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Great Diverse Reads From 2020

Put these fabulous middle-grade and YA books on your TBR pile STAT

Tina Cha

Published on: January 08, 2021

black boy with glasses reading a paperback

The year 2020 left much to be desired, but bookworms lucked out with a slew of great new releases over the year — and plenty of “stay-at-home” days to read them.

The year in young-adult and middle-grade literature witnessed several high-profile authors releasing new works. Suzanne Collins’ prequel to “The Hunger Games” trilogy, “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” dared you to empathize with the villainous President Snow as a young man. J.K. Rowling released the children’s tale “The Ickabog,” which was originally published online in installments.

Rick Riordan published “The Tower of Nero,” the fifth book in the “Trials of Apollo” series (which is the third series in his Percy Jackson universe that kicked off in 2005), and vampire fans were gifted a long-awaited addition to the “Twilight” saga with “Midnight Sun,” a version of “Twilight” that author Stephenie Meyer wrote from the perspective of vampire Edward Cullen.

Readers both young and old love revisiting their favorite worlds and authors, which can be comforting when the real world is stressful. But let's not miss out on diverse authors who have powerful stories to tell that are just as engaging. Here are six new books published in 2020 that you'll want to pick up and read.

clap when you landClap When You Land” by Elizabeth Acevedo

Two teenage girls are devastated by unexpected loss when a plane headed for the Dominican Republic from New York crashes. The accident forces a long-held secret to be revealed: While the girls share the same father, neither knew about the other’s existence.

Written in free verse, Acevedo tells the story from the alternating points of view of Camino, who lives in near-poverty in a barrio in the DR and sees her father only during the summer months, and Yahaira, who lives with her parents in New York’s Morningside Heights.

Why it’s a winner: Acevedo’s novel gives readers who aren’t familiar with free verse an introduction to how creative and expressive poetry can be, especially when it comes to evoking emotion and meaning in a story filled with grief and loss. Yahaira also grapples with the internal crisis of identifying with a country she had never visited.

Yes No Maybe So” by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed

A friendship and possible romance grow between a Jewish boy and a Muslim girl who bond while working on a state senate campaign for a progressive candidate in Georgia. The chapters alternate between Jamie, who loves Target and hates public speaking, and Maya, who is dealing with the recent separation of her parents as well as coming to terms with losing her closest friend who is departing for college.

The duo become invested in fighting a bill that bans headscarves, and the authors offer thoughtful and authentic reactions to racism against Muslims.

Why it’s a winner: Election news was inescapable in 2020 and may have piqued an interest in politics for some kids. This sweet and funny novel is a nice break from the harsher real news, and offers insights into Jewish and Muslim traditions.

almost american girlAlmost American Girl” by Robin Ha

Illustrator Robin Ha shares her immigrant experience in this graphic memoir. What Ha thought was a family trip to Alabama turns into a surprise permanent move to the United States. Her isolating experience as the only foreign student in a Huntsville high school in the 1990s is intermingled with memories from her past in Korea, where she lived with her single mother. Friends are scarce until she discovers a comic book drawing class.

Why it’s a winner: Ha honestly captures the adolescent fears of being singled out, the angry emotions towards loved ones and classmates, and a passion for art that provides a much-needed escape. While Ha speaks specifically of her life experiences in Korea, the common thread of learning a new language and navigating American culture as a teen while dealing with family strife will be familiar territory for a lot of immigrant families.

The List of Things That Will Not Change” by Rebecca Stead

When Bea’s parents announce their divorce, they help her cope by giving her a notebook in which she can write down a list of things that will not change, despite the big changes sweeping into her life. And there is a lot of change, including the scary illness of one of her cousins, her father coming out and his upcoming wedding, and the chance to have the sister she’s always longed for.

Why it’s a winner: Rebecca Stead is known for creating complex yet authentic young characters, and the central figure in this story is no different. Bea suffers from anxiety, goes to therapy and employs a variety of coping mechanisms to help her work through it. Stead also lightly treads on the topic of addressing homophobia through a young person’s eyes, providing parents with an opportunity to address these themes with their young reader.

stampedStamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

Written by award-winning author Jason Reynolds, “Stamped” is a “remix” of Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” and provides historical perspectives on racism from the past 600 years in an accessible voice for younger readers, who will learn about the nuances of key events and notable figures in Black history, including Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis and others.

Why it’s a winner: Some of us may be shocked at how much we don’t know about our country’s history of racism. We owe it to our families and to our neighbors, co-workers and classmates to invest in learning to be anti-racist. “Stamped” can be uncomfortable to read at times. Use that discomfort as a goad to initiate critically important conversations with your kids about racism and what it means to be anti-racist.

"Dragon Hoops" by Gene Luen Yang

Cartoonist Gene Luen Yang weaves a tale of basketball, family, and sportsmanship in "Dragon Hoops," which follows the quest of Bishop O’Dowd High School’s basketball team to win a state championship. Yang, who was teaching at O’Dowd when he decided to write and illustrate the tale, documents the team’s season by weaving in personal stories of Coach Lou (who was inches away from winning a state championship as an O’Dowd student) and players who come from vastly different backgrounds. In between, Yang also includes parts of his personal life and his journey to focus on comic books full-time.

Why it’s a winner: "Dragon Hoops" feels like an ESPN documentary, complete with a short history of the sport interspersed with a suspenseful retelling of some of the season’s critical wins and losses. Yang does not shy away from acknowledging some of the overt racism and sexism the sport has allowed in its 100+ years of existence.

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