Brown Girl Reading: YA Books for Black Girls

Recently I wrote about fondly remembering my young adult reading material. How, as an adult, I feel their influence in my life in the most interesting ways. Anne of Green Gables, all of the Louisa May Alcotts, and A Little Princess are burned into my brain and heart, and their reflections stare back at me through my home, which I realized is a living testament to the pictures these books painted in my young, dreaming mind. I am what I read as a young adult.

As I wrote that piece, there was something worrying me: when I was young, there weren’t a lot of ya books about black girls. None of my beloved favorite books were written for, or even featured, young black girls. Or really, anyone of color. In fact, I cringed at a re-read of Eight Cousins, where orphaned Rose, taken in by her huge extended family, ventures out to the family import/export business at the local port and has a grand old time with the yellow Chinaman, Fun See (their words). Same thing anytime anyone refers to negroes. But as an English literature student and reading aficionado, I’ve come to just ignore that in most books written before a certain time period. The world was racist, PC didn’t exist. Let me get back to my reading.

I had to talk it out with my mom. Am I imagining this? Were there really no young adult-ish books featuring black girls back in the ’80s? No black Sweet Valley High, no mixed-race A Wrinkle in Time, no full color teens just being themselves? Yes, we realized, there were, but—and this is a personal but, mine alone—the books aimed at young black girls, at that time, were historical fiction-esque race stories. Girls surviving slavery, coming of age during segregation, fighting their way through the ’60s race riots, watching their houses burned down, their families beaten, their very blackness the source of all the horror. As a young adult, that was not what I wanted. Not it at all. I didn’t want to be steeped in black history. I just wanted to read, to escape through the adventures, the life and times of this girl or that boy. I just wanted to read.

Today I’m a librarian in training, and I have young nieces. I thought about them as I finished up a MLIS course where a final project challenged us to create a LibGuide, which are a group of websites librarians are constantly creating and adding to, subject guides where you can get a basic start on the topic of your choice. The current most popular are guides like Cyberpunk, a basic intro to the genre; Dystopian Literature for Young AdultsFairy Tales For All Ages. Side note: you guys, I LOVE LIBGUIDES.

So I decided to create a LibGuide on young adult books featuring black girls. For my nieces, for my mom, and for myself.

pointe by brandy colbertAnd these books are just what I was looking for. Honoring my inner young adult, I researched and included current books that are beautiful and fun and so freaking young-adultish that I wanted to weep reading the descriptions. Books by Angela Johnson, Jacqueline Woodson, Coe Booth, and Sharon Flake. Young black twins who go to college and start realizing they’re very different people. Young black girls come out, to themselves and their families. Ballet dramas; biracial girls trying to figure out where they fit in; sex, love and hip hop. Brown girls crushing, on boys and other girls. Girls with broken families, broken hearts. Friendships, the sweetest young adult theme there is.

But it’s not just me, or just young black girls, who want to see themselves in fiction. How about when JK Rowling confirmed that there was a Jewish wizard at Hogwarts? Or posthumously outed Albus Dumbledore? We’re all human, we all have stories. Writers are lucky to be able to follow the sage advice of my hero Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

I have a young friend whose parents are Lithuanian. When I read Above Us Only Sky, Michelle Stone-Young’s novel featuring a young Lithuanian girl in America, born with wings (!!), I had to buy it for her, and for her mother. They’re blonde haired and blue eyed, full of life and laughter, some of the most lovely people I know. On looks alone, they can pick up millions of popular books and see themselves on the cover, but this book is about their people, about them. This is seeing themselves in fiction.

We all escape between the pages of our favorite books. Sometimes, we want to find ourselves within those pages.

If you’d like to read about books featuring young black girls, and the authors that write them, here’s my LibGuide.

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