Book Reviews, Kids' Corner, Middle Grade

Kids’ Corner: Diverse Middle Grade Books in Review (Feb 2017) #DiverseKidLit


Hello bookworms!

As some of you may remember, I made it one of my 2017 goals to read & promote more diverse children’s books.  Today I bring you mini-reviews for a few diverse middle grade books.

*Books included in this post: Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai, Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper, & When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin


*Book titles link to Goodreads & author names link to their websites

» Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai


Why it’s #DiverseKidLit: Vietnamese-American characters; Vietnamese-American author; Set in Vietnam

When 12-year-old Mai is forced to take a trip with her grandmother to Vietnam to find out once and for all what happened to her grandfather during the Vietnam War, to say she isn’t thrilled would be an understatement.  I have to be honest here, I was very tempted to DNF this book after the first few chapters for the simple fact that Mai was such an annoying main character.  Don’t get me wrong, I can completely see a 12-year-old Californian not being happy about spending her summer on a wild goose chase in Vietnam, but the spoiled brat persona was a tad too strong in the beginning.  Thankfully the pre-teen angst is toned down as the book progresses. 


I am happy to report that I am so glad that I stuck with this book, as I think this is a wonderful book rich with Vietnamese culture.  I really enjoyed reading about Mai’s journey learning about her roots.  If you know me, then you know how much I adore learning about cultures and customs that differ from my own.  Lai writes everything so vividly that you will see the wonders that Vietnam has to offer, taste the delicious food, and even feel the humidity and itchiness of the mosquito bites… Hey it can’t all be puppies and rainbows, which was another aspect that I appreciated about this book. Lai doesn’t shy away from some of the drawbacks of Vietnam: crowded cities, overwhelming heat, the plethora of insects, etc. etc.

Mai goes through tremendous growth through this book, which I appreciated very much since I was not her biggest fan in the beginning.   By the end of the book, her trip to Vietnam really puts her life into perspective and she starts to realize what is really important in life.   Listen, Slowly isn’t an action-packed adventure, but rather a slower paced coming of age story that spans cultures.


The main character, Mai, is a 12-year-old but she felt older to me…. say around 14?   I know this is classified as middle grade, but I would say it is going to appeal more to an older MA to younger YA audience, say 12-15 year olds?  There are a few things mentioned (like developing breasts, thong underwear, etc. etc.) that I didn’t really think would appeal to anyone under 12.

  I listened to this via audiobook, which I think was very helpful since there is a lot of Vietnamese words included in this book, so I didn’t have to attempt to figure out the correct way to pronounce the Vietnamese words.  This was actually a pretty big focus in this book: language and the importance in getting it right.  I was really able to HEAR the differences in the different accent marks and how they can make the tone go up or down in a word.  I am not sure I would have fully understood had I read a physical copy of this book.  This isn’t to say that reading this book in print form is not the way to go, just that this was a particular strength of the audiobook.


 My Rating:

5-Star Rating System

*3.75 stars rounded up to 4


» Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper (Illustrated by Sarah Jane Coleman)


Why it’s #DiverseKidLit: POC characters; POC author

Stella by Starlight was a wonderful middle grade historical fiction.  I am so impressed with how Draper was able to write a book set in the 1930s in the deep segregated South that depicted the harsh realities of people of color during these times while still keeping it appropriate for her middle grade audience.


What a perfect book to teach children about life in the 1930s under heavy segregation.  This book addresses things like the fear of hate groups like the KKK, the separation of white and black children in schools, the fact that professionals could refuse services to people of color, and so much more that people of color had to deal with during these times.

Can I also say how much I appreciated that Draper chose to write a main character who struggles in school?  More often then not, many characters within the middle grade genre are all either advanced or the other end of the spectrum and are too lazy and don’t care about school.  It isn’t too often I come across a character who legitimately struggles in school, but wants to do well.  I think that many children will see a bit of themselves in Stella.  I admired Stella’s hard work and determination in her commitment to self improvement.

There are so many great themes within these pages: family, bravery, perseverance, community, etc.  A big part of this book is standing up for what is right, despite those who are trying to bring you down.  Another big part was the sense of community and how this black community was such a tight-knit group who stood together in the good times and in the bad.  It was very empowering and uplifting, despite the fact that this is a book centered around such a horrible subject like racism.


This would be a great book to read along with your children to open up a dialogue about life in the 1930s under segregation laws.  This could also be a wonderful book to utilize in a classroom setting, possibly for black history month, but really any time of the year.  No need to wait until February.

The author mentions on the back cover flap that she was inspired for this book from a diary of her Grandmother’s she found.  Her Grandmother was not able to attend school past the 5th grade, but that didn’t stop her from going out every night to write by the moonlight.  I love learning where author draw inspiration for their works.  I was interested to learn that Sharon M. Draper actually lives an hour south of me in Cincinnati OH.  Maybe I will get the opportunity to see her at an event in the future.


My Rating:

5-Star Rating System


» When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin


Why it’s #DiverseKidLit: Chinese characters; Taiwanese-American author; Set in China

What a beautiful middle grade book filled with Chinese mythology and folklore!  I was fully immersed in this ode to storytelling.  This book made me feel like I was sitting in front of a fire being told a story by a beloved elderly relative.  It truly was an enchanting read.


When the Sea Turned to Silver celebrates the importance and power of stories.  Stories not only entertain us, but also teach us important life lessons.   I was thoroughly impressed with how complex this was, but how effortlessly Lin seems to weave everything together.  Once I started making connections, I spent the remainder of the book trying to figure out how everything was going to fit together.  Do you like puzzles? When the Sea Turned to Silver felt like a puzzle.

I also adored the gorgeous illustrations included, and only wished there were more… I know, I’m greedy.   The illustrations really enhance the reading experience and help set the atmosphere of the story. 


Don’t let the fact that this is a middle grade book dissuade you from reading it, this is one of those books that can be enjoyed by everyone in the family.  Actually, this would be a wonderful book to read together as a family.  It also would be a fantastic book to read aloud in a classroom setting.

I actually didn’t realize that Lin’s other books, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky, had connections to this book almost like a series.  Now I am going to have to go back and read the first two installments to see what I’ve missed.   Obviously, reading the first two books is not necessary in order to read this book, but I loved it so much I want to go back and have the total experience.


My Rating:

5-Star Rating System


Have you read any of these books?

If so, what did you think?

Comment below and let me know 🙂







26 thoughts on “Kids’ Corner: Diverse Middle Grade Books in Review (Feb 2017) #DiverseKidLit”

  1. This is such a fun post! I love how you’ve highlighted not only diversity but how your interactions with these diverse elements affected you as an individual. Great reviews, Amanda! I haven’t heard of Stella by Starlight, but I totally just read the first page from your photo and got addicted. It is now on hold at the library. O_o You are a wonderful influence on my TBR~!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Late to the game, am just in the middle of Listen, Slowly, and the idea of being able to hear the pronunciation is intriguing, because I have no clue how they differ.

    I also agree that she seems older. I have a 12 year old girl, and these things are so not part of her universe. Maybe some of her more advanced friends? but thong underwear and 12 year old girls, at least in NYC are not a thing. She seemed much more like a 14-15 year old to me.

    I love the books you’ve chosen, as I really try and push diversity for my kids, because we live in a very diverse area. It’s so important. It’s how we learn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! I am happy to hear you are reading Listen, Slowly. Did you finish? What did you think?

      It is super important to me as well to read diversely with my children. Unfortunately we live in a predominantly white community, so I want to try and expose my children to different races & ethnicities that they don’t get the chance to be exposed to in their world.


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