Many of the young adult books you were raised on were racist. Most were probably written by white authors that schools historically and still do overrepresent in the curriculum. And those authors weren’t checking their biases. Their racism may have been outright, such as in Little House on the Prairie, which includes the repeated phrase “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” It may have been controversial, such as Mark Twain’s use of the n-word in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It may have been more subtle, such as racist depictions and problematic stereotypes in To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s right. Even books that schools use to teach about racism are racist.
Some books from back in the day, mostly written by authors of color, shone a light on racism and its devastating effects. They have paved the way for many more that teach teens about racism while still being a damn good read. Some tackle the issues through realistic fiction, taking on police brutality and Black voter suppression. Some dive into the world of fantasy to demonstrate how othering people is harmful. Many address how compounding and intersecting issues of oppression affect Black people in this country, such as Black transgender people. Reading and understanding them — and celebrating Black joy, not just Black pain — is crucial to becoming a better ally. And if your kid is Black, these stories might provide characters and storylines that they can relate to.
Justyce is a Black boy who attends a modern white prep school and thinks of himself as a “good kid.” That makes it difficult for him to reconcile the experience of being racially profiled and wrongfully arrested. He tries to do so by writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. But then a cop shoots and kills Justyce’s friend at a traffic stop. Police brutality against Black people is a major theme in the book, making it especially relevant now.
Marva has been excitedly ringing doorbells and registering voters in anticipation of the first election she’s old enough to vote in. Then she sees another Black teenager, Duke, turned away from the polling booth. She cuts school and drags him on a mission to get his vote counted, facing plenty of shenanigans like finding her lost cat along the way. Of course, there’s a hint of romance too.
Honors student Kiera is secretly the designer of a massive multiplayer online role-playing game based on Black culture. As one of the only Black people at her school, Kiera is exhausted at having to always be the voice of Black people as a whole. As a response, she designed the game as a safe space for Black people — no one else allowed. Then the media discovers the game and pegs it as racist when a player is murdered in real life over an in-game dispute, and Kiera must save the game while concealing her identity.
Pecola believes that whiteness is beautiful and Blackness is ugly. She thinks her home troubles — her father’s drinking and parents’ fighting — are due to her being Black and ugly, so she prays for blue eyes. Though a difficult read that addresses sexual assault and mental health, this book is considered one of Morrison’s best and stands up to the test of time.
Stephen is a sixth-grader who is mixed race with one African-American parent and one white parent. He starts to realize that everything his white friends do may not be safe for him, such as searching an abandoned building, and he has a hard time pinning down his lane as a biracial kid. The book explores how race affects friendship and is designed for younger readers age 10 to 14.
A book doesn’t have to be set in the contemporary world to address racial inequality. In this fantasy novel inspired by West African culture, the light-skinned royalty has killed dark-skinned magic-users in a genocide and taken magic away from the land. Dark-skinned diviners, who have magic in their blood that they cannot use, are persecuted and the royalty even treats some as slaves. One diviner, a girl named Zelie, must venture to take magic back with a princess who defects, racing against a prince who must stop them while hiding his own magic to stay in control of the kingdom.
Starr is a Black girl who lives in a Black neighborhood and attends a white school. When a white police officer kills her Black childhood best friend, she is there to witness it. Walking the lines between her two worlds grows difficult when her friend’s death makes national news and the media paints him as a drug dealer and gangbanger. Her community protests the killing with Starr at the helm, and the police meet the protestors with tear gas. Sound familiar?
Fiction is great for empathy and understanding, but non-fiction can directly get at the root of the issue. An adaptation of the original “Stamped” book written for adults, this version for teens gets into the history of racism in the U.S., but always with a focus on how that relates to racism in the here and now. The book explains why racism still exists and how teenagers can work to stop it, including stamping out their own racist thoughts and biases.
Seventeen-year-old Felix is Black and transgender. An anonymous bully posts his pre-transition photos and name on a school forum and sends Felix anonymous transphobic texts. Felix must deal with sorting out his feelings while trying to get an art scholarship to college and falling in love with his scholarship competitor. However, Felix fears he has too many marginalized identities to live a happily ever after.
Ten-year-old Kenny’s older brother Byron is a troublemaker, so his parents take their kids to Grandma Sands in Birmingham, Alabama so she can knock some sense into Byron. Then racists bomb Grandma Sands’ Black church and Kenny is a witness, and Byron must help Kenny make sense of this cruelty. This book is another classic and is appropriate for kids aged nine and older.
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