Indigenous protagonists and people of color

As the heated — and very productive — discussion on Read Roger reflects, readers are clamoring for more books that represent, as author/illustrator Yuyi Morales eloquently put it, “the experience of other cultures ‘other than the dominant one.’” There’s no question that there aren’t enough such books to choose from; here are four of our recent favorites.

The protagonist of Holly Goldberg Sloan’s perceptive and poignant (and funny) Counting by 7s is awkward genius middle schooler Willow Chance. After her parents die in a car accident, she’s taken in, on a temporary basis, by her new friend Mai Nguyen’s family: mother Pattie (née Dung) and surly brother Quang-ha. These disparate characters, plus cabdriver Jairo Hernandez, ultimately connect with one another, forming a new family. What sets this novel apart is its lack of sentimentality, its truly multicultural cast (Willow describes herself as a “person of color”; Mai and Quang-ha are of mixed Vietnamese, African American, and Mexican ancestry), and its precise, observational tone. (Dial, 11–14 years)

Lewis Blake, star of Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here, is a brainiac kid from the Tuscarora Indian Reservation in 1970s upstate New York. Beginning his second year (seventh grade) in a mostly white county junior high school, he’s tired of feeling like an outsider, but he also worries that fitting in would mean “stripping my Indian life away completely first.” The arrival of newcomer George Haddonfield — an Air Force kid and fellow Beatles fan — allows Lewis to make a friend and helps him cope with the extreme bullying he experiences at school. It’s a fine story with depth and heart; like Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, it is engaging and authentic. (Scholastic/Levine, 11–14 years)

Tara Sullivan’s Tanzania-set Golden Boy follows Habo, a zeruzeru (albino) whose family falls in with an ivory poacher. Alasiri forces Habo and his brother to help with his grisly trade in exchange for a ride to Mwanza. Once there, Habo’s situation worsens: in the northern regions of Tanzania, superstition holds that the hands, legs, skin, and hair of a zeruzeru can be used to make powerful good luck charms, and Alasiri tries to murder Habo for his body parts. Sullivan excels at conveying Habo’s feelings of freakishness and alienation, as well as his mortal terror during Alasiri’s attack. Sullivan’s understanding of human emotion and personal growth is deep and genuine, and her efforts to draw attention to this human rights abuse are commendable. (Putnam, 13–16 years)

A move to a new neighborhood in Queens means a new high school for Piddy (short for Piedad) Sanchez, star of Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Instead of a welcoming committee, she gets word that someone she doesn’t even know has it in for her. Yaqui Delgado may think she’s tough, but it’s Piddy and some of the other female characters, namely Piddy’s mother and her mother’s flamboyant best friend Lila, who make more lasting impressions. Medina’s setting stands out as well, especially her portrayal of the bustling Latina-owned beauty salon where Piddy works. As the bullying intensifies, Piddy wonders: is it easier to give up and become a “nobody,” or should she fight back? Teens will identify with Piddy’s struggle to decide. (Candlewick, 13–16 years)

From the August 2013 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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 University and a BA from Oberlin College.

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