From the moment I started reading young adult literature, I enjoyed many things about the genre.
I liked how there were subgenres like fantasy, contemporary, and verse novels (i.e., books written in poems that tell a story). I liked reading about teenagers who save the world. I liked seeing teenagers experiencing real-life issues that no one wants to talk about, like mental illness and feeling out of place. Yet I eventually noticed that some of the stories involving black characters only revolved around personal and socioeconomic issues.
As I mentioned in my discussion of Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything, it was rare for me to find stories of black teenagers in romantic bliss. Although I felt somewhat validated reading young adult books as a teen, they also gave me the impression I had nothing happy to look forward to. I felt like my entire teenage experience would be defined by suffering because I never read about a black teen who was in a happy relationship or confident in themselves. I wanted black characters who were actual characters that felt a wide range of emotions and lived different experiences. Most importantly, I wanted black girl nerds.
When you think of nerdy girls in young adult literature, there is a certain type of girl that comes to mind. They are usually white and gorgeous or white and awkward. Not to mention, they might be so troubled that they need a guy to save them by instantly falling in love with them. After reading so many young adult books with nerdy white female protagonists, I was starting to think that there would never be one with a black female lead. Then I read The Unforgettables by G. L. Thomas and felt validated in more ways than one.
The major reason The Unforgettables appealed to me so much was because of Felicia Abelard, one of the main characters of the book. She is a Haitian American teenager who lives in a culturally rich home and loves comics, Japanese anime, and cosplaying. She is confident in herself to the point where she wears her kinky hair big despite her mother’s wanting her to straighten it. Yet she is also afraid to stand out too much due to strict parents and being bullied. Felicia Abelard is one of the most complex black female characters I’ve ever read in a young adult book, and also the most relatable.
Not only was Felicia Abelard’s nerdiness appealing, but it also broke the mold for what a nerdy female character was supposed to be. In many young adult books and coming-of-age films, the nerdy girl is relegated to what is known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. According to the website TV Tropes, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a quirky, childlike girl whose purpose is to give a male lead character a better outlook on life. In young adult literature, characters who fit this trope include Sam from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dulcie from Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, and Alaska in John Green’s Looking for Alaska. Although some books deconstruct the trope, its pervasiveness in young adult literature and film suggest an unhealthy appeal.
In The Unforgettables, the other main character is Paul Hiroshima, a biracial Japanese teenage boy. Prior to reading the book, I was concerned that Felicia Abelard would become Paul’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl. However, the moment I read their very first encounter, I knew I wouldn’t have anything to worry about. When the two first meet, a yard sale is going on at one of their neighbors’ houses. When the two spy a collection of rare comics called Hit Boy and Slash Girl, they quiz each other on the comics to see who will get to have them. Felicia’s passion for the comics makes Paul realize that she would enjoy the comics more than him, so he lets her take the comics home.
In this first meeting, the stage is set for a friendship as well as romantic attraction between the characters. Yet Felicia Abelard never becomes a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, because her life doesn’t revolve around Paul and vice versa. Instead, Felicia Abelard is just a girl who learns not to be afraid of living her best life while being friends with a guy she has feelings for. Although Felicia considers Paul an awesome guy, she also wants to play forward on her soccer team, survive her junior year of high school, and get a little more freedom from her parents. Meanwhile, Paul wants to adjust to moving to a new town and school, apply to art school, and survive his senior year. Although their feelings for each other start to change their friendship, Felicia and Paul still manage to be there for each other while living their own lives.
Through her grounded life, her unabashed love of nerdy things, and her complicated friendship with Paul, Felicia Abelard’s character arc becomes a poignant story to watch unfold. Felicia calls herself “Sidekick Supreme” to Paul’s “The 8th Wonder,” and together they call themselves “The Unforgettables.” Despite her heroic moniker, she is not a sidekick in Paul’s life, but she is one in her own life due to her fears. Initially, her fear of being bullied by her peers keeps her from playing forward on the soccer team. Furthermore, her fear of her parents’ disapproval keeps her from admitting her feelings for Paul. Finally, her fear of losing Paul as a friend keeps her from sustaining their friendship when things get muddled.
Meanwhile, Paul is afraid of not being able to adjust to his new home and not being able to go to art school. Although he and Felicia have different fears, they hide from them behind masks both metaphorical and literal. For Felicia’s sixteen birthday, Paul makes her a superhero mask to go with her identity as “Sidekick Supreme” as well as one for his identity as “The 8th Wonder.” Since superhero masks are usually used by superheroes to hide their civilian identity from others, it makes sense that Felicia and Paul’s masks symbolize their need to hide from themselves and others.
Eventually, Felicia ends up shedding her mask to express her feelings for Paul. In turn, this inspires Paul to come clean to his parents about applying to art school. Although the two aren’t able to become a couple, Felicia and Paul rekindle their friendship and move on with their lives. After being asked out by a senior classmate, Felicia goes to the senior prom. Meanwhile, Paul goes to the prom with a friend and ends up attending a summer session at an art school.
By shedding their masks, Felicia and Paul allow themselves to get more out of life and appreciate each other more. This makes Felicia her own hero as well as hero to Paul. In fact, Paul comes to appreciate Felicia so much that he gives her a painting of herself as well as a hand-made comic book that features them as The Unforgettables. The comic book contains a bonus comic that has The 8th Wonder becoming a solo hero called Felicia Fantastic. At the end of the comic, there is a note from Paul says, “You were never my sidekick. You were always my hero.”
Although she fights personal fears instead of bad guys, Felicia Abelard is still a hero in her own right. She is a hero for Paul and herself by learning to face her fears. Most of all, she is a hero to me for being her nerdy, beautiful brown self. In a sea of suffering black protagonists and white Manic Pixie Dream Girls, she is Felicia Fantastic, and she is unforgettable.
As a teen, I had a soft spot for contemporary YA romance. I especially enjoyed the romance in The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares. I liked these books because the female characters showed me that even if you had personal issues, you could still find love. However, at some point, I found myself asking, “Why can’t black girls have a YA romance?”
Carmen Lowell, a half Puerto Rican character from the Traveling Pants series, was one of the few women of color I read in YA romance. I enjoyed reading about her because she was caring toward her family and friends and pursued a romantic relationship despite her confidence issues. However, by the end of the final book, Sisterhood Everlasting, she is the only one not in a relationship. Although she is very satisfied with her life, it bothered me that she couldn’t be married or dating someone when she is the only lead of color.
In addition to being one of the few women of color in YA romance, Carmen Lowell was the only female character of color I read who had happy romances. Other books like Sharon M. Draper’s Romiette and Julio and Jacqueline Woodson’s If You Come Softly had black female romantic leads, but their relationships also involved social issues. Both Romiette and Julio and If You Come Softly dealt with the racism that came with being in interracial relationships. While I was impressed by both authors’ takes on this important issue, part of me also wanted a book with a romance free of social tension.
Last year, I discovered Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything when it became a New York Times bestseller. After doing some research, I discovered that this book not only had black female lead but was also written by a black author. After waiting several months, I borrowed a copy from my local library to read and was totally enamored by the book. If this book were food, it would be cotton candy, filled with fluffy, sugary sweet moments that melted on my heart.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the main character, Madeline Whittler. Even though she is isolated from the world, she isn’t portrayed in a negative light. Instead, she is a quirky young girl who loves books and board games and yearns to experience life more fully. She spoke to my teen self, the me that had a hard time fitting in. In addition, Maddie being African American and Japanese gave me the long awaited representation I wanted as a black and Vietnamese person. As someone who rarely saw biracial characters who were black and Asian, this was very validating.
In addition to enjoying Maddie’s character, I liked that her romance happened gradually. Maddie Whittler can’t touch anyone or go outside the house because she has a rare disease that makes her allergic to everything. As a result, she has to communicate with Olly online and through each other’s windows. (They use mirror writing.) For a time, she is also allowed to have quarantined visits from him as long as they don’t touch each other. This makes the moments when they can interact in person all the more precious.
Out of all my favorite moments between Maddie and Ollie, my favorite is when they kiss for the very first time. At this point, they’ve only touched once before without anyone knowing. Maddie and Ollie’s feelings for each other have grown to the point where they can’t keep it to themselves anymore. They need to touch each other and express their feelings to validate them. The kiss is so beautiful and special, and Maddy savors it.
By the time I had finished the book, I had been thoroughly entertained and even taught a few lessons. The most important lesson is summed up in the quote, “Love is worth everything, everything.” This book shows that whether it is romantic love or familial love, it is worth experiencing and fighting for. It is a simple yet relatable message that makes the book memorable.
In addition to being ecstatic about the book itself, I am also excited for the movie adaptation, which will star Amandla Sternberg and Nick Robinson. When I heard this news, I was so thankful. Black YA leads in films are just as rare as black YA romance leads, and people have been craving this. Last year, Twitter user Mariah started the hashtag #WOCforAlaskaYoung in response to the casting call for the YA film Looking for Alaska. She and many others tweeted that they wanted Alaska to be played by a woman of color. Even John Green, the author of the book being adapted, stated that he supported the campaign.
Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything shows that black girls can have a happy young adult romance. It provides some much-needed representation on the page and tells a beautiful story of love. If the movie is as successful as the book, then hopefully we can get more books and movies with black female leads. Right now, Everything, Everything is everything I always wanted in a YA romance, and that is amazing.
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.
The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.