You Need These Books By Black Women on Your YA Shelves

It's Black History Month and Women's History Month. That means it's time to hit the bookstore.
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February 9, 2015
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books, reading, s.e.'s bookshelf, YA, too many books, young adult novels

Yay, it's both Black History Month and Women's History Month. Now that we're all grown-ups, we aren't going to be subjected to syrupy and distorted versions of "history" in special learning activities in school, so let's talk kids' books written by black women, for two reasons.

For one, there are lots of incredibly amazing black women writing YA and other children's books, and they're really good. They're pushing back on a publishing industry that can be very hostile to women, especially women of color, and often they're hidden in the "special interests" or "black fiction" shelves when they belong on the regular YA shelves like everyone else does. This is a terrible thing, and we need to make it stop.

Secondly, for black teens, it can be tough to find people who look like them in the literature they read, which is beyond awful. We need to help build a world where it's easy to find great books with characters of color — and not just black characters. Statistically speaking, there's a whole lot of Wonder Bread going on in children's publishing, although it's getting better.

If diversity in publishing is important to you, pick one (or more) of these babies up for yourself or a friend (possibly even a young friend!). Or ask your library to add it to its collection!

1) Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award in 2014 (remember how Daniel Handler was super racist?), and with good reason. This middle-grade book is written in verse, chronicling the struggles, pains, and joys of the civil rights movement through the eyes of a young girl: Woodson herself.

2) Alaya Dawn Johnson

Author of The Summer Prince, which is, hands down, one of my favorite YA books. In a futuristic society marred by environmental devastation, the residents of a modern and rebuilt Rio de Janeiro populated by extremely rigid class stratification (literal as well as metaphorical) are captivated by the summer prince, an extremely talented artist — and the girl who falls in love with him and collaborates on a series of ambitious art projects.

If YA isn't your jam, Johnson has also written for adults. Moonshine is utterly great, revolving around an uppity vampire hunter in 1920s New York City. There are socialists, demons, child criminals, and more. Trust me, you'll love it.

3) Brandy Colbert

Pointe is a stellar and wrenching debut novel about a young woman who's at the cusp of a high-profile ballet career — until a kidnapped childhood friend slams back into her life. She should be happy that he's been returned to his family, but her feelings are mixed, and she's forced to confront some unpleasant truths about her past. If you're as into ballet books as I am, you'll love this, and it packs a hidden punch.

4) Nnedi Okorafor

Meet my secret crush. Er, not secret anymore. Author of Who Fears Death? and Akata Witch, Okorafor writes brilliant, shimmering YA that integrates Nigerian legends and religious traditions. Her books feature amazing female characters plunged into worlds of power, control, and history that they're forced to confront rapidly — or die. They'll have you wiggling with nervous energy on the edge of your seat, trust me.

5) Misty Copeland

Did you know that one of the world's premiere Black ballerinas is also an author? Copeland's career has been amazing, and it's one of my goals to see her in live performance. She works in a tradition, and industry, where it is extremely difficult to rise to prominence if you are a woman of color. In her picture book Firebird, she takes on the tough obstacles placed in her way as a black woman in ballet, and basically encourages readers to give convention the middle finger. Only in PG language because this is a kids' book, people.

6) Nalo Hopkinson

Author of both adult and YA, Nalo is a super talented and very lovely woman. Her novel The Chaos imagines a truly bizarre apocalyptic Toronto that integrates Caribbean folklore, some really interesting gender politics, and a discussion of struggling with mixed racial heritage. It's a really fantastic book (like her other work), and you're going to love Scotch, the lead character, for being both self-reliant and skilled enough to recognize when she needs a little help from her friends.

7) Sherri Smith

Author of a whole slew of novels, including Flygirl, Smith explores history, identity, and living as a mixed-race child. In Flygirl, Ida Mae Jones attempts to pass as white so she can become a World War II pilot, but in the process, she has to give up her racial heritage. She's forced with a difficult internal conflict between doing what she loves — flying — and loving who she is.

8) Kekla Magoon

How It Went Down is just one of her books — but it's an extremely timely one, as it's about a black youth shot down by a white man, and the way the event wrenches the community apart. Everyone has a different story about what happened, how, and when, and no two stories seem to align as people try to determine how it went down. It's a really stark read at a time when we can't even indict a white man for murdering a black man when the incident is caught on camera.

9) Stephanie Kuehn

Author of Charm & Strange, which won the William C. Morris Award because it is amazing, Kuehn is definitely an author to watch. This is one of those books that really upends your sense of reality and your ability to feel anchored to the ground, as it's about a character who's struggling with these very issues himself. I really don't want to tell you too much about the book because it would be spoiler city, but trust me, you want to read it.

This barely scratches the surface of talented black women writing fantastic kids' books (not to mention adult fiction). So go out there and support some diverse authors — and do it every month, not just in February.