When I was a teen, the most relatable young adult book I ever read was The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.
Inspired by the real-life clashes of two high school gangs known as The Greasers and The Socs, the book is told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old Greaser named Ponyboy Curtis. Published in 1967, the book is such a popular classic that it is required reading for many middle school and high school students.
The Outsiders validated my experiences with being out of place among my peers and made me feel that my own story could be valuable someday. However, it also made me conscious of my ethnicity, especially since all of the characters were white.
As I read more YA books as a teen, I noticed that there weren’t a lot of books with black characters that had the same impact as The Outsiders.
Although there were black YA authors like Sharon M. Draper and Walter Dean Myers, I couldn’t connect to their stories. Most of the books by black YA authors that I read discussed socioeconomic issues like teen pregnancy, racism, and rape. While I knew that there were black teens who did experience these things, I wasn’t one of them. I was a nerdy black misfit who felt like no one could see the real me.
Besides The Outsiders, the only book that I connected to was Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes. Not only was Bronx Masquerade written by a black author, but it also featured many characters of color. Written in verse, the book uses the style of a poetry slam to tell the thoughts and emotions of eighteen teens as they navigate their identity. The book spoke to me as a budding poet who was unsure whether or not my point of view was valuable. As the first novel I read in verse, the book showed me a unique way to tell my story.
However, as influential as this book was, I would soon forget about it.
Since I couldn’t find any other books I could relate to, I ended up reading more YA by white authors than black. Between high school and college, I read many contemporary and YA fantasy authors, including Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Richelle Mead, and Suzanne Collins. The only black YA author I read was Jacqueline Woodson. She stood out to me because her work included coming-of-age stories with black characters that didn’t feel generic at all. Although I couldn’t relate to any of it, I still appreciated it. Some of her work is influenced by poetry, especially titles such as If You Come Softly and Brown Girl Dreaming.
As a result of reading mostly white YA authors, I started to feel like I could never truly belong in YA literature. I wanted a black character in a John Green romance and a black character who was magical like Harry Potter, but they seemed hard to find. Black teens had experiences that were just as varied and complex as those of white teens, but I kept seeing the same stories getting told and being published. I eventually forgot about Bronx Masquerade because it reminded me of how rarely I could find stories that related to me.
In 2015, I bought Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper after seeing that it was an YA urban fantasy book with an Afro-Latina protagonist. I also discovered the grassroots book campaign We Need Diverse Books and the contemporary YA book Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. All of them would plant the seed for a new relationship with YA books.
Shadowshaper was the most incredible book I’d read in a long time. It combined art and the supernatural for a creative, awesome magic system. It was set in a culturally rich environment that was palpable and interesting. It dealt with real-life issues including colorism, gentrification, and cultural appropriation. To top it off, there was a diverse, inclusive cast of characters that entertained and related to me. Shadowshaper began to reshape my opinion of YA literature by massaging my senses with words and color.
While Shadowshaper changed my opinion of YA fantasy and sci-fi, Juliet Takes a Breath changed my opinion of contemporary YA. I ended up reading the book twice within two months and writing a feature article to help promote it. This book became my best friend, one that I wanted to keep turning to for guidance and empathy. Victor Hugo once wrote that books were cold but safe friends, but this book is one of the warmest things I have read.
After reading Shadowshaper and Juliet Takes a Breath, I became determined to find the books I wanted to read as a teen and spread the word about them.
Afro YA books matter because black teens need to see themselves in words. They matter because I am feeding myself books I should have devoured as teen. They matter because The Outsiders showed me my worth as a writer, while Brown Girl Dreaming showed me my worth as a black writer.
We Need Diverse Books has been saying what I felt throughout my teens and early twenties: We need diverse books, and we demand them. We demand them, we uplift the authors who write and represent them, and we tell the world about them. We have always been here, and we aren’t going anywhere.