Growing Up in the Barrio: Books for Middle Grades and Young Adults

Young people rising in the night sky

The barrio, or neighborhood, is a world unto itself, filled with heroes and villains. These stories capture the vibrant rhythms of teens who are coming of age in the barrio, as well as their obstacles, triumphs, and dreams. Recommended for grades 7-12.

A New Kind of Wild

Two children sitting on stoop
Age Level: 6-9

When Ren moves to Ava's city, he feels lost without his wild. How will he ever feel at home in a place with no green and no magic, where everything is exactly what it seems? Of course, not everything in the city is what meets the eye, and as Ren discovers, nothing makes you feel at home quite like a friend. Inspired by the stories her father told her about moving from Puerto Rico to New York as a child, Zara González Hoang's author-illustrator debut is an imaginative exploration of the true meaning of "home."

All for the Better: A Story of El Barrio

"In 1933 the Great Depression had hit Puerto Rico as hard as it had hit the United States. Evelina Lopez, then 11, left her mother and sisters to live with an aunt in New York City. Her journey to Spanish Harlem, El Barrio, and the life that followed there make up this simple biography. When she learned that food packages were available to those who presented the proper forms, but that most of her neighbors were too ashamed to apply, she found a solution.

An Island Like You

neighborhood image
Age Level: Middle Grade (9-14)
Language: English, Spanish vocabulary featured

Product Description: Judith Ortiz Cofer's award-winning collection of short stories focuses on life in the barrio. Rita is exiled to Puerto Rico for a summer with her grandparents after her parents catch her with a boy. Luis sits atop a six-foot mountain of hubcaps in his father's junkyard, working off a sentence for breaking and entering. Sandra tries to reconcile her looks to the conventional Latino notion of beauty. And Arturo, different from his macho classmates, fantasizes about escaping his community.

Any Small Goodness: A Novel of the Barrio

Meet Arturo and his spirited family as they integrate themselves into a tough L.A. neighborhood. Their story is sprinkled with the good and bad, from the former NBA star that shows up at basketball practice to the menacing gang that keeps appearing on the sidewalks of the neighborhood. Arturo and his family (including feisty Abuelita and their cat, Huitlacoche) meet each moment with resilience, warmth, and humor as they each learn to appreciate "any small goodness" that they find.

Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx

A photo of young Sonia Manzano coming down the stairs

Set in the 1950s in the Bronx, the story of Emmy award-winning actress and writer Sonia Manzano ("Maria" from Sesame Street) plunges us into the daily lives of a Latino family that is loving and troubled. When readers meet young Sonia, she is a child living amidst the squalor of a boisterous home that is filled with noisy relatives and nosy neighbors. Each day she is glued to the TV screen that blots out the painful realities of her existence and also illuminates the possibilities that lie ahead.

Burn Baby Burn

Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous New York summer of 1977, when the city is besieged by arson, a massive blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam who shoots young women on the streets. Nora’s family life isn’t going so well either: her bullying brother, Hector, is growing more threatening by the day, her mother is helpless and falling behind on the rent, and her father calls only on holidays. All Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own.

Dark Dude

Product Description: In Wisconsin, Rico could blend in. His light hair and lighter skin wouldn't make him the "dark dude" or the punching bag for the whole neighborhood. Trading Harlem for Wisconsin, though, means giving up on a big part of his identity. And when Rico no longer has to prove that he's Latino, he almost stops being one — except there are some things that can't be left behind.

El Bronx Remembered

Product Description: In the South Bronx — or El Bronx, as it's known to the people who live there — anything can happen. A migrant "fresh off the boat" from Puerto Rico can be somebody on the mainland, pursue the American Dream…and maybe even make it come true. Here are stories that capture the flavor and beat of El Bronx in its heyday, from 1946-1956.


Product Description: Felita's parents promise she will love their new neighborhood. Only Abuelita, her grandmother, understands how much Felita will miss her old block, and her best friend Gigi. But her new neighbors taunt and tease Felita and her family because they are from Puerto Rico. First published twenty years ago, Felita's compelling story has resonance for kids today.

Living Up The Street

Product Description: A collection of short essays in which the author describes his experiences growing up as a Mexican-American in the Fresno, California — including life in the barrio, parochial school, attending church, and trying to fall out of love so he can join in a Little League baseball team.

My Papi Has a Motorcycle

Illustration of a girl riding on the back of her dad's motorcycle.
Illustrated by: Zeke Peña
Age Level: 6-9
Language: English, Spanish vocabulary featured

When Daisy Ramona zooms around her neighborhood with her papi on his motorcycle, she sees the people and places she's always known. She also sees a community that is rapidly changing around her. But as the sun sets purple-blue-gold behind Daisy Ramona and her papi, she knows that the love she feels will always be there. With vivid illustrations and text bursting with heart, My Papi Has a Motorcycle is a young girl's love letter to her hardworking dad and to memories of home that we hold close in the midst of change.

Neighborhood Odes

By: Gary Soto
Illustrated by: David Diaz
Age Level: Middle Grade (9-14)

"The Hispanic neighborhood in Soto's 21 poems is brought sharply into focus by the care with which he records images of everyday life: the music of an ice cream vendor's truck, the top of a refrigerator where old bread lies in plastic, dust released into the air when a boy strums a guitar…Diaz's woodcuts complement the poems perfectly: the silhouettes are fanciful and dynamic but do not draw attention from the words on the page." — Publishers Weekly

Secret Saturdays

Secret Saturdays

Friends Justin and Sean, both 12, live in the Red Hook projects in Brooklyn, are Puerto Rican and African American, and have absentee fathers. Sean is straying further from their friendship, avoiding their scheduled sleepovers, lying, and not doing as well in school. He's been getting into more and more fights when he used to advocate dissing instead of fists. Where is Sean going on Saturdays? Maldonado explores issues of manhood, friendship, and family in this heartfelt, humorous, and poignant urban tale.

Soledad: A Novel

Product Description: Soledad couldn't get away fast enough from her contentious family. She's an art student at Cooper Union with a gallery job and a hip East Village walk-up. But when Tía Gorda calls with the news that Soledad's mother has lapsed into an emotional coma, she insists that Soledad's return is the only cure.


Product Description: "They call me Taco. As far as nicknames go, I guess it's as good as any…but it's a Mexican delicacy, and I happen to be Puerto Rican. Using that same logic, I would have preferred to be called by a Puerto Rican food, like Relleno or maybe Empanada; but Taco is." And so begins the adventures of a young Puerto Rican boy growing up in Brooklyn, NY in the 1970's. His stories are about colorful places and colorful people and they are the colors that paint his world.

The House on Mango Street

This classic of Latin American literature tells the story of Esperanza, who lives in a poor Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago. Told in a series of vignettes, Esperanza tries to leave, while realizing the house on Mango Street will always be with her.

The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano

A hand reaches up in front of rowhouses with a Puerto Rican flag waving

There are two secrets Evelyn Serrano is keeping from her Mami and Papi: her true feelings about growing up in her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, and her attitude about Abuela, her sassy grandmother who's come from Puerto Rico to live with them. Then, like an urgent ticking clock, events erupt that change everything. The Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group, dump garbage in the street and set it on fire, igniting a powerful protest. When Abuela steps in to take charge, Evelyn is thrust into the action. Tempers flare, loyalties are tested.

The Trouble with Half a Moon

Ever since her brother's death, Dellie's life has been quiet and sad. When new neighbors move into the housing projects, Corey, an abused five-year-old boy, is often left home alone and hungry. Dellie strikes up a friendship with this little boy who reminds her so much of her brother. This novel authentically captures the diverse community and the characters' grief, anger, and heartbreak.

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

blue locker
Age Level: Young adult (14-18)
Language: English, Spanish vocabulary featured

One morning before school, some girl tells Piddy Sanchez that Yaqui Delgado hates her and wants to kick her ass. Piddy doesn’t even know who Yaqui is, never mind what she’s done to get her attention. But as the harassment escalates, avoiding Yaqui and her gang starts to take over Piddy’s life. Is there any way for Piddy to survive without closing herself off or running away? In an all-too-realistic novel dealing head-on with bullying, Meg Medina draws upon her own experiences to portray a sympathetic heroine who is forced to decide who she really is. Winner Pura Belpré award.