In the spring of 2016, I took ENG 385: Multicultural Young Adult Literature. I took the class because I love YA lit and it satisfied an “around the world” literature requirement, and I knew I would enjoy it, but I didn’t know how much I would learn. As I read all of the books assigned in the class, I jotted notes and created “bite-sized” (or occasionally “snack-sized” and sometimes even “small meal-sized”) book reviews for anyone interested in reading some multicultural YA lit. Most, if not all, of these books are #ownvoices books, written by an author affected by the issues and culture discussed in the book, and it definitely was obvious to me that they were. These 9 books are part of what my professor considered the “canon” of multicultural YA lit, and some of them are fantastically written as well as enlightening–give them a try.
Bite-Sized (or Slightly Longer) Book Reviews
1. Monster by Walter Dean Myers: **
Monster is the story of Steve Harmon, a 16-year-old black boy on trial for murder because he allegedly acted as a lookout for a drugstore robbery that turned sour. Steve, a film aficionado, copes with his situation by turning it into a movie script, which is the mechanism through which the reader receives the plot events. Handwritten, diary-like notes from Steve provide emotional interludes.
This book was interesting and easy to read, but not great. I did not find the premise terribly believable (that a 16-year-old lookout would be charged with felony murder). I also disliked how little insight we got into the characters’ minds, and how Myers chose to leave the actuality of the main character’s guilt ambiguous. This story is a story told for the sole purpose of making a point, rather than for the point of telling a story, which is not a technique that tends to resonate well with me. Regardless, it does have an important point to make.
2. 47 by Walter Mosley: ****
47 is the story of Forty-seven, a fourteen-year-old slave boy on Corinthian Plantation, who discovers from an otherworldly visitor that he has a much bigger role to play. Characterized by a distinct and endearing voice, a lively and real cast of characters, and a pervading emotional evocativeness, 47 was a totally unique and charming book. I may have teared up once or twice.
My main complaint is the bisection of the book–the first half was about slavery and the second half was pure scifi. Nor did the scifi, I believe, receive adequate explanation or development. Although 47 is a standalone novel, it feels like only half of Forty-seven’s story has been told.
3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: *****
This book is frequently praised, and for good reason. When fourteen-year-old Junior Spirit decides to leave the Spokane Indian reservation school to get a better education in the mostly-white town of Reardan, he faces a lot of backlash and an identity crisis, even as he deals with a string of devastating personal tragedies. Alexie, through Junior, is able to discuss racism and white privilege, a love of learning, and masturbation with an equal dose of sobriety, honesty, and wit.
This book is so incredible in any of its dimensions: as a coming-of-age novel, as a novel about racial identity, as a friendship novel, as a novel about family or love or overcoming tragedy. My favorite part is that though the novel inevitably tackles race and racism, it is not the stereotypical narrative. After all, it’s not that simple in real life, just as it isn’t that simple in books. Junior’s “half white, half Indian” identity crisis ends up not as a condemnation of PoC who embrace “whiteness” to survive but a call to action for them to remember their roots if and when they do.
4. Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Pena: ****
Danny Lopez believes that his father abandoned his family because Danny and his mother are too white. Fleeing his mom, her wealthy boyfriend, and the racism of his white neighborhood and private school, Danny spends the summer with his father’s side of the family in National City, cultivating his fastball and developing unexpected relationships and eventually learning that he is enough just the way he is. A classic coming-of-age tale with an identity crisis centered on biracial heritage, Mexican Whiteboy is full of humor, heart-warming moments, and friendship.
One of the most compelling parts of Whiteboy is de la Pena’s expert command of language. The dialect is authentic and adds an entirely new dimension to the book. The suspense is a taut bowstring at poignant moments that actually made me care about baseball (an impressive feat). Danny’s idiosyncratic friendship with Uno, the only other biracial character and POV character, shows part of the extensive character development applied throughout the book. Mexican Whiteboy is all-around a wonderful book, absolutely one worth reading, especially as the U.S. grows more and more diverse and stories of reconciling biracial identities become more and more demanded.
5. Geography Club by Brent Hartinger: **
Geography Club is an archetypal teenage coming out story. It has its moments of humor and Valuable Lessons (TM), along with some genuinely funny moments and a satisfying ending, but overall I believe that this book is best suited for a younger audience (middle grade as opposed to young adult). Even though Geography Club is set in a high school, its dialogue is hard to believe, its plot lacks complexity and is predictable, and its characters are relatively flat (bordering on stereotypical)–a fact which I feel might be dangerous and harmful in LGBT lit. Despite being told from the first-person point of view of a gay teen boy, this book is clearly meant for straight readers. As a means to introduce middle-grade readers to gay issues, this book probably does an admirable job, with its simplicity and reliance on humor, but as a book meant to engage older readers and examine deeper issues of being queer, it falls short.
6. Luna by Julie Anne Peters: ****
Luna is the story of a transgender girl as told through the eyes of her younger sister, Regan. I had a hard time putting it down. Regan, the narrator, has a unique voice full of humor and cutting perception, with the rare quality of believable as the voice of a sixteen-year-old girl. All of the characters (perhaps with the exception of the archetypal love interest, Chris) are independent entities, dynamic and complex–especially Luna, whom it would have been so easy to reduce to just her transness. My heart ached for every one of them on some level. The story’s ending is emotional and leaves plenty of loose ends, but sometimes that is more satisfying than having everything tied up neatly in a little gift basket of a book.
Luna is a coming out story, and arguably is not written for (or at least only for) transgender teens, but those struggling to understand them; using Regan as a lens to view Luna’s transition makes it easier to understand for the outsider. It also gives the story many more dimensions, showing the struggles of Luna’s family with her transition, and–unlike many stories whose narrator is not the focal point of a novel–it gives Regan a story and a life of her own. Luna isn’t just a story about transness; it is a story about friendship, family, and first love, too, which makes it an altogether wonderful book.
7. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang: ****
ABM is the only graphic novel on this list, and it is one of the most unique graphic novels I have ever read. Using alternating viewpoints, Yang cycles through the seemingly unrelated stories of the Monkey King (a figure from Chinese myth), Jin (a Chinese-American student), and Danny (a white kid with an embarrassing Chinese cousin). All three of the characters are on a journey to accept themselves for who they are, and they have more in common than they might think. The art is expressive and subtly symbolic, and, as my Multicultural YA lit professor said, this story could really not have been told any other way. While I usually love magical realism, Yang’s use of it seems a little ridiculous–but that may be part of the point of the book.
That being said, I totally didn’t see the plot twist(s) coming. Mostly because they were nutty and screwed with my suspension of disbelief. I enjoyed this book, but left it feeling unsatisfied with the logic behind it.
8. Accidents of Nature by Harriet McBryde Johnson: ****
I believe that Accidents of Nature is the semi-autobiographical fictional story of the late author, Harriet Johnson. Set in the sixties, it’s the story of a teenage girl with cerebral palsy who has always tried to fit in with the abled crowd, who spends a few weeks at a summer camp for what her new friend Sarah refers to as “crips.” Jean soon discovers that she does not have to fit in to make abled people comfortable, and she, Sarah, and their friends come together to deliver a ringing slap in the face to their condescending counselors and sponsors at the camp talent show.
Accidents of Nature surprised me–it seems, at first, totally irreverent of the disabled, but then it makes you realize that maybe that’s the point. I quickly grew attached to introverted protagonist Jean, spunky and rebellious friend Sarah, and even hideously ugly but kind-hearted Willie within a few pages. There are no grand adventures in this book, but it felt like a grand adventure to me. That and the familiar setting in central North Carolina struck a chord. This book is a staple for abled folks–it will make you see the world in a new way.
9. A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah: ***
Aptly subtitled Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, this book belongs to a subgenre called “children of war/genocide.” Beah recounts his own story as a child soldier in Sierra Leone: losing his family, joining army forces, eventual (even forced) rescue by UN entities, reintroduction into mundane life, and his attempt to become a speaker for children affected by violence. However, I don’t think it’s a very good representative of the genre. While Beah has moments of brilliant prose–lovely, delicate, heart-wrenching metaphors–more often is his writing mundane and almost boring, making use of narrative summary where there should be scene and occasionally exploiting shock value to evoke emotion. This book is an eye-opener, and it ends on a truly inspirational note, but it’s not for the faint of heart, as it is graphically violent and gory. Also, Beah has come under fire for possibly fabricating parts of the story–this may or may not bother you, depending on why you are reading it.
If you want to read a true story about a child soldier, brilliantly and breathtakingly written, I would instead recommend Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down, a book she wrote based on the experiences of–and in the perspective of–Khmer Rouge child soldier Arn Chorn-Pond, who also grew up to be an anti-war activist and speaker for children affected by war.
Let me know what books you consider to be part of the multicultural YA canon–I’d love to read them!