Even though I’m 22 years old, I still read YA books religiously. Some people dismiss YA books because of the dramatic, know-it-all teens, shallow plots, and love triangles; but I embrace them for these very reasons. Like a lot of folks, I use books and stories as a form of escapism. I love getting lost in the teenage love stories and magical quests. Everything doesn’t have to have an intricate plot, though many of them do. I just want to be entertained!
That said, I do have one complaint about the genre that I’m sure many of you can relate to. The YA genre, like much of the publishing industry, seems to push aside diverse characters written by diverse authors or for diverse audiences.
Front and center of most YA novels (especially the popular ones) are protagonists who are white or racially ambiguous. Meanwhile, the characters of color, if there are any, are always in the role of the token friend.
When we finally do get our own stories, they’re centered around the struggles of our past. While I’m aware that these stories are important, and need to be told, we are so much more than our hardships. Sometimes, I want to read books where the women of color get to fall in love, save the world or just be completely carefree as our white counterparts.
That’s why I’ve made it a priority to support YA books that feature complex people of color in the shining lead role, however few and far in between they are. Keep reading for 10 awesome YA books written with women of color in mind.
1. “The Sun Is Also A Star,” Nicola Yoon
Natasha is a 16-year-old Jamaican girl who doesn’t believe in fate—not that she has time to. Because her father got into a car crash, her family is 12 hours away from getting deported to Jamaica. So, she uses her time left in the U.S to make one last plea to save her family, and the life she isn’t ready to leave behind. Daniel, on the other hand, is a poet who wants to go against his parent’s wishes and pursue a career in the arts instead of academia. He’s been accepted into Yale and as a reward, his parents have given him the day off from school. What will happen when their paths cross?
2. “Tiny Pretty Things,” Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra
Tiny Pretty Things, described as Black Swan meets Pretty Little Liars, takes you into the cut-throat world of ballet. It follows three girls: a Black girl named Gigi White, a White girl named Bette and a half- Korean girl named June. Gigi just moved to town from California, has a heart condition that makes dancing life-threatening, and is having a hard time dealing with some of the shadiness from the other girls. Bette has been at the American Ballet Conservatory the longest of the three and she is a conniving narcissist who wants to get out of her sister’s shadow. June has also been at the conservatory for an extended length of time but feels like she’s always getting overlooked and must improve before her mom puts and end to her dream.
3. “Everything, Everything,” Nicola Yoon
Maddy Whittier was diagnosed with severe combined immune deficiency at birth, which means that she can’t leave her house without getting really sick. Despite being confined to her home for 17 years, Maddy has made the best of her situation by reading and spending time with her mom and nurse, Carla. That changes when a cute boy named Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door and awakens feelings in Maddy that she’s never experienced. Everything, Everything chronicles their blossoming romance and the unique challenges that come along with Maddy’s disease, before a major twist at the end that will leave your jaw on the floor. Everything, Everything is being made into a major motion film that will star Amandla Stenberg and Nick Robinson.
4. “Poison’s Kiss,” Breeana Shields
Marinda is a visha kanya, or “poison maiden,”meaning a young girl (in Indian folklore) whose blood and saliva are poisonous. Marinda has killed dozens of boys with just a simple kiss on the lips. Why? She receives orders from the Raja and believes that she’s doing good until she receives an order to kill a boy she knows, Deven. Nothing that Marinda knows about him says that he deserves to die, so the order has her questioning whom she is really serving. Once she start to pry, the life she knows slowly starts to unravel.
5. “The Kayla Chronicles,” Sherri Winston
Kayla Dean is a self-proclaimed feminist and journalist who’s about to break the biggest story of her life. She believes that the Lady Lions dance team discriminates against girls with small breasts. With the encouragement of her friend, Rosalie, Kayla undergoes a makeover and decides to test her theory. She knows that she’s a great dancer, so if she doesn’t make the squad it’ll be because she’s not as well endowed as the other girls. She doesn’t get her story, though, because she blows everyone away with her audition and makes the team. Her views about feminism and womanhood are challenged when she realizes the girls on the squad aren’t who she expected them to be.
6. “This Side of Home,” Renee Watson
Maya and Nikki, twins living in Portland, are on the same page about pretty much everything. They have the same goals; share the same friends; and even like the same types of boys. After graduation; they plan to attend the same historically Black college together, too. When their neighborhood gets revamped with new coffee shops and fancy businesses, Maya is thrilled, while Nikki feels like she’s losing the essence of their home. For two girls who have always been in sync about everything, the gentrification of their hometown makes them face the fact that they might not always see eye to eye and will have to stand on their own.
7. “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” Jenny Han
Lara Jean is a teen girl who has had her fair share of crushes—one of them being her sister’s ex-boyfriend! When she gets over these feelings, she writes each boy a letter that she never intends to send and stores them under her bed. One day, she realizes that someone has sent out the letters and her life gets super complicated when she has to confront each of her past loves.
8. “The Secret of a Heart Note,” Stacey Lee
The Secret of A Heart Note centers on 16-year old Mimosa. She is one of only two aromateurs left on the planet. As such, she spends her days her mixing the powerful elixirs that help other people fall in love. There is a catch, though. If she ever falls in love herself, she will lose her very special and unique gift. When she accidently gives an elixir to the wrong woman, she must enlist the help of the woman’s soccer star son. With his help, she will undo her mistake and learn that you can’t always control whom you fall for.
9. “The Education of Margot Sanchez,” Lilliam Rivera
Margot Sanchez attends a prestigious private school paid for by her father, who owns two grocery stores. She’s shallow, self-centered and downplays her culture in order to fit in with her rich peers. When she steals her dad’s credit card to buy fancier clothes, he forces her to work in one of his stores. Though she’s embarrassed at first, she learns more about being grateful for what she has, loving herself, her family and her culture.
10. “Lucy and Linh,” by Alice Pung
When Lucy wins a scholarship to a prestigious private school, she soon learns that it’s a whole new world than that she’s been used to. For starters, a powerful trio named “The Cabinet” sets their sights on her, but she realizes that the powerful clique isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. As she works to fit in and live up to impossible expectations, she confides in her friend Linh, someone she knew before, through a series of letters. That relationship also gets tested as they realize they might not have much in common anymore.
These are just a few of the great YA books out there that feature smart, funny, flawed women of color. They show that we don’t always have to be strong or someone else’s support system. We can be the lead, the funny one, the math wiz and even the ballerina. Though they might be a little harder to find, it’s definitely worth putting in the extra effort.