6 Young Adult Protagonists Who Aren’t White
Teen fiction often relegates characters of color to the margins, if they appear at all. These books help broaden the spectrum.
“You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror?” Dominican-American author Junot Díaz once told an audience in New Jersey, “There's this idea that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror. And what I've always thought isn't that monsters don't have reflections in a mirror. It's that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
If The New York Times Best Sellers list for youth fiction is any indication, the only reflections in popular teen novels are of whiteness. For example, NPR’s list of 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels, which was voted on by readers, only includes three writers of color. This is nothing new: The most popular young adult writers of yore—Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, S.E. Hinton, Robert Cormier, R.L. Stine—were white, as are many of the biggest contemporaries, like John Green, Stephanie Meyer, J.K. Rowling, and Gayle Forman. As a whole, the category clings closely to narratives of whiteness, centering on white characters and (maybe) sprinkling characters of color in the periphery. In recent memory, the only young adult series that even came close to touching race issues has been Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” books. Many readers interpreted protagonist Katniss Everdeen to be biracial or Native American, but Collins never made explicit reference to her race, allowing the casting of white actress Jennifer Lawrence as Everdeen in the film adaptations.
But YA authors of color do exist, even if they almost never crack a bestseller list. And their novels bring characters of different ethnicities and races to the fore, providing young readers of color a reflection of themselves unavailable in most Western literature. The lessons in these books are accessible far beyond their characters’ specific heritage, however—all young adults struggle for legitimacy and authenticity in a world that conflates youth with folly. These six suggestions simply provide young readers with protagonists that reflect a spectrum of color far more varied than white.
1. Born Confused / Bombay Blues by Tanuja Desai Hidier
Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused hit shelves in 2002, introducing readers to Dimple Lala, an Indian-American girl trying to reconcile her bicultural identity. In the process, Hidier gave name to a notion that many American-born South Asians (referred to as Desis) felt but couldn’t quite articulate—the ABCD, or the American-Born Confused Desi. Hidier just released Bombay Blues, the next step in Lala’s coming-of-age journey, which follows the protagonist on a trip to Bombay. In an interview with Safy-Hallan Farah, Hidier said, “With Born Confused I explored a kind of ‘answer’ I’d arrived at about cross-cultural identity. With Bombay Blues, I lived—and am still in a state of arriving at—a question.”
2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Junot Díaz’s colloquial prose breathes life into this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Dominican-American “ghetto nerd” whose search for love and acceptance is complicated by a family curse called the fukú. Oscar Wao’s outsider status is compounded by the fact that he’s overweight; his weight becomes a manifestation of all his first-generation anxieties.
3. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Jin Wang, the protagonist of American Born Chinese, confronts what it means to fit in as a first-generation American in a mostly white suburb. Jin just wants to be accepted by his peers, but he is tormented by racial stereotypes. Life grows more complicated when Jin’s cousin, Chin-Kee, visits him from China, forcing Jin to navigate between “native” and “other.” Any capitulation to one of Jin’s dual identities feels like a betrayal to the other. Luen Yang illustrates this struggle in his beautiful graphic novel.
4. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf
It’s hard enough as a teen to satisfy society’s expectations, but Khadra, the book’s protagonist, must also contend with a long list of religious obligations. As a Muslim in post-September 11 America, Khadra struggles to achieve spiritual well-being in the face of racial and religious discrimination. She travels to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where an encounter with the religious police causes her to renegotiate her relationship with Islam.
5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie\n
Sherman Alexie’s novel about a Native-American teenager has garnered critical acclaim, but it’s also been the target of book bans for its frank depictions of sex and violence. Alexie’s tale follows the life of Arnold Spirit, Jr., or Junior, who transfers to an all-white school where he is the target of bullying and physical abuse. Much of what happens in the novel is drawn from Alexie’s own childhood experiences. “There are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged,” Alexie wrote. “They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books—especially the dark and dangerous ones—will save them.”
6. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison confronts the tyranny of white standards of beauty in this novel about Pecola Breedlove, a black girl convinced that she’s ugly. Though Breedlove is only 11 years old, she’s acutely aware of the ways that society demonizes her skin color and black features. She believes the only way she could be beautiful, the only way she could be loved, is if she had blue eyes. With spare prose, Morrison deftly exposes the machinations of whiteness and their tragic consequences.