Black Girls of YA Historical Fiction
Young Adult novels are important for teens and tweens. We know that representation matters, but it especially does when children, even big kids, are reading. Thankfully, representation in the genre has grown in the past decade. Black teens can read about celebrations of Black love, Black boys, sci-fi and fantasy, LGBTQ+, children’s books, mystery, horror, and graphic novels. Representation has been progressing, but there’s still a long way to go. The way that African American history has been under attack lately, it feels like we are going backwards.
Historical fiction is another genre where Black teen readers need to see themselves. Since African American history is sometimes not only excluded from being taught in schools, but certain aspects of it are completely prohibited, books that explore the Black experience throughout history are essential. The intersection of race and gender make Black women and girls one of the most oppressed groups. Showing Black girls stories from the past where they are the heroines helps reinforce the idea that what they do matters, and it has always mattered. Black girls have been smart and brave since there have been Black girls on this planet. I’ve compiled a list of YA historical fiction with girl protagonists to show that they have always been the main characters of fascinating stories.
The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed
Ashley Bennett is in her senior year, lives in beautiful L.A. in the 1990s, has wealthy, prominent parents, and a great group of friends. In April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating Rodney King, a Black man, half to death, everything changes. Ashley’s defined by her skin color in a way she’s never experienced before. Violent protests erupt and Los Angeles starts burning. All the safety she’s known and her understanding of the world begins to fall apart. For the first time in her life, Ashley is left to question what being Black means to her and where she fits in the world around her.
Saving Savannah by Tonya Bolden
A coming-of-age story set in the early 1900s, Saving Savannah tells the story of a well-to-do girl living in Washington, D.C. While she knows the circumstances of her birth to a wealthy family make her lucky, she’s still feeling oppressed by society. She meets Nell, a working class girl, and together they explore the world of suffragettes and social movements. Newly inspired, Savannah understands what she must do to make change in her world and fights for it.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
No YA historical fiction list would be complete without the award winning One Crazy Summer. In the summer of 1968, three sisters travel cross country from Brooklyn, New York, to Oakland, California, to visit their mother for a month. Their mother is less than thrilled that they’re interrupting her artist lifestyle. She wants them to go to a Black Panther summer camp. Thus starts the craziest summer of the girls’ lives.
Josephine and the Soldier by Beverly Jenkins
Beverly Jenkins is a titan in the romance genre and her body of work is extensive. This historical YA romance has all the hallmarks we’ve come to love from Jenkins, but written for a teen audience. Set post-Civil War, Jojo is a young lady with her life together. She’s gone to college and owns her own hairdressing shop. All this at 17 years-old! When Adam, a boy and part bully from her past returns after the war, she can’t be bothered. Besides, another soldier, George, is falling all over himself to court her. Jojo can’t ignore the feelings Adam gives her, though, and she’s caught solidly in a confusing love triangle.
The Davenports by Krystal Marquis
Based on a true story, this novel is told from four young women’s point of view: the extremely wealthy Davenport sisters, Olivia and Helen, and their friends Amy-Rose and Ruby. Set in 1910, the girls’ romantic lives intertwine and get more complicated as the story progresses. They all want to find true love and for each other to be happy. Life isn’t always that easy, as the young ladies well know.
How High the Moon by Karyn Parsons
The year is 1944 and 12-year-old Ella lives in Alcolu, South Carolina, spending her days running around with her friends. Her mother is working to make it as a jazz singer in Boston and invites Ella to spend a month with her there at Christmas. Ella is over the moon excited to go, but what she learns about her family on her visit she isn’t ready for. When she returns to Alcolu, a boy from her school, George, has been arrested for the murder of two white girls. In this coming-of-age story, Ella has to find her own way despite what her family and society is telling her about herself.
Finding My Place by Traci L. Jones
In 1975, Tiphanie Jayne Baker’s parents decided to move in October, of all months, to the fancy neighborhood of Brent Hills, Colorado. Now Tiphanie is the only Black girl at her high school in a sea of pale faces. She’s stuck between two worlds: the one where she lives and the one where she came from. With no clear place to belong, Tiphanie has to figure out for herself where she fits in, even if that means creating a completely new space.
Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith
All Ida Mae Jones wants is to fly. The daughter of a pilot, Ida Mae knows that flying is in her blood, but it’s an impossible dream for a Black girl. World War II breaks out and America decides it’s time to fight. It’s all hands on deck when the Army creates the WASP, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, but Ida Mae is denied from serving because she’s Black. So she makes a difficult decision to join anyway, passing for white. She has to reject every part of her identity in order to pursue her dream. The longer she serves as a WASP, the more difficult it is to reject her heritage, and she must decide who she really wants to be.
If you liked this list of YA historical fiction, you’ll love this list of YA nonfiction Black history books. And if you’re looking for books for an even younger audience, here’s a list of eight of the best children’s books about Black history.