Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Kids' Corner, Memoir, Middle Grade

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


Hello bookworms!

Today I’m back with another set of reviews for my Kids’ Corner feature of my blog.  I’m excited to share a few thoughts about 3 AMAZING diverse middle grade books.

*Books included in this post: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, & The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim


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

» Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai


For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family.

Why it’s #DiverseKidLit:  Vietnamese characters; Vietnamese-American author (immigrant); Immigration experience; #OwnVoices


Inside Out & Back again is told in verse, which is not only a beautiful way to tell this story, but makes for a fast paced read.  I devoured this entire book during a short flight.  I am in awe how Lai is able to evoke such strong emotion in so few words…

Inside Out & Back Again tells the story of 10-year-old Há who flees (along with her family) the war torn country of Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975.  Books that portray refugee/immigrant experiences are so important, especially in today’s society.  These types of books give us insight into experiences that most people have never had to endure.  It makes it feel more real to those of us who have been fortune enough not to have had to flee their homes due to war.  Can you imagine leaving your home and relocating in a country a world away that has an entirely different culture and language?  Lai really shows us what it’s like to be a child refugee, and the range of emotions that a child feels in a strange new country: confusion, fear, anger, frustration…

Oh, my daughter,
at times you have to fight,
but preferably
not with your fists. 

As I mentioned above, this is an #OwnVoices book.  Thanhha Lai explains in the author’s note that she too was forced to flee her home country and seek refuge in the United States (Alabama) during the end of the Vietnam War.  Many aspects of this book were inspired by her own experiences.  This book would be perfect to use in a classroom setting, especially in a social studies segment to look at the effects of immigration on refugees.  Like I mentioned, these books are so important, but not only for children…  I  wish more ADULTS would pick up books like this and develop some compassion and empathy. 

Whoever invented English
should have learned
to spell.


5-Star Rating System*4.5 StarsDivider2

» Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

browngirldreaming5-Star Rating System

Jacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

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


Set during the Civil Rights Movement, Brown Girl Dreaming  is a memoir about Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood growing up both in the South (South Carolina) AND the North (New York) simultaneously.  Told beautifully in poetic verse, Jacqueline talks about what it was like growing up during this era in two different states where the race relations were very different.  I found it absolutely fascinating seeing this period of history through the eyes of a child.  

I am born as the South explodes,
too many people too many years
enslaved, then emancipated
but not free, the people
who look like me
keep fighting
and marching
and getting killed
so that today –
February 12, 1963
and every day from this moment on,
brown children like me can grow up
free. Can grow up
learning and voting and walking and riding
wherever we want. 

Woodson sprinkles historical context throughout Brown Girl Dreaming, but it is predominately about her personal experiences.  She covers things like family dynamics, race relations, religion, school struggles, and so much more.  I would have to say that the biggest theme in this book would have to be family.  Her family is in every fiber of this book, helping her to become the woman she is today.  She even includes some family pictures at the end of the novel, which was a nice touch to see the people who were so influential in her life.

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up.  You have to insist
on something
gently.  Walk toward a thing
But be ready to die.
my grandfather says,
for what is right.
Be ready to die, my grandfather says,
for everything you believe in.

Brown Girl Dreaming is also very much a coming of age story.  Woodson shares with us her journey into self discovery & finding her place in the world.  Surprisingly enough, there were even points in the book where I found myself relating to Jacqueline’s experiences.  Personally, I was very much able to relate to the fact that Jacqueline always felt like she was living in her older sister’s shadow.  I too have an older sibling who was very gifted and the model student.  Unfortunately things did not come as easy to me as they did to him.  I had to work twice as hard to accomplish the things that came naturally to him.  I love that Woodson shares about her struggles in school because I think many children will be able to relate.  It also shows those same children that you can overcome your struggles & reach your dreams despite them.

Even though so many people think my sister and I
are twins,
I am the other Woodson, following behind her each year
into the same classroom she had the year before…
…You look so much like her and she is SO brilliant!
then wait for my brilliance to light up
the classroom.  Wait for my arm to fly into
the air with ever answer.  Wait for my pencil
to move quickly through the too-easy math problems
on the mimeographed sheet.  Wait for me to stand
before class, easily reading words even high school
students stumble over.  And they keep waiting.
And waiting
and waiting
and waiting

The writing.  Wow.  I don’t know how she does it, but Jacqueline has the ability to make the most ordinary childhood occurrences come alive on the page with her beautiful prose.  It really amazes me how Woodson is able to write something so powerful & poignant in so few words.  This book was absolutely mesmerizing.

At night, every living thing competes
for a change to be heard.
The crickets
and frogs call out.
Sometimes, there’s the soft
who-whoo of an owl lost
amid the pines.
Even the dogs won’t rest until
they’ve howled
at the moon.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a book that can be enjoyed by adults & children alike.  It can absolutely be utilized in a classroom setting in many ways, but would be most beneficial in a unit on poetry or a unit on the Civil Rights Movement.


5-Star Rating System

*4.5 Stars


» The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim


In the village of Huanan, in medieval China, the deity that rules is the Great Huli Jing. Though twelve-year-old Li Jing’s name is a different character entirely from the Huli Jing, the sound is close enough to provide constant teasing-but maybe is also a source of greater destiny and power. Jing’s life isn’t easy. Her father is a poor tea farmer, and her family has come to the conclusion that in order for everyone to survive, Jing must be sacrificed for the common good. She is sold as a bride to the Koh family, where she will be the wife and nursemaid to their three-year-old son, Ju’nan. It’s not fair, and Jing feels this bitterly, especially when she is treated poorly by the Koh’s, and sold yet again into a worse situation that leads Jing to believe her only option is to run away, and find home again. With the help of a spider who weaves Jing a means to escape, and a nightingale who helps her find her way, Jing embarks on a quest back to Huanan–and to herself.

Why it’s #DiverseKidLit: Set in China; Chinese characters; Chinese author; #OwnVoices


Set in medieval China, The Crystal Ribbon is the story of Jing, a 12 year old girl who is sold into an arranged marriage into the Koh family to be the wife and nursemaid to a 3-year-old little boy.  Life with the Koh’s is not a happy existence, but things get even worse when the Koh’s sell Jing into an even worse situation in order to pay off some debts… Jing decides she must escape and find her way back to her family and the home she grew up in.

This book is a  “Odyssey story” where the character is on a journey home, but keeps running into challenges that the character must overcome to reach their destination.   Even though Jing’s story is bleak at parts, there is always a underlying feeling of hope throughout.  Jing is such a wonderful character.  She’s strong, brave, resourceful, and kind…. most of all she is tenacious.  She does not just sit back and accept the hand that she has been dealt, but rather she knows she must be the one to change her fate.  You will find yourself rooting for Jing every step of the way.

 I adored the medieval China setting woven together with the fantasy elements drawn from Chinese folklore.  The historical-fantasy fusion here just worked so well!  If you are at all interested in Chinese culture and/or folklore, this book is going to be right up your alley.  Actually, I think this is a must read for fans of Grace Lin.  Do you really need any more incentive to give this one a go?

Strength of character is never with those who blindly follow. You need to be able to make your own choices and walk your own path

I cannot believe this is a debut novel.  Not only is it beautifully written, but the plot is also well executed… Typically I see one or the other with debut novels, but Lim seems to achieve both right out of the gate.  I cannot wait to see what this author will put out next.   It breaks my heart that this book has not received the attention it deserves, as it is definitely one of my favorite reads of 2017.  I assume this has to do with the fact that this is a debut author, therefore she is not well known yet.  If you give this book a go, I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

Due to some of the content, I feel this book may be a little mature for younger middle grade readers… Personally, I feel The Crystal Ribbon is more appropriate for an older MG to YA audience.


5-Star Rating System



Have you read any of these books?  If so, what did you think?

Do you have any diverse middle grade book recommendations?

Comment below and let me know 🙂

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

  1. This is such a lovely feature, Amanda, and those sounds like three wonderful books. I’ve been meaning to pick up Brown Girl Dreaming for a really long while – it’s one of those hallmarks of diverse children’s literature, isn’t it? 🙂

    ~ Aimal @ Bookshelves & Paperbacks

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Aimal! I love this feature so much, and love spreading the word about diverse children’s books. Brown Girl Dreaming is definitely a figure head in diverse children’s literature. I think one of the best things about these books (as well as many of the diverse children’s books out there) is that adults can learn a lot from them & enjoy them just as much as children.


  2. !! I love these books! I’ve read Inside Out and Back Again and I completely agree with your review here. It should certainly be read by adults to foster more empathy for immigrants and “the Other”. Brown Girl Dreaming is on my bookshelf at home, but it keeps getting passed over for other books. I don’t know why, honestly… It might be the verse? I really have to be in the right mood for it, and I don’t want to struggle through it because I’m not in the right frame of mind.

    Then there is The Crystal Ribbon. I will admit, I didn’t read your review above because I just started it last night! I am completely captivated by Lim’s writing style. I would have stayed up later to read it, but alas, I was more or less falling asleep in my book.

    Keep these posts coming! They make me super happy. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading Jackie! I completely understand what you mean by being in the mood to read books written in verse. I feel like even though they are shorter, sometimes you have to think about the words a little more & what they mean…if that makes sense.

      I was so excited to see all of your status updates on The Crystal Ribbon. I get so nervous when someone picks up a book that I’ve recommended… It’s a real nail bitter until I know if that person is enjoying it or not lol

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That definitely makes sense. I’m used to reading in prose, so when verse pops up its head I tend to shy away. But I love all the books I’ve read in verse, too. *shrugs* Who knows what the psychological barrier is there. But Brown Girl Dreaming is high up on my TBR. I can’t wait to get to it.

        I ADORE The Crystal Ribbon. I cannot wait to write the review! I have so much to say. And I finally just read your review above– Yes! I was thinking Odyssey the whole time. It’s so heartbreaking, but it’s beautiful. I think that Lim did a great job making this book contain feminist themes without completely disregarding the culture and history of that era in China.


  3. Um, so I need the Crystal Ribbon in my life. FIRSTLY. That cover. SECONDLY. Medieval China. THIRDLY. It sounds like it’s about a pretty important topic. I swear I have an unending pile of middle grade fiction to die for because of you haha

    Liked by 1 person

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