30 Realistic & Historical Fiction Books with Black Main Characters

A bevy of 2018 YMA winners and forthcoming 2018 middle grade and YA titles to excite readers.

The past few weeks have been quite a whirlwind. The Youth Media Awards once again delighted and stunned many of us, our favorite middle grade and YA novels taking home much-deserved awards. Many of the authors and titles featured below are 2018 award winners, including Renée Watson, Jason Reynolds, Brandy Colbert, and others.

Looking forward, a bevy of recently published or forthcoming 2018 titles also appear on this list. Though the following reviews are for middle grade and YA books that fall into realistic and historical fiction categories, a number of them incorporate surreal elements into their narratives. For instance, ghosts play a central role in Kheryn Callender's Hurricane Child, Jason Reynolds's Long Way Down, and Jewell Parker Rhodes's Ghost Boys. Hand this eminently readable titles to tweens and teens, and check out our previous posts in this Black History Month–themed series.

Middle Grade

redstarCALLENDER, Kheryn. Hurricane Child. 224p. Scholastic. Mar. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781338129304.

Gr 4-6 –Twelve-year-old Caroline and her father live on Water Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Caroline, known as a “Hurricane Child,” since she was born during a hurricane, is plagued with bad luck. She sees a spirit—the woman in black—that no one else can see. She is bullied daily at school by both children and her teachers who make cruel remarks about her dark skin tone. Her feelings of loneliness are compounded by the fact that her mother left and never returned. When a new student from Barbados named Kalinda joins her class, Caroline is drawn to Kalinda’s confidence and disinterest in befriending the bullies. The two girls soon become close friends. Caroline realizes her feelings for Kalinda are more than platonic and when she expresses them to Kalinda, they are unfortunately met with resistance. Nevertheless, Kalinda agrees to help Caroline find her mother in the midst of a terrible storm. By the end, the protagonist is able to feel more at peace with herself, her family, and her complex relationship with Kalinda. The novel moves at a substantial pace and contains intermittent flashbacks. Told solely from Caroline’s perspective, readers get an in-depth understanding of her experiences and feelings. Lush descriptions bring the Caribbean environment to vivid life. VERDICT An excellent and nuanced coming-of-age tale with a dash of magical realism for readers who enjoy character-driven novels, especially those with middle grade LGBTQ+ characterizations.–Jess Gafkowitz, Brooklyn Public Library

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

redstarCURTIS, Christopher Paul.The Journey of Little Charlie. 256p. Scholastic. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545156660. Gr 5-8–Oversized like an ox, 12-year-old Charlie Bobo and his sharecropper parents eke out a living on the Tanner Plantation deep in South Carolina in 1858. When an accident takes his father’s life, Charlie and his mother must settle a debt with the plantation’s sadistic overseer, Cap’n Buck. The despicable overseer forces Charlie to accompany him to Detroit to retrieve $4,000 worth of stolen property. Charlie’s journey covers more than miles as he finally realizes the stolen property isn’t material but human. Outside his norm of Southern life, he sees his white privilege and the horrors of people claiming ownership of other people. It truly sickens him, but he feels trapped by his father’s debt. Cap’n Buck and Charlie venture into Canada to capture their last fugitive slave: Sylvanus, a boy just Charlie’s age. When he sees the similarities in their lives despite their different races, Charlie knows he cannot be party to the legal evil of slavery any longer (“I knowed Sylvanus and his ma and pa was gonna be slaves ‘gain. And I knowed it would be my doings that caused it.”). Charlie alters the course of his journey right then, changing his life forever. His choice shows that no matter one’s upbringing—Charlie lived in poverty, racism, and ignorance—a person can choose right. Curtis’s use of dialect lends the story authenticity, though it may slow down less confident readers. The violence of slavery is not shied away from and use of historically accurate, derogatory terms for black people are used. Young readers will benefit from discussion during and after reading. VERDICT A thought-provoking book from a master storyteller.–Lisa Crandall, formerly at the Capital Area District Library, Holt, MI

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

redstarENGLISH, Karen. It All Comes Down to This. 368p. Clarion. Jul. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544839571.

Gr 5-8 –Sophie is a 12-year-old African American girl living in 1965 Los Angeles. She is intelligent and determined. With two professional parents and a sister on her way to a historically black college, Sophie is living a middle-class life in her mostly white neighborhood and struggling to find acceptance among her peers. Friendship formation and creative ambitions are thwarted by bigotry, but her inner strength leaves her undaunted. Sophie has a complex relationship with her busy, successful parents. Her sister, Lily, is a strong influence on Sophie. Because of Lily’s relationship with the family’s Jamaican housekeeper’s son, she is exposed to social activism and catches a glimpse of the 1965 Watts Riots. Relatable characters populate this story of one significant summer in a girl’s life. Readers will react strongly to the scorn with which Sophie is treated by neighborhood girls, and hopefully be prompted to take up the cause of social justice when they draw parallels between the events of Sophie’s world and contemporary happenings. A few instances of offensive language and a subplot involving adultery make this a choice for middle schoolers or mature middle graders. VERDICT A satisfying combination of historical and realistic fiction featuring an interesting and diverse cast.–Deidre Winterhalter, Oak Park Public ­Library, IL

This review was published in the School Library Journal June 2017 issue.

redstarGRIMES, Nikki. Garvey’s Choice. 120p. Boyds Mills/Wordsong. Oct. 2016. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781629797403.

Garvey's Choice by Nikki GrimesGr 4-8 –Grimes’s latest is a sensitively written middle grade novel in verse that takes its syllable count from Japanese tanka. Garvey is an overweight boy who is teased at school and whose father constantly prods him to be more like his athletic older sister, Angie. But Garvey has a best friend (Joe), an open heart (which leads him to a new friend, Manny), and, as readers learn midway through the book, a talent for singing, which lands him a coveted solo in the school’s chorus concert. Through that talent, Garvey finds a way to connect with his father and combat his bullies’ rude remarks with a newfound strength of purpose. Those who thought Planet Middle School’s Joylin was a remarkably lifelike portrait of an angsty yet kind adolescent will fall hard for Garvey, a tender, sincere boy who dislikes athletics. Grimes writes about adolescent friendships in a way that feels deeply human. VERDICT A short, sweet, satisfying novel in verse that educators and readers alike will love.–Abigail Garnett, Brooklyn Public Library

This review was published in the School Library Journal July 2016 issue.

Jackson, Linda Williams. A Sky Full of Stars. 320p. HMH. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780544800656.

Gr 5-7 –Jackson’s second novel in the continuing story of Rosa “Rose” Lee Carter, a 13-year-old African American girl growing up in Mississippi. The year is 1955, and the town of Stillwater, MI, is still reeling from the injustice of Emmett Till’s murderers going free. The white folks are saying that ever since the trial, “the coloreds have gotten beside themselves.” Trouble is brewing closer to Rosa than it ever has before. Her best friend, Hallelujah, the preacher’s son, is stirring up talk of holding demonstrations in Stillwater. But it is Rosa’s cousin Shorty who is determined to take a stronger stance against whites, using guns instead of words. While the backdrop of the story depicts the violence and hatred toward blacks in the South, racial tension and injustice is weaved throughout Rosa’s own story. Many readers will be shaken by the level of violence that pervaded this time and region of the country, while others will see echoes of this history in current events. There is also much inspiration to be found in Rosa’s resilience and her determination to make something good of her life and not leave her beloved South for a “safer” part of the country. Jackson presents a raw and frank look at what growing up in the deep South during Jim Crow was really like. VERDICT A powerful and well-crafted novel that will spark deep discussion of this era in U.S. history— and its contemporary repercussions.–Carol ­Connor, Cincinnati Public Schools, OH

This review was published in the School Library Journal September 2017 issue.

redstarJOHNSON, Varian. The Parker Inheritance. 352p. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. Mar. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545946179.

Gr 4-6 –Part historical fiction, part critical problem-solving exercise, part suspenseful mystery, this story weaves through the past and present of one town’s struggle with hatred and racism. Candice and her mother have moved temporarily from Washington, D.C., to her mother’s hometown in Lambert, SC, while her parents finalize the plans of their amicable divorce. Candice is miserable until she meets Brandon and finds an old letter addressed to her from her deceased grandmother with a puzzle enclosed. Twenty years prior, her grandmother had tried unsuccessfully to solve the puzzle that would yield a great deal of money to the town and the person who solved it. Together, Candice and Brandon make their own attempt. Who were Enoch, Leanne, and Siobhan Washington? How does an illegal tennis match played in 1957 between the white Wallace School and African American Perkins School factor into the solution? The characters are varied, authentic, and well developed. The plot moves along quickly and seamlessly between the past and present, with chapters from the 1950s shaded in light gray for a smart visual effect. The present day isn’t sugarcoated, showing readers that racial equity is still an unresolved problem. Appended author notes offer additional context, making it an excellent link to social studies or history units. VERDICT A must-purchase for most libraries, especially where Johnson’s previous titles have fans.–Anne Jung-Mathews, Plymouth State University, NH

This review was published in the School Library Journal December 2017 issue.

redstarMOORE, David Barclay. The Stars Beneath Our Feet. 304p. Knopf. Sept. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781524701246.

Gr 5-8 –Twelve-year-old Lolly, a resident of Harlem’s St. Nicholas projects, has had a tough few months. His older brother, Jermaine, died as the result of gang-related violence. Still reeling from grief, Lolly now must contend with two neighborhood teens who’ve begun following, threatening, and stealing from Lolly and his best friend Vega. Following in his brother’s footsteps and taking violent revenge is tempting. His obsession with LEGOs and a burgeoning dream of becoming an architect just might see Lolly through, though, especially after his mother’s girlfriend starts bringing him garbage bags full of bricks from her job in a toy store. This gift prompts Lolly to begin building a huge LEGO city, one that quickly outgrows his apartment and has to be moved to the storage room of the community center, where he strikes up a friendship with Rose, a girl with autism who shares his passion for building. This well-honed debut novel paints a vivid picture of Lolly and the choices that he must make, but beyond that, it introduces a cast of memorable, fully realized characters, each of whom will stay with readers long beyond the closing page. What’s more, it offers a three-dimensional portrayal of a neighborhood too frequently shown in one-dimensional terms. As this novel makes clear, it is a vibrant community, home to a majority of people who care deeply about their neighbors. VERDICT A strongly recommended purchase for all middle grade collections.–Eileen Makoff, P.S. 90 Edna Cohen School, NY

This review was published in the School Library Journal October 2017 issue.

Winner of the 2018 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award

redstarREYNOLDS, Jason. As Brave as You. 410p. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Bks. May 2016. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481415903. Gr 5-8–Reynolds’s engaging middle grade debut stars 11-year-old African American Genie Harris, an inveterate worrywart who considers Google his best friend, and his older brother Ernie, who is well on his way to being a cool dude (sunglasses and all). The born and bred Brooklynites are to spend a month with their grandparents in rural Virginia while their parents take a long overdue vacation and work out their marital problems. It is only after the boys are left in their grandfather’s care that they realize that he is blind. They are also surprised to learn that they are expected to do chores and follow their grandmother’s strict rules—and that it is possible to exist (sort of) without the Internet. While Ernie crushes on the girl who lives at the base of the hill, Genie writes down his many burning questions so he doesn’t forget them and gets to know his proud and fiercely independent grandfather. Genie barrages Grandpop with questions about his past and present abilities and about the quirky aspects of the household, especially his “nunya bidness” room, his harmonica playing, and how Grandpop might not be able to see but still packs a pistol. As the languid days unfold, the boys learn about country life and the devastating loss of the elder Harrises’ son during Desert Storm and their estrangement from their living son, the boys’ father. Grandpop Harris is a complicated, irascible character, full of contradictions and vulnerabilities, the least of which is his lack of vision. Reynolds captures the bond that Grandpop and Genie form in a tender, believable, and entertaining way, delivered through smart and funny prose and sparkling dialogue. VERDICT A richly realized story about life and loss, courage and grace, and what it takes to be a man. Although a tad lengthy, it is easy reading and will be appreciated by a broad audience.–Luann Toth, School Library Journal

This review was published in the School Library Journal June 2016 issue.

redstarREYNOLDS, Jason. Patina. 240p. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Bks. Aug. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481450188.

Gr 5-8 –Twelve-year-old Patina Jones not only loves to run, she needs to run—and win. She’s a gifted athlete, and since the death of her father and her mother’s life-altering health problems, Patty’s track club has become the focal point of her life. Running helps her to navigate the changes she and her younger sister, Maddy, are experiencing. They have left their urban neighborhood to live in a different part of the city with their uncle Tony (who is black like Patty and Maddy) and their aunt Emily (who is white) and attend a new school, Chester Academy. In this follow-up to Ghost, the award-winning author continues to display his mastery of voice. Patty’s observations about her new classmates are pointed: “a whole bunch of rich girls whose daddies own stuff.” Over time, Patty begins to understand that her success depends on teamwork. Her changing views are sparked by two collaborative projects. One is based on the life of Frida Kahlo. Working with classmates, about whom she had formed erroneous assumptions, gives her opportunities to widen her perspective. The second and more central catalyst is being selected as a member of the 4×800 relay on her elite track team. With the encouragement of her loving family and supportive coaches, Patty ultimately becomes the anchor of her team, both on and off the track. Patty’s story is an invitation to grapple with the need to belong, socioeconomic status, and the dangers of jumping to conclusions. VERDICT This “second leg” of Reynolds’s series is as satisfying as its predecessor and a winning story on its own.–Shelley Sommer, Inly School, Scituate, MA

This review was published in the School Library Journal September 2017 issue.

redstarRHODES, Jewell Parker. Ghost Boys. 186p. Little, Brown. Apr. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780316262286.

Gr 4-8 –The Towers Falling author once again tackles a timely yet difficult subject. In Chicago, 12-year-old black youth Jerome is shot and killed by a white police officer who mistakes a toy gun for a real one. As a ghost, Jerome witnesses the aftermath gripping both his family and that of the police officers. Jerome also meets another ghost—that of Emmett Till, a black boy murdered in 1955. Through Till’s story, he learns of the hundreds of other “ghost boys” left to roam and stop history from continually repeating itself. The only person who can see Jerome is the daughter of the white police officer, Sarah, and through her eyes, he realizes that his family isn’t the only one affected by the tragedy. Two families are destroyed with one split decision, and Sarah and Jerome together try to heal both of their families, along with Jerome’s friend Carlos. It was Carlos’ toy gun that Jerome was playing with, leaving Carlos with great guilt and the intense desire to protect Jerome’s little sister, Kim, from bullies and other sorrows. Deftly woven and poignantly told, this a story about society, biases both conscious and unconscious, and trying to right the wrongs of the world. VERDICT Rhodes captures the all-too-real pain of racial injustice and provides an important window for readers who are just beginning to explore the ideas of privilege and implicit bias.–Michele Shaw, Quail Run ­Elementary School, San Ramon, CA

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

redstarSHABAZZ, Ilyasah with Renée Watson. Betty Before X. 256p. Farrar. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780374306106.

Gr 4-6 –This novel centering the girl who would become the wife of Malcolm X and accomplish much on her own after his assassination reminds readers that even legendary figures are real people. Betty Dean Sanders was born in 1934 in Pinehurst, GA. At barely a year old, she was taken from her mother, Ollie Mae, because there was evidence of abuse. She lived with her grandmother and aunt until she was seven. When Aunt Fannie Mae died, Betty was sent to Detroit to live again with Ollie Mae. The mother-daughter relationship was never comfortable, and when there was more abuse, Betty was taken in, at the age of 11, by Lorenzo and Helen Malloy, who raised her until she left for college. The authors highlight Betty’s personal trials and those of the civil rights struggle. Emotional but not melodramatic, the facts and events speak for themselves. Readers will acutely feel the confusion and pain Betty experiences with her mother, her anger at the treatment of African Americans, and the hopefulness instilled by Helen Malloy and her Housewives’ League as they boycott businesses which will not hire blacks. There is also the warmth of Betty’s community, the love of her sisters, the peace she finds in her faith, and the joy of her accomplishments. VERDICT An excellent work of historical fiction that will illuminate and spark discussion. Pair this with Shabazz’s X: A Novel for a well-rounded picture of the couple and their times.–Katherine Koenig, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

This review was published in the School Library Journal December 2017 issue.

SPICER-DANNELLY, Doreen. Love Double Dutch! 240p. Random. Apr. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781524700003. Gr 5-8–MaKayla is a girl from Brooklyn with only one thing on her mind: taking her Double Dutch team to the National Jump-Off at Madison Square Garden. That is, until her parents send her and her brother to stay with relatives in South Carolina so they can work on their relationship. MaKayla wonders how she’ll survive the summer without Double Dutch and under the wrath of her cousin, Sally, who dumped the jump-roping game for ballet. But when MaKayla’s aunt signs the girls up for a sports camp, MaKayla discovers not only that Double Dutch is huge in the South, but that she now has a chance to make it to Madison Square Garden after all—if she can convince Sally to jump again despite the bullying that made her quit, and put together an award-winning team and routine in time. With a clear tie to one of Spicer-Dannelly’s previous projects, the Disney Channel movie Jump In!, this title offers a similar wish-fulfillment story line. While some of life’s realities are addressed in the plot (such as race, socioeconomic status, junior high crushes, bullies, and more), readers may find MaKayla’s almost grown-up perspective on most of them unrealistic and slightly didactic, especially when the narrative reads younger than her rising eighth grade age. Additionally, insensitive references to Native American culture and peoples—referring to a crying brother as “Chief Rain-in-the-Face” and asserting that “Fighting is for savages”—make this title difficult to place in a collection. VERDICT Unless your library has a huge Double Dutch scene, skip it.–Brittany Drehobl, Morton Grove Public Library, IL

This review was published in the School Library Journal February 2018 issue.

Tarpley, Natasha. The Harlem Charade. 320p. ebook available. Scholastic. Feb. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780545783873. Gr 4-6–What makes a community? What role does the past play in our present and future? These are the overarching questions posed in this Harlem-set mystery with its cast of three disparate seventh graders. Jin, who lives with her grandparents and helps run their bodega, is a keen observer of human nature and records all in her ever-present notebook. Alex, an extremely wealthy girl, spends her free time trying to help the disadvantaged, while being rude and abrasive to her fellow classmates. Elvin, who becomes the linchpin of the trio, has just arrived in Harlem to live with his estranged grandfather. When disaster strikes and his grandfather is brutally attacked, Elvin becomes homeless and the girls swoop in as caretakers. As the three begin to investigate the assault, they learn of a fascinating chapter in the Harlem art scene that has far-reaching ramifications for the present. The author’s note will be helpful in classroom discussions and may prompt further reading. VERDICT Exploring themes such as art, social justice, and the corporatization of historic settings, this selection will have strong regional appeal and will interest those who enjoyed Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer.–Amy Nolan, St. Joseph Public Library, MI

This review was published in the School Library Journal November 2016 issue.

redstarWILLIAMS-GARCIA, Rita. Clayton Byrd Goes Underground. 176p. HarperCollins/ Amistad. May 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780062215918.

Gr 4-6 –Clayton Byrd has some complicated relationships in his family. His strict, demanding mother refuses to marry his father, but allows him to be a presence in Clayton’s life. Clayton adores his grandfather, “Cool Papa,” though his mother does not. Cool Papa nurtures Clayton in many ways—cooking his favorite foods, reading to him each night, and teaching him the harmonica and the blues. He’s allowed to tag along with Cool Papa when he and his band, the Bluesmen, busk in Washington Square Park. When Cool Papa dies unexpectedly, in a scene that is understated and heartbreaking, Clayton is devastated. His mother not only sends Clayton back to school too soon but sells or gives away all of Cool Papa’s belongings, some of which were promised to Clayton. School becomes complicated when Clayton is assigned to read the very book that Cool Papa read to him every night. Clayton’s plea for another book is ignored. When his frustration and grief become overwhelming, he cuts school and takes the subway, intent on finding and joining the Bluesmen. Williams-Garcia packs a lot of story in this slim book. Clayton’s an appealing character, and his anger and loss are palpable. The neighborhood scenes are so vivid, one does not need to be a denizen of New York City to appreciate them. VERDICT This complex tale of family and forgiveness has heart. A first purchase.–Brenda Kahn, Tenakill Middle School, Closter, NJ

This review was published in the School Library Journal May 2017 issue.

A finalist for the 2017 National Book Awards


BARROW, Rebecca. You Don’t Know Me but I Know You. 336p. HarperCollins/HarperTeen. Aug. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062494191. Gr 9 Up–A contemporary YA that examines the impact of a life-changing choice. Audrey is a black 17-year-old artist who has just found out that she’s pregnant. Her best friend Rose is strangely emotionally unavailable, and Audrey is ashamed of her current situation. Her boyfriend Julian is supportive, but he’s a musician with an opportunity to attend a music academy. Audrey receives encouragement and support from her adoptive mother Laura and her stepfather Alex. They work to provide a relatively judgment-free zone for Audrey and Julian to make a decision that will affect the rest of their lives. A recent letter from the protagonist’s birth mother shines a different light on her adoption and her birth mother’s life after adoption. The teens experience all the thrills of being potential parents and the agony of maybe missing out on their own opportunities. Both work together to figure out the best path. The debut author adeptly portrays the weight of the decision-making process and its effect on all of the characters. The birth mother’s role is superficial, but otherwise this is a good read for realistic fiction fans who enjoy YA with complicated relationships. VERDICT A strong choice for large YA collections.–Desiree Thomas, Worthington Library, OH

This review was published in the School Library Journal July 2017 issue.

BEACON HOUSE TEEN WRITERS.The Day Tajon Got Shot. edited by Kathy Crutcher. 230p. Shout Mouse. May 2017. pap. $14.99. ISBN 9780996927451.

Gr 8 Up –Tajon Williams, a black teen, sells weed as a means of getting his mother and sister away from his abusive and alcoholic father. He is threatened at gunpoint by the neighborhood drug dealer into handing over his weed supply without receiving money from him. Their transaction is interrupted by a white police officer, and Tajon is shot twice while running from the officer. The shooting is witnessed by Razia, a longtime school friend of Tajon. She knows Tajon did not have a gun, contrary to the police officer’s claims. Her sister, Angel, is best friends with Ashley, a white female member of the basketball team who figures out the police officer is none other than her own father, Pete. Her brother, Zach, lashes out at Pete for shooting his friend. When the school finds out Pete is their father, it is Ashley who unwittingly earns the wrath from Angel and the basketball team. The 10 teen writers of Beacon House have brilliantly crafted a YA book in which they take on the perspectives of 10 central characters. Each is given multiple layers. However, Pete’s nameless wife and Ashley and Zach’s mother are not as nuanced. Readers will appreciate the usage of multimedia, such as newspaper headlines, social media, and protest signs and posters. The book gives off an element of anticipation, which will cause readers to wonder the outcome of the comatose Tajon’s condition. Readers will also be alarmed at the list of unarmed people of color killed by police in the United States, from March 2015 to the writing of this book. VERDICT This smart and courageous YA novel will open up a dialogue started by young voices who deserve to be heard. A strong purchase.–Donald Peebles, Brooklyn Public Library

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

Winner of the Fiction Category for the In the Margins Books Awards

redstarCOLBERT, Brandy. Little & Lion. 336p. Little, Brown. Aug. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316349000.

Gr 10 Up –Suzette has been devoted to Lionel from an early age, and vice versa. At first glance, they don’t look like siblings—a black girl and white boy barely a year apart in age—but their blended family is closely knit. At her parents’ insistence, Suzette has been away at boarding school since Lionel’s mental health began to deteriorate and he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Now she’s back in L.A. for the summer, and she finds more complications waiting. Suzette is dealing with the aftermath of a secret relationship with her roommate at school, new feelings for her childhood friend Emil, and an attraction to the same girl her brother likes, and the secrets Lionel wants her to keep are the last thing she needs. Intersectional and honest, this book covers topics of mental health, sexuality, and family without sugarcoating or melodrama. The supporting characters are just as vivid as the leads, with full personalities and backgrounds of their own (for instance, Emil is black and Korean and wears hearing aids) that are never a cheap plot point. Suzette is a sympathetic and flawed character, struggling to overcome her own fears to do right by the people she cares about. VERDICT A moving, diverse exploration of the challenges of growing up and the complicated nature of loyalty. Recommended for all YA collections.–Amy Diegelman, formerly at Vineyard Haven Public Library, MA

This review was published in the School Library Journal June 2017 issue.

Winner of the 2018 Stonewall Book Award 

redstarCOLES, Jay. Tyler Johnson Was Here. 304p. Little, Brown. Mar. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316440776. POP Gr 9 Up–Narrated by 17-year-old Marvin Johnson, this novel gives readers a glimpse into the life and the tragic death of his identical twin Tyler. Their family is headed by a single mother separated from her husband due to incarceration. It’s senior year and for the first time, the twins are growing apart. Tyler now prefers his friends over all else, forsaking academics and his curfew. Marvin, on the other hand, is questioning the change and feeling an imbalance in the relationship. Gang violence erupts in a party both twins attend and Tyler ends up dead from an unprovoked altercation with a police officer. Marvin, who was being scouted by MIT for a college scholarship, begins a downward spiral that could only end with the clearing of his deceased brother’s name as a wrongdoer. Social media, as in real life, plays a vital part in the advocacy for victims’ rights at the hands of police, as well as for the efforts needed to organize public protests and vigils in memory of Tyler. Tensions arise in the community between proponents of the Black Lives Matter movement and those who push for “All Lives Matter” in response. This well-written, fast-paced story eloquently addresses how to grieve, plan, and participate in the burial of a loved one, a sensitive subject for all youth. It also succeeds in not avoiding tough subjects, such as systemic racism.. VERDICT For fans of All-American Boys and The Hate U Give, this emotion-filled title is a standout debut.–­Sabrina Carnesi, Crittenden Middle School, Newport News, VA

This review was published in the School Library Journal February 2018 issue.

redstarGILLMAN, Melanie. As the Crow Flies. illus. by Melanie Gillman. 250p. Iron Circus Comics. Nov. 2017. pap. $30. ISBN 9781945820069.

Gr 6 Up –Charlie, 13, is excited to embark on an all-girls Christian camp’s backpacking trip. However, despite Camp Three Peaks’ commitment to feminism, head counselor Bee and many of the campers are unwittingly racist and homophobic, and Charlie, who is black and queer, grapples with self-doubt. She confides in God, wondering if a feather that follows her on her trek is a sign from above, and her spirits lift as she bonds with the more outspoken Sydney, a trans girl who feels similarly alienated. This contemplative graphic novel, taken from Gillman’s ongoing webcomic, perceptively explores race, gender, faith, and friendship. Elegantly composed, richly hued images vividly portray the lush forest setting and shy, thoughtful Charlie’s inner turmoil as she yearns to voice her opinions. Scenes in which she appears on the periphery of panels or crowded by the speech bubbles of her insensitive fellow campers adroitly capture her isolation. Gillman zeroes in on seemingly small yet achingly relatable moments as Charlie and Sydney’s friendship slowly develops. The book subtly folds in lessons about identity and the danger of assumptions; both girls learn and grow about each other, themselves, and the larger world. VERDICT Heartfelt, stimulating, and sure to spark discussion about feminism’s often less than inclusive attitudes toward marginalized groups. For all graphic novel collections.–Mahnaz Dar,School Library Journal

This review was published in the School Library Journal November 2017 issue.

A 2018 Stonewall Honor BookRead "Melanie Gillman On Queer Representation"

redstarJACKSON, Tiffany D. Allegedly. 400p. ebook available. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. Jan. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062422644.

YA-HS-SP-Jackson-AllegedlyGr 9 Up –Jackson delivers a requiem about systemic issues of injustice in this debut novel that portrays the juvenile justice system, meant to rehabilitate youth who have gone astray, and the social service system, which is intended to defend those whose rights have been infringed upon. Interwoven with case study excerpts, depositions, and inmate interviews, this gripping thriller centers on 16-year-old Mary Beth Addison, who was incarcerated for the alleged murder of a three-month-old infant. Not all of the clues point to then nine-year-old Mary’s guilt, though. Now Mary is in a group home with hopes of moving into the world and maybe even to college. But she’s been unable to get her birth certificate from her mother, and she needs the document to take her SATs. She’s also just learned that she’s pregnant, which threatens to turn her macabre existence into a permanent nightmare. Because Mary is underage and her 18-year-old boyfriend, Ted, is also in a group facility, their child will be put up for adoption after Mary gives birth, but Mary will go to any length to prevent that from happening. With remarkable skill, Jackson offers an unflinching portrayal of the raw social outcomes when youth are entrapped in a vicious cycle of nonparenting and are sent spiraling down the prison-for-profit pipeline. VERDICT This dark, suspenseful exploration of justice and perception raises important questions teens will want to discuss. An excellent selection for YA shelves.–Sabrina Carnesi, Crittenden Middle School, Newport News, VA

This review was published in the School Library Journal February 2017 issue.

KANN, Claire. Let’s Talk About Love. 288p. Feiwel & Friends/Swoon Reads. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781250136121.

Gr 9 Up –Alice’s first year at college did not go the way she planned. First, her parents kept pressuring her to declare prelaw as her major, then her best friends changed plans at the last minute and got an apartment off campus for themselves. By the end of the year, she’s still undeclared, and her roommate-turned-girlfriend turned ex-girlfriend has reenforced Alice’s fears that no one will stay with her once they find out she’s asexual. When she shows up to work one day to meet the beautiful and sweet Takumi, Alice is blown away by her feelings toward him but terrified of being hurt again. This story, originally published online, is undoubtedly, but not heavy-handedly, focused on Alice’s sexual identity. While side story lines add some depth to Alice and offer up a diverse cast of supporting characters, they are mostly underdeveloped or tangential. Alice’s relationship with her best friends Feenie and Ryan, who are a couple, alternates between charming and troublesome. They, along with a few others in Alice’s life, are often unfairly or aggressively demanding of her, but the book rarely addresses it as more than overzealous love. Despite that, Alice and her struggle to grow while maintaining her identity are heartfelt and real. Alice is black, biromantic, and asexual, and her relationship with Takumi is genuine and fun. VERDICT A light, enjoyable asexual romance with outstanding representation. Recommended for any teen collection.–Amy Diegelman, formerly at Vineyard Haven Public Library, MA

redstarMEDINA, Tony. I Am Alfonso Jones. illus. by John Jennings & Stacey Robinson. 176p. Tu Bks. Oct. 2017. pap. $18.95. ISBN 9781620142639. POP

Gr 9 Up –Alfonso Jones loves to play trumpet and is thinking of trying out for his class’s hip hop–themed Hamlet. On a shopping trip with his crush Danetta, the African American teen, who is looking for his first suit to wear in celebration of his father’s release from jail, is shot by a white off-duty cop who incorrectly assumes the suit hanger is a gun. The rest of the graphic novel jumps among Alfonso’s past, the aftermath of the shooting, and his experience on a possibly never-ending train ride with other victims of police violence, including Amadou Diallo as his guide. Medina’s juggling of the three threads isn’t always graceful, but the variation of Robinson and Jennings’s panels and design pushes the narrative forward. A teacher’s dialogue with Alfonso’s classmates is illuminating and realistic. The outrage and grief are palpable, and the black-and-white illustrations enforce the gut-punching pull of each character’s journey. And as Alfonso meets the historical figures who preceded him, readers will understand the systemic racism that underlies these violent cases. VERDICT A brutally honest and bleak but necessary selection for all graphic novel collections.–Shelley M. Diaz, School ­Library Journal

This review was published in the School Library Journal October 2017 issue.

redstarREYNOLDS, Jason. Long Way Down. 320p. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Bks. Oct. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481438254.

Gr 8 Up –Fifteen-year-old Will’s big brother has been shot and killed. According to the rules that Will has been taught, it is now his job to kill the person responsible. He easily finds his brother’s gun and gets on the elevator to head down from his eighth-floor apartment. But it’s a long way down to the ground floor. At each floor, a different person gets on to tell a story. Each of these people is already dead. As they relate their tales, readers learn about the cycle of violence in which Will is caught up. The protagonist faces a difficult choice, one that is a reality for many young people. Teens are left with an unresolved ending that goes beyond the simple question of whether Will will seek revenge. Told in verse, this title is fabulistic in its simplicity and begs to be discussed. Its hook makes for an excellent booktalk. It will pair well with Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Reynolds’s previous works. The unique narrative structure also makes it an excellent read-alike for Walter Dean Myers’s MonsterVERDICT This powerful work is an important addition to any collection.–Kristin Anderson, Columbus Metropolitan Library System, OH

This review was published in the School Library Journal July 2017 issue.

A 2018 Newbery, Printz, Coretta Scott King Author, and Odyssey Honor Book 

redstarRIBAY, Randy. After the Shot Drops. 336p. HMH. Mar. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781328702272. POP

Gr 8 Up –A dually narrated story of two teen boys, Bunny and Nasir, struggling with a dying friendship shapes Ribay’s latest. Nasir feels abandoned after Bunny leaves their school to attend an upscale private school to play basketball and is dating Keyona, a girl he had always been interested in. The season is going well and the team, led by Bunny, is on its way to winning a state title. But Nasir’s friend Wallace is digging himself deeper into debt and physical trouble, placing bets on high school games and against Bunny’s specifically. Nasir then becomes complicit in sabotaging Bunny’s chances with explosive and life-altering consequences. Not only is the book well-paced with short chapters switching perspectives, the secondary characters are rich in detail, and Bunny and Nasir are fully realized protagonists with families, friendship, school, and sports. Drama propels the story forward while its emotional appeal builds empathy for both boys’ circumstances. Seamlessly, tension exacerbates the weighty choices that come with their responsibilities. And while the climax is predictable, it feels inevitable. The trajectory of each boy’s future is in the hands of the third teen, Wallace. Without a doubt, Ribay’s compelling book belongs on the shelf alongside contemporary heavy-hitters like Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds’s All-American Boys, and Nic Stone’s Dear MartinVERDICT A must-have for YA shelves.–Alicia Abdul, Albany High School, NY

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

SMITH, Juliana “Jewels.” (H)afrocentric: Vols. 1–4. illus. by Ronald Nelson & Mike Hampton. 120p. PM Pr. Nov. 2017. pap. $20. ISBN 9781629634487. Gr 10 Up–Naima is a student at Ronald Reagan University, where she strives to live up to her dreams of being a revolutionary, black, feminist activist. Determined and confident, Naima brings together the people in her life, such as her best friend Renee, who is queer; her apathetic brother Miles; and their Chicano friend El, to help her change the world. Packed with references to significant counterculture and African American movements, this graphic novel (begun as a webcomic) moves incredibly quickly among genres and topics. Intersectionality and the divide between privileged “enlightenment” and radical race relations are the backbone of the whip-smart, wildly original comic. Satire (an internship opportunity for black interpreters for white people, a protest sign–wielding fairy godmother) simultaneously diffuses and highlights the heavy reality of the issues discussed. The art is approachable but not predictable, with close-ups of angry faces and fluid backgrounds that add to the raw feeling of the work. The result of so many great things packed into a small package is that the book sometimes falters under its own weight, making some pages hard to follow. VERDICT While cultural references may leave younger teens and those unfamiliar with social justice frustrated, those discovering a desire for activism will be eager to learn from Naima. Highly recommended for collections serving older teens.–Amy Diegelman, formerly at Vineyard Haven Public Library, MA

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

STONE, Nic. Dear Martin. 224p. Crown. Oct. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781101939499. Gr 9 Up–Justyce is an African American teen caught between two worlds. He knows that the education he’s receiving at a private school will grant him more economic opportunities; however, he begins to question the effects of his private school education on his own identity. Some of his classmates believe that the racial pendulum has swung too far, giving African Americans an unfair advantage over their white counterparts. The kids he grew up with believe Justyce has assimilated too much and has forgotten where he came from. He questions his blackness, his relationship with his biracial girlfriend, and his attraction to his white debate partner Sarah Jane. Through a series of journal entries, Justyce attempts to figure out his place in the world by exploring the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. A violent altercation between a retired white police officer and his best friend causes Justyce to examine what it means to be an African American male in 2017. The length and pace of this well-written story make it a perfect read for reluctant and sophisticated readers alike. The main characters are well balanced and will resonate with teens. However, the voice of African American women is largely absent from the narrative. The characterizations of Justyce’s mother and his girlfriend are one-dimensional compared to some of the other protagonists. Still, this important work should be read alongside Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All-American Boys and Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down. ­VERDICT A good choice for school and public libraries.–Desiree Thomas, Worthington Library, OH

This review was published in the School Library Journal September 2017 issue.

A 2018 Morris Award HonorNic Stone in Conversation with Jared Reck

TAMANI, Liara. Calling My Name. 320p. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. Oct. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062656865. Gr 9 Up–This lush debut novel is written in distinct prose that reads like poetry. The coming-of-age tale follows the journey of Taja Brown. Readers are introduced to Taja when she is 11 years old, and continue follow her story through the end of high school. She struggles to maintain her relationship with God in her close-knit and religious community in Houston, Texas while still exploring sex without shame. Each chapter is a short vignette, giving teens a peek into the girl’s progression into adolescence. Tamani’s writing taps all of the senses; readers will taste and smell Taja’s stifling world. Taja is a quirky character filled with wonder and subtle subversion, surrounded by an ensemble of characters and a setting that is oppressively narrow. Young adults will connect with this protagonist and this dynamic new voice. Fans of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas will especially love this lyrical novel. VERDICT A tender story that will make a great selection in any library collection.–Christina Vortia, Hype Lit, Land O’Lakes, FL

This review was published in the School Library Journal September 2017 issue.

redstarTHOMAS, Angie. The Hate U Give. 464p. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Feb. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062498533.

YA-HS-Thomas-TheHateUGiveGr 8 Up –After Starr and her childhood friend Khalil, both black, leave a party together, they are pulled over by a white police officer, who kills Khalil. The sole witness to the homicide, Starr must testify before a grand jury that will decide whether to indict the cop, and she’s terrified, especially as emotions run high. By turns frightened, discouraged, enraged, and impassioned, Starr is authentically adolescent in her reactions. Inhabiting two vastly different spheres—her poor, predominantly black neighborhood, Garden Heights, where gangs are a fact of life, and her rich, mostly white private school—causes strain, and Thomas perceptively illustrates how the personal is political: Starr is disturbed by the racism of her white friend Hailey, who writes Khalil off as a drug dealer, and Starr’s father is torn between his desire to support Garden Heights and his need to move his family to a safer environment. The first-person, present-tense narrative is immediate and intense, and the pacing is strong, with Thomas balancing dramatic scenes of violence and protest with moments of reflection. The characterization is slightly uneven; at times, Starr’s friends at school feel thinly fleshed out. However, Starr, her family, and the individuals in their neighborhood are achingly real and lovingly crafted. VERDICT Pair this powerful debut with Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boysto start a conversation on racism, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement.–Mahnaz Dar, School Library Journal

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2017 issue.

Winner of the 2018 Morris Award and Odyssey Award and a 2018 Printz and Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book10 Books To Read After “The Hate U Give”

redstarWATSON, Renée. Piecing Me Together. 272p. Bloomsbury. Feb. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781681191058.

piecing-me-togetherGr 7 Up –High school junior Jade is an “at-risk” student from a rough neighborhood in Portland, OR. She is also a talented collage artist, and she attends an elite private school on scholarship. More than anything, she wants to go on a study abroad week offered at her school to use her Spanish skills. Instead, she is given an invitation to join Woman to Woman, a mentorship program for young women like her: poor and black. Her mentor, Maxine, is from a more privileged background, and Jade doesn’t see what she can learn from her. But in spite of her early resistance to Maxine, Jade begins to open up and gain confidence, and, eventually, she is able to express the importance of her family, her community, and her art. The two strong female characters and the ways in which they struggle with and support each other form the center of this tale. Most young people will relate to Jade’s search to find her voice and learn to advocate for herself in appropriate ways. The lack of a romantic lead may leave some young teen readers disappointed, but there is a real, refreshing strength in a fully fleshed-out female character whose story is her own. This is a memorable novel that demonstrates that a happy ending doesn’t require a romantic subplot. VERDICT This unique and thought-provoking title offers a nuanced meditation on race, privilege, and intersectionality. A first purchase for YA collections.–Kristin Anderson, Columbus Metropolitan Library System, OH

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2017 issue.

Winner of the 2018 Coretta Scott King Book Award and a 2018 Newbery Honoran interview with Renée Watson

redstarZOBOI, Ibi. American Street. 336p. ebook available. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Feb. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062473042.

YA-SP-Zoboi-AmericanStreetGr 9 Up–After her mother is detained by immigration officials, Fabiola Toussaint has to finish her move from Port-au-Prince to Detroit alone. The tough-as-nails cousins and exhausted aunt who greet her in Michigan bear little resemblance to the warm family she had dreamed of when she was in Haiti. Left with a mother-size hole in her life, Fabiola begins the unsteady process of assimilation, holding on to her family’s spiritual traditions while navigating the disconnectedness and violence of her new home. A sweet romance and her cousins’ fierce and complex support ease the teen into a halfway space between worlds, but her eyes remain on the prize of reuniting with her mother. When Fabiola is approached by the police to inform on her cousin’s volatile boyfriend in exchange for information about her mother, she must work around the gaps in her understanding to make some explosive decisions. In this bright, sharp debut, Zoboi weaves grittiness, sensitivity, and complexity into every character, but Fabiola’s longing, determination, and strength shine especially brightly. VERDICT A breathtaking story about contemporary America that will serve as a mirror to some and a window for others, and it will stay with anyone who reads it. A must-purchase for YA collections.–Beth McIntyre, Madison Public Library, WI

This review was published in the School Library Journal February 2017 issue.

A 2017 National Book Award FinalistIbi Zoboi on her work with the Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project

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