Racism, Black Lives Matter, and Young Adult Literature

When Jason Reynolds gave me an advanced copy of his book, All American Boys (Scholastic, 2015) four years ago, I knew I held in my hands a powerful book that initiated authentic discussion about racism today. At the same time, it helped my students draw connections across texts and see the relevancy of reading To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960) in our classroom today. Racism still exists and police brutality has hit record heights.

Since Reynolds and Kiely’s groundbreaking YA Novel, a number of new young adult titles have continued to address racism, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement in poignet ways. Here are five new ones:

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is now being made into a major motion picture and what I love about Thomas’ book is that the protagonist, Starr, is honest, heartfelt, and conflicted at times. As one of the few African American students at a prep school, Starr is torn between the assumptions made by her peers at school and the neighborhood she grew up with. The protagonist’s voice throughout this novel is reflective and authentic.  

 

Similarly, Dear Martin (Crown, 2017) by Nic Stone tells the story of Justyce McAllister, a sixteen year old African American student at a predominately white private school. When Justyce is driving with his best friend, Manny, with the music blaring from their luxury SUV, a verbal altercation at a red light with a white off-duty police officer leads to shots fired by the police officer and Manny dead. The event shakes Justyce. He writes to Martin Luther King, Jr. after studying King’s legacy in school in order to reflect and understand the appropriate actions he should take in response to the media, his friends, and classmates and America’s treatment of African American males.

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Whereas Dear Martin calls attention to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writings and teaching, Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little Brown, 2018) brings Emmett Till to the forefront. After twelve year old Jerome is shot because the police mistake his toy gun for a real gun, Jerome is a ghost observing his family, friends, the police officer and his family. Guided by Emmett Till, Jerome learns Till’s story and how racism and the murder of innocent African American boys has been happening for over a century. Able to communicate with the police officer’s daughter, Sarah, who is struggling to come to terms with her father’s actions, both realized that we can make the world better. Jerome is not the only ghost boy but there are hundreds of ghost boys who roam the world reminding readers of the many lives lost in the hands of police officers who are suppose to “serve and protect.”

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Jay Coles’ Tyler Johnson Was Here (Little Brown, 2018) is the newest YA Novel to add to this growing list. First, I have to talk about the cover of the book which looks so much like one of Kehinde Wiley’s portraits. Los Angeles native and New York based visual artist, Wiley’s “larger than life figures disturb and interrupt tropes of portrait painting, often blurring the boundaries between traditional and contemporary modes of representation and the critical portrayal of masculinity and physicality as it pertains to the view of black and brown young men.” The stark image of an African American young man staring at the reader enveloped in bright, colorful flowers (a Wiley signature) draws you in. Tyler and Marvin are twins brothers. When Tyler disappears from a party, he quickly goes from a boy who disappeared one night to another black boy who was murdered at the hands of police brutality. This book addresses family, education, poverty, and racism. Coles presented characters who go beyond stereotypes and it blurs between fiction and reality.

Whether you are looking for summer reads, new books to incorporate into your classroom library, or a book that is going to grab a students and make them sit up, read and want to talk. All of these books are worth reading, sharing, and talking about.

 

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