Addressing Racism Through Young Adult Literature

Hillary St. George, Senior Librarian, Cahuenga Branch Library,

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World and Me Atlantic Magazine journalist Coates writes the book in the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son, preparing him for the reality of entering into adulthood as a black man in modern-day America. He draws upon his own experiences growing up as a teenager in Baltimore, attending Howard University and forging his path as a writer. His vivid prose shines a bright light on the fear, and the caution instilled in him from an early age, where it originated from, and how that fear and caution expressed itself as a teenager and, later, as a young adult. While the book resides in the Adult Non-Fiction shelves of our libraries, it’s also an important piece of Young Adult Non-Fiction writing.

Recipient of the 2015 National Book Award for Non-Fiction and selected as one of LAPL Read’s Best Non-Fiction Books of 2015, Coates’ book is a timely and powerful read for anyone trying to make sense of current events.  Among other things, his book addresses his teenage son’s awareness of the recent deaths of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice at the hands of the police and how their deaths affect both of them. 2015 will be known as the year the names Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Laquan McDonald (all belonging to men and boys under the age of 25 with the exception of Garner) became synonymous with racial profiling and law enforcement brutality and misconduct. Theirs is a painful shared legacy, collectively shining a spotlight on the many ways, both violent and commonplace, that law enforcement engages with black young adults, ways that existed well before the invention of cell phone video and dashboard cameras that provided undeniable evidence to a longstanding problem.

Fiction performs many functions when we’re reading it. Fiction entertains and engages; if a book can’t do those things first, it can’t do anything. But fiction also gives us a tool with which to explore our own relationship to the world. Fiction provides insight into how people we’ve never met or don’t associate with relate to the world too. Fiction also offers a platform with which to approach difficult topics of discussion. In coming into its own over the past decade, Young Adult fiction offers a growing list of titles that tackle difficult and timely subject matters.

Here is a list of recently published Young Adult novels that not only attempt to explore racism and race relations in America today but also happen to be good reads too.

All-American Boys, Jason Reynolds & Brandon Kiely (2015)
Told in alternating voices, this is the compelling and nuanced story of two Springfield High School students: Rashad, a black 16-year-old ROTC member and aspiring artist, and Quinn, a white senior and varsity basketball player and what happens when an off-duty police officer and family friend of Quinn’s viciously assaults Rashad at a corner store after wrongly assuming he was stealing a bag of chips.

Black Boy, White School, Brian F. Walker (2012)
Anthony "Ant" Jones leaves the rougher side of East Cleveland for a predominantly white boarding school in Maine on scholarship where he has to figure out how to acclimate among students and staff who make assumptions about him, both large and seemingly small. At the same time, he has to readjust to his family, friends, and community when he returns home for winter break and must figure out where he belongs among people he’s known his whole life.

How It Went Down, Kekla Magoon (2014)
When 16-year-old Tariq is shot on the street by a white man while returning from an errand for his mom everyone has their own opinion of who Tariq was and what exactly happened, filtered through their own personal perspectives. From his best friend and boys in the neighborhood to gang member acquaintances, his family, and the various strangers involved, Magoon’s novel is told in a myriad of voices, all trying to process the aftermath of complicated events that took a young boy’s life.

This Side of Home, Renee Watson (2015)
Richmond High School class president Maya Younger enters her senior year in a world full of change: her neighborhood is gentrifying in ways she’s not so comfortable with, her school has yet another new principal who is promoting questionable policies in the name of diversity and an interesting white guy moves into what used to be her best friend’s house until she and her mother were priced out of the neighborhood.