters seem to often fall under four main categories that I call the BIG FOUR:  Historical Fiction, Biographies, Social Issue Books, and Award Winners.  [Please know, this is just me, calling these the BIG FOUR. You might think of them in different terms.]

I’m going to say those categories again:  Historical Fiction, Biographies, Social Issue Books, and Award Winners.  Think for a minute about the books on your shelves, in your displays or chosen for class texts.  Do most of your books with diverse characters fall under those BIG FOUR?

Books in these categories can be wonderful!  I have them, you have them.  I’m not demonizing those books or genresonly calling out the need for us to also look beyond those categories.  We need more books from all genres, formats, and time settings to feature diverse characterssci-fi, fantasy, realistic, romance, graphic novels.

I love reading Malindo Lo’s fiction and we can all do ourselves a favor by also reading her reviews, essays, anything she writes!  Speaking on casual diversity, Lo said, “because even though we need books that talk about race and racism, we also need books where characters of color can simply have the same kind of plot-driven adventures that white characters have all the time.” (http://www.malindalo.com/2015/02/recommended-read-the-third-twin-by-cj-omololu/)

Malindo Lo: “because even though we need books that talk about race and racism, we also need books where characters of color can simply have the same kind of plot-driven adventures that white characters have all the time.”

Yes!  Don’t you just love that quote?  Here’s to plot-driven adventuressearching them out, promoting them, using them!

Let me give you an example of two well-reviewed, diverse books by the same great author, Sherri L. Smithone that could be classified as BIG FOUR and one notthat are collected quite differently (at least in my district).

Flygirl (Smith, 2008) falls under the BIG FOURhistorical fiction where our teen is battling racism during World War 2.  Orleans (Smith, 2013), on the other hand is a sci-fi dystopian thriller.  In our large county school district, we have 60 copies of Flygirl, but only 11 of Orleans. Orleans IS newer, but it was published in 2013plenty of time for us as school librarians to have ordered this noveland it is just the sort of book we need to be collecting.  

I went through our own district’s catalog to search for how we are doing collecting those books that fall outside the BIG FOURwhere characters of color are simply having plot-driven adventuresto identify those that seem to have fallen under the radar.  If they’ve fallen under the radar in our county, they may have in your school district or your school, as well.  Regardless, let’s highlight the need to really engage in this sort of collecting, and if this post provides even one idea for that next order, even better!

Gameworld (C.J. Farley, 2014) is a great mash-up of video gaming culture and Jamaican folklore. Wall Street Journal called this book “The Narnia for the Social Media generation.”  Even more importantly, C.J. Farley wrote this book to “write a fantasy book that looks like the kids in the classroom my son goes to”. http://www.wsj.com/video/game-world-narnia-for-the-social-media-generation/C54CD028-3E08-40CB-885F-B372EBA6B16C.html

The Islands at the End of the World (Austin Aslan, 2014) is a trippy, post-apocalyptic sci-fi that features a Native Hawaiian character that has epilepsy.  Many of the books on this list feature great intersectionality.  The sequelThe Girl at the Center of the Worldcame out in 2015.

Shadowshaper (Daniel José Older, 2015) continues to garner well-deserved praise and recognitionand needs to be in every middle school library. Shadowshaper (which has an absolutely gorgeous cover) is this amazing magical thriller where the power of culture and community and art are actually woven into the fantasy. I bought a class set for my 8th graders and Older has recently announced that the sequels are coming!

Legend of the Mantamaji (Eric Dean Seaton, 2014) is an independent Black super-hero offeringthree in the series so far. An added bonus with this one is that the authorwho is a Hollywood producerhas created a live-action movie short to hook readers into the series. I love showing it to students: http://legendofthemantamaji.com/portfolio/liveactionshort/

Another great title with a pre-made hook for you is Marvel’s Spider-Man from their Ultimate (Brian Michael Bendis, first one in 2012) linestarring Miles Morales who is a mixed African-American and Puerto Rican teen. This is the most checked out book in our library this year and I love showing this fan-made concept trailer from Joshua Williams in conjunction with book-talking this graphic novel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbA5Tp3ZqB8   

We know readers are primed to like super-fab female dystopian heroinesand we need to be throwing a different book and setting into that mix. The perfect choice is Killer of Enemies (Joseph Bruchac, 2013).  In it, you’ll meet Lozen, an Apache teen living in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic America. Again, gorgeous and eye-catching cover. Are you sensing a theme here?  Covers matter!  We know that students make choices based on covers and I love seeing engaging covers that don’t appear to be hiding the ethnicity/race of the protagonist.  [If you aren’t familiar with Allie Jane Bruce’s great work on book covers with students, start here:  https://www.bankstreet.edu/library/about/book-cover-project/]. The sequelTrail of the Deadcame out in 2015.

The Living (Matt de la Peña, 2013) is a super-suspenseful post-apocalyptic thriller, but still with the hallmarks of a Matt de la Peña realistic fiction noveli.e. well-drawn characters and dialogue-packed scenes.  The sequelThe Huntedcame out last year.  I’ve lost count of the number of teens who have reported that this is the first book they’ve ever finished!

Stranger (Rachel Manija Brown + Sherwood Smith, 2014) gives us a cool sci-fi title, this one set in a future Los Angeles that looks nothing like our time, where teenage prospector Ross Juarez makes the find of his life.  This is the first in The Change Quartet.  The second, Hostage, came out last year.

Fake ID (Lamar Giles, 2014) is a contemporary Witness Protection thriller where “Nick Pearson”of course not his real nameis out to uncover a conspiracy when one of his new friends ends up dead.  Recommend this one to all your fans of James Patterson.  Or thrillers.  Or, you know…fans of reading.

Those familiar with Coe Booth’s YA titles like Tyrell and Bronxwood will understand how excited I was that she wrote a middle grade novelKinda Like Brothers (2014)that SLJ recommends for grades as low as 4th.  We used it as a sixth grade class text and it worked extremely well!  Look at that cover! I love itand there’s not that many middle grade books like it.

These titles I’ve shared obviously do not form an exhaustive list!  It is a tiny list…a start. And, I’ve focused on race and ethnicityspecifically African-American and Latino/a youthand again this is a tiny list within those parameters. A start. I’m embarrassed to think of all the authors and books I didn’t list here…Transcendence, Awkward, Bad Luck Girl, Otherbound, Ms. Marvel series, The Great Greene Heist, Border Town…I’d love to hear about your favorite books!

I truly do use that quote from Malinda Lo as a framework for collecting!  Not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but for all different kinds of diversity.  Differently abled characters need to have plot driven adventures, characters who identify as LGBTQA+ need to have plot driven adventures, characters with unique families or lived experiences need to have plot driven adventuresthe wonderful list goes on and on. The list should be our collections.  🙂

Julie Stivers



  1. Julie, this is such a helpful framework. From the title, I thought it was going to be about collecting outside the major publishers–but those are the Big Five! (And then we’ll use the Big Six research model to learn whether Big Five publishers are more likely to publish BIG FOUR books…)

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