Diverse Literature Part 2

My first post on this topic listed a few of the many Indigenous novel/books available to the public. The ones I choose focused specifically on North American indigenous peoples, but a wide range of novels also deal with South American tribal nations, Caribbean Natives, and Australian aborigine peoples. I encourage readers of literature to seek out those novels if interested in native peoples from around the globe.

Today, I would like to focus on African American Young Adult novels. Fortunately, this area of literature has not only grown over the last two decades but has thrived. Many have become classics of the genre, not just within African-American literature, but within literature as a whole. So many have made an impact on young lives that it will be difficult to choose just a few. Nevertheless, I will attempt to pull from a variety of times, both in setting and in publication.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

When I first began teaching language arts to middle schoolers, one of the first stories we read was call “A Song of Trees” by Mildred D. Taylor. Told from the point of view of Cassie Logan and set in the South during the 1930s, it detailed the illegal harvesting of lumber on the Logan family property. The Logans were the only black family to own land, so the whites sought to take advantage. As a result of the at excellent story, I soon found Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. This is the first novel about the Logan family reveals the hardships of not only the Logans, but other black sharecroppers who didn’t have the advantage of land ownership. Racism and discrimination plays a major role, but so does education. Although the novel was the first to be written Ms. Taylor went on to do three prequels as well as a sequel. I highly recommend it to all young readers.

Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper

Another award-winning novel, but this one is set in the era of slavery. It tells the story of Amari, a fifteen-year-old African girl, living in the village of Ziavi, which is attacked by slave traders. She is taken captive and sold. Amari’s journey from her small village to a plantation in the Carolinas is terrible and heartbreaking, yet realistic. The story pulls no punches about the cruelty of slavery. As with any great book, it is filled with characters you love and root for and heinous characters you hope get theirs in the end. This a powerful novel worth the time to read.

Interesting side note: Ms. Draper is the granddaughter of a former slave, which makes this novel all the more impactful.

The Glory Field by Walter Dean Myers

Reminiscent of Alex Haley’s masterpiece Roots, The Glory Field follows the Lewis family from 1700s slavery to the 1990s. It follow six members of the family starting with Muhammad Bilal, who was kidnapped and enslaved and ending with Malcolm Lewis in 1994. Readers traverse through the decades and meet a new family member in many of the pivotal eras for the African Americans (e.g 1860s, 1930s, 1960s, etc.). The common thread is the land worked and ultimately inherited by the Lewis family. We are witness to the discrimination, prejudice, and racism planted from the early days of slavery. However, we also read about the power of family, hope, and perseverance. Although the stories are incredibly sad, the endurance of the human spirit shines through.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Jayson Reynolds is an amazing writer, plain and simple. I read this one on my Kindle and was told by one of my students to scroll down for the novel as opposed to going page by page. It made the reading experience so much more interesting. Long Way Down is a narrative prose poem about Will Holloman riding an elevator down from the 8th floor as he decides whether or not he will exact vengeance on the young man who killed his brother Shawn. The kicker is that during the 60+ second ride down, he is met at each floor by someone who has been killed by the same type of violence. Beautiful, thoughtful, heart-rending, this novel will leave a lasting impact on all those who read it.

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Another novel by Jason Reynolds who co-wrote it with Brendan Kiely, and another phenomenal read. This one has two points of view, one from a young black man and the other from a young white man. This one is quite fortuitous to our modern environment in its plot and characters. As with many of these books dealing with race in America, it is powerful and tragic. The plot focuses on two characters, Rashad and Quinn. Rashad has been unfairly targeted and horribly beaten by a cop named Paul. Quinn, who witnessed the event, has a significant connection to Paul. To complicate matters, the beating is also caught on video and brought to the public. Dividing lines are drawn and the conflict grows to become national. Written in 2014-15, the themes resonate very loudly today.

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

When I heard, read about, and watched the shooting of Tamir Rice, it galvanized me to teach more African American literature while I was teaching language arts. Now, as an American History teacher, I focus on the impact slavery had on the nation. Although this book was written well after I left language arts, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher recommend it to me.

The main character is twelve-year-old Jerome was shot and killed by police who mistook his toy gun for a real one. As a ghost, Jerome witnesses the terrible toll his death has on his family and community. He is later joined by Emmett Till, who helps Jerome on his path. Together, they explore how Jerome’s death can be attributed the deep-seated racism that was presence during Emmett’s time and further back. Again, timely and eye-opening, this a book that will go on to be a modern classic.

So many incredible novels could have been added to this list. I wish I could shine a spotlight on each one. Below, I’ve added a few more for your edification.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. A modern classic that has a received a large and deserved audience. Another book ahead of its time and reflects the current environment.

The Binti Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor. Outside the typical real world literature, this is a sci-fi novel, which is a wonderful and exciting read.

Dread Nation series by Justina Ireland. I discovered this first through Audible, but a second in the series has been written. Part alternate history and part horror-fantasy-zombie novel, this takes place in the 1860s with a young African-American female protagonist.

Diverse Literature Part 1

As a teacher, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to read and discuss with students some excellent books by incredible authors. Living in New Mexico and next to the Navajo Nation, I tried to find novels that would appeal to my Native students. Here are a few selections to get young people started on the path of reading and learning about the many cultures in the U.S.

Native American Novels

Code Talker

Written by Chester Nez of the Navajo/DinĂ© Nation, this book goes into great detail about the discrimination he faced as a young Navajo boy attending a boarding school to his time as a U.S. Marine in the Pacific. If you’re at all unfamiliar with the story of code talkers, this book will enlighten you to the incredible journey Mr. Nez had and how the code created by these courageous Navajo men helped the U.S. win the war in the Pacific. I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Chester Nez, Samuel F. Sandoval, and Thomas H. Begay speak about their time in the Marines. Bravery, honor, and nobility only begin to describe these heroes. Several lied about their age so they could join the military and service this nation at a very desperate time. For more information please read the Navajo Times article, “Remaining Code Talkers Honored.”

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

My first exposure to Sherman Alexie, a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene-American, came in 2003 when I read his darkly humorous short story “Indian Education.” The piece is filled with nods to reservation life as well as Junior’s desire to assimilate but also hold onto his Native heritage. These themes are developed much deeper in his novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. “Indian Education” PDF is available online and can be found with a simple Google search. Give it a read and you will get the general premise of Alexie’s novel. For another of Mr. Alexie’s books, check out his The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This contains other short stories relating to life on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Hearts Unbroken

A more modern take on Native life and from a young woman’s perspective, Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith is a poignant look into young love and the unforeseen hurdles a person of color may face, especially in a school where the thread of prejudice has been woven through the community over generations. This novel is currently available on Kindle for only 99 cents. Ms. Smith is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and has another novel Rain Is Not My Indian Name coming out in February 2021.

How I Became a Ghost

Tim Tingle, a member of the Oklahoma Choctaw Nation, takes a more historical look at the prejudice and racism Native Americans faced in the 1830s with Trail of Tears. Although only 160 pages, this novel is powerful and heartbreaking. How I Became a Ghost will be/is part of a series written by Mr. Tingle. Like the previous authors, he has other great contributions to Native American Literature for young people.