Engaging Methuen Readers

African-American Main Characters in YA

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If you’ve dropped by any bookstore recently, you may have noticed that American culture has a ways to go yet when it comes to equal representation in literature. From Harry Potter to Septimus Heap, the shelves of the YA section are still largely filled with books starring white protagonists. In fact, in 2014, literally 5% of all children’s books published were about black people. Since the population of the U.S. is 13.2% African American, there’s clearly a lot of room for young black readers to feel left out at the library.

That’s the depressing part. The other side of the coin is that things are moving in the right direction: 5% of children’s books about African Americans is a big improvement over 0.7%, which was the case in 1985. Progress! Today, we’re both celebrating that positive trend and encouraging continued movement toward representative diversity in young adult literature. Here are just a few outstanding Young Adult novels that feature black main characters. Go read!


1290563.jpgAkata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Sunny is the albino, American-born daughter of Nigerian parents. When her family moves back her her parents’ homeland, Sunny discovers that she possesses magical powers. Unfortunately, so does another new resident: a serial killer.


Black and White by Paul Volponi965250.jpg

Eddie and Marcus are best friends, stars of the basketball team, and in possession of promising futures. But when they commit a crime together, they quickly learn how one bad decision can alter their futures forever…and how different they are in the eyes of the justice system.


1221993.jpgChains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Isabel is a slave…and a spy. The New York couple who owns her know of British plans to foil the American revolution, but Isabel plans to foil them first and win her freedom with the Patriots. The first in a series by a highly acclaimed author!


The Game of Love and Death by Martha Br1596774.jpgockenbrough

Henry, an affluent white boy, and Flora, an ambitious black girl, are destined to love one another. This is because they are the pawns of mightier forces: Death and Love, who have been locked in battle for millennia. Will Love finally triumph this time around? Or will Death take the prize, as always?


329598.jpgHeaven by Angela Johnson

Marley lives an idyllic life in Heaven, OH, where she and her family regularly wire money to her traveling Uncle Jack and his dog. But when a stunning revelation upends her world, she’ll need to reassess who she is and where she belongs.


Jason & Kyra by Dana Davidson890900.jpg

Jock Jason would never have expected to find himself falling for the quiet, nerdy Kyra. But when they’re paired together for a class project, he finds himself telling her things that even his best friends don’t know!


1185909.jpgMare’s War by Tanita S. Davis

Octavia and Tali are about to learn a lot more about their grandmother than they ever knew. Over the course of a road trip, they learn about her escape from the deep South and her involvement in World War II, where she was a member of the Women’s Army Corps.


The Marvelous Effect by Troy CLE1076671.jpg

Louis Proof can’t believe his luck when he finds a secret amusement park hidden beneath his town’s junkyard. But that’s before he falls into a coma, only to wake up to a world where adults have been replaced with passive replicas and a sinister madman tinkers with the human understanding of right and wrong.


683041.jpgMiracle’s Boys by Jacqueline Woodson

Orphaned when their father died trying to save a life, brothers Lafayette, Charlie and Ty’ree struggle to reestablish their lost family connection. But as Ty’ree gives up his college dreams to support the family and Charlie clams up in response to his recent release from prison, Lafayette may have nobody to answer his questions.


Naughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman946546.jpg

In this Romeo and Juliet story, Sephy is a member of the black upper class while Callum is of the poorer white minority. Though they played together as children, the friends’ clandestine relationship is becoming more dangerous by the day, especially when Callum’s father is suspected of committing an act of terrorism.


1154919.jpgThe Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake

Maleeka is deeply uncomfortable with her appearance. Her school’s bullies tease her for her dark skin and even Char, who may or may not be her friend, could be taking advantage of her. It’s up to Maleeka to stand up for herself.



Sound by Alexandra Duncan1612702.jpg

All her life, Miyole has watched her mother pilot space ships. Now, she may have a chance to make a voyage herself in the role of a scientific researcher. But when her ship rescues a stranger named Cassia from an attack by pirates, Miyole will find herself caught up in the newcomer’s quest to find her abducted brother.


1580706.jpgThis Side of Home by Renee Watson

Nikki and Maya are identical in every way, and they both love their neighborhood. But when a wave of development sweeps in, only Nikki is excited about the change. Maya misses what her neighborhood once was and worries about the black families that find themselves evicted and displaced, even as she plans to go away for college. A tale that tackles the complexities of gentrification and moving away from home.


Tyrell by Coe Booth1033157.jpg

Life in the homeless shelter is hard enough for Tyrell, but to make things worse, his father’s criminal legacy casts a shadow over his future. As he navigates the usual problems of teenage love and loss, he also struggles with the complications of homelessness, poverty, and remaining true to himself.


1527404.jpgWhen I was the greatest by Jason Reynolds

Ali’s got plenty of great stuff going on in his life, from boxing to good grades. But looking out for his friend, Needles, who has Tourette’s Syndrome, may get Ali in trouble even as they both strive to rise above the violence in their neighborhood.



Remember to ask our teen librarian, Amy Fowler, for more YA recommendations!


For further reading, check out these great blogs!

Black Girls Matter from Stacked

The Brown Bookshelf

Diversity in YA

A Guide to Black Friendly Young Adult Fantasy from the Black Kids Table


Author: Anna

Anna is a reference librarian and computer nerd at the Nevins Library. She is a fan of all speculative fiction.

One thought on “African-American Main Characters in YA

  1. I have a reading library in my classroom with over 1,000 books in it. I feel as though African Americans are well represented in the Teen Literature and the Sports Fiction genres but less so in science fiction/fantasy and thriller/horror/mystery genres. I am not sure why that is.
    I teach at a suburban school that is about 90% Caucasian. My students enjoy reading books about other cultures and lifestyles. Some of the reasons people push multicultural literature is to get students to read books about characters that are “like them”. But I don’t think that is my experience at all. Multicultural literature is important for my students because it teaches them about cultures and experiences that are not in their daily lives. This in turn teaches them empathy. Black and White and Tyrell are two very popular books in my classroom.


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