With Black History Month in full swing, and Hidden Figures still crushing it at the box office, we here at Brit + Co Book Club thought it might be a good idea to look toward the future. Change is slow in coming but necessary, and the three badass young black female protagonists in these novels have that change in hand. They’re self-assured, hungry, and even revolutionary. Pick up one of these exciting books that help show that representation matters.
1. When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina ($11): The language we use is vital; it shapes the way we experience the world. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that words can be radical, powerful, dangerous. In 1976, thousands of black school children took to the streets of Soweto to protest a 1974 law that forced South African schools to teach some subjects in Afrikaans, a language that many (including the legendary Desmond Tutu) associated with Apartheid and oppression. Walking out of their schools toward a rally, the protesters were met by a police barricade and violence, leading to many senseless deaths. Arushi Raina’s first novel takes the protests and uses them to tell the fictional story of Zanele, a grade-12 student and one of the organizers of the protests.
Raina splits up her book with the voices of four narrators, Zanele and three of her friends, including best friend Thabo, who has fallen in with a gang; Meena, a young Indian woman who finds “seditious” pamphlets in her father’s shop; and Jack, a wealthy white boy who, hopelessly clueless about the racial inequality that divides them, is interested in Zanele, whose mother serves his family. These characters relate to and understand the events occurring around them according to their unique contexts.
When Morning Comes is YA lit that takes on an issue that’s dark, complex, and violent but has its share of comedy and romance (these are teens we’re talking about). It’s a sobering reminder of the dystopias in our midst, and that, sometimes, the youth will rise up.
2. American Street by Ibi Zoboi ($18): From historical fiction, we go to something oh-so-current, the story of Fabiola Toussaint, who has to make a life for herself in Detroit after her mother is detained by the INS. “’Ms. Valerie Toussaint, I need you to come with me,’ the man has said. His voice was like the pebbled street in Delmas, rough and unsteady as they pulled Manman’s hand from mine… On the flight to Detroit, I am alone. I look down at America — its vastness resembling a huge mountain. I felt as if I was just a pebble in the valley.”
Born in the US, Fabiola nonetheless feels (and, in some ways, is) an immigrant; since childhood, she lived in Haiti, and as a young woman, she finds her return to America disorienting. Her American cousins, Princess, Chantal, and Donna, are all loud and brash; she needs to deal with a new community, a new way of life and a new school, as well as regular adolescent angst. Ibi Zoboi, nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize (the best work published by small presses), draws on her own story as a Haitian immigrant to the US in her first full novel.
Zoboi gives us the realities of immigration and Detroit’s west side, combined with her own spin on magic and vodou culture. Will Fabiola ever be reunited with her mother, or will even more barriers spring up between their connection? You’ll have to travel down this street to find out.
3. Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson ($18): While Fabiola finds the move from Haiti to Detroit uncomfortable, Jade is only too ready to move beyond her home neighborhood. She’s just 16, but she has big dreams of success and travel. Jade has spent the last two years on scholarship at a private high school, where she feels a bit conspicuous as one of a handful of African-American students (most of whom aren’t poor) in a sea of white faces. While she excels at school and appreciates the opportunities it provides, she’s a bit tired of feeling like a project, or being treated like she’s otherwise helpless. St. Francis is all right, but she doesn’t have any best friends there, nobody to share “the look” with, or an inside joke.
Jade’s new mentor is from the Woman to Woman program for “at-risk” girls, but Jade doesn’t consider herself particularly at risk of anything but being stereotyped. Maxine is a college graduate and a success, but she also comes from money, which distances her more from Jade than their shared blackness connects them. Jade’s looking for greatness, not just good intentions.
“When I learned the Spanish word for succeed, I thought it was kind of ironic that the word exit was embedded in it,” Jade says. “Like the universe was telling me that in order for me to make something of this life, I’d have to leave home, my neighborhood, my friends.” Jade wants to change the world, and a potential overseas volunteer opportunity might just be her chance. Is it worth it, though, to be away from everyone she loves? Piecing Me Together gives us a heroine with a strong voice and stereotype-busting powers, which might be the most important superpower of our century.
What books make you rise up? Tag us in your next empowering read @BritandCo.
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