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Embracing cultural identity

The following YA stories feature teens struggling with family, friendship, and cultural identity in ways that feel organic to their experiences and are relatable to a variety of readers.

latham_dreamland-burningAlternating between the voices of two seventeen-year-olds — a contemporary biracial (her mother is black, her father is white) young woman named Rowan Chase, and Will Tillman, son of an Osage mother and white father, in 1921 — Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham sheds light on the Tulsa “race riot” of 1921 in which white Tulsans decimated a thriving black neighborhood. During a summer remodel of Rowan’s family’s home, workers discover a skeleton beneath the floorboards. Rowan plays amateur detective, researching Tulsa history in the hopes of finding clues to the skeleton’s identity. Latham thoughtfully asks readers to consider the responsibilities of a witness; what it is like to be biracial when belonging to one group is paramount; and about whether saving one person can make a difference in the broader context of society’s racial problems. (Little, Brown, 14 years and up)

hughes_four-four-twoThe title of Dean Hughes’s Four-Four-Two refers to the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was composed entirely of Issei and Nisei (first-generation Japanese immigrants and their children, respectively) who served in WWII. In December 1941, Berkeley high-schooler Yuki Nakahara watches as his father is arrested as a spy. Less than six months later, Yuki and his siblings, all American citizens, are deported with their mother to the Topaz internment camp in Utah. Yet Yuki decides to join the army because he believes it’s the only way he’ll “ever be respected in this country.” Readers follow him through basic training; the agonies of battle, loss, and injury; and his return home. Events, characters, and dialogue create an indelible sense of time and place. Yuki emerges as a true hero during a dark period of American history. (Atheneum, 14 years and up)

budhos_watchedAs a Muslim immigrant in Queens (having arrived from Bangladesh at age eleven), Naeem has grown up under the watchful eyes of his father and stepmother: “Do your best…Don’t make trouble.” Now a teenager, he has fallen in with a reckless high school crowd. When Naeem lands in police custody, he is presented with an unsavory choice: pay the price for his crimes and break his parents’ hearts, or spy on his own neighbors and thus betray his community. Watched by Marina Budhos thoughtfully explores the complex and sometimes conflicting intricacies of a cross-cultural identity; Naeem’s first-person narrative, strained with uncertainty, ramps up the tension: whom can he really trust? (Random/Lamb, 14 years and up)

pung_lucy-and-linhEach morning Lucy Lam, protagonist of Alice Pung’s Lucy and Linh, leaves behind her shabby Melbourne suburb and Chinese-Vietnamese-immigrant parents to attend an elite girls’ school on scholarship. When a powerful trio of white girls takes an interest in Lucy, she marvels at their glamour and steadily becomes more ashamed of her own home life. Eventually, though, she feels she is losing herself, and when she begins to resist, it becomes clear that the school’s open doors come at a price. Lucy’s unwillingness to conform to the role of ethnic novelty or to participate in the toxic school culture quickly turns her from model minority to targeted pariah. Lucy’s narration pulls readers alongside her uncertain navigation of two worlds, and we can’t help but cheer in solidarity as Lucy recognizes assimilation masquerading as inclusion, refuses to back down, and instead embraces who she is. (Knopf, 14 years and up)

From the January 2017 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Elissa Gershowitz About Elissa Gershowitz

Elissa Gershowitz is executive editor of The Horn Book, Inc. She holds an MA from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a BA from Oberlin College.

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