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Growing up, I always found it difficult to fully empathize with the leading characters in young adult novels. Often starring an ambiguously White female lead with a token Black or Latina BFF, the books of my childhood didn’t mirror my coming of age experiences. While most of these stories were set in some North American city or town, and I could often relate to that element, the plot lines were portrayed through White eyes and never touched upon the challenges I faced growing up, or the simple quirks and differences between my childhood and that of someone White growing up in a White home and a White world.
Now that I’m a grown adult who has constant access to the Internet, I’ve recently started to spend a considerable amount of my free time looking into books that feature lead characters that I can relate to. Below are four of my choices if you’re looking for a similarly diverse reading experience:
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Set in 1970s small town Ohio, Everything I Never Told You tells the story of a mixed race Chinese-American family with three children. The story is centered on the family’s dynamics after the death of one of their children, alternating narrators between the parents and children. While I don’t come from a directly mixed race home, I did grow up in a family that has a long history of mixed race ancestry and what I’ve grown to refer to as decades of cross-cultural pollination. For this reason, the book did hit home. It touches on the intricacies of family and cultural burdens, and how the notion of acceptance changed across the family’s male, female, racialized and white characters.
Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier
This was the first book I ever read that was by and about a woman of colour. It is technically young adult fiction, and I did read it when I was 13, but that doesn’t make it any less well written and relatable. The novel follows the teenage journey of Dimple Lala, an Indian-American girl growing up in New Jersey in the early 2000s. It spends a lot of time addressing issues among social circles, especially those related to having friends from different backgrounds, and therefore being treated differently by peers. The book also spends a considerable amount of time reflecting on the choice to pursue a career in the arts when coming from an immigrant American family, and even touches on gender fluidity and cross-dressing. I recommend the book for all ages with an interest in intersectionality.
The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
Only released this past spring, The Star Side of Bird Hill tells the story of two teenage sisters from Brooklyn. They are uprooted from their home and sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados when their mother can no longer care for them. The story is relatable for anyone who feels they have two homes — the one where they grew up and the one that answers the question, “where are you really from?” The two sisters learn about their family history when they move to Barbados and are able to learn about aspects of their grandmother and mother’s lives they could never have imagined. But at the end of the day, they are torn between choosing which country is truly their “home.”
If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan
I will admit, I have not actually read this book but it has been on my reading list for the last few months and I have read the pages in the Amazon free preview. If You Could Be Mine tells the story of two queer women living and falling in love in 20th century Iran. This book is different from the other three on the list because it does not directly touch upon North American culture and race relations. It does however deal with the queer identity in third-world communities, and eventually touches upon the prospect of gender reassignment surgery as a method to bypass unjust laws against same-sex marriage. This is also considered a young adult novel, but it is still on my reading list.