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18 Books for Young Adults and Early Readers That Feature Protagonists of Color

Take it from my nieces: These books deserve a spot on your shelf.
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It’s been quite a whirlwind since my first guest post here—in America, we are living through what the UN Commission of Human Rights has called "modern-day racial terror lynchings." While the momentum of Black Lives Matter in 2020 presented the largest movement in US history, police brutality and the continuation of qualified immunity is responsible for the deaths of Jonathan Price, Nevan Baker, Deon Kay, Damian Daniels, Dijon Kizzee, Trayford Pellerin and David McAtee, among far too many others.

This is why we fight. This is why I have and will continue to use my voice. This is why I will ask again: How are you actively working on raising your child to be an ally to Black kids starting today and to raise your child to be an actively upstanding (not passively bystanding) ally to Black people in the future? You must learn what it means to be anti-racist and then be useful and teach children, your families, and your networks what it means to be anti-racist. We have the power to stop this with the generation of children we are raising. Children learn so much more from what we do than what we say so I am inviting every reader to play their part in this and commit to teaching them well. It has to stop. Make it stop.

Carrying on with the idea of simplifying stories for young minds, we're going back to books. As I wrote here in July, books are an excellent vehicle to decoding messages. This time, I'm back with more recommendations for young children, as well as new readers and young adults. I have found it gets much, much harder to find books for adolescent children with Black protagonists. Perhaps because there are usually more characters in stories for younger children, or perhaps because there aren’t that many books with Black protagonists that aren’t focused on social justice. I’m always on the hunt for more books and have appreciated your recommendations so far. So please drop your suggestions in the comments below! These books were pulled primarily from my research in speaking with my two nieces, who are 11 and 14, and fortunately had many books to recommend: 

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This book received one of the biggest YA publishing deals ever, including a preemptive sale of film rights to Fox 2000, and then became an instant New York Times bestseller. When I read the backstory on how Tomi felt called to write this book, she felt like a kindred spirit. The Orisha (Yoruba deities with magical powers) influence in the book was inspired by a trip to Brazil where she, as a Nigerian woman, noticed the high visibility and reverence of Orisha culture. I also was surprised to notice this on a trip many years ago, to Bahia, Northern Brazil. Whereas in Lagos it feels like the Orisha culture is not spoken about much or even taught anymore, in Bahia, it was so revered, which in turn made me much more curious to learn more about my heritage and my history as a Yoruba woman (cue a bajillion questions to my Mum), and instantly solidified my position in the Tomi Adeyemi fan club!

This is the first of the Legacy of Orisha trilogy and I have to say, the book lives up to the hype. It feels like a mix of Harry Potter mysticism, and a dose of Yoruba culture with elements of West African mythology. There is nothing like it. Which is exactly what lays the groundwork for an expansive reading experience. Tomi says the hopelessness she felt at the shootings of Black Americans (she mentioned Jordan Edwards (15), Tamir Rice (12) and Aiyana Stanley-Jones (7) specifically) made her feel determined to tell the story of a powerful all-Black cast; one who is beautiful, magical, and mighty beyond belief. Children of Blood and Bone is a coming-of-age story that centers on the youth discovering that they have more power than they realized. This book weaves expertly through tough themes of racism, oppression, slavery, and sovereign rule. The West African and Yoruba influence take this fantasy novel to a new and different realm, one where Black people rule. She takes the reader on a fantastic voyage, told from multiple viewpoints of young people and their quest for power. Early in the book, one phrase really stood out to me: “Nothing can protect you when the rules are rooted in hate.” This book is intended for a YA audience but with a corrupt monarchy, temples, ancient mythology, ambush, love, power and superb plot twists, it is an absolutely fantastic read for all.

Recommended Age: 13 - 18

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I read great things about this book and ordered a copy for my 14-year-old niece, although I was a little hesitant at first: The book is about a Black teenage girl whose best friend is killed by a white police officer—it’s a dark, heavy subject and I wondered how it would feel for her to read about police brutality directed toward her age group. But the widespread praise for the book won me over; I checked in with my brother to make sure he was okay with it, and sent her a copy. I asked her for her feedback and here is what she said, “I was drawn in by the characters and found it hard to put down so I finished it fast. It was a thought-provoking book and very well written. It highlighted some of the major issues in today’s society and told an interesting and impactful story. Gives you a lot to think about.”

She thought it was an important read as before this, she hadn’t really thought about how police brutality could so easily be directed toward young people. The protagonist, Starr, a Black girl, is from a poor neighborhood and is one of the few Black students at an elite school. She learns to adapt to fit into her two worlds, until worlds collide when her best friend is killed by a white police officer. Starr is in the impossible position of being the only witness to a high profile crime that has the nation divided. Some are in the street protesting against police brutality and some are calling her best friend a thug and a career criminal. It has also been made into a film that I strongly recommend you watch. Great storytelling personalizes the impersonal and this film also does an excellent job of pulling you into the lives of the young cast. And when you watch it (or read it), remember: There is nothing new or unique about what you’re seeing. You can find her most recent book, On the Come Up here!

Recommended Age: 13 - 18

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Like many children, at every stage, my son has been completely in awe of kids a bit older than him. Ten-year-old Caleb and his big brother, 11-year-old-Bobby, plan to spend their summer busy with the adventures of two little boys in a small town. Very quickly, they meet 16-year-old Styx, who appears to be the coolest dude ever! Caleb is totally starstruck in that way kids can be with the older, cooler kid. Bobby, more cautious of Styx and his grand plans, appears to be a voice of reason in contrast to Caleb’s adoration and blind belief of Styx and his far-reaching version of truth. Styx encourages their wildest dreams and soon Caleb and Bobby start to worry that they’re in over their heads, because well, they are. 

While it has its serious moments, this book is full of levity, pranks and fun. Books for this age group that have Black protagonists have a tendency to be very serious and heavy, so it was nice to come across a book I could read with my son, while both laughing at the antics. For example, one of the brothers is asked to take out the trash after dinner and his cheeky response? “I’ll pencil it in for after dinner!” That had us both howling as it’s so playful but also a very accurate, very adult response! With all the time many of us have been spending safely at home this year, I’ve noticed my son repurposing many of my phrases, so it was fun for him to see this example of another kid doing the same type of thing.

Recommended Age: 8 - 13

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Jaden is a fun, relatable young boy with a love of science, adventure, and mischief. In this book (the second in the series), we start with his quest to wear his new winter coat and meet the Ladeks. The playdate is really a group research project, but the parents just don’t understand: Jaden and his friends are serious scientists on a serious quest! Jaden is a creative problem solver and his story includes his sweet family who make regular appearances. There were several "Doctor Who" references, which were a fun throwback for me. An entertaining, light read for both of us and one we’ve come back to a few times.

By the way, I chose to start with the second book in this series, which is a great starter chapter book for young readers, as the first book is called The Quest For Screen Time and, in the time of quarantine, my son definitely did not need any new ideas to add to his regular negotiation for more screen time!

Recommended Age: 6 - 11

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This is the first in a six-part book series, but each can be read on a stand-alone basis. The protagonist in this story has a fun and unusual hobby: He spots cars! He earns the nickname No. 1 as he’s the "number one" car spotter in his Nigerian village, maybe in the world. No. 1 is a great problem solver, and the story centers on when his family’s cart breaks down and they find themselves without a way to carry their goods to the market, which presents a threat to their income. No. 1 dreams up an inventive solution, the Toyota “Cow-rolla.” He is a bold, resourceful boy whose story is told alongside a lively cast of characters including his best friend Coca Cola and No. 1’s many family members. 

I especially loved this book as it’s set in Nigeria and written by a Nigerian author. My husband and I are both Nigerian so it filled me with untold delight when I found it. Sharing our heritage and culture with our son is important and while we’ve been fortunate enough to take him to visit three times, we try and find easy ways to incorporate elements of our culture into everyday life. As you might have guessed, books are one of my favorite ways to do this!

Recommended Age: 6 - 11

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This book about biking, set in Ghana (another West African country), resonated with my entire family but particularly with my son. He received this as a gift from my nieces and felt so seen, as he's an avid biker. This picture book is based on the true story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, a man who was born with one leg, who went on to cycle 400 miles across Ghana. His mother encourages his independence from an early age and makes sure he never sees his disability as a significant obstacle. In the face of repeated rejection, Emmanuel grows up resourceful, resilient, hopeful, and brave. 

This book carries a powerful, often underrepresented message: Disability does not mean inability. The fact that this book is based on a true story made it all the more impactful for both of us to read. It is a good way to introduce young minds to the idea of intersectionality and how the interconnected nature of social categories like race, class, gender, and ability can overlap to create a stacking system of advantage and disadvantage.

Recommended Age: 3 - 9

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An entertaining book that introduces young minds to the wonder of numbers: Big numbers, gigantic numbers! It encourages curiosity about the Earth, planet, stars, numbers, and everything in between. The story is set on a backdrop of diverse characters in a range of situations like swimming, being at home, and reading. You could start early with a book like this, and keep coming back to it, as we have. My seven-year-old son has such a different understanding of the numbers and the facts as he's grown older, which has been fun for me to watch. 

Recommended Age: 3 - 9

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This story is full of powerful affirmations with a cast of characters who represent a wide range of races, ethnicities, and abilities. My favorite part is the mindful affirmation prompts at the end, which help little ones understand how mindful affirmations become their inner voice. I also found the prompts very helpful for myself (!), especially in the heightened collective emotional state we’re all living in: COVID-19, the current civil rights movement, and, for those of us in California, the raging wildfires and smoke so toxic it made the entire sun disappear for an entire day in some parts of the state. I love reading this book with my son as it’s a powerful reminder to slow down and embrace peace. 

At the early elementary school stage, where children are really beginning to spread their wings and fly, it has been a helpful way to encourage my son to find ways to feel powerful in his body. This book introduces children to the practice of listening to their quiet voice and using mindful affirmations for support in hard situations; a very useful, lifelong skill.

Recommended Age: 3 - 9

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This book is exceptional in its simplicity of handling race and police brutality in a way that is accessible for young minds. The week after George Floyd was murdered, my son’s principal sent an email to all parents with suggestions on how to talk to kids about the Black Lives Matter movement and this book was on the list. The premise is simple and the words run alongside beautiful illustrations that help tell their own parallel story. It begins by highlighting the fact that the little kids in the town know more than the adults expect. Then, the kids ask adults hard questions; questions that are hard because of their striking simplicity: Why did the police shoot that man? Why won’t the police officer go to jail? 

The story tells the parallel family conversations between classmates, Emma, a young white girl and Josh, a young Black boy. Both family conversations have teenagers that bring the directness to a topic that parents might have been inclined to tiptoe around. I have heard from many that they feel like they don’t have the right language to talk through issues of race and police brutality with their children. But the truth is: We will all make mistakes, so we have to move past that discomfort and get comfortable with the continuous, uncomfortable nature of these conversations. This book has a lot of useful prompts at the end for parents and caregivers to engage in meaningful conversation with children. The three authors include a family psychologist and two clinical psychologists who specialize in work with high-risk children. One of the best pieces of advice I learned a long time ago was when you don’t know what to say, amplify the voices of those that do. These authors know exactly what to say to children.

Recommended Age: 3 - 9

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This is definitely one of my top five children books that I’ve read as a parent. While Malala is not Black, hers is a very powerful and important story to share with children. I do feel it offers context for the Black Lives Matter movement and could also tie in to any form of oppression. It's another great introduction to intersectionality.

Malala is a Pakistani activist and the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Prize Peace prize. The story, which is also quite possibly the most beautifully illustrated book I’ve seen, starts with Malala wishing for a magic pencil. She wants to be able to draw the things she wants into existence. She dreams of drawing solutions to poverty, war, and the disparity of privilege. As she grows, so do her daily challenges: Her right to attend school is taken away, just because she is a girl. Instead of wishing for her magic pencil, she grabs her real one and, from the letters she writes from her home, her story reaches the world. She quickly recognizes the value in using her voice to speak for all the girls in her valley who can’t speak for themselves. Malala’s real pencil becomes Malala’s magic pencil as it shows how one girl, with one pencil, changed the world. If you’d like to learn more about Malala, I highly recommend watching her interview with David Letterman.

Recommended Age: 3 - 9

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While I haven't read any of these books yet, I wanted to include a few additional suggestions that have received high praise recently:

Bee Fearless by Mikaila Ulmer with Brin Stevens (ages 10 - 16): The ultimate story of turning lemons into lemonade: Mikaila employed resilience and creative problem-solving to create her successful lemonade stand that benefits bee conservation. I'm planning on getting the the audiobook version for us to listen to as a family on road trips.

Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero By Kelly J. Baptist (ages 8 - 10): I like the idea of a child using his late father’s journal to tap into the strength that lies within him, which plays into the love young children have of superheroes and superpowers at a stage when they mostly believe their parents are magic! Sounds like an uplifting and affirming read.

Ikenga By Nnedi Okorafor (ages 10 and up): Nigeria is made up of three main tribes: the Yoruba (referenced above in Children of Blood and Bone), the Igbo, and the Hausa. This book also leans into superpowers and magic but is rooted in Igbo history and culture. I’ll get this one for myself as I’d love to learn more too!

Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson (ages 10 - 12): If her name sounds familiar it’s because she wrote the bestselling book Red at the Bone. I would imagine it’s hard to successfully write both children and adult books, as I’ve loved her adult books, but I’m looking forward to reading this story about the life of a family once the father’s high-rolling professional football career is over—and how they all deal with the impact of numerous head injuries in the aftermath.

A few others: The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert (ages 12 and up), Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson (ages 8 to 11), When Stars Are Scattered by Alan Gratz (ages 9 to 12), Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi (ages 12 and up)

P.S. Thank you very much to everyone who has reached out to me since. Speaking up and speaking out has created several opportunities to share my thoughts on raising anti racist children. Over the summer, I was interviewed by journalist Elizabeth Holmes in an IG live and I was also interviewed by Reggie Aqui for ABC News.

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