A middle school student is always hard at work, even when you can't tell from the outside. If anything, they are spending a lot of their brain power considering who they are and who they aren't. As I've mentioned before, this search for identity is aided by the books in your library.
So, do you have what they need? That's a big question, isn't it? Let's make the question smaller in scope, so it's easier to manage. You can then transfer the big ideas to the rest of your collection.
Let's imagine that a "teen" alien landed in the middle of your library and had only your fiction book collection to use to gather information on teenagers from the human race. Would there be a good, healthy range of people and experiences?
For this exercise, focus in on how African Americans are represented within your bookshelves. Think about a pie chart and start slicing it into percentages of character types. The Bluford Series of books I mentioned earlier are a hit with many students, and it does provide a bit of a variety of characters and plots, but it can't be the only representation of African American teen life in your library.
My all-time favorite author who produces a spectrum of people to populate the fictional landscape in our library is Jacqueline Woodson. She writes books for children and teens, so investing some time in getting to know her work is worth the effort. And she is amazing. If you ever get the chance to hear her speak, go. Most of her work appeals to girls more than boys. I think that you should buy everything, but make sure you get the Maizon books, I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This, If You come Softly, Behind You and Show Way. She may seem familiar to you because last year After Tupac and D Foster was a 2010-11 Virginia Readers' Choice (VRC) selection.
You probably already know Walter Dean Myers. He writes mainly for young men, but does have some books that appeal to ladies. Also, there's probably a piece in your literature book that he wrote, so if students show an interest in his style, you can point his books out to him on your next library visit. I think that his masterpiece is Monster, but its style demands a sophisticated reader, so think about the text before you recommend it to a student. Save this one for your above-average readers that love books that demand 100% focus from their audience.
Sharon M. Draper's Romiette and Julio is a big hit with teen girls. It's also a sneaky way to prep them for 9th grade's Romeo and Juliet. The story centers around an interracial relationship between a Hispanic and African American high school student. Tears of a Tiger, Forged By Fire and Darkness Before Dawn are hits with both sexes.
Lori Aurelia Williams, Sharon Flake, Angela Johnson...the list of current amazing African American writers goes on and on. The best way to get started is to follow books that made the list of American Library Association's Coretta Scott King Book Awards. The awards include a category for illustrated books; you know I love that. Try this link: http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/rts/emiert/cskbookawards/recipients.cfm
Right now, I'm looking forward to reading Kekla Magoon's The Rock and the River. It made the cut for the 2011-12 Virginia Readers' Choice nominations.
Before I go, let me close with this. It's important for a middle school library to be able to hold up a mirror to all of the faces of its readers. I also know that great writing appeals to everyone, and the overwhelming majority of teen readers do not reject a book because it's about someone from another background or race. And I certainly don't make my book recommendations by matching an author's skin tone to the readers'. Students own our schools' libraries; we merely tend it. Let's make sure that everyone feels that ownership by honoring who they are and may become by stocking our shelves with every possibility.