Like so many who have long advocated for YA books by and about African-Americans, I celebrated the much-deserved critical and, more importantly, commercial success of Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give. Finally, the mainstream media seemed aware that books for teens could include black teens and that those stories could be layered and complex. I also worried that some would say the barriers have all fallen so advocates should stop pushing for more. We are aware that just as the election of a black president did not usher in a post-racial America, the spotlight on a nuanced, compelling novel by a talented new voice does not mean the work is done. However, there are a few examples that indicate there might be some openings in the ways young black lives can be portrayed.
I thought Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star, with its unusual structure, was one of the best books I read last year, and the National Book Award jury agreed, naming it a finalist, among its other accolades. It is gratifying to see Kwame Alexander and his co-author Mary Rand Hess craft an edgy story of family and music in their new YA novel, Solo. Karen English’s middle-grade novel set just before and during the 1965 Watts riots, It All Comes Down to This, shows the toll striving for the American dream takes on an upper-class African-American family, a rare subject in young people’s literature.
Even genre fiction currently exhibits more variety in African-American storytelling. Lamar Giles’ third mystery, Overturned, combines the murky casino world of Las Vegas with issues of criminal justice fairness, and Daniel José Older’s Shadowhouse Fall, sequel to his astounding urban fantasy Shadowshaper, featuring a strong black Latina magic worker, comes this fall. That is also when we get Reign of Outlaws, Kekla Magoon’s third action-adventure about biracial Robyn Loxley, who leads the resistance against an authoritarian regime.
I can only hope that some of these books will get the kind of marketing attention received by Angie Thomas’ debut. In the New York Times article about her novel, she states, “For me, hip-hop was a mirror when young adult books were not.” We will need to be vigilant in promoting and pushing for a variety of African-American stories so teens coming after her will see themselves in books as well as music in multiple and varied ways.