Book recommendations for 9-11 yr olds
June 21, 2022 4:42 PM   Subscribe

I'd love to hear about great fiction books for grade 4/5 (U.S.) children, ideally having some sort of historical aspect and a connection to a social justice theme. Bonus if it involves a connection to the theme of geology (e.g. characters working at a quarry?) I have Counting on Grace and Bread and Roses, Too if that gives you an idea of what I am thinking about. I would love to hear about more books in that vein.
posted by transient to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is an absolute classic that haunts me to this day. (Note historically-appropriate use of the n-word by a Black author.)
posted by praemunire at 4:51 PM on June 21 [3 favorites]

I think you want the Dear America and Dear Canada series of historical fiction books. Lots of great history, lots of social justice. They also have the benefit of being written by several different authors so if one book doesn’t float your boat there’s probably another that will. If you look at the descriptions of the plots, there is probably something in there that will meet your geology requirements.
posted by corey flood at 4:51 PM on June 21 [3 favorites]

My favorite middle grades book is When You Reach Me. Set in 1970s NYC, hits your social justice theme request but I can't help you on geology. It's a lovely baby sci fi book.

Very very strong second for the Roll of Thunder rec above. I grew up in Georgia and reading the Logan family books saved me from a lot of the absorbed nastiness that comes from growing up white in the south. I didn't realize how much of an effect those books had on me until I re read Roll of Thunder last year.

You should comb through the list of Newbery honors and noms--absolutely perfect for this age level.
posted by phunniemee at 4:55 PM on June 21 [1 favorite]

Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House series of middle-grade novels is about an Ojibwe family over several generations, and has a nice balance of daily life/family stuff and issues of displacement/conflict with white settlers. I found them engaging for both kids and adults, and scratched the Little House on the Prairie itch with significantly less problematic racial and settler-colonial stuff. Not a lot of geology, but the physical landscape plays important roles, and there's a lot of stuff for kids who might be interested in survival skills, medicinal plants, or intense boat journeys.
posted by juliapangolin at 5:04 PM on June 21 [4 favorites]

City of Grit and Gold tells about a 12 year old Jewish girl in Chicago torn between her hat-shop-owning dad and labor activist uncle in the days leading up to the Haymarket Massacre. I liked it! It was written by a former coworker of mine.
posted by momus_window at 5:04 PM on June 21

I am a school librarian and I love making lists of books, but I would want to know a little bit more of what you will be using the books for in order to make the best possible suggestions. However, I will make a few here. Feel free to dm me if you would like more help- I am happy to hear more and point you in the direction of places to look for books! I generally use's website to compile lists- they are a book vendor for school libraries, and I pulled all of the info about the books I am recommending from their website.

ONE CRAZY SUMMER by RITA WILLIAMS-GARCIA, published in 2010. "In the summer of 1968, 11-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters travel from Brooklyn to Oakland, California, to spend a month with the mother they barely know. Much to their surprise, they arrive to a cold welcome and discover that their mother, a dedicated poet and printer, is resentful of the intrusion of their visit and wants them to attend a nearby Black Panther summer camp. Left without an option, Delphine attempts to make the best of things while attending the day camp but remains skeptical of the hateful words spouted by the camp instructors. “Delphine's growing awareness of injustice on a personal and universal level is smoothly woven into the story in poetic language that will stimulate and move readers”'

REFUGEE by ALAN GRATZ, published in 2017 "Three children. Three different countries. Three harrowing stories of survival under the shadow of war. Josef's Jewish family flees Nazi Germany in 1938. Isabel's family braves the ocean in a homemade raft in 1994 in the hopes of a better life in America. And in 2015, Mahmoud's family hopes to find refuge from the war raging in Syria. Each protagonist navigates the uncertainty of leaving behind the only life they've ever known, revealing the fear and heartache associated with being a refugee. Author "Gratz accomplishes a feat that is nothing short of brilliant, offering a skillfully wrought narrative laced with global and intergenerational reverberations that signal hope for the future" (KIRK)."

INDIAN NO MORE by CHARLENE WILLIN MCMANIS, published in 2019. "After her father signs up for the Indian Relocation Program and uproots the family to Los Angeles, twelve-year-old Regina Petit struggles to make sense of life off the reservation, the racism she discovers in her diverse neighborhood, and her identity as an Umpqua native."

PRAIRIE LOTUS by LINDA SUE PARK, published in 2020. "Fourteen-year-old Hanna, who is half Chinese, settles with her father in the frontier town of LaForge, Dakota Territory in 1880. She hopes she can attend school before becoming a dressmaker in her father's dry goods shop, but first must deal with racism from the local townspeople who are afraid to have their children attend class with her, as well as, grief from the loss of her mother, as she and her father struggle to find a place where they will be accepted."

MAIZY CHEN'S LAST CHANCE by LISA YEE, published 2021. "It’s summer when 11-year-old Maizy first visits her grandparents’ home in Last Chance, Minnesota, and their family business, the Golden Palace restaurant, founded by Lucky, her grandfather’s grandfather, in 1886. For several months, Maizy helps out at the restaurant and, in her grandparents’ home, looks after Opa, her grandfather, whose health is failing. She’s fascinated by his stories about Lucky, whose experiences as a cook’s assistant in San Francisco, a worker on the transcontinental railroad, and a businessman in Last Chance resembled those of many Asian immigrants. A racist attack on her grandparents’ restaurant stuns Maizy and drives her to investigate the mystery. She also reaches out to the descendants of the “paper sons” Lucky helped years ago. The novel features many convincing characters with complex relationships, from Opa’s long-standing feud with his childhood best friend to insights about Maizy’s mother, revealed only when she returns to her roots. In the first-person narrative, Maizy struggles to understand her mother and her grandparents, observing their interactions and learning about their experiences. While the mystery element adds a dimension to the plot, the real story here lies in Maizy awakening to her ancestral heritage and choosing to make it part of her life. A moving, multilayered family narrative."
posted by momochan at 5:50 PM on June 21 [5 favorites]

Clean Getaway by Nic Stone ties in with US history and social justice topics.

A Secret of Birds and Bone by Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Starboard by Nicola Skinner, both of which consider European history, may also be of interest.

I would also highly recommend Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker, which is a great story with a great deal of LGBT+ representation.
posted by sueinnyc at 5:54 PM on June 21

A Wizard of Earthsea deals with a lot of yiur requested themes things in an allegorical, world-building way, if that is useful.
posted by Jon_Evil at 6:38 PM on June 21 [2 favorites]

Dragon in the Garden, by Reginald Maddock is close to what you want, although I think it might be aimed at slightly older children. A kid, starting a new school, has to deal with the school bully. Exploring in a local quarry, he finds a dinosaur fossil. Out of print now, but it was set as a school fiction book in England and Australia so there should be a lot of paperbacks around for not much money.
posted by ninazer0 at 6:50 PM on June 21

It sounds like you are looking for serious books, and you have a lot of great suggestions here (my son’s class read Refugee in 7th grade and really enjoyed it). But 9 - 11 is a bit young for only serious books, so I’ll throw in The Pushcart War , which is a great introduction to social action / political activism and also a hoot.
posted by Mchelly at 3:09 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]

My kid really enjoyed The Night Bus Hero and The Boy At The Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf - these both touch on social justice themes (homelessness and refugees, respectively) but without a historical connection. The author also wrote The Lion Above the Door, which my kid hasn't read yet, but touches on history and racism. Summary from Good Reads:
Leo and his best friend Sangeeta are Year Four* pupils at their primary school in southern England where they are also some of the only children of color. Their class is working on the topic of World War Two and both the children notice that none of the photographs in their history books are of people who look like them, nor do any of the heroes discussed there have similar names. However, on a field trip to Rochester Cathedral, Leo spots something incredible. Inside is a wall dedicated to soldiers from all over the former British Empire and included there is his exact name, along with many others – some sharing Sangeeta’s surname, Singh.
*aged 8-9
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:03 AM on June 22

Seconding the Dear America and Dear Canada series, and also the Birchbark House series, both of which have the advantage of being series, and therefore good for voracious readers.

I'll also throw in the All of a Kind Family series and the Great Brain series, with the caveat that these were written earlier than Dear America/Canada and Birchbark, and I haven't revisited them lately to be certain that they stand up to contemporary scrutiny. I do remember that they seemed relatively progressive at the time, and young me learned a great deal about cultural Judaism from All of a Kind.
posted by spamloaf at 6:07 AM on June 22

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