This past week The New York Times published an op-ed titled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The writer, children's book author Walter Dean Myer, notes that out of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black children. Having protagonists of color in children’s and YA books gives a wider readership insight into different spaces populated with different faces, but that's not all it does. It also gives children of color a sense of who they are and who can they can be, the way children's books have done for white kids since there have been children's books. So, in tribute to authors who push for diversity in their characters, we’ve gathered up our favorite YA novels featuring people of color. But don't just bookmark these novels as gifts for teens. These reads are so nuanced and complex they’re good for adults, too.
1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie
This is the story of teenage Junior who leaves his school on the reservation for an all-white school. Junior is funny and smart but also only 14, which allows Sherman Alexie to tell the story of Native American and white relations without an overly complex analysis. With lines like: “I’m 14 years old, and I’ve been to 42 funerals. That’s really the biggest difference between Indians and white people,” Junior ruminates on the tensions between Native American and Whites with the rawness and unapologetic emotion it deserves.
2. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
“Because I think there should be more Asian-American characters in YA, especially boys. (And also more chubby girls.) Because it’s up to people like me, who write, to write them.”
Besides giving awesomely straightforward answers to questions about diversity, RoweIl proves that YA fiction is nuanced and worthy of adult readership. Eleanor and Park is about Park, who is too “alternative” to have a girlfriend, and red-haired Eleanor, who is too “big” to have a boyfriend. It's a story of electrifying teenage love but also of how outsiders are conditioned to feel undesirable.
3. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
The protagonist of Akata Witch is a lot of things. She’s Nigerian, African American, albino and a witch. All of these complex and sometimes conflicting identifiers help tell a beautiful, magical realist story. Most diaspora novels focus on how immigrants cope with coming to America, but Okorafor tackles the story of what it’s like to return to a home you’re not sure is really yours.
4. House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Told in a series of poetic vignettes, House on Mango Street is the story of adolescent Esperanza and the intangible things she years for. Esperanza wants to cast aside her Mexican heritage, wants to save her neighborhood, and wants to to figure out how to keep her ethnic identity while carving out a new identity for herself.
5. The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson
A mash-up of Caribbean folklore, surrealism, lost siblings and racial identity issues, Hopkinson’s first young adult novel proves that diaspora literature doesn’t just have to fit neatly in one genre. Hopkinson’s prose is magical, her plot is supernatural, and her heroine is fiercely determined. This book is so original, you’ve never read anything like it.