10 Books With Black Protagonists That Don’t Center Black Pain
There are more YA novels featuring Black protagonists than ever before, but not enough of them express the everyday joys, passions, and triumphs of Black experience. Here are 10 books that can restore balance to your library.
Racial and ethnic diversity in literature, and in particular the literature written for an increasingly diverse student body, is of critical importance. Thankfully, in the past decade more young adult novels featuring protagonists of color have emerged.
But according to Black educators who have spent their careers making sure that all students—and especially Black students—get access to books that represent a healthy range of lived experiences, too many of today’s best-selling novels offer a limited, even cramped, perspective.
Chanea Bond, an English and Literacy teacher at Southwest High School in Fort Worth, Texas, recently told Edutopia that too often Black protagonists in popular novels face down obstacles on the page that revolve around the same themes: racism, grief, trauma, and oppression.
“A lot of the best literature is born out of authentic feelings, and the universal human experience seems to be suffering,” Bond said. “But when you only have, like, five or six books that mention Black and Brown people, and all of them are about slavery, colonization, growing up poor, and being marginalized, it really takes a toll on the kids.”
According to Bond, it’s common for book lists to recommend acclaimed novels with traumatic themes, such as Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds (which deals with teenage gun violence), or The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (which deals with the shooting of an unarmed black teen by a police officer). However, she said that as a Black educator teaching a student population that is largely made up of Black students, she makes it a priority to provide some balance.
“We have to think: What do all these recommendations tell Black kids specifically about themselves?” she said. “It’s so important that you don’t just have one book by a Black author in your curriculum, or one sort of story. We have to build a full picture.”
K. C. Boyd, librarian at Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, D.C., and School Library Journal’s 2022 School Librarian of the Year, wholeheartedly agreed.
“Our kids love to see themselves portrayed in books,” Boyd told Edutopia. “Which is why I think it’s really important to have characters that are going through the full breadth of experiences that they’re going through: love, joy, dating, gender exploring. All of that stuff.”
Less focus on grievous trauma does not mean an absence of tension or conflict of any kind, of course. Here are 10 books featuring Black protagonists, recommended by Bond, Boyd, and others, that can deepen the spectrum of lived experiences represented in your school or classroom library.
1. Cool. Awkward. Black., edited by Karen Strong
A sprawling anthology celebrating Black geekdom, the stories feature a girl who believes in UFOs; a boy who might have finally found his Prince Charming; a hopeful performer who dreams of being cast in her school’s production of The Sound of Music; and a magician with a power she doesn’t quite understand. Written by such award-winning authors as Ibi Zoboi and Lamar Giles, the collection both honors and redefines Black geekiness.
2. You Should See Me in a Crown, by Leah Johnson
Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too everything: too Black, too poor, too awkward. Her dream is to leave her small town, attend an elite school far away, and play in their world-famous orchestra. But when the financial aid she was expecting falls through, Liz’s only hope is to try to win a scholarship set aside for her school’s prom king and queen, even though her crush is another girl. “I love this book because it brings so much joy from the perspective of a Black queer girl,” said Bond.
3. Some Places More Than Others, by Renée Watson
Amara has always wanted to visit her father’s family in Harlem. When her wish comes true, she finds the community, and New York City, to be far different from what she’d imagined. As she navigates crowded streets and her new, dysfunctional family, she learns more about her father’s past and forms a deep connection with her new home’s history and culture.
4. New Kid, by Jerry Craft
Jordan Banks loves nothing more than drawing cartoons. But instead of sending him to art school, his parents ship him off to a prestigious school known for more traditional academics, where he is one of the few kids of color. As he makes the daily trek from his working-class neighborhood to the new, upscale one, he finds himself straddling two worlds—and not really fitting into either.
5. One True Loves, by Elise Bryant
A star artist and style icon in high school, Lenore Bennett is in control of her destiny—much to the joy of her parents, who expect Black excellence out of her. But as graduation nears and she prepares for college, Lenore feels unsure about her future for the first time. While on a Mediterranean cruise with her parents, she meets a boy who seems to have a completely different outlook on life that challenges her own. At first, he is merely irritating, but Lenore soon finds herself falling in love as the cruise traverses Europe. Bond called the novel an “international romance” that takes us on a journey as Lenore figures out “how to be her true, authentic self.”
6. Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, by Kwame Mbalia
Tristan Strong feels anything but strong since the day he failed to save his best friend, Eddie, in a bus accident. But when Tristan discovers MidPass—a foreign world with a burning sea, haunted ships, and monsters that hunt the inhabitants—he must rise to the occasion and form an alliance to entice a trickster god to come out of hiding. This epic fantasy takes readers on an adventurous ride and introduces them to African American folk heroes and West African gods in the process.
7. Look Both Ways, by Jason Reynolds
This inventive novel weaves 10 interconnected stories that center on different students at the same middle school. Although the book does deal with some hard topics, such as grief and loss, Boyd said the writing bursts with humor, which is always a hit with students who come to her library—particularly those who don’t consider themselves big readers. “The book starts out talking about farting and boogers, and they get a kick out of it,” she said. “This is their life, after all, especially my middle school boys.”
8. Instructions for Dancing, by Nicola Yoon
One afternoon, Evie Thomas witnesses a couple kissing, and suddenly she sees a vision of how their romance began—as well as how it will end. As she struggles to understand her new power to see into the past and future, she falls for an intriguing boy at her local dance studio. The premonitions of future heartbreak she sees all around her prompt her to confront a fundamentally human question: Is love worth the risk?
9. Shuri: A Black Panther Novel, by Nic Stone
This adventure series stars Shuri, a breakout character from the popular Black Panther comics and films. A skilled martial artist and master of science and technology, Shuri goes on a quest to save her homeland of Wakanda from a mysterious force that is killing off a rare plant crucial to the survival of her community.
10. Black Boy Joy: 17 Stories Celebrating Black Boyhood, edited by Kwame Mbalia
This anthology weaves together stories, comics, and poems by 17 critically acclaimed Black authors. The pieces depict joy in its various forms, including picking out a fresh first-day-of-school outfit, riding your skateboard like nobody’s watching, and saving the universe during the course of an epic, intergalactic race. Boyd said the book’s cover, which features a smiling Black child, often stands out to her students because it’s so different from other covers that feature Black characters and convey more somber emotions. “When my students see that book, and they see the boy is dark-skinned and has starter locs in his hair, they say, ‘Wow, I’m affiliated with joy.’”