YA love stories for Black History Month

For Valentine’s Day, here are some thoughtful (and swoon-worthy) YA love stories that center Black protagonists and focus on love in various forms — including passion for dance and relationships tested by a zombie apocalypse. Throughout February we’ve been celebrating Black History Month with articles, interviews, book recommendations, and more by and about Black children’s book creators and luminaries. Click here to follow.

 With the Fire on High
by Elizabeth Acevedo 
High School    HarperTeen    392 pp. 
5/19    978-0-06-266283-5    $17.99 
e-book ed.  978-0-06-266285-9    $9.99 

High school senior Emoni Santiago, whose “Puerto Rican side is as Black as [her] Black American side,” is many things — an aspiring chef, a proud North Philly native, a reserved student who keeps to herself, a teenage single parent. Emoni and her two-year-old daughter live with Emoni’s abuela, as Emoni’s mother is dead and her father lives in Puerto Rico. Emoni’s life is one of difficult choices, and she is not sure she will be able to both pursue her cooking dreams and support her daughter. But as seniors begin choosing electives, Emoni signs up for a culinary arts class that culminates in a trip to Spain — and she begins to see a path forward if she only dares follow it. In this prose novel (following her Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winning verse novel The Poet X, rev. 3/18), Acevedo continues to create beautifully realized characters with complex lives (“I shake my head at all the separate feelings inside me; sometimes I feel like a bigger mess than Babygirl’s scattered toys”), and her portrait of a young mother is a story too infrequently taken up in YA. But readers of all sorts will find something to connect with in this honest and ultimately hopeful story — and aspiring chefs like Emoni can follow a few actual recipes (such as “When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemon Verbena Tembleque”). CHRISTINA L. DOBBS

Becoming Beatriz
by Tami Charles
High School    Charlesbridge Teen    262 pp.    g
9/19    978-1-58089-778-5    $17.99

Charles (Like Vanessa, rev. 3/18) presents the story of an Afro–Puerto Rican teen, Beatriz Mendez, who is torn between her own desire to be a dancer and the expectations of her blood and chosen families in mid-1980s New Jersey. After the gang-related murder of her brother, Junito, Beatriz feels responsible for taking on his role as leader of the Diablos gang. Failing in school and dealing with her mom’s sadness, Beatriz sets aside her love for dance. However, when her favorite TV show, Fame, announces a casting call for extras, Beatriz must try to balance her “gang life” with her “dance life.” Can she navigate between the two, or will she finally be honest with herself and choose to follow her dreams? Through Beatriz’s voice, Charles presents a strong, smart, and sometimes snarky teenager who is trying to gain control of her choices, to finally become her true self; and whose family has encountered abuse and injustice and developed mechanisms of survival. Integral to the story are explorations of drugs and addiction and their impact on Black and Latinx communities; machismo and homophobia in Puerto Rican communities; and media and dreams as ways to escape one’s realities or to find new ones. An author’s note and information about gangs and the 1980s drug epidemic, Debbie Allen (dancer, choreographer, and star of Fame), and ACT-SO (Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics) are appended. SUJEI LUGO

The Revolution of Birdie Randolph 
by Brandy Colbert 
High School    Little, Brown    327 pp.    g 
8/19    978-0-316-44856-7    $17.99 
e-book ed.  978-0-316-44857-4    $9.99 

African American sixteen-year-old Dove Randolph, Birdie to her family, is on the “right” track, with good grades and a clear plan for her life after high school. The plan, chosen by her parents, means she has to give up playing soccer and is only allowed to date “appropriate” boys. When Birdie’s aunt, Carlene, arrives on the doorstep of the Randolph family’s hair salon, fresh from a stint in rehab, Birdie begins to push against the life that has been laid out for her. This rebellion includes dating Booker, a kind-hearted boy with a difficult past. Birdie knows her parents wouldn’t approve of Booker, so she keeps him away from them — and they don’t seem to approve of Carlene either, as they refuse to let go of her past mistakes and try to keep long-held family secrets from being revealed. Vivid dialogue and rich descriptions of the Chicago setting serve the story well. Birdie’s believable first-person perspective reflects a protagonist who evolves throughout the narrative to trust her own instincts. Colbert’s depictions of Birdie’s friends and family represent varied perspectives without passing judgment on those perspectives. As the family’s secrets are revealed, the story raises nuanced questions about how much we are shaped by our parents and how much by our own choices, just as Birdie is taking steps to craft her own ideas about her future. CHRISTINA L. DOBBS

Not So Pure and Simple
by Lamar Giles
High School    HarperTeen    391 pp.
1/20    978-0-06-234919-4    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-234921-7    $9.99

Del’s forever crush on schoolmate Kiera comes to a head when she finally becomes single in their junior year of high school. Del is poised to do whatever it takes to win her over, even if it means (inadvertently) joining their church’s Purity Pledge group. There is hope, however, from Kiera’s friend Jameer, who strikes a deal with Del: Jameer will put in a good word with Kiera in exchange for Del providing him with information from the sex ed class Jameer isn’t allowed to take. Del accepts the challenge, but soon begins to realize that his journey into Kiera’s heart is not going to be as easy as he thought. With realism and humor, Giles paints the complicated, messy reality that many teens face in navigating sexuality, relationships, and the conflicting messages they receive from society. Toxic masculinity is explored, juxtaposed with the sexual double standards that are applied to young women. The church abstinence-group setting, too, effectively highlights the ways religious suppression can exacerbate the very issues it seeks to resolve. Del’s learning experiences lead him into enlightening realizations. Though these do not come without many mishaps and misunderstandings, they eventually guide him to unpacking his one-way, self-centered focus on Kiera and to consider that his feelings may not be reciprocated. MONIQUE HARRIS

Deathless Divide
by Justina Ireland
Middle School, High School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    554 pp.
2/20    978-0-06-257063-5    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-257065-9    $10.99

Irascible Jane McKeene and posh Katherine Deveraux, zombie-dispatching graduates of Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls, are back in this suspenseful, satisfying sequel to Dread Nation (rev. 5/18). After surviving the fall of false utopia Summerland to the undead, Jane and Katherine flee to the neighboring settlement of Nicodemus, where they hope to find temporary safety. But no sooner are they within its gates than Jane is imprisoned for past crimes, and Katherine must find a way to break her out before the horde breaks in. Multiple betrayals, back (and front) stabbings, and an arduous trek to California test Jane and Katherine’s bond, along with an abrupt separation and the tragic death of one of their closest allies. Ireland threads her thrilling plot with incisive commentary about race, gender, and power that will appeal to today’s activist teen readers. Her alternate Old West (a mirror of current societal woes) is full of warring ethnic and cultural factions, each more suspicious of the other, until the undead are the least of their worries. Katherine laments, “How can we make the world a better place if we are always at odds with one another for every single kind of reason under the sun?” The answer may lie in future adventures, as the novel’s open ending hints at possible exploits to come. An author’s note contains further reading about the role of Black Americans in the Old West. JENNIFER HUBERT SWAN

Dear Haiti, Love Alaine 
by Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite 
High School    Inkyard    428 pp.    g 
9/19    978-1-335-77709-6    $18.99 
e-book ed.  978-1-488-05133-3    $9.99 To avoid being expelled after a school presentation accidentally lands a classmate in the hospital, Alaine Beauparlant is sent to Haiti, her parents’ birthplace, to participate in a Spring Volunteer Immersion Project. The project gives the teen an opportunity to reconnect with her mostly absent mother (an award-winning journalist) and learn about Haitian history and her family’s role in the country’s beginnings after its emancipation from France. She also gets the chance to end a family curse with the help of the cute intern at her aunt’s charitable-support-app company, Patron Pal. The story is told entertainingly through Alaine’s and her mother’s diaries, letters, newspaper articles, emails, and text messages. The protagonist’s snark, as she calls it, comes through clearly. Alaine is a strong and engaging character, and her family members and their enduring belief in an ancestral curse are similarly well drawn. An authors’ note alludes to the role of real-life revolutionary and political exile Marie-Louise Coidavid, whose story is reimagined in alternate-history sections of the novel, with Alaine’s family as her fictional descendants (although more concrete information would have been helpful for readers unfamiliar with the history of the Haitian Revolution). NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

by Nic Stone 
High School    Crown    341 pp.    g 
10/19    978-1-9848-2962-7    $17.99 
Library ed.  978-1-9848-2963-4    $20.99 
e-book ed.  978-1-9848-2964-1    $10.99 
School, work, home; repeat. Such is the life of Rico, high school senior, part-time convenience-store clerk, and full-time caregiver to her nine-year-old brother. In Rico’s life, there is not much room for friends, fun, or dreaming about the future — until an elderly woman comes to the Gas ’n’ Go on Christmas Eve and purchases a high-stakes lottery ticket. When the numbers are announced and no one comes forward with the winning ticket, Rico convinces herself it’s in the elderly woman’s hands. Enlisting the help of her wealthy, popular classmate Zan, she devises a plan to track down the woman — and hopefully be rewarded for her efforts. For Rico, finding the ticket is a matter of survival, but Zan has his own motives that do not involve money. As their adventure unfolds, the teens begin to develop feelings for each other, and they are forced to confront the many differences between them. Occasional interludes are narrated by the voices of the winning lottery ticket (“It’s not easy being an inanimate object worth enough American dollars to feed a family of six in Chad for over forty thousand years”), a taxi cab, and other items, broadening the perspective and adding some humor and brief fantastical elements. By turns romantic, funny, and surprising, the story explores how class, status, and money — or lack thereof — have the ability to limit or expand life opportunities, the choices we make, and our universal need for love and connection. MONIQUE HARRIS

From the February 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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