The best kids books with diverse and spunky characters

Who am I?

My dad was an adventure traveler, so I floated down the Amazon, rode chicken busses in rural Guatemala, and stepped on the Russian Steppes before I ever saw Big Ben. All that adventure as a kid engendered an insatiable curiosity about the amazing diversity of people and cultures in this world. Sadly, when I was growing up, most children’s books didn’t reflect this diversity. Not only should all children be able to see themselves on the pages of the books they read, it’s equally important that kids see children who aren’t just like they are. Consequently, adding cultural and ethnic diversity into kids' lit has become a passion for me. 


I wrote...

Mystery of the Thief in the Night: Mexico 1

By Janelle Diller, Adam Turner (illustrator),

Book cover of Mystery of the Thief in the Night: Mexico 1

What is my book about?

Izzy’s family sails into a quiet lagoon in Mexico and drops anchor. Izzy can’t wait to explore the pretty little village, eat yummy tacos, and practice her Spanish. When she meets nine-year-old Patti, Izzy’s thrilled. Now she can do all that and have a new friend to play with too. Life is perfect. At least it’s perfect until they realize there’s a midnight thief on the loose!

This award-winning early chapter book series takes young readers around the world. They tour haunted castles in Austria, catch thieves in Mexico, save dolphins and turtles in Brazil, search for lost golden temples in Thailand, and chase aliens in Australia. Ultimately, the series inspires readers to embrace adventure and triggers curiosity about the larger world.

The books I picked & why

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The Lion Who Stole My Arm (Heroes of the Wild)

By Nicola Davies,

Book cover of The Lion Who Stole My Arm (Heroes of the Wild)

Why this book?

I know, the title sounds like a downer, especially for kids, but the book is full of new learning, acceptance, and even dealing with revenge. I loved it. And since the title already gives away the scary moment, your young reader doesn’t have to feel nervous.

The story, which takes place in Africa, is simple and powerful and even though the moment of loss is alarming and sad, the story doesn’t slide into sentimentality. In the end, Pedru, the main character, is able to put away his need for revenge and ultimately embrace lion conservation. The book transported me to Africa and lion country. It made me think, too, about hard forgiveness. The best kids’ books are ones that intrigue us as adults. Nailed.

The Lion Who Stole My Arm (Heroes of the Wild)

By Nicola Davies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lion Who Stole My Arm (Heroes of the Wild) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A child, a wild animal - and a life-changing encounter. An exciting new range of books in which children find solutions to problems through conservation rather than killing.

On his way home from a fishing trip Pedru is attacked by a lion who takes his arm. As Pedru gradually adapts to his altered circumstances, at home and at school, he vows to get his revenge. So when his father, the finest hunter in the village, agrees to hunt the lion with him, Pedru is thrilled. But father and son track and kill the wrong lion - and find it's wearing…


Small Mercies

By Bridget Krone, Karen Vermeulen (illustrator),

Book cover of Small Mercies

Why this book?

Mercy stole my heart from the very first page. Although more accurately, it’s Mercy’s eccentric foster aunts who did the initial stealing. Their quirky excuse notes—one says Mercy has “the collywobbles,” another that she can’t participate in inter-house cross-country because she “has a bone in her leg”—is just a taste of the humor to come. The story in this gem from South Africa is complex and surprisingly powerful with its focus on Gandhi’s response to discrimination as he traveled through South Africa and how he lived the Sanskrit word satyagraha, which means truth and polite insistence. I was fascinated by South Africa’s complicated ethnic diversity, not unlike America’s complicated diversity, which made the message of satyagraha even more potent for me. 

Small Mercies

By Bridget Krone, Karen Vermeulen (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Small Mercies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Named a Best Middle-Grade Book of 2020 by Kirkus Reviews
2021 Outstanding International Books List, United States Board on Books for Young People
Mercy lives in modern-day Pietermaritzburg, South Africa with her eccentric foster aunts-two elderly sisters so poor, they can only afford one lightbulb. A nasty housing developer is eying their house. And that same house suddenly starts falling apart-just as Aunt Flora starts falling apart. She's forgetting words, names, and even how to behave in public. Mercy tries to keep her head down at school so nobody notices her. But when a classmate frames her for stealing the…


Penguin Days

By Sara Leach, Rebecca Bender (illustrator),

Book cover of Penguin Days

Why this book?

In the second book in this endearing series, Lauren, who has ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) travels with her family so Lauren can be the flower girl in her auntie’s wedding. It takes Lauren’s family “two days, eight movies, four chapter books, and three throw-ups” to get to their destination. The book is filled with gentle humor, which helps me appreciate Lauren’s perspective while at the same time it doesn’t sugarcoat life with a child with ASD. Leach artfully balances it all: here’s the raw reality and it can be exhausting; yes, we get frazzled but we have a few strategies; and we still love our daughter. Trust me, you’ll laugh and you’ll sigh with this window into what it’s like with ASD.

Penguin Days

By Sara Leach, Rebecca Bender (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Penguin Days as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the award-winning creators of Slug Days

Lauren and her family drive to a farm in North Dakota to visit relatives and celebrate her Aunt Jossie's wedding. But Lauren finds to her dismay that she is expected to do more than meet adults who hug her and invade her personal space. Lauren is going to be-horror of all horrors-a flower girl.

Lauren has Autism Spectrum Disorder, and she sees the world a little differently from other kids. What makes her comfortable are her routines and her coping mechanisms for her anxiety, which can get out of control in no time.…


J.D. and the Great Barber Battle

By J. Dillard, Akeem S. Roberts (illustrator),

Book cover of J.D. and the Great Barber Battle

Why this book?

J.D. is a spunky boy who discovers he has a surprising gift. It turns out he’s a genius barber. This isn’t exactly the dream of every eight-year-old boy, but who am I to judge the likelihood of a child hairstyling prodigy? Okay. The plot is implausible. Still, I loved J.D and his brassy confidence. Best of all, J.D. is a Black kid surrounded by all Black characters—a rarity in early chapter books, especially books for boys. A bonus is that the book is loaded with lively illustrations by Akeem Roberts. His use of lighting to bring out the depth and beauty of black skin gives the illustrations a nuance that isn’t typical in an early chapter book. The book is a winner.

J.D. and the Great Barber Battle

By J. Dillard, Akeem S. Roberts (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked J.D. and the Great Barber Battle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Eight-year-old J.D. turns a tragic home haircut into a thriving barber business in this hilarious new illustrated chapter book series

J.D. has a big problem--it's the night before the start of third grade and his mom has just given him his first and worst home haircut. When the steady stream of insults from the entire student body of Douglass Elementary becomes too much for J.D., he takes matters into his own hands and discovers that, unlike his mom, he's a genius with the clippers. His work makes him the talk of the town and brings him enough hair business to…


Suki's Kimono

By Chieri Uegaki, Stéphane Jorisch (illustrator),

Book cover of Suki's Kimono

Why this book?

Suki is a treasure. She’s courageous and irrepressible and a perfect role model for every young girl of any nationality. Suki decides to wear a kimono to school on her first day of first grade. The kimono, a gift from her grandmother, is full of warm memories. As you can imagine, some of the other kids initially laugh at her—including her own sisters. But in the end, she wins her classmates over with an impromptu dance that captures the joy of a summer festival with her grandmother. I love how this spirited story teaches kids of any culture to embrace who they are. Stephane Jorisch’s playful watercolor and ink illustrations capture the spirit of the book perfectly.

Suki's Kimono

By Chieri Uegaki, Stéphane Jorisch (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Suki's Kimono as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Suki's favorite possession is her blue cotton kimono. A gift from her obachan, it holds special memories of her grandmother's visit last summer. And Suki is going to wear it on her first day back to school --- no matter what anyone says.When it's Suki's turn to share with her classmates what she did during the summer, she tells them about the street festival she attended with her obachan and the circle dance that they took part in. In fact, she gets so carried away reminiscing that she's soon humming the music and dancing away, much to the delight of…


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