Here are three stories of kids working against prejudice to find pride in who they are, as well as learning new skills along the way.
Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes. Wordsong, 2016. ISBN 978-1629797403. Read Ebook on Libby.
This slim novel-in-verse, told in the Japanese Tanka form, tells the story of chubby Garvey, who feels rejected because his father only wants to relate to him through sports. When he takes a chance on a new friend at school who encourages him to try out for choir, Garvey finds a new passion, one that gives him enough confidence for his family to see him in a new light. I could really relate both to Garvey’s horror at the idea of athletics and his joy in music, and the words are beautiful. I just wished that the book had shown him and his family becoming comfortable with his weight rather than his new passion helping him lose weight. But fat positivity is still new enough culturally that I think it will take a while to start showing up in middle grade books.
Martin Mclean, Middle School Queen by Alyssa Zaczek. Sterling, 2020. ISBN 978-1454935704. Read from library copy.
Being good at Mathletes isn’t exactly social capital in middle school, and Martin is terrified of losing the little he has when a school bully threatens to out him, even though Martin himself isn’t sure he’s gay. His single mother, sensing something is wrong, calls in help from Tío Billy. Martin’s always known that Tío Billy worked in theater and has a husband, but when Martin sees him performing drag, he’s found a new passion. But can he combine the rigorous schedules of both drag and Mathletes? Featuring great relationships with his mother, two best friends, and his Mathletes teammates as well as the obvious one with Tío Billy. I’m guessing that Martin has the absentee Irish-American father only for the rhyming last name – his mother is Cuban-American, and he’s described as having brown skin. (The author describes herself as white and queer.) This is a joyful, feel-good book. This would pair well with Maulik Pancholy’s The Best at It.
Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Little, Brown, 2020. ISBN 978-0316493819. Read from library copy.
Brothers Donte and Trey have the same Black mother and white father, and their features look similar if anyone ever bothered to look. But mostly people just see Donte as Black and Trey as white. And at their mostly white private school, Trey fits in just fine while Donte is constantly the victim of bullying that he’s then framed for. When he’s wrongly blamed for a classroom incident and gets frustrated about it, the principal calls the police. Donte has never been athletic before, and his main purpose in starting fencing at the local Boys and Girls Club is to get even with the bully Allan, who’s captain of the school fencing team.
But the Boys and Girls Club is coached by a former Olympic fencer, Mr. Jones, who together with twins Zarra and Zion, help Donte find a better reason to fence than simple vengeance. Meanwhile, Donte’s mother is an attorney who’s been looking for a local case to start challenging the routine criminalization of Black schoolchildren.
The opening scenes were so painful that I almost couldn’t read on – I am very tenderhearted and also the mother of a brown-skinned boy, so I doubt most kids would have this problem. But once past the opening, as Donte’s family rallies around him and he begins to find his way, I fell in love with it. This is great both for people wanting to learn more about being a Black kid in modern American schools as well as those interested in fencing.