Last summer, it was Trayvon Martin. This year, it’s Mike Brown. Depressing thought of the day: I won’t be surprised if there’s another racially charged killing in 2015 to keep me up at night.
I am not black. My husband isn’t black. My family members aren’t black. I have a handful of black friends and colleagues, but I can honestly say they’re few and far between. My outrage has little to do with a “personal” connection to the community, unless you count being human a good enough reason to be devastated by recent events. I happen to think being human is an excellent reason.
A few weeks ago, my Facebook feed was ablaze with news about a study that argued Harry Potter could teach kids empathy. Like most studies, it comes with certain caveats, but I’m of the opinion that good children’s books teach us kindness, humility and, yes, empathy. Reading fiction necessarily asks you to step outside your own psyche and inhabit somebody else’s. If a well-crafted narrative can inspire readers to mourn the passing of a magical house elf (long-live Dobby!), imagine how it can change our perspective about real world groups.
Do I think the solution to Ferguson is a YA reading list? No. I think the solution to Ferguson lies in overhauling the broken justice system that allows for little police accountability, brazen civil rights violation, and extreme use of force over marginalized groups of people. Do I think a reading list can help in the long haul? Yes, I do.
So this is the tiny, smallest of contributions to society at large. Here are five books from African-American authors, about African-American characters, that YA fans can go gaga over. My criteria for selecting these was simple. Besides the two already mentioned, I wanted to focus on contemporary fiction. Too often we keep minority voices in historically appropriate settings, as if there was nothing more to say about these communities in the present. I also wanted to stick to stories about young, black men, who tend to be demonized in the media, in pop culture, in movies, on that corner, in your grandmother’s head, pretty much EVERYWHERE. It needs to stop.
Without further ado:
For the Conspiracy-Theorist in You: Fake ID by Lamar Giles
I kept running into Lamar Giles at this year’s SCBWI conference, to the point that it must have seemed like I was stalking him. It’s a testament to how awesome he is that he was courteous, friendly, and not at all creeped out by my constant presence. Thanks, Lamar! His debut novel is about Nick Pearson, though that’s not his real name. You see, Nick is part of the Witness Protection Program and he’s trying to lay low. But when his new best friend shows up dead, Nick might have to risk it all to solve his murder.
For the Classic Connoisseur in You: Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers
Honestly, feel free to pick up any book from the award-winning, prolific Walter Dean Myers. The man could do no no wrong and he will surely be missed. The Newberry Award-winning book was my first exposure to this wonderful author, and it had a profound impact on me as a kid. The narrative centers around Jamal, and how his life is turned upside-down when a gang member gives him a gun. It’s a nuanced look at the culture of violence that seeps into even the best-meaning of us all.
For the Class-Conscious Analyst in You: We Could Be Brothers by Derrick Barnes
Robeson Battlefield and Pacino Clapton don’t seem to have anything in common. But when they’re both stuck in after school suspension after altercations with the school bully, the become fast friends despite their social, economic, and cultural differences. The book explores the tensions and variation within the Black community, refusing to treat it as a monolithic block.
For the Romantic in You: Jason and Kyra by Dana Davidson
The classic tale of the not-so-dumb jock falling in love for the brainy-and-pretty shy girl is set in an affluent black suburb of Detroit. It’s refreshing to read a book that not only has a teen girl interested in science, but a minority girl at that.
For the Boarding School Enthusiast in You: Black Boy White School by Brian F. Walker
Based on the author’s personal experiences, the novel follows Anthony, who grew up in the rough neighborhoods of Cleveland, as he goes to fancy Belton Academy in Maine. As he adjusts to life in an unfamiliar world of privilege, Anthony fears that he’ll lose his roots. Black or white, everyone can identify with struggle of fitting in.
Know any black teens who might enjoy these? Excellent! Minority kids need to see themselves and their stories reflected on the page, and lord knows it can be hard to find. (For more on this subject, please check out the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.) Don’t know any black teens? It doesn’t matter. Kids of all races need to be exposed to voices unlike their own. It’s what fosters empathy and understanding. And lord knows that also can be hard to find.