Teens, I’m wildly excited to be writing to you at the start of Black History Month! But before we get into the recommendations, I have to confess I feel conflicted about squeezing the celebration, seeing, and learning into a single puny month. Real steps toward equality require daily attention and action, and thus let it be officially proclaimed that the following YA books can absolutely be enjoyed year-round.
While “The Awakening of Malcolm X” by Ilyasah Shabazz (Malcolm X’s actual daughter) and Tiffany D. Jackson is a historical fiction account of Malcolm’s early adulthood, specifically the time he spent in prison before his emergence as a national leader, it doesn’t feel glossy or oversimplified the way some historical fiction can. The authors immerse readers in this period in Malcolm’s story with grit and nuance, avoiding a reductive hero/villain edit that sometimes happens with big historical personalities.
The book is a rowdy ride of vulnerability and rage, swagger and self-doubt, despair and determination, and even though you may already be familiar with the outline of Malcolm X’s life, there are plenty of unexpected opportunities to connect with his in-between experiences, experiences that defined how he related to the world when he eventually, in the author’s words, woke up. “The Awakening of Malcolm X” offers an intimate look into the “origin” story of a fraught public figure, humanizing Malcolm in a way a Wikipedia article can’t.
Teens, I went through public schools, college, AND a graduate degree and despite all that decrepitness, only relatively recently became aware of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Why? Brandy Colbert’s “Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre” considers that question. The book describes the context of the massacre and the experiences of the people who endured it, and equally troubling, examines the near erasure of the event from public consciousness. What starts with a history lesson on how the state of Oklahoma came to be, evolves into an unflinching look at what it meant to be Black in America in the early twentieth century. If you’re trying to fill your own historical gaps on the subject, “Black Birds in the Sky” is a useful place to start.
Twenty-three-year poet and activist Amanda Gorman knows how to deliver goosebumps. If you haven’t already heard or seen her perform her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” you’re in luck, we have both the physical book and eBook incarnation at your disposal. Gorman’s poem plants its feet in the real world while still glimmering with hope for a better one, and Gorman herself shines as an artist and a leader.
If, like me, you’re obsessed with looking for trustworthy biographical info on intriguing people like SZA, bell hooks, Steph Curry, Frank Ocean, Patrick Mahomes and more, you definitely don’t want to miss the Gale Biography in Context Database, one of the Library’s eResources available from the Teens page of the A.K. Smiley Public Library website (www.akspl.org/teens). It’s like the scholarly version of Extra! From Stacey Abrams to Zendaya, this database offers reliable details about over 500 notable African Americans (and counting) from history and today.
Other YA titles you may want to check out:
“Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People” by Kekla Magoon
“The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” by Jeanne Theoharis
“When They Call You a Terrorist: A Story of Black Lives Matter and the Power to Change the World” by Patrice Khan-Cullors
“Paul Robeson: No one Can Silence Me” by Martin B. Doberman
These books may fall under the wide and impressive umbrella of Black History, but they are also about leaders, traumas, resilience, courage, and joy. If you’re interested, they may expand/reinforce/challenge/change/reflect your perspectives in meaningful ways. And of course, you have all year to read them.