Our Friend is Here: Black History Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of February, where Black authors are invited to celebrate being Black and Black books! Find the introduction post for Black History Month here.
In case you’re new to the Pond’s book recommendation posts, the recommendation posts are brought to you by Varian, the Pond’s very own Toadshifter who is knowledgeable in all kinds of magic! One of Varian’s ambitions is to get better at sewing, hence why whenever Varian has come up with their latest costume, they will always recommend a few books that inspired them!
Hello friends, and welcome back to Black History Month at the Pond!
We hope you’ve been enjoying the lovely week we’ve had of guest features and interviews so far (ICYMI, go check out our stellar discussions with Kosoko Jackson, Camryn Garrett, and J. Elle!) And now, to bookend each week of Black History Month, we will be bringing you four book recommendation posts, each with a different theme:
- Black contemporaries
- Black SFF
- Queer Black books
- Black romance
Today’s recommendation post will be 16 excellent Black contemporary books, across YA and MG! All of us here at the Pond are so excited to continue uplifting and celebrating Black authors and books, and we sincerely hope you join us in this endeavor—there are so many incredible Black books out there that are more than deserving of our love and attention. We hope you enjoy today’s recommendations!
The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe
Norris Kaplan is clever, cynical, and quite possibly too smart for his own good. A black French Canadian, he knows from watching American sitcoms that those three things don’t bode well when you are moving to Austin, Texas. Plunked into a new high school and sweating a ridiculous amount from the oppressive Texas heat, Norris finds himself cataloging everyone he meets: the Cheerleaders, the Jocks, the Loners, and even the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Making a ton of friends has never been a priority for him, and this way he can at least amuse himself until it’s time to go back to Canada, where he belongs.
Yet, against all odds, those labels soon become actual people to Norris. Be it loner Liam, who makes it his mission to befriend Norris, or Madison the beta cheerleader, who is so nice that it has to be a trap. Not to mention Aarti the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who might, in fact, be a real love interest in the making. He even starts playing actual hockey with these Texans.
But the night of the prom, Norris screws everything up royally. As he tries to pick up the pieces, he realizes it might be time to stop hiding behind his snarky opinions and start living his life—along with the people who have found their way into his heart.
CW: The Field Guide to Being a North American Teenager is so clever and charming and I love how it takes these common YA tropes that we don’t think about and turns them on it’s head in the best way possible.
- If you love your typical unlikeable and flawed protagonist (who is actually unlikeable!), then you’ll love this book. And if you’re a little tired of unlikeable protagonists who are unlikeable for no reason, then you’ll definitely love this.
- You know the YA stories about high school cliques? And you’re kind of tired about the stereotypes with no depth? I loved that this book subverts that in the best and most humanising way.
- The relationships – especially romantic and friendships – are so good; I liked that this book shows how we fall in love with the idea of people and that there’s always more to a person behind first impressions.
When You Were Everything by Ashley Woodfolk
You can’t rewrite the past, but you can always choose to start again.
It’s been twenty-seven days since Cleo and Layla’s friendship imploded.
Nearly a month since Cleo realized they’ll never be besties again.
Now, Cleo wants to erase every memory, good or bad, that tethers her to her ex–best friend. But pretending Layla doesn’t exist isn’t as easy as Cleo hoped, especially after she’s assigned to be Layla’s tutor. Despite budding new friendships with other classmates—and a raging crush on a gorgeous boy named Dom—Cleo’s turbulent past with Layla comes back to haunt them both.
Alternating between timelines of Then and Now, When You Were Everything blends past and present into an emotional story about the beauty of self-forgiveness, the promise of new beginnings, and the courage it takes to remain open to love.
CW: If you’ve ever experienced a devastating friendship break up that gnaws away at you, then this will be a gentle and understanding story that validates your heartbreak.
- Written in oscillating timelines – ‘Then’ and ‘Now – this story follows two Black girls’ friendships and their friendship breakup.
- I love that this story has such a huge focus on friendship; friendship is such a formative experience for young girls and this book gets how important friendships are and how devastating and painful the breakups are.
- This book is so cathartic and understanding, but also ultimately healing and insightful.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.
Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.
But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.
So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.
Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.
CW: If you have heard all the praise for The Poet X, then you’ve heard correctly. The Poet X is a stunning story about family, love, bodies, and secrets whispered into the dark.
- Written entirely in verse, The Poet X feels like such a personal book that just lays all the heartache and grief and joy bare and vulnerable. I fell in love with the words and the main character/narrator, Xiomara.
- This book explores the relationship Xiomara has with the world, her body, and her Dominican and religious identity.
- Moreover, this book explores how Xiomara is forcefully placed into rigid boxes and expectations of how she should be and exist – and how she finds freedom and power in poetry and slam poetry.
Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett
Simone Garcia-Hampton is starting over at a new school, and this time things will be different. She’s making real friends, making a name for herself as student director of Rent, and making a play for Miles, the guy who makes her melt every time he walks into a room. The last thing she wants is for word to get out that she’s HIV-positive, because last time . . . well, last time things got ugly.
Keeping her viral load under control is easy, but keeping her diagnosis under wraps is not so simple. As Simone and Miles start going out for real–shy kisses escalating into much more–she feels an uneasiness that goes beyond butterflies. She knows she has to tell him that she’s positive, especially if sex is a possibility, but she’s terrified of how he’ll react! And then she finds an anonymous note in her locker: I know you have HIV. You have until Thanksgiving to stop hanging out with Miles. Or everyone else will know too.
Simone’s first instinct is to protect her secret at all costs, but as she gains a deeper understanding of the prejudice and fear in her community, she begins to wonder if the only way to rise above is to face the haters head-on…
CW: I’m probably a broken record at this point, but Full Disclosure is a masterpiece, it’s one of my favourite books ever, and you all need to read this book, and I’m calling it required reading if you haven’t read it yet.
- The characters in this book are amazing; Simone’s dads, her two best friends, and Mikes. But my star of the book is Simone, a Black and HIV+ teen, and explores her sexuality in the book.
- I did not know much about HIV going into this book, and Full Disclosure explores living with HIV and how it shapes a person’s experience and life in a sensitive and genuine way. It offers well-researched insight of what it’s like to be a teen, and experiencing teenagehood, who lives with HIV.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.
Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.
CW: The Hate U Give is a modern classic and is a must-read – not just in Black History Month, but forever. It’s not overrated either; it deserves every single praise that this book receives.
- This book changed contemporary YA as we know it. I firmly believe that The Hate U Give is revolutionary.
- The Hate U Give explores police brutality, how racism manifests in subtle and institutional ways, how Black people are often pressured to perform whiteness to assimilate into white spaces, and how protest and anger are sometimes necessary in the face of injustice.
- Starr, the protagonist of the book, is wonderful; she isn’t perfect, but she isn’t meant to be. Rather, she’s a relatable character and her growth across the book – from being unable to speak up to becoming an advocate is satisfying and empowering.
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi
The story that I thought
was my life
didn’t start on the day
I was born
Amal Shahid has always been an artist and a poet. But even in a diverse art school, he’s seen as disruptive and unmotivated by a biased system. Then one fateful night, an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood escalates into tragedy. “Boys just being boys” turns out to be true only when those boys are white.
The story that I think
will be my life
Suddenly, at just sixteen years old, Amal’s bright future is upended: he is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Despair and rage almost sink him until he turns to the refuge of his words, his art. This never should have been his story. But can he change it?
CW: This book. This book. I don’t have the adequate words to describe how good this book is, but I’ll try: this is a magnificent story in verse that provides a searing and unforgettable story about systemic incarceration.
- This story is based on and co-written by co-author’s, Yusef Salaam, a criminal justice reform advocate and poet, real life and his wrongful incarceration in the Central Park Five case.
- The story powerfully explores the terrible consequences of a racist judicial and prison system, racial profiling, and how the narrative differs between Black versus white people.
- The protagonist, Amal, is a incredible character, and his love for art and his mother are such powerful moments in the book.
One of the Good Ones by Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite
When teen social activist and history buff Kezi Smith is killed under mysterious circumstances after attending a social justice rally, her devastated sister Happi and their family are left reeling in the aftermath. As Kezi becomes another immortalized victim in the fight against police brutality, Happi begins to question the idealized way her sister is remembered. Perfect. Angelic.
One of the good ones.
Even as the phrase rings wrong in her mind—why are only certain people deemed worthy to be missed?—Happi and her sister Genny embark on a journey to honor Kezi in their own way, using an heirloom copy of The Negro Motorist Green Book as their guide. But there’s a twist to Kezi’s story that no one could’ve ever expected—one that will change everything all over again.
Skye: This was a recent 2021 release that both CW and I are so excited to get to! The premise sounds like it’s going to be an incisive exploration into the myth of who deserves to be “legitimised” in the pursuit of social issues and respectability politics, as well as sibling grief and how we think about legacies.
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
Michael is a mixed-race gay teen growing up in London. All his life, he’s navigated what it means to be Greek-Cypriot and Jamaican—but never quite feeling Greek or Black enough.
As he gets older, Michael’s coming out is only the start of learning who he is and where he fits in. When he discovers the Drag Society, he finally finds where he belongs—and the Black Flamingo is born.
Told with raw honesty, insight, and lyricism, this debut explores the layers of identity that make us who we are—and allow us to shine.
CW: Raw, vulnerable, and fierce, The Black Flamingo is a coming-of-age poetry book that has stayed with me since I read it in exactly one year ago.
- Explores so many things so tightly without compromising an iota of depth and emotion. This book is packed with emotive verses, powerful imagery, and thought-provoking moments.
- I loved how this book was a big love letter to poetry – and how poetry is the avenue Michael uses to find himself, define himself, and understand himself.
- The book largely explores Michael’s gay identity and his phases of questioning, what it’s like being Black and mixed race, the imperfection and earnestness of family, and the relationships that shape who he is. And then, he finds drag – place and people that allow him to not really find himself, but let him come into who he always was.
Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
Jade believes she must get out of her neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother says she has to take every opportunity. She has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful. Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Except really, it’s for black girls. From “bad” neighborhoods.
But Jade doesn’t need support. And just because her mentor is black doesn’t mean she understands Jade. And maybe there are some things Jade could show these successful women about the real world and finding ways to make a real difference.
CW: This book came out four years ago now, but I’ll recommend this book everyday until I die, to be honest. This book is a masterpiece and literary marvel.
- About navigating growing up, being Black and poor in a society that isn’t interested in her personhood but is only interested in ‘helping her’ – even though she doesn’t want to be helped; she just wants to be given the same opportunities.
- I’m in awe with how Watson interwove so many complex and interesting arcs in Jade’s life – from her family life and relationship with her mother, her complex relationship with her mentor, police violence and its effect on Black women as witnesses of the violence, and also how she navigates school life and friendship.
- Powerfully explores classism, fatness, being a Black woman, being shoved into boxes that you didn’t want to be placed in, navigating tenuous friendships with ignorant white friends, and the intersections of these themes and Jade’s identity and experience.
Finding Yvonne by Brandy Colbert
Since she was seven years old, Yvonne has had her trusted violin to keep her company, especially in those lonely days after her mother walked out on their family. But with graduation just around the corner, she is forced to face the hard truth that she just might not be good enough to attend a conservatory after high school.
Full of doubt about her future, and increasingly frustrated by her strained relationship with her successful but emotionally closed-off father, Yvonne meets a street musician and fellow violinist who understands her struggle. He’s mysterious, charming, and different from Warren, the familiar and reliable boy who has her heart. But when Yvonne becomes unexpectedly pregnant, she has to make the most difficult decision yet about her future.
CW: A messy yet wonderful book that unexpectedly but profoundly explores the uncertainty of the future, family, and the choices we make.
- Yvonne was such a brilliantly written character. She makes mistakes, she is unapologetic about her choices, and though some of her choices may be some readers may not agree with, you’ll love the fresh and real narrative.
- Loved the family relationships, particularly daughter-father (this made me cry), and the loss and grief Yvonne still feels after her mother left when she was six.
- This book has sex positivity, portrays safe sex, and has a good discussion about continuing pregnancy versus abortion.
Tyler Johnson was Here by Jay Coles
When Marvin Johnson’s twin, Tyler, goes to a party, Marvin decides to tag along to keep an eye on his brother. But what starts as harmless fun turns into a shooting, followed by a police raid.
The next day, Tyler has gone missing, and it’s up to Marvin to find him. But when Tyler is found dead, a video leaked online tells an even more chilling story: Tyler has been shot and killed by a police officer. Terrified as his mother unravels and mourning a brother who is now a hashtag, Marvin must learn what justice and freedom really mean.
CW: My heart ached the whole time I read this. Tyler Johnson Was Here is a vivid and heartbreaking portrait of grief, loss, and a young Black teen navigating his life after it is turned upside down following a fatal act of police brutality.
- This book explores how police brutality in the U.S., perpetuated against black people by police officers, have significant, terrible, and personal consequences.
- Tyler Johnson has a powerful and distinct narrative voice. I loved Coles’s portrayal of a Marvin, a teen who has just lost his brother and struggles to come to terms with everything – the grief and pain, the injustice, powerlessness but also the power of support and solidarity, finding his voice, and finding himself.
Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé
Hello, Niveus High. It’s me. Who am I? That’s not important. All you need to know is…I’m here to divide and conquer. – Aces
Welcome to Niveus Private Academy, where money paves the hallways, and the students are never less than perfect. Until now. Because anonymous texter, Aces, is bringing two students’ dark secrets to light.
Talented musician Devon buries himself in rehearsals, but he can’t escape the spotlight when his private photos go public.
Head girl Chiamaka isn’t afraid to get what she wants, but soon everyone will know the price she has paid for power.
Someone is out to get them both. Someone who holds all the aces. And they’re planning much more than a high-school game…
CW: I’m currently partway through this book right now, but I think this is going to be a favourite book of 2021… because I was absolutely not ready and neither are you all.
- This book lulls you in for, like, one page, and then takes off and takes you for a wild ride about secrets, status, and an anonymous texter out to destroy.
- Set in a elite and predominantly white boarding school, I love that Ace of Spades delves into racism and classism in academia.
- This story also explores the fraught space and intersection between being a person of colour and queer identity, that being queer is an authentic experience but can also have consequences in queer communities.
You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.
But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.
The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?
Skye: Friends, I cannot believe this was a debut! You Should See Me in a Crown was one of my absolute favorite YA contemporaries of 2020, and for good reason.
- The heartfelt story follows the adventures of bright, ambitious band kid Liz Lighty as she contends for prom queen in her small (and mostly white) town of Campbell, Indiana—hoping to score the illustrious financial aid promised to prom royalty in order to secure a place in her dream school to pursue medicine.
- Along the way, she falls for new kid and fellow prom-queen-competitor Mack. While their adorable sapphic romance blossoms, she grapples with the effort of carving out a space for herself in a place that isn’t meant for her.
- I thought this book was such a faithful and true representation of how fighting for yourself can be empowering and fulfilling, but also exhausting. The story is so warm and so engaging, and all the core characters are incredibly lovable and easy to root for.
If you’re in the mood for something a little more light-hearted but still immensely compelling, you absolutely cannot go wrong with Liz’s story. I’m so glad that teens—especially Black teens—growing up today will have this book.
A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée
Twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)
But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?
Shay’s sister, Hana, is involved in Black Lives Matter, but Shay doesn’t think that’s for her. After experiencing a powerful protest, though, Shay decides some rules are worth breaking. She starts wearing an armband to school in support of the Black Lives movement. Soon everyone is taking sides. And she is given an ultimatum.
Shay is scared to do the wrong thing (and even more scared to do the right thing), but if she doesn’t face her fear, she’ll be forever tripping over the next hurdle. Now that’s trouble, for real.
CW: This is the sort of book I hope all kids, especially Black girls, get the chance to read – this book is important and so empathetic to the challenges of growing up.
- Follows Shayla, who is trouble-averse and really just wants her friends to be around forever and maybe get a boyfriend. When incidences of police brutality become more salient within her community, Shayla has to grapple with how that affects her – and that there may even be a good kind of trouble.
- I was blown away by how the author has interwoven so many themes and ideas into this book seamlessly – changing friendships, family life, cultural appropriation, crushes, consent, police brutality, protest, racism, and what is ‘Blackness’.
- Shayla grows across the book, and it’s stunning! She makes plenty of mistakes and she contemplates her priorities and what is important to her; it’s a messy process, but also so empathetic and gentle in its development.
Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero by Kelly J. Baptist
Isaiah is now the big man of the house. But it’s a lot harder than his dad made it look. His little sister, Charlie, asks too many questions, and Mama’s gone totally silent.
Good thing Isaiah can count on his best friend, Sneaky, who always has a scheme for getting around the rules. Plus, his classmate Angel has a few good ideas of her own–once she stops hassling Isaiah.
And when things get really tough, there’s Daddy’s journal, filled with stories about the amazing Isaiah Dunn, a superhero who gets his powers from beans and rice. Isaiah wishes his dad’s tales were real. He could use those powers right about now!
CW: This book is so stunning – heartaching, so genuine, confronting, but ultimately hopeful. I loved this – loved even more that this is an adaptation from Baptist’s contribution to the We Need Diverse Book’s Flying Lessons anthology (one of my first anthologies ever!).
- Follows Isaish, a Black boy who is grieving the loss of his father, and enters his father’s story – where Isaiah is the hero – into his local library’s story competition.
- Where the short story and this book differ: we see more of Isaiah’s school life, we see him grapple and navigate a relationship with his bully-turned-friend, we see Isaiah’s love for writing, and, importantly, we see a lot more of Isaiah’s home life.
- This book interweaves a lot of things, which is what makes this book so remarkable: friendship, love for writing and the power of stories, homelessness, grief, and the power of community.
Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles
Brand-new kicks, ripped denim shorts, Supreme tee—
Wes Henderson has the best style in sixth grade. That–and hanging out with his crew (his best friends since little-kid days) and playing video games–is what he wants to be thinking about at the start of the school year, not the protests his parents are always dragging him to.
But when a real estate developer makes an offer to buy Kensington Oaks, the neighborhood Wes has lived his whole life, everything changes. The grownups are suppposed to have all the answers, but all they’re doing is arguing. Even Wes’s best friends are fighting. And some of them may be moving. Wes isn’t about to give up the only home he’s ever known. Wes has always been good at puzzles, and he knows there has to be a missing piece that will solve this puzzle and save the Oaks. But can he find it . . . before it’s too late?
CW: Put this book on your to-read lists immediately.
Take Back the Block is a story about gentrification, fighting for what is important, while also navigating change, friendships, and school – and it’s one of my favourite books ever.
- Young people in activism!!!! I loved how it explores activism – how it can be big and loud like protests, but also involves a lot of behind-the-scenes work, learning, growing, and working with others.
- I loved how this book approached gentrification. It seems like a huge and intimidating topic, but Giles explores and educates this in such an accessible and easy-to-understand way through Wes’s eyes. By the end, I can guarantee that you’ll be thoughtful about gentrification and institutional, modern racism, and its wider social impacts (especially on people who are poor).
- Wes is honestly such a cool and likeable kid. He’s got style, he cares about his friends, he’s definitely not perfect, but he does his best, grows a lot, and learns so much across the story. And I also just… loved how Wes gets to be a kid in the story with real and relatable kid problems and worries.
Found a book that you want to buy?
Awesome! Thanks to Victoria Lee for this wonderful resource of Black-owned indie bookstores in the US and this list of Black-owned indie bookshops in the UK, you can now purchase these books from this list of Black-owned indie bookshops: