YA literature last year has been amazing, diverse, and so important. Many of the most-praised debut novels this year have been by women writers of minority backgrounds. They’re telling stories unique to their perspectives and encouraging empathy in the YA community in a way that is remarkable and so essential. All of the books below are first novels by women of color, about women of color. As you start your reading for the summer, if you haven’t picked up some of these titles, you should give them a try!
1. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyem
Eleven years after her mother was killed and magic disappeared, Zélie Adebola sets out on an epic quest to fight oppression and bring magic back with the help of a member of the royal family.
The characters, the world, and the magic of this novel are all inspired by West African mythology. Adeyemi deftly tackles issues of class and prejudice while giving her audiences a deliciously long story in a rich world. It’s been one of the most popular YA novels of the year!
2. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Xiomara Batista is an Afro-Latina protagonist who is up against the world. She struggles against oppressive religious views and sexism as she turns to slam poetry to find her voice.
The Poet X was written partially in response to the lack of books for young Latinx readers, so Xiomara’s experience takes center stage to help change that. Unflinching and powerful, Acevedo’s novel in verse has as much strength and fearlessness as Xiomara herself.
3. Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
Maya Aziz is expected by her parents to stay close to home and fall for a Muslim boy who they’ve already picked out for her, but she’s more interested in moving to New York and pursuing her own path. Amidst a local terror attack, Maya must deal with a burst of Islamophobia and bigotry, and learn how she, as an Indian-American Muslim girl, is going to find her place.
The style of the novel is engaging and bright, and it reads the way your favorite high school film feels: entertaining and relatable, but with some high stakes and lovable characters that make it hard to put down.
4. American Panda by Gloria Chao
Mei is a Tiawanese-American freshman at MIT who has been great thus far, at following her parents’ rules and guidelines. But now that she’s expected to find and marry a Taiwanese boy, she starts to wonder if she shouldn’t deviate from their path and go after what she wants.
The novel is based largely on Gloria Chao’s own life experience, who has said that she “never felt quite Taiwanese or American enough” growing up. It’s a light, fun story full of real issues, and it will be sure to make you smile.
5. Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi
When Penny Lee meets Sam in a tight spot, they agree to exchange numbers and become one another’s emergency contacts. Before long, they’re texting all day every day, swapping jokes and sharing dreams.
Choi does an amazing job capturing the feeling of existing in a digital or textual space with a person, where it’s easy to keep them at arm’s length and offer only the parts of yourself that you’re willing to let them see. The novel is funny, charming, real, and so easy to fall in love with.
6. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
When Leigh Chen Sanders’s mother dies by suicide, she’s certain her mother has turned into a bird. Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time and hopefully find some answers within her family history that will help her process her grief.
The novel raises some captivating questions about culture and heritage, especially after the person who connects us most to that heritage has passed away. Pan’s use of language is so beautiful, and her constant use of color to describe the way Leigh is feeling makes the book feel unlike anything I’ve ever read.
Honestly, lady-led YA debuts are what keep me going some days. These are books that are an active force for good in the world: the more attention and praise diverse books receive means more empathy across the board. And the more opportunity there is for women of color to see themselves in the stories they love, the better!