Young Adult Literature

Teen Girls of Color in YA Historical Fiction

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Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

One of the most refreshing aspects of recent YA books is the breadth of historical fiction featuring teen girls of color showing up on bookshelves. While YA historical fiction has always been around, for too long it was very white and very male-dominated. In cases where it included teens of color, too often they were stories of tragedy and pain; while these certainly have purpose and value and still exist today, the range of teen girls of color in YA history fiction is expanding and diversifying. For this, readers are extremely lucky.

The titles below center on periods of American history as well as more global histories, though each and every one has a teen girl of color in the leading role. In nearly every book, too, we have #OwnVoices represented — storytellers are able to share their experiences as writers of color and female-identifying writers of color through a range of historical contexts. Not included are historical fantasy.

There are obvious holes in representation here, particularly when it comes to Native American and Indigenous history. With interest in Native stories continuing to grow and writers eager to share #OwnVoices experiences, we can only hope to see more Native history come to life through YA.

These books about teen girls of color through history all published in the last few years. Dig in and be prepared for adventure, strength, power, voice, and so much more.

Note that this list isn’t comprehensive, as I pulled together a sizable list earlier featuring #OwnVoices Black History YA packed with even more teen girls of color telling their stories through history.

Teen Girls of Color in YA Historical Fiction

All Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages Edited by Saundra Mitchell

This anthology is edited by a queer white woman, but within its pages are an incredible range of works of queer teens throughout history, including those who are female. Tehlor Kay Meija has a story between two queer women in 1930s New Mexico, Malinda Lo began what was to become her novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club with a short story in this collection, and more.

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina

It’s the historical summer of 1977 when New York City is burning and a serial killer named Son of Sam is on the loose. Nora, our narrator, is Latina, and her best friend is a white girl. Both of them are deeply invested in feminism, but what Medina does is offer a look at the ways feminism isn’t necessarily inclusive, either in the late ’70s or now. The setting is compelling, and the challenges that Nora experiences with her family are realistic and heartening — and she, as a budding feminist, comes to understand better where her experiences are in her world, as well as how far she can push herself.

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai 

As the Vietnam War comes near its end, Hằng takes her little brother to the airport with the hope they can escape to America. But her little brother is taken from her before they get the chance and now, Hằng is stuck in a war-ravaged country.

Six years later, she makes the journey to Texas as refugee, determined to be reunited with her little brother. When she is, Hằng is devastated to learn he doesn’t remember her, their home country, or their family.

Displacement by Kiku Hughes

Hughes’s graphic novel explores the painful history of Japanese internment camps and follows Kiku — a representation but not literal rendering of the author — who finds herself sucked back into time. She’s now in 1940s World War II, and she is alongside her grandmother Ernestina, who was forceable put in an internment camp. This book explores the injustices experienced by Japanese Americans, about the horrors of these American internment camps, and about the intergenerational traumas that can be passed along.

The Downstairs Girl book cover

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

It’s 1890 Atlanta. Jo, who is unafraid to speak her mind, lives with Old Gin — a man who took her in after she was “abandoned” by her parents — under the house of a local publisher who is unaware that they live there. When Jo overhears the folks upstairs talking about how agony aunt columns have led to newspaper sales soaring, she takes it upon herself to suggest a column and does so through a pen name “Miss Sweetie.” They’re game for it, and she begins to write these regular columns under the name and under strict anonymity. Sales are up…and so is interest in finding out who she really is. Immersive, with a really fascinating look at Chinese American history and the ways in which white feminism actively harms people of color.

Note: Stacey Lee is a queen when it comes to YA historical fiction about girls of color and all of the books in her catalog are worth sinking into!

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

In her first work of historical fiction, Malinda Lo captures 1950s San Francisco for queer girls of color so perfectly. Chinese American Lily falls for white Kath during an era of change and upheaval — an era where the Red Scare still emerges to put those who are “other” into their places. Told in a few timelines, this family story is about immigration post–Chinese Exclusion, about the realities of being called a Communist, and about the ways in which living up to parental and cultural expectations in a changing world means putting your true self in the dark.

Liars of Mariposa Island by Jennifer Mathieu

The Callahans travel to Mariposa Island each summer for vacation and this year — 1986 — Elena Finney is especially excited to be able to babysit the younger Callahan children to escape her mother, who is unstable and struggles with alcohol. Elena’s brother Joaquin cannot wait to get off Mariposa Island, thinking it a dead end place and he, too, can’t wait to leave his mother.

Told in both voices, this is a story about their mother’s experiences as a teen refugee from Cuba during the Cuban Revolution.

Saving Savannah by Tonya Bolden

Bolden, who is a long-time writer for young people, brings readers to 1919 Washington, D.C., in this story about an upper-class Black girl who wants nothing more than to make something interesting of her life. Savannah knows she’s privileged in her wealth. But she’s worried she’ll never do something important or powerful in her life. Her brother has moved to New York City and has a photography shop, and she’s bored by her long-time friend and neighbor Yolande. When the housekeeper’s daughter steps in to clean the Riddle’s home, Savannah forms a quick bond with her, and it’s through her she finds her way to a school on the other side of town that helps less-privileged girls gain a solid education. Here she volunteers, but more, it’s here she meets someone who introduces her to the concepts of radicalism, socialism, and anarchy. At this pivotal time in history, Savannah finds herself with a few close calls to trouble, but when it gets too close, she and her mother connect over a history her mother never had shared with Savannah before. A great read about a Black girl who is privileged — far too rare in YA and rarer still in YA historical fiction.

We Are Not Free by Traci Chee

Fourteen teens are at the center of this award-winning work of historical fiction. The teens, who all grew up in the community of Japantown, San Francisco, are Nisei, second-generation Japanese Americans. Their lives are turned upside down, though, when their community is dismantled by the World War II Japanese internment camps. Together, these teens will work to dismantle racism and the injustices brought to their community.

When The Ground Is Hard by Malla Nunn

A novel of class and caste set in a Swaziland boarding school, Nunn’s novel follows the popular and wealthy Adele, who is mixed-race, and what happens when she arrives late on the first day of school and is forced to sit in the back of the classroom with lower caste and Black native students. It’s here she meets a Portuguese immigrant named Lottie — poor and completely care-free — and finds herself developing a powerful, life-altering friendship.

You Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

Perkins brings a story of five girls across three generations in this story of Indian and Bengali culture and how it interplays with the American experience. Each of the five characters are distinct, and seeing where and how each of the five women make one another whole — and how their different interests and passions run through their family — makes this complex novel of love, culture, and identity memorable.