An Exciting Year For Black Young Adult Authors

Great new narratives from returning favorites

Excitement continues to build around Black young adult authors. This year looks to be particularly notable, as favorite returning names are coming out with new novels. Hollywood has turned their previous books into popular movies and television series, and multicultural communities have sprung up around these names, eagerly anticipating their next work. Some are already here, with more to come in the months ahead.

Black authors of young adult novels often say they didn’t see themselves in the books they were reading growing up. So they write novels with characters that reflect themselves and others like them. In the process, they find an audience that is far larger and more diverse than what they expected. With these new works, their audiences will only continue to grow.

The Life I’m In, by Sharon G. Flake (January 5, Scholastic Press)

The Life I'm In The prolific Sharon G. Flake changed the face of young-adult fiction over 20 years ago with The Skin I’m In. The brutally honest novel touched, and continues to touch, readers across races and classes. Flake has steadily delivered top quality literature for young people and this year she returned to the world of The Skin I’m In, this time focusing on the ruthless bully in that story, Char.

Only Flake could spark sympathy for a character that readers have reviled for so long. But once the reader learns that after Char is turned out of her home and becomes a victim of human trafficking, it’s immediately #TeamChar. Char’s situation terrifies her, but she stays tough. When she aimed her sharp tongue at Maleeka in The Skin I’m In, it was a blood-drawing razor. But now she speaks truths for her fellow sex-trafficked victims. Not accepting her fate easily, Char pulls on her strength and determination to get out of her situation.

The Awakening of Malcolm X, by Ilyasah Shabazz with Tiffany Jackson (January 5, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)

Filed under historical fiction, The Awakening of Malcolm X, co-written by Malcolm’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz and award-winning young adult author Tiffany Jackson (Monday’s Not Coming), reads more like a biography. The novel is the follow-up to X: A Novel, which focuses on Malcolm’s formative years. The Awakening of Malcolm X focuses on his prison years, when the future leader educated himself by reading all the books in the prison library, emerging as a member of the Nation of Islam. The book shows how leaders are developed and cultivated rather than born. The Awakening of Malcolm X has a particularly personal quality because of Shabazz, and is accessible and highly-readable thanks to Jackson’s flawless storytelling. The companion books work equally well as stand-alones and consecutive reads.

Muted, by Tami Charles (February 2, Scholastic Press)

The wonderful Tami Charles turns her formidable talents to a novel in verse that takes its cues from the real-life abuses of power that men inflict upon women working toward careers in the arts. In Muted the latter is Sean “Mercury” Ellis and the former are three girls: Denver, Dali and Shak, from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and family lives.

Mercury makes the small town girls’ music dreams come true in return for a few lies and a few sacrifices. Before they realize it, he traps the girls in a world from which they cannot escape without risking losing everything. A #MeToo tale that draws from Charles’ own experiences in the music industry when she was a teenager, Muted rings true with the authenticity of an insider’s point of view. Plus, it has the added intensity that comes with telling a story in verse form with minimal words for maximum impact.

Love Is A Revolution, by Renee Watson (February 2, Bloomsbury YA)

From the author of the lauded and best-selling award-winning middle grades novel Piecing Me Together comes a story about love in all its forms: First love, love of family, but, most importantly, self-love. Nala is a plus-size teenager who enjoys films and food. She falls quickly for Tye who spends his time as a pro-active activist. Nala tries to fit herself in his world, throwing a few fibs along the way. These start unraveling the more she falls in love. At the same time, Nala is developing love for herself. The world of Love is A Revolution is a utopia where the popular girls are positive and kind and big girls are the ones who get the boys’ attention, and the greatest love is not for a significant other, but for yourself. Watson makes all of this seem not only attainable, but aspirational.

Off the Record, by Camryn Garrett (May 18, Knopf Books for Young Readers)young adult

Camryn Garrett’s second novel tackles the #MeToo issue from the point of view of a high school senior and journalist, Josie. Josie wins a contest to write a cover story for a major publication, which thrusts her into the world of celebrities. As Josie meets more people, they start confiding their #MeToo stories with her, leaving her with the burden of feeling that she has to expose the predator while also fearing betraying their trust and sabotaging her burgeoning writing career.

Garrett’s publisher is billing this book as Almost Famous meets #MeToo, though what Josie faces, at a very young age, is a lot more serious than that film’s lighthearted and humorously poignant experiences. With not a lot of real-life friends, Josie is heavy and queer and suffers from bouts of anxiety. She’s just as complex as the secrets with which her sources entrust her. Garrett is barely out of high school herself, which brings an added authenticity to Off the Record.

Instructions for Dancing, by Nicola Yoon (June 1, Penguin Random House)

Five years is too long to wait for a Nicola Yoon novel, but she makes it worth the wait with Instructions for Dancing, a romance novel with a unique twist. Evie has visions of heartbreak. She sees the end of every relationship. Plus, her parents are recently divorced, shattering her illusions of true love, so she chooses to stay away from love. Her dance partner X has the opposite attitude, embracing all opportunities. He enters them in a ballroom dance competition and Evie finds resistance to love futile.

Comparing the protagonists of her three novels’ attitudes toward the world, respectively, Yoon tells Entertainment Weekly: “Maddy so wanted the world, she so wanted to be open to it and to be allowed into it. And Natasha, her world was being taken away from her so she was trying to hold onto something. Evie’s a little different, she’s like, ‘I don’t trust the world at all so I’m going to hold everything a little bit away from me.’”

Simone Breaks All The Rules, by Debbie Rigaud (June 1, Scholastic)

A senior year bucket list when you come from a strict Haitian family and go to an all-girls high school doesn’t have really extreme items on it. It does have things like: “kiss a boy,” “skip class” and “pick your own prom date.” Simone is allowed to go to her prom, but only with an arranged date with a boy who her parent pre-chooses. She’s not into that boy, so it’s a rebellious move for Simone to actually tick off the items of her bucket list, the most rebellious being going to the prom with the boy she’s actually interested in, which keeps this romantic comedy going.

Rise to the Sun, by Leah Johnson (July 6, Scholastic Press)

What happens at a music festival doesn’t stay at a music festival. Instead, it changes your life. That’s the setting for Rise to the Sun, where Olivia and Toni, two very different people attending Farmland Music and Arts Festival for very different reasons. But they’re both looking for a fresh start at Farmland, Olivia after a humiliating breakup and Toni before going to college. Leah Johnson’s second LGBTQIA novel brims with self-discovery and love, and the connections and complications that come with attending a music festival. Speaking about revising the book during the pandemic, the live-music show-loving Johnson says in Hello Sunshine, “As tours were canceled and music festivals rescheduled the world over, this book, even while holed up in my Brooklyn bedroom, gave me back the community that I’d thought I’d lost.”

Fast Pitch, by Nic Stone (August 31, Penguin Random House)young adult

In the post revealing her upcoming middle grades novel, Fast Pitch, best-selling author Nic Stone said, “Growing up (and now) my favorite movie was The Sandlot.” She went on to say all the things she learned from the movie including “smores and robotics and Babe Ruth” and “the power of community and friendship.” She also pointed out the glaring fact that with all the Black girls in sports, the only one she was aware of was Jason Reynolds’ Patina. Enter Fast Pitch, a book about Shenice, the captain of the softball team the Fulton Firebirds, managing her responsibilities and pressures of leading the only team of color in her league alongside her family issues. Her domestic drama threatens to take down the Firebirds unless Shenice gets in front of them first. High school or middle school, Stone always gets the tone right.

Things We Couldn’t Say, by Jay Coles (September 21, Little, Brown)

The latest from the wonderful Jay Coles touches on multiple issues from bisexuality to alcoholism and abandonment. Gio faces all of the above, and also serves as the agony aunt for his friends’ problems. The return of his mother after an eight-year absence complicates matters. This is not exactly a joyful reunion as Gio has to decide whether to let her back into his life, compounded by the confusion of a new friend, David. Or is he more than a friend? Coles says on LTBTQ Reads, that he faced “crippling anxiety, depression, family conflicts,” as well as, “together, we faced horrific racial injustices and a global pandemic” and that he felt, “burnt out, broken, beaten down, defeated and thought I’d lost my way, my voice.” If anything, Things We Couldn’t Say proves that Coles’ voice has only gotten stronger.

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Lily Moayeri

Los Angeles-based Lily Moayeri has been an avid reader since 1975, a freelance journalist since 1992 and an educator since 2004.

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