Given the commercial success of the Harry Potter series, publishers are now treating teenage readers as a major consumer market. The number of young adult fiction books published has risen by about 30 percent in the last five years, and in this rush for profit, communities of color have been a target, for better and worse.
Much of what is available to young readers follows the cliché of a young person of color dealing with an identity crisis because of their race. But some books are actually about teens with a smart and sassy approach to their racial identities. Either way, these books are garnering teenage and adult authors thousands of dollars and publicity, as was the case with Little, Brown and Company, which signed Kaavya Viswanathan, a South Asian teenager, for a six-figure book contract. Later, her novel was found to be partly plagiarized.
The potential of the young adult market has not gone unnoticed by famous writers of color. Walter Mosley’s book 47 won the Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award this year. Edwidge Danticat and Sherman Alexie have young adult novels coming out soon, and the boom in teen fiction has allowed more authors of color to publish.
“One of the major changes in young adult fiction has been the arrival of authentic ethnic voices,” says Joseph Bruchac, an American-Indian author of more than 70 books for both adults and children. Bruchac is happy to see a shift. “A lot of the books that were published over the last half-century which featured people who were not white were often close to racist in their portrayals and, frequently, extremely inaccurate.”
Bruchac and others note that parents and teen readers alike are faced with more options in choosing books. So, we’ve compiled a list of classics and new favorites that address issues of race, class, gender and sexuality for teenagers (and the rest of us) in an intelligent and thoughtful way.
I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This
This heart-wrenching story about race, friendship and sexual abuse gives a real voice to struggles that many teens face. Woodson, a Black icon in the teen genre, draws the “unlikely friendship” between a young affluent Black girl and a poor, white girl as they begin to learn the similarities and differences between the sufferings they face.
Sarris narrates the story of Pomo Indians in suburban Santa Rosa, California, through the lives of nine characters. All are connected by matriarch Juana Maria in the poetic telling of what feel like real-life stories. From the ancient medicine and basket weaving of Nellie Copaz to the trials and tribulations of young Jasmine Ruby, readers will be mesmerized.
The House on Mango Street
A Mexican childhood in Chicago is revealed in this enduring novella about young Esperanza Cordero. There’s never a dull moment as Esperanza reflects on the greater implications of her childhood memories, including her fear of nuns and mean boys.
A Single Shard
Linda Sue Park
This award-winning novel is set in 12th-century Korea, where an orphan named Tree-ear lives under a bridge and accidentally discovers the art of pottery-making. Determined to get a royal commission to make pots, Tree-ear learns how to work in a community of artists.
Fantasy meets historical novel in Mosley’s first foray into young adult fiction. Following the young man known as 47 on his journey to freedom, Mosley brilliantly captures the anguish of slavery and the magic of hope.
Swimming in the Monsoon Sea
This novel centers on a young, queer Sri Lankan boy. Simultaneously serious, entertaining and accessible, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea explores the territories of young love and sexuality.
The Meaning of Consuelo
Judith Ortiz Cofer
Told through the eyes of two young sisters, Cofer creates an enthralling tale of suburban San Juan life in the 1950s. Aptly named Consuelo (comfort) and Milagro (miracle), the young sisters capture a period of time in Puerto Rico as readers follow their unfolding drama.
Edited by Lorie Marie Carlson
With 10 amazing Native authors and 10 short stories, the whole book is a page-turner. Even adults can appreciate these inspired stories about a young Native person’s connection to family, home and nation. Among the notable contributors are Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich and Cynthia Leitich Smith.
The Sista Hood on The Mic
Here’s one for the homegirls in their teens and 30s. This novel follows Mariposa (aka MC Patria) and her friends through the ups and downs of forming an all-girl hip-hop group. Yes, there’s drama and crushes and even sexual exploration of the same sex, all thanks to the witty author E-Fierce (aka Elisha Miranda, the Puerto Rican filmmaker).
A Code Talker’s Story
This is a classic coming-of-age story for a young person of color. That is to say, it’s a novel about racism, war and cultural preservation. Bruchac takes us back to World War II when his protagonist, Kii Yázhí, is recruited by the Marines to develop a secret military code based on the Navajo language.