6 Books to Read for Black History Month

For those of you who have read one of my many other articles on book recommendations, you know I’m just a little obsessed with young adult literature (it’s the only thing I read). I think the genre is illuminating and incredibly dynamic, which is why the most contemporary novels, those that really move and feel representative of the reader, are young adult. So what better to read in honor of Black History Month than some top-notch YA books, right? (If you’re interested in the beginnings of Black History Month from others on the HC team, check it out here). Here are some of my Black authored and Black character-centered book recommendations to honor this month and its’ purpose

Children of Blood and Bone (2018) by Tomi Adeyemi

Fantasy, YA, Magical realm, shifting perspective

In this world loosely based on West African mythology, those that once possessed the magic are now gone due to the ruthless slaughtering of an entire race of people. The maji, those that harnessed their powers, were seen as a threat by those that didn’t harness their powers and were targeted and killed, including Zélie Adebola’s mother. But now there is a chance to bring the magic back and once again her people will reign. United against this threat with her brother on one side and a rouge princess on the other, Zélie goes on a journey where failure means certain extinction.

This text is an intentionally thinly veiled comment on current race relations and racial tension in the United States, demonstrating the destruction that can happen when fear of power drives people.

If you’ve read this book or read it and end up loving it as I did, it’s a part of three-book series, following their quest to restore magic to Orisha.

The author: Tomi Adeyemi is a Nigerian-American writer who, after earning her honors degree in English from Harvard University, studied West African mythology and culture in Brazil. She is also a creative writing coach and teaches thousands of students on her website.

Assata: An Autobiography (1987) by Assata Shakur

Autobiography, historical, influential women

I know what you’re thinking, “but Delaney, this isn’t a young adult novel. You said this is an article on young adult novels.” And you would be right. This is not young adult, but it is incredible and one of my personal favorites. I first read this for a prison literature course I was taking at UF, and I was so enraptured with Shakur’s experiences that I am sure one of you will also enjoy reading this.

This is Assata Shakur’s autobiography in which she recounts many events in her life, including her involvement in the New Jersey State Turnpike shooting in which she was accused and arrested for allegedly shooting a police officer, and eventually incarcerated for that crime. This memoir is written from Cuba, where she fled for asylum after escaping from prison. Shakur is now a leader of social movements and a true revolutionary.

Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) by Jesmyn Ward

Young adult, the American south, road trip

This novel alternates between Mississippi’s present and past, focusing on the intimate dynamics of a family in crisis. The novel shifts perspectives between Leonie, a drug addict mother who is haunted by the ghost of her brother, and her son, Jojo who is tasked with caring for his younger sister. Once their father is released from prison, Jojo and his sister journey across the state to their family farm in fear of what their father might do. In occasionally horrific detail, Ward captures the complexities of family, and how even when parents continually disappoint their children, they aren’t bad people.

About the author:

Jesmyn Ward is an African American writer of American literature, a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and a resident writer at the University of Mississippi. She is currently an associate professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University. If you’re interested in this novel or this author, her other book Men We Reaped is also very highly rated.

Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) by Nalo Hopkinson

Sci-fi, magical realism, young adult, family ties, dystopian

As a general rule, I tend to steer clear of dystopian novels because I find the premise a little tired and overdone. However, this is a true classic and predates anything remotely cliché, as it is completely original. The genre is hard to define; I suppose the most accurate title would be Caribbean magical realism, but even that is a little off. In this dystopian version of Toronto, those privileged enough to be able to leave the crumbling city have left and all those that remain have to find other means of survival. The protagonist turns to ancient Caribbean legends and lore to survive the brutality of the streets, and in the process learns something about herself and her family’s past.

About the author:

Nalo Hopkinson is a Jamaican writer who has spent most of her professional career writing in Canada. She is an award-winning fiction writer; however, she doesn’t like to limit her work to one genre. Hopkinson is also an artist of 3-dimensional objects and sculptures. Check her out on her website.

Lot: Stories (2019) by Bryan Washington

Queer, young adult, short stories, perspective shifts

This is a collection of short stories, connecting threads of people that influence the protagonist, a half Black, half Latino teenager growing up in Houston. Between resenting his fractured family and confronting the prejudices of his community, he is also discovering his sexuality. As much as these are a series of character sketches, the short stories just as much sketch the city, making it feel alive and in rapid development.

About the author:

Bryan Washington is a Black writer of young adult and adult fiction. He is a real up and comer in the book community so check him out on Twitter.

Long Way Down (2017) by Jason Reynolds

YA, verse, teenage gun violence

Long Way Down is written in narrative verse, a little closer to poetry than true prose. It’s about the main character, Will, debating whether to kill his brother’s murderer. This novel moves in slow motion, only spanning sixty seconds as Will goes up six floors in an elevator. On each floor, a new person who is connected to his brother’s murder gets in, and Will’s decision gets even more complicated. At only fifteen, will he become a murderer too?

About the author: You might remember Reynolds as the co-author of All American Boys, an impactful novel about teenage gun violence and police brutality. An American novelist and poet from Washington, D.C., Reynolds was originally inspired by rap music for his poetry and now blends that into his novel writing. His goal is to write exciting books to encourage young kids to read.

There is a lot here for you to try, so I hope you find something new, exciting and illuminating. I know reading about the Black experience isn’t the same as experiencing the Black experience, but self-education is a good first step.