I wish more middle grade books set in Africa focused on stories of life in African cities, secondary schools, mundane home life, and tween friendships just like most books by US authors. While searching for books to add to this list, I discovered that so many middle grade books set in Africa focus on magic or refugees or hunger and other forms of suffering (all of which are valid). More everyday living stories would be so, so welcome.
That said, the books on this list are brilliant and I love all the colorful covers. I’ve read a few of them that I especially love. I hope you find some great ones too. Just remember that there’s more to Africa than the stories in these books.
Best Middle Grade Books Set in Africa
Table of Contents
The Last Gate of the Emperor
Published: May 4, 2021
Yared Heywat lives an isolated life in Addis Prime — a hardscrabble city with rundown tech, lots of rules, and not much to do. His worrywart Uncle Moti and bionic lioness Besa are his only family… and his only friends.
Often in trouble for his thrill-seeking antics and smart mouth, those same qualities make Yared a star player of the underground augmented reality game, The Hunt for Kaleb’s Obelisk. But when a change in the game rules prompts Yared to log in with his real name, it triggers an attack that rocks the city. In the chaos, Uncle Moti disappears.
Suddenly, all the stories Yared’s uncle told him as a young boy are coming to life, of kingdoms in the sky and city-razing monsters. And somehow Yared is at the center of them.
Together with Besa and the Ibis — a game rival turned reluctant ally — Yared must search for his uncle… and answers to his place in a forgotten, galaxy-spanning war.
Published: June 7, 2022
Everyone says that the wild stories Nana tells are big fibs. But she always tells the truth, as ridiculous as it sounds to hear about the troupe of circus squirrels stealing her teacher’s toupee. When another outlandish explanation lands her in hot water again, her parents announce that Nana will be spending the summer with her grandmother in Ghana.
She isn’t happy to be missing the summer camp she’s looked forward to all year, or to be living with family that she barely knows, in a country where she can’t really speak the native language. But all her worries get a whole lot bigger—literally—when she comes face-to-face with Ananse, the trickster spider of legend.
Nana soon discovers that the forest around the village is a place of magic watched over by Ananse. But a group of greedy contractors are draining the magic from the land, intent on selling the wishes for their own gain. Nana must join forces with her cousin Tiwaa, new friend Akwesi, and Ananse himself to save the magic from those who are out to steal it before the magic—and the forest—are gone for good.
The Kaya Girl
Published: June 28, 2022
When Faiza, a Muslim migrant girl from northern Ghana, and Abena, a wealthy doctor’s daughter from the south, meet by chance in Accra’s largest market, where Faiza works as a porter or kaya girl, they strike up an unlikely and powerful friendship that transcends their social inequities and opens up new worlds to them both.
Set against a backdrop of class disparity in Ghana, The Kaya Girl has shades of The Kite Runner in its unlikely friendship, and of Slumdog Millionaire as Faiza’s life takes unlikely turns that propel her thrillingly forward. As, over the course of the novel, Abena awakens to the world outside her sheltered, privileged life, the novel explores a multitude of awakenings and the opportunities that lie beyond the breaking down of barriers. This is a gorgeously transporting work, offering vivid insight into two strikingly diverse young lives in Ghana.
Crossing the Stream
Published: June 8, 2021
Ato hasn’t visited his grandmother’s house since he was seven. He’s heard the rumors that she’s a witch, and his mother has told him he must never sit on the old couch on her porch. Now here he is, on that exact couch, with a strange-looking drink his grandmother has given him, wondering if the rumors are true. What’s more, there’s a freshly dug hole in her yard that Ato suspects may be a grave meant for him.
Meanwhile at school, Ato and his friends have entered a competition to win entry to Nnoma, the island bird sanctuary that Ato’s father helped create. But something is poisoning the community garden where their project is housed, and Ato sets out to track down the culprit. In doing so, he brings his estranged mother and grandmother back together, and begins healing the wounds left on the family by his father’s death years before.
And that hole in the yard? It is a grave, but not for the purpose Ato feared, and its use brings a tender, celebratory ending to this deeply felt and universal story of healing and love from one of Ghana’s most admired children’s book authors.
The Door of No Return
Published: September 27, 2022
Dreams are today’s answers for tomorrow’s questions.
11-year-old Kofi Offin dreams of water. Its mysterious, immersive quality. The rich, earthy scent of the current. The clearness, its urgent whisper that beckons with promises and secrets…
Kofi has heard the call on the banks of Upper Kwanta, in the village where he lives. He loves these things above all else: his family, the fireside tales of his father’s father, a girl named Ama, and, of course, swimming. Some say he moves like a minnow, not just an ordinary boy so he’s hoping to finally prove himself in front of Ama and his friends in a swimming contest against his older, stronger cousin.
But before this can take place, a festival comes to the villages of Upper and Lower Kwanta and Kofi’s brother is chosen to represent Upper Kwanta in the wrestling contest. Encircled by cheering spectators and sounding drums, the two wrestlers from different villages kneel, ready to fight.
You are only fine, until you are not.
The match is over before it has barely begun, when the unthinkable–a sudden death–occurs…
The river does not care how grown you are.
As his world turns upside down, Kofi soon ends up in a fight for his life. What happens next will send him on a harrowing journey across land and sea, and away from everything he loves.
Auma’s Long Run
Published: September 1, 2017
Auma loves to run. In her small Kenyan village, she’s a track star with big dreams. A track scholarship could allow her to attend high school and maybe even become a doctor. But a strange new sickness called AIDS is ravaging the village, and when her father becomes ill, Auma’s family needs her help at home. Soon more people are getting sick—even dying—and no one knows why. Now Auma faces a difficult choice. Should she stay to support her struggling family or leave to pursue her own future? Auma knows her family is depending on her, but leaving might be the only way to find the answers to questions about this new disease.
Playing a Dangerous Game
Published: August 17, 2021
Lumush and his three friends live with their families in Railway Estate, spending their free time in the countryside or in the yards behind the estate, playing a game of chance called pata potea next to the wreck of an old car. When the boys’ attention begins to wander farther, they discover a deserted house believed to be haunted. As they explore the house, they learn that it’s not ghosts they have to fear but the malevolent Mwachuma. By day he works in his junkyard, but by night he and his accomplices steal coffee from the railway yard and smuggle it into the “ghost house.” As the young boys are drawn into this criminal underworld, they face a mounting danger that threatens both themselves and their families.
When the Stars are Scattered
Published: April 14, 2020
Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Life is hard there: never enough food, achingly dull, and without access to the medical care Omar knows his nonverbal brother needs. So when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future . . . but it would also mean leaving his brother, the only family member he has left, every day.
Heartbreak, hope, and gentle humor exist together in this graphic novel about a childhood spent waiting, and a young man who is able to create a sense of family and home in the most difficult of settings. It’s an intimate, important, unforgettable look at the day-to-day life of a refugee, as told to New York Times Bestselling author/artist Victoria Jamieson by Omar Mohamed, the Somali man who lived the story.
Too Small Tola
Published: March 2, 2021
In a trio of droll stories, award-winning author and storyteller Atinuke debuts an endearing and enduring character with plenty to prove. Tola lives in an apartment in the busy city of Lagos, Nigeria, with her sister, Moji, who is very clever; her brother, Dapo, who is very fast; and Grandmommy, who is very bossy. Tola may be small, but she’s strong enough to carry a basket brimming with groceries home from the market, and she’s clever enough to count out Grandmommy’s change. When the faucets in the apartment break, it’s Tola who brings water from the well. And when Mr. Abdul, the tailor, has an accident and needs help taking his customers’ measurements, only Tola can save the day. Atinuke’s trademark wit and charm are on full display, accompanied by delightful illustrations by Onyinye Iwu. Too Small Tola evokes the urban bustle and rich blending of cultures in Lagos through the eyes of a little girl with an outsize will—and an even bigger heart.
Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree
Published: September 4, 2018
A new pair of shoes, a university degree, a husband—these are the things that a girl dreams of in a Nigerian village. And with a government scholarship right around the corner, everyone can see that these dreams aren’t too far out of reach.
But the girl’s dreams turn to nightmares when her village is attacked by Boko Haram, a terrorist group, in the middle of the night. Kidnapped, she is taken with other girls and women into the forest where she is forced to follow her captors’ radical beliefs and watch as her best friend slowly accepts everything she’s been told.
Still, the girl defends her existence. As impossible as escape may seem, her life—her future—is hers to fight for.
Minecraft: The Haven Trials
Published: December 7, 2021
All of Cecelia Alao’s friends call her Cece. All one of them. But she and Therese are so close that one friend is all Cece needs. Both at school and in their shared Minecraft world, Cece and Therese are inseparable. Until the night before the first day of school, when Therese sends Cece a message, three words that change everything:
We are moving.
Therese’s new home in the USA is 7,000 miles away from Lagos, where the two best friends grew up. Not only is Cece facing secondary school without her best friend, but she’s losing the world she built with Therese. But Cece still has hope. Maybe she can’t cross the world to get to her friend, but in Minecraft she won’t need to. Therese has invited her to a new server—with new friends from her new home—a place called Haven. All Cece has to do is join and they’ll be reunited. It’s that easy, right?
When she follows the invite, she realizes just how wrong she was. Lost in a chaotic world named Anarchia, Cece learns that the server’s owner, a shadowy figure called the Ocury, has sealed off the peaceful land of Haven behind a twisted initiation ceremony called the Haven Trials.
Three titanic tasks. Five lives to complete them. A host of dangerous mobs and griefing players. If Cece fails, she’ll be banned from the server forever. There’s no way she can do this alone. If she wants to play with Therese again, she’s going to have to find new people she can rely on—both in-game and IRL.
No time to lose. . . . The trials await!
One Shadow on the Wall
Published: June 6, 2017
Eleven-year-old Mor was used to hearing his father’s voice, even if no one else could since his father’s death. It was comforting. It was also a reminder that Mor had made a promise to his father before he passed: keep your sisters safe. Keep the family together. But almost as soon as they are orphaned, that promise seems impossible to keep. With an aunt from the big city ready to separate him and his sisters as soon as she arrives, and a gang of boys from a nearby village wanting everything he has—including his spirit—Mor is tested in ways he never imagined.
With only the hot summer months to prove himself, Mor must face a choice. Does he listen to his father and keep his heart true, but risk breaking his promise through failure? Or is it easier to just join the Danka Boys, who despite their maliciousness are at least loyal to their own?
One Shadow on the Wall is about love and loss, family and friendship, and creating your own future—even when it’s hard to do.
It’s Trevor Noah Graphic Novel
Published: April 9, 2019
We do horrible things to one another because we don’t see the person it affects. . . . We don’t see them as people.
Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, shares his remarkable story of growing up in South Africa with a black South African mother and a white European father at a time when it was against the law for a mixed-race child to exist. But he did exist–and from the beginning, the often-misbehaved Trevor used his keen smarts and humor to navigate a harsh life under a racist government.
In a country where racism barred blacks from social, educational, and economic opportunity, Trevor surmounted staggering obstacles and created a promising future for himself thanks to his mom’s unwavering love and indomitable will.
Published: February 25, 2020
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 school’s raffle money, Mercy’s teachers decide to take a closer look at her home life.
Along comes Mr. Singh, who rents the back cottage of the house on Hodson Road. When he takes Mercy to visit a statue in the middle of the city, she learns that the shy, nervous “Mohandas” he tells stories about is actually Gandhi, who spent a cold and lonely night in the waiting room of the Pietermaritzburg train station over a hundred years ago. It marked the beginning of his life’s quest for truth…and the visit to his statue marks Mercy’s realization that she needs—just like Gandhi—to stand up for herself.
Mercy needs a miracle. But to summon that miracle, she has to find her voice and tell the truth—and that truth is neither pure nor simple.
The Red Pencil
Published: September 16, 2014
“Amira, look at me,” Muma insists.She collects both my hands in hers.”The Janjaweed attack without warning.If ever they come– run.”
Finally, Amira is twelve. Old enough to wear a toob, old enough for new responsibilities. And maybe old enough to go to school in Nyala— Amira’s one true dream.
But life in her peaceful Sudanese village is shattered when the Janjaweed arrive. The terrifying attackers ravage the town and unleash unspeakable horrors. After she loses nearly everything, Amira needs to dig deep within herself to find the strength to make the long journey— on foot— to safety at a refugee camp. Her days are tough at the camp, until the gift of a simple red pencil opens her mind— and all kinds of possibilities.
Benny and Omar
Published: November 16, 2012
The hilarious debut novel from one of the world’s favourite children’s authors. Benny Shaw, a young sporting fanatic, is forced to leave his beloved Wexford, home of all his heroes, and move with his family to Tunisia! How will he survive in a place like this? Then he teams up with Omar, and a madcap friendship between the two boys leads to trouble, crazy escapades, a unique way of communicating, and heartbreaking challenges.
Orange for the Sunsets
Published: April 2, 2019
Asha and her best friend, Yesofu, never cared about the differences between them: Indian. African. Girl. Boy. Short. Tall.
But when Idi Amin announces that Indians have ninety days to leave the country, suddenly those differences are the only things that people in Entebbe can see—not the shared after-school samosas or Asha cheering for Yesofu at every cricket game.
Determined for her life to stay the same, Asha clings to her world tighter than ever before. But Yesofu is torn, pulled between his friends, his family, and a promise of a better future. Now as neighbors leave and soldiers line the streets, the two friends find that nothing seems sure—not even their friendship.
Tensions between Indians and Africans intensify and the deadline to leave is fast approaching. Could the bravest thing of all be to let each other go?
There they are: 17 of the best middle grade books set in Africa (or at least partly for some). Which of these have you read? Did I miss any?