Readers of all sizes, shapes, colors, and experiences should be able to find stories and characters they identify with between the pages of books — and that’s why these YA novels by black authors, about book characters of color, will make some important additions to your bookshelves. To be honest, growing up I never had a hard time finding books I could relate to, featuring cover art with young girls who looked and dressed just like I did, came from communities unsurprisingly similar to my own, and dealt with a whole lot of the very same coming-of-age experiences that I was going through. But finding books about characters from backgrounds and places less familiar to me — that wasn’t always quite as easy. Black girls and boys deserve to themselves reflected in books the way I saw myself reflected.
Luckily for young readers today, there are more amazing authors of color than ever being published, and they're writing tons of YA novels with diverse characters, so finding reading material that you can relate to, or that will open your eyes to a culture or setting you’d like to know more about, is easier than ever. (Although it can’t ever hurt to strive for even more diversity on our shelves, so as readers, let's encourage publishers to keep the diversity coming.)
1. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Sunny is a 12-year-old girl who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere — an albino African American living in her parent’s homeland of Nigeria, she can’t spend much time in the sun and the students in her new school call her “akata” or “wild animal”. To make matters worse, she doesn’t even know why her parents suddenly moved their family to Nigeria in the first place. But when Sunny has a premonition she discovers there may be someplace she fits in after all: a supernatural realm of magic and mystery, ruled by a group called the Leopard People. You’ll love Akata Witch for its adventurous heroine, as well as for the amazing imagery Nnedi Okorafor has created.
2. Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes
If you loved The Freedom Writers’ Diary then you might just love Nikki Grimes’s Bronx Masquerade even more. Spanning an entire school year in one Bronx high school English class, this poetry-slam-style book tells the story of 18 urban teens — illuminating the growing pains and the tension and the sense of isolation that every young adult experiences at some point, as well as highlighting the therapeutic and community-building qualities of art, poetry, and creative writing.
3. We Could Be Brothers by Derrick Barnes
When eighth-graders Robeson Battlefield and Pacino Clapton meet in their after-school detention, they quickly discover they’re both there for the same reason — a boy named Tariq, whose rough attitude reflects the even rougher neighborhood he grew up in. All three characters come from very different homes and neighborhoods, and over the course of one week in their young lives they’ll learn more about themselves, and what lies beneath the surface of each other, than they ever expected. We Could Be Brothers is a great reminder to think outside your own experience.
4. Pointe by Brandy Colbert
Your love of a great ballet story (who doesn’t?) will get you to pick up a copy of Pointe — but the totally compelling plot (which is about a whole lot more than dancing) will keep you reading. At the heart of Pointe is a teenage girl named Theo, who is dealing with some serious challenges: an eating disorder, her role in the kidnapping of her friend Donovan, and a secret from her past that she hasn’t even begun to understand yet. As you watch Theo begin to sort this all out, you’ll be completely drawn into her story: her immensely poor choices, the reasons she makes them, and whether or not she’ll ever be able to understand her experience and voice her truth.
5. Kendra by Coe Booth
High school student Kendra is only fourteen years younger than her mother Renee — a fact that makes the already difficult dynamics of their mother/daughter relationship even more challenging. But when Renee, who left Kendra to live with her grandmother while she focused on college, doesn’t take her daughter back home once she’s graduated, Kendra is more disappointed in her mother than ever. To make matters worse, Kendra’s sexual choices are starting to resemble her mother’s, which could jeopardize both their futures even more. You’ll definitely fall in love with Kendra, which is why some of her decisions will totally break your heart.
6. The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
Teenagers Bobby and Nia are about to have their entire lives changed, in a way they definitely didn’t plan for (they could have planned a few things a little better, actually…) because Nia is pregnant. Neither teen knows exactly what to do — keep their daughter or put her up for adoption? And just when you think that’s going to be the most challenging issue these teens will have to face, YA author Angela Johnson offers up a plot twist that’ll shock you.
7. When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
Growing up is hard enough for teens, but growing up in the inner-city infuses all those coming-of-age pains with some major adult issues — violence, drug use, and if you’re Ali and his best friend Noodles, doing everything you can to avoid real trouble. But when Noodles’s and his brother, Needles — who suffers from Tourette's Syndrome — cause a misunderstanding that could result in serious violence, the boys learn the real strength it takes to rise above. When I Was the Greatest will take you into the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, and into the life of one teenage boy who is just trying to do the best he can where he’s at.
8. Sellout by Ebony Joy Wilkins
Natasha is the only person who looks like she does almost everywhere she goes — her all-white dance team, her school, her Park Adams neighborhood — and trying to fit in is taking its toll. But all that changes when her grandmother decides to move her to Harlem for the summer, enlisting her to help out at a safe house for teenage girls in the Bronx. There, for the first time, she faces bullying, violence, and what it’s like to grow up with more disadvantages than privileges. You’ll be completely moved by Tash’s journey into her own identity, as she struggles to manage her place in both these worlds.
9. How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
A YA novel that is, unfortunately, growing increasingly more relevant every day, How It Went Down takes readers into the heart of a community in the immediate aftermath of a shooting of an unarmed black teenager, by a white gunman. Told from many different points of view — except those of the two people who really know what happened: 16-year-old Tariq Johnson, the victim, and Jack Franklin, the shooter — this novel not only depicts an all-to-common act of violence, it tells the even larger story of what happens when a community tries to navigate the complicated terrain of a hate crime.
10. Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith
Being a black woman in 1940s America meant that Ida Mae Jones’s dreams were almost impossible — but as the daughter of a pilot, she was determined to fly. When the United States entered World War II, Ida Mae saw her chance. Disguising herself as a white woman in order to be admitted into the organization Women Airforce Service Pilots, Ida Mae found herself grappling with a war on two fronts — the one in the Pacific, and the one she’s fighting with her own identity in a world that doesn’t value it. Ida Mae’s strong, intelligent, determined personality makes this book a win.
11. Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn
Blending the past and the present, Charm & Strange tells two stories of Andrew Winston Winters — the “Drew” of his past and the “Win” of his present. Drew was an angry child; 16-year-old Win is a lonely, introspective teenager living at a New England boarding school, and he asks a lot of dark, strange questions. Plus, he has a secret — actually, a lot of them. And some are heavier than others. You’ll have to read to find out exactly what happened to Drew, and how he evolved into Win.