Black History Month is a great time to check out some of the diverse YA books written by established and emerging African American authors. As the We Need Diverse Books movement reminds us, diversity in YA is crucial to understanding different experiences as well as is reading minority writers who are sometimes overlooked by publishing and marketing. With that in mind, here are some of my favorite diverse YA books by African American young adult writers.
Have you ever read a verse novel? These delightful diverse YA books are truly innovative. Instead of straight prose (which you’re reading now), these inventive books manipulate language into verse, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not. At the forefront of this genre is Kwame Alexander, author of many books including The Crossover and Booked. I’d recommend starting with the critically-acclaimed novel, The Crossover, which won the Newbery Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award, and was a Goodread Choice nominee. This novel follows 12 year-old Josh Bell, a talented basketball player just like his twin brother. As Josh goes through middle school, he finds that playing the game on the court is easier than obstacles off the sidelines, like the tensions between his parents, his competition with his brother, and the feelings he has for a girl in his class. Alexander’s ability to infuse his writing with a playful rhythm and inventive use of formatting make this novel a thrilling read. Even though the character is slightly younger than the typical YA character, Josh’s maturity, and the situations he is in, crossover (pun intended!) well to high school and beyond.
Author Jason Reynolds is a leading author of contemporary young adult fiction. Some of his most well-known books include When I Was the Greatest, American Boys (co-written with Brendan Kiely), and As Brave As You. My pick for a first read from Reynolds is The Boy in the Black Suit. Seventeen year-old Matt wears a black suit every day. He works at a funeral home, so it’s an appropriate, if not a silent memorial to his late mother. A grim job to be sure, but Matt knows it pays well, and his family could sure use the money as his dad struggles to hold the family together. When Matt meets the formidable Lovey, he’s swept up in her charisma and her courage. Lovey’s seen some things that have made her tough, just the kind of steel-toed tough Matt needs right now. If she can give him strength, maybe Matt can pull through his grief. This stunning novel is alternately funny, bittersweet, and poignant, and I recommend it to all YA contemporary fans who love characters facing real problems and working through them.
Even though Nicola Yoon’s debut novel, Everything, Everything, was released in 2015, she has already shot up to the top-tier of young adult contemporary fiction writers today. With her second novel, The Sun Is Also a Star, Yoon’s prestige skyrocketed even more. A finalist for the Kirkus Prize, a Michael L. Printz honor, and a Goodreads Choice Award nominee, The Sun Is Also a Star is a novel for our time. The story takes place in present-day New York City and is set over the course of just one day. They shouldn’t have met, but fate crossed their paths: Daniel, a Korean American senior interviewing for a place at Yale one afternoon, and Natasha, an undocumented Jamaican American who is supposed to be deported that very same day. Natasha is concerned with science, with facts. She knows not to trust love after seeing how strained her parents’ marriage has become and the pain of a relationship in her own past. Daniel, a poet, is a typical romantic, and he falls head over heels in love with Natasha. She tries hard to resist him—after all, the clock is ticking on her time in America—but his charming demeanor and the negativity he fights within him, too, tug at her heart. Flipping back and forth between these two characters, The Sun Is Also a Star is a compulsively readable romance that reminds us of how borders around countries and around our hearts can be challenged by the undeniable power of love.
Sometimes it seems like writing about World War II is limited to talking about one race: white. Between blockbuster films like Saving Private Ryan to beloved book club classics like The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society most of the stories we are exposed to about the second world war are from a white perspective. Sherri L. Smith’s epic story features Ida Mae Jones, a young female African American woman determined to help her brother in the Pacific. The answer comes in joining the WASP—Women Airforce Service Pilots. But even the progressive values of this elite team present a challenge to Ida’s race. Risking everything, Ida tries to pass as white to get accepted. Smith’s novel is provocative and emotional, riveting as much for the action and immersive scenery as the harrowing journey Ida faces. This novel won the California Book Award Gold Medal for Young Adult fiction.
The Hate U Give is undoubtedly one of the buzz diverse YA books of this winter and really 2017 overall. I promoted it in my article on the Best YA New Releases to Devour this Winter. Early praise from John Green (“Angie Thomas has written a stunning, brilliant, gut-wrenching novel that will be remembered as a classic of our time.”) and Jason Reynolds (“As we continue to fight the battle against police brutality and systemic racism in America, THE HATE U GIVE serves as a much needed literary ramrod. Absolutely riveting!”) not to mention starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, VOYA, and School Library Journal are hyping this novel about a young woman caught in the crosshairs between her privileged private school and the African American community she lives in when her unarmed friend is shot dead by a white police officer. On Goodreads, 402 five-star ratings testify to the hold this powerful novel has on readers. For readers looking to understand more about the complexities of race relations in America, The Hate U Give is an excellent place to start.