In order for all students to feel a sense of belonging, it’s important that they see their culture—including life experiences, languages, and even socioeconomic status—reflected throughout their school community. But it’s also critical that students begin to develop an understanding of fellow students whose lives may look very different from their own. Culturally responsive instruction enriches the classroom experience for everyone.
Too often children from marginalized populations feel invisible. Literature that reflects a range of identities and experiences helps them figure out where they can fit in and feel valued, while it also helps other students understand them. Thoughtfully chosen literature supports the kind of inclusive classroom where everyone belongs.
Here are ten standout books to add to your culturally responsive library.
1. Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Lupita is a Mexican American teen balancing her life as a high-school student, aspiring actress, and the oldest of 8 kids when she learns of her mother’s cancer diagnosis. Lupita struggles to take care of her younger siblings as her mother battles cancer, and even her best friends don’t always understand. She takes refuge beneath a mesquite tree, where she discovers the healing power of words.
2. Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
In 2017, author Vashti Harrison’s popular Instagram posts became the basis for this charmingly illustrated book featuring mini-biographies of African American women who made the world better in a variety of ways. The leaders in this book are little, but they’ve inspired generations of kids.
3. Reaching for the Sun by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer
Josie Wyatt tries to forget she was born with cerebral palsy, but her mom won’t let her forget it. Her family’s small farmhouse feels smaller every time another huge house goes up around it. When a new neighbor moves in, he doesn’t seem to notice all the things that Josie thinks make her different and she finds her first real friend. This heartfelt story, told in verse, of a girl discovering herself through friendship will captivate middle-schoolers.
4. Being Bindy by Alyssa Brugman
In this funny and poignant novel, eighth-grader Bindy is struggling to bounce back after her best friend dumps her for a mean-spirited classmate. To make things even worse, her dad is falling for her ex-best friend’s mom and Bindy grapples hilariously with the possibility that her worst friend might actually become her sister.
5. The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake
This now-classic novel tells the story of Maleeka, a seventh-grader being bullied by her classmates for her dark skin and homemade clothes. Maleeka’s self-esteem is plummeting and she finds herself latching on to a mouthy, tough girl for protection. Her relationship with a caring teacher provides a connection that helps Maleeka accept herself and grow into who she really is.
6. Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Being the new kid in school is tough enough. But it’s even tougher when no one can pronounce your name. Rather than introduce herself with her real name, Unhei tells her classmates she’s going to pick a new “American-sounding” name. Her classmates suggest several options, but with encouragement from new friends, Unhei chooses her own (Korean) name, shares its special meaning and helps her classmates pronounce it.
7. Beautiful by Stacy MacAnulty
Young girls get constant messages about the importance of the way they look on the outside. But this sweet book reminds us that true beauty is found in being empowered and strong. With scenes of girls being fully and freely themselves, Beautiful encourages everyone to realize their own endless potential.
8. This Is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness by Joyce Sidman
Mrs. Merz asks her sixth-grade class to write poems of apology and they turn out so well that the class decides to make the collection into a book. Not only that, but they get the people to whom they apologized to write poems back. Through haiku, rhymes, and snippets of dialogue, the pairs of poems tell stories of the complexity of human relationships.
9. American Born Chinese by Gene Yang
The brilliantly spun tale presents three seemingly unrelated characters: a Chinese American student, the Monkey King (subject of one of China’s oldest fables), and a personification of the most hateful Chinese stereotype. They come together in a surprising twist in this action-packed graphic novel.
10. George by Alex Gino
When most people see Melissa, they think they’re seeing a boy named George. But this fourth grader knows exactly who she is. When Melissa wants to try out for the lead role in her class production of Charlotte’s Web, the teacher won’t let her because George “isn’t a girl.” With the help of her best friend, Melissa hatches a plan to not only be Charlotte in the play, but also make everyone else see her for who she truly is.
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