More Great Youth Lit Featuring Young People of Color!
Last year, as a response to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, my girls and I audited our families library shelves to see just how many books featured characters of color. We were horrified to find we had more books featuring animals than Black characters (yikes!)
Since then I am always on the hunt for new great reads for me and my girls. As an avid fan of Youth Lit, I often read many book with the girls, and in some cases we recommend them to one another. (This is one of the untold JOYS of parenting!)
Below is a list I recently got from a good friend, and SF Public School Mom, Sara D. who like me, is always on the hunt for great books which feature main characters who are NOT of European-American heritage (many of which are girls!) There are LOTS of great books in that category which fill up library shelves galore!. Check it out and let me know what you think in the comments below.
(Note: I do NOT participate in the Amazon affiliate program and will not receive any income from sales based on links the books below.)
Sara D. says:
“Here are some of the youth lit books we have read recently as a family, or that I’ve given to my daughter to read but have also read. We like these very many of these, I would say that Akata Witch and the Rita Williams Garcia books were the most engaging, while Water Street was the most meditative and calm. We are in the middle of The Vine Basket. The others we have either read as a family or she has read and said she would recommend. I am including the Amazon blurbs, and links.“
Sara likes to order books thru this site, which is great: A Mighty Girl
Sara D’s Recommended Reading of Great Youth Lit Featuring Girls of the World
Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor
Though she spent most of her life in America, 12-year-old Sunny is the daughter of Nigerian Immigrants. When the family moves back to Nigeria, Sunny is immediately singled out as different, both from her American upbringing and the fact that she is an albino. She faces mercilessly bullying until one day, with the help of new friends, Sunny realizes that she is different in a very special way. Sunny is one of the Leopard People, a secretive group of people with the powers of sorcery. As Sunny and her friends perfect their magical skills, they are asked to take on a job that can cost them their very lives…
Age Range: 12 and up. We read it as a family, and loved it, tho it is a bit “mature” in some of the language. (“Hell” “bullshit”) and some of the situations (kissing, flirting)
Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler meets Chasing Vermeer in this clever middle grade debut. Recommended for grades 4–7.
Before dying, Jack, Theodora’s grandfather, whispers, “There’s a letter… And a treasure” hidden “under the egg.” After his passing, Theo could certainly use a treasure; her absentminded mother hides herself away on the top floor of their dilapidated Greenwich Village townhouse while the 13-year-old struggles to make ends meet with the $463 that Jack left. Hanging above the mantelpiece is one of her late grandfather’s paintings which depicts a large egg. Could a treasure be hiding underneath? An accident with a bottle of rubbing alcohol reveals an unusual image that sets the teen off on an art history adventure taking her from New York Public Library’s Jefferson Market branch to a fancy Upper East Side auction house and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Along the way, she befriends Bodhi, the jet-setting, paparazzi-hounded daughter of two celebrities; Reverend Cecily from Grace Church; and a punk-rock librarian named Eddie. Fitzgerald gets the Manhattan setting pitch-perfect; from the rich aroma of a roasted nut stand to the hushed hallways of the Met.
The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, Nancy Farmer
Grade 7 Up. It is the year 2194 in Harare, Zimbabwe. When the three over-protected children of General Amadeus Matsika are kidnapped, they learn that their country is a land of contrasts. Wealthy people live in homes staffed by robots and protected by automatic dobermans, while the poor live in a neighborhood known as The Cow’s Guts, mining for plastic within the tunnels of Dead Man’s Vlei (a toxic waste dump). Resthaven is an enclave for people who cling to the ancient traditions, beliefs, and customs of the Shona tribe, but the nearby MacIlwaine Hotel is a mile-high vertical city of apartments, schools, clinics, and supermarkets. As the children journey from one predicament to another, three unlikely detectives from an agency known as The Ear, the Eye and the Arm attempt to rescue them. Narrator George Guidall does a brilliant job of conveying the complex natures of a wide range of characters. Without resorting to vocal stereotypes, he portrays military generals, adolescent girls, gang thugs, fey tutors, ancient spirit mediums and small boys with equal skill. Coached by the author herself, he has mastered the pronunciation of vocabulary from the Shona, Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans languages. With its blend of high-tech futurism and authentic African tribal folklore, Nancy Farmer’s Newbery Honor Book (Orchard, 1994) is an exciting selection for recorded fiction. This story will challenge young adult readers and listeners to think about their own lives and futures.
Chasing Vermeer, Blue Balliett
In the classic tradition of E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, debut author Blue Balliett introduces readers to another pair of precocious kids on an artful quest full of patterns, puzzles, and the power of blue M&Ms. Eleven year old Petra and Calder may be in the same sixth grade class, but they barely know each other. It’s only after a near collision during a museum field trip that they discover their shared worship of art, their teacher Ms. Hussey, and the blue candy that doesn’t melt in your hands. Their burgeoning friendship is strengthened when a creative thief steals a valuable Vermeer painting en route to Chicago, their home town. When the thief leaves a trail of public clues via the newspaper, Petra and Calder decide to try and recover the painting themselves. But tracking down the Vermeer isn’t easy, as Calder and Petra try to figure out what a set of pentominos (mathematical puzzle pieces), a mysterious book about unexplainable phenomena and a suddenly very nervous Ms. Hussey have to do with a centuries old artwork. When the thief ups the ante by declaring that he or she may very well destroy the painting, the two friends know they have to make the pieces of the puzzle fit before it’s too late!
The Wright Three, Blue Balliett
Grade 5-8-With her distinct style, Balliett returns to Chicago and the detective work of Calder and Petra, sixth graders at the University School. This time they are joined by Tommy, Calder’s former best friend who had moved away for a year. In this architectural mystery, destruction threatens Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, and the Wright 3, as the protagonists call themselves, piece together the puzzle that will lead to the building’s rescue. While friction initially mars the three-sided friendship, Petra, Calder, and Tommy soon appreciate their individual roles in solving the mystery. Egged on by their unconventional teacher, the Wright 3 utilize Calder’s geometric brain, Petra’s writing and observing skills, and Tommy’s uncanny findings to research and investigate the cryptic messages that Robie House seems to send in its own defense. Balliett elegantly wraps factual information on the building into a dreamy, Debussy sort of mystery in which seemingly random connections in everyday life uncover the hidden enigmas of Robie House and Wright himself. Balliett’s atmospheric writing encourages readers to make their own journeys of discovery into art and architecture, creating a mystery subgenre that is as unique as it is compelling. While the book is not perfect-the final chapters jerk rather than flow, and the Wright 3’s transition from awkward tolerance to a tightly knit cadre is nothing out of the ordinary-the mystery itself and the perfectly realized setting make this an essential purchase
The Calder Game, Blue Balliett
Grade 5–8—Those precocious art sleuths Calder, Petra, and Tommy are back, and this mystery is every bit as intricate, engaging, and delightful as Chasing Vermeer (2004) and The Wright 3 (2006, both Scholastic). The three seventh graders go with their class to an exhibit of Alexander Calder’s mobiles at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Soon after, Calder and his father travel to a remote village in England that has an anonymously donated Calder sculpture, the Minotaur, and a maze at Blenheim Park. Both the boy and the sculpture disappear on the same night. Balliett’s love of words and her ability to tuck hidden, subtle clues into her story are evident throughout. Petra and Tommy fly to England to help Calder’s dad and the police find their friend. The kids see mobiles everywhere: in the leaves, flying crows, paper trash. Indeed, the whole story is structured as a mobile, with plot and characters twisting and turning, moving and dancing around each other. The young sleuths are able to take what seems to be chance and coincidence and apply their own conclusions to the puzzle wrapped inside this mystery. Balliett’s wonderful writing is full of foreshadowing, literary allusions, wordplay, and figurative language. Calder’s signature yellow pentominoes play an important role, and the kids create a new code. Helquist’s detailed illustrations enhance this multilayered story.
Hold Fast, Blue Balliett
Gr 6-9—The four Pearls live in a one-room apartment in South Side Chicago, rejoicing in their love for reading and celebrating words and poetic rhythms while keeping their eye on the dream of a house of their own. Dash, the father, works at the library, quotes Langston Hughes, and takes on some extra work for a dealer of old books, hoping to build up the family nest egg. When he disappears, and a violent break-in forces Early; her mother, Sum; and her younger brother, Jubilation, to escape to a homeless shelter, they are sure that their father will show up soon and they will be together again. But Dash’s strange disappearance and the police’s refusal to believe that there is more to the story cause Early to summon her strength and follow the clues herself. Balliett paints a vivid picture, a literary composition reminiscent of an Impressionist painting, and the landscape of life as a child within the social-services system comes into focus through the eyes of an 11-year-old. Early’s interactions with the other kids at the shelter and at school help her devise a letter-writing campaign about housing for the homeless that one hopes might gain a foothold in the real world. This is an engaging mystery in which books are both the problem and the solution, and the author shows that the fight to hold fast to your dreams rewards those who persevere. Excellent.
The Vine Basket – Josanna La Valley
A stranger had thought her simple twist of vines to be of value. This thought buoys Mehrigul, a Uyghur (a Turkic ethnic group), even while her impoverished family struggles to exist in the northwest region of China once known as East Turkestan, where ethnic populations, as in Tibet, are being culturally marginalized. Mehrigul endeavors to become an artisan whose basketry is appreciated. Of course, more is at stake than selling some baskets to an interested American woman. Because the girl’s disgruntled gambler father needs her to do farmwork, she is no longer attending school and, therefore, is a target for government cadres to send south to work in a factory. A grandfather who believes in her gift inspires her determination to make something worthy for her benefactor’s shop and dream of a different life. La Valley’s debut is at times slowed by copious amounts of background on the region and its residents’ daily lives. But when the focus is squarely on Mehrigul, it both engages and teaches. Grades 5-8. Age Range: 10 – 12 years
Water Street Patricia Reilly Giff
Grade 4-8–This heartwarming novel continues the saga begun in Nory Ryans Song (Delacorte, 2000) and Maggies Door (Random, 2003). With the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge as background, the story is told from the alternating perspectives of Bridget (Bird) Mallon and Thomas Neary, from the time that they are nearly 13 until they are 14. Brooklyn, 1875: Bird Mallon lives on Water Street where you can see the huge towers of the bridge to Manhattan being built. Bird wants nothing more in life than to be brave enough to be a healer, like her mother, Nory, to help her sister Annie find love, and to convince her brother, Hughie, to stop fighting for money with his street gang. And of course, she wishes that a girl would move into the empty apartment upstairs so that she can have a new friend close by. But Thomas Neary and his Pop move in upstairs. Thomas who writes about his life in his journal–his father who spends each night at the Tavern down the street, the mother he wishes he had, and the Mallon family downstairs that he desperately wants to be a part of. Thomas, who has a secret that only Bird suspects, and who turns out to be the best friend Bird could ever have.
One Crazy Summer Rita Williams Garcia
In this Newbery Honor novel, New York Times bestselling author Rita Williams-Garcia tells the story of three sisters who travel to Oakland, California, in 1968 to meet the mother who abandoned them.
Eleven-year-old Delphine is like a mother to her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern. She’s had to be, ever since their mother, Cecile, left them seven years ago for a radical new life in California. When they arrive from Brooklyn to spend the summer with her, Cecile is nothing like they imagined. While the girls hope to go to Disneyland and meet Tinker Bell, their mother sends them to a day camp run by the Black Panthers. Unexpectedly, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern learn much about their family, their country, and themselves during one truly crazy summer. This moving, funny novel won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the Coretta Scott King Award and was a National Book Award Finalist.
P.S. Be Eleven Rita Williams Garcia
In this Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel and sequel to the New York Times bestseller and Newbery Honor Book One Crazy Summer, the Gaither sisters return to Brooklyn and find that changes large and small have come to their home. This extraordinary novel earned five starred reviews, withPublishers Weekly calling it “historical fiction that’s as full of heart as it is of heartbreak” and The Horn Book considering it “funny, wise, poignant, and thought-provoking.”
After spending the summer in Oakland, California, with their mother and the Black Panthers, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern arrive home with a newfound streak of independence. The sisters aren’t the only ones who have changed. Now Pa has a girlfriend. Uncle Darnell returns from Vietnam a different man. But Big Ma still expects Delphine to keep her sisters in line. That’s much harder now that Vonetta and Fern refuse to be bossed around. Besides her sisters, Delphine’s got plenty of other things to worry about—like starting sixth grade, being the tallest girl in her class, and dreading the upcoming school dance. The one person she confides in is her mother, Cecile. Through letters, Delphine pours her heart out and receives some constant advice: to be eleven while she can.
What else? Rita Williams Garcia is GREAT. I have just ordered the third book in her series about Delphine and her sisters. Actually, I will pretty much get anything she has written, I think.
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia (Author)
Newbery Honor winner and New York Times bestselling author Rita Williams-Garcia tells the story of the Gaither sisters, who are about to learn what it’s like to be fish out of water as they travel from the streets of Brooklyn to the rural South for the summer of a lifetime. Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern are off to Alabama to visit their grandmother, Big Ma, and her mother, Ma Charles. Across the way lives Ma Charles’s half sister, Miss Trotter. The two half sisters haven’t spoken in years. As Delphine hears about her family history, she uncovers the surprising truth that’s been keeping the sisters apart. But when tragedy strikes, Delphine discovers that the bonds of family run deeper than she ever knew possible.
Powerful and humorous, this companion to the award-winning One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Elevenwill be enjoyed by fans of the first two books as well as by readers meeting these memorable sisters for the first time.
RWG has other books that, reading the reviews, are pretty nuanced novels about sexuality that are pitched at a middle-grade level, including one about Female Circumcision and it’s concequences (whew!)
Akilah can’t wait to start fifth grade with her best friend, Victoria, who has been in Nigeria for the summer. But Victoria returns completely changed: withdrawn, physically unwell, and unable to laugh. A fifth-grade puberty film gives Victoria the words to tell Akilah what has happened to her: “I don’t have what other girls have.” Victoria has survived female circumcision, and Akilah is furious but sworn to secrecy, until her warm, supportive parents discover the truth and expose Victoria’s family secret. Of the several recent novels about FGM (female genital mutilation), including Pat Collins’ The Fattening Hut[BKL N 1 2003], for older readers, Williams-Garcia’s story, written in Akilah’s colloquial African American voice, is most successful. It combines a richly layered story with accurate, culturally specific information in language that’s on-target for the audience, and the author tempers what could have been strident messages with interesting contrasts: Akilah’s parents view FGM as an atrocity, even as they revere African culture; Akilah’s aunt, who beats her children, raises questions about the forms of brutality ingrained in many families. Then there’s Akilah herself, simultaneously confronted with her first menstrual period and the gravity of what has happened to her friend. Readers will have lots of questions for adults after reading this skillfully told, powerful story.
Looking for more great youth lit books?
Check out my Pinterest booklists here! Click the link below to view this booklist of chapter books featuring girls of color!: