I’ve been a lifelong reader, but as a kid, most of the books I read featured white protagonists, simply because that’s what was being published. And if they weren’t white, the characters were typically shown living through tough historical times or were part of storylines wholly focused on their racial or ethnic background. While books centering characters of color were always deserving of a place on shelves, the past few years have rewarded us with so many that it’s hard to keep up with my to-be-read list. More than that, many of these books feature women and girls who, while still dealing with the struggles of being part of a marginalized group, are shown simply living their lives. These books are empowering and necessary, and here are five of my recent favorites:
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
There was a lot of buzz about The Mothers by Brit Bennett before it was published, and it lived up to all my expectations and more. Focusing on Nadia, a young black woman we follow from high school through college, this book hit all my sweet spots: a confused young narrator, a California setting, and gray areas with no clear answers. Nadia is never quite sure she’s doing the right thing, and, like any human being, she makes plenty of mistakes along the way by hurting those she loves and who love her. But what I admired most was her ability to do what was right for her in the moment, even under the larger veil of uncertainty.
Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman
I adored Akemi Dawn Bowman’s first novel, Starfish, and her second book, Summer Bird Blue, was just as skillfully executed. Anchored by beautiful, atmospheric writing, this story is about teenager Rumi Seto, who, after the death of her sister, is sent to stay with her aunt in Hawaii while her mother grieves alone. Angry and haunted by memories of her sister, Rumi finds the gorgeous landscape of Hawaii anything but comforting and fights hard against the recent changes in her life. But slowly, through her love of music, the desire to fulfill a promise to her sister, and the familial love of the local islanders, Rumi finds the strength to go on, and in fact grow, in the aftermath of losing her best friend.
The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo
No one combines romance, culture, and humor like Maurene Goo, and The Way You Make Me Feel is a perfect blend of all three. A Los Angeles teen with a penchant for pranks, Clara Shin finally takes it too far and is forced to work in her dad’s food truck for the summer with her archnemesis, Rose Carver. While initially incapable of taking anything seriously, Clara begins to soften as she establishes a real friendship with Rose and a budding romance with Hamlet Wong, the good-natured, good-looking, and extremely studious boy who has a not-so-secret crush on her. Clara’s summer is not without family drama as she yearns to be closer to her mother (a forever on-the-go social media influencer) and butts heads with her father, but she’s at her best when she begins to learn the value of showing up for those you love. (Bonus: The food descriptions in this book are impeccable, and I wanted to eat every single item on the menu in Clara’s dad’s Korean/Brazilian food truck.)
Learning to Breathe by Janice Lynn Mather
After reading Learning to Breathe by Janice Lynn Mather, I immediately wanted more YA novels that take place in the Bahamas. However, though set on the idyllic island of Nassau, life for Indy is anything but when she’s sent to live with relatives she barely knows. Living in the shadow of her mother’s reputation, Indy is determined to prove she’s nothing like the woman who failed to raise her. And when she’s forced into a horrific situation against her will, she’s left feeling hopeless, sure no one will believe her. After stumbling onto a yoga retreat center on the beach, Indy finds a community she can trust and finally feels safe enough to reveal all the ways she’s been hurt — which empowers her to start living the life she deserves and not the one that’s been mapped out for her.
Calling My Name by Liara Tamani
As an author of books for teens and kids, I’m often asked about the book I wish I’d had when I was younger. For years, I struggled to answer that question — until I read Liara Tamani’s stunning debut, Calling My Name. Taja has been raised in a strict Christian household in Houston, but as her teen years progress, she begins to feel conflict with the religious values she’s been taught versus the realities of her inner desires. A true coming-of-age narrative, Calling My Name follows Taja through the beauty and struggles of identity, religion, and first love. Tamani’s story is told in gorgeously written vignettes that give voice to a typical Black American girl, a narrative that’s often overlooked in fiction.