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.