October’s not only the month of crimson leafs, pumpkin lined roads and a plethora of autumnal wonders, but it’s also a very important month for the reason that it is the month that we celebrate Black History here in the UK. Black history is sadly something that often has been overlooked and ignored for far too many years, but thankfully the tides are turning and the voices that need to be heard are being listened to. With diverse books for children and adults alike becoming much more mainstream and awareness of racism in all it’s forms being spoken about, this can only mean good things. We’re still not where we should be but the progress of the conversations happening, actions being taken and responsibility being shared are all steps in the right direction, and with budding activists as well as dedicated supporters who have parved the way so far, we will get there.
I’m aware that as a white person I have never experienced racism or under-representation and I can’t imagine how effecting it is to have to deal with on a daily basis. Working in the bookshop I’ve seen customers of all ages, but predominantly parents and children who have wished to read stories about people that they can relate to. When I first started working as a children’s bookseller I found it harder than I liked to say to find books with BAME main characters, however it’s been wonderful to see the collection of diverse publishing grow over the last few years. From publishers like Knights Of who publish solely diverse books, to seeing some of our bestselling books following BAME protagonists which everyone is wanting to read has been amazing and long may it continue! But although things are so much better than they used to be, I’ve had many conversation with parents and grandparents over the years of how happy they are to finally see books with black characters in, and how they had never this experience this as a child but are so happy that their children are able to grow up reading inclusive books that they can relate to, which always reminds me just how narrow the field of representation has been for so long. I recently met a lovely mother and 11 year old son who were looking for education books at the time, but wanted something as a reading book too for her son and 4/5 year old daughter. Without going through the whole conversation, I ended up showing them some awesome books that feature black characters, centre around topics of diversity and racism and they were so happy that there were so many to choose from. It sent home the reminder that not everyone is represented in books, films, media and the like and not just BAME voices but also people who have disabilities, who are part of the wonderful LGBT+ community and those dealing with mental health issues, and it reminded me just how important it is to ensure that people everywhere are represented and heard. I can’t imagine not having that feeling of ‘oh wow this character/book totally gets me!’. Having that feeling of connection to a character or author is incredible when it happens. Sometimes it gives a small comfort but when you get that proper ‘wow this feels part of me’ feeling, that’s something that can change lives. And no one should be made less likely to feel that. So in trying to help make that happen for as many people as possible, here are some of my favourite BAME books and books about racism that I feel could definitely change the world given the chance.
1. Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Dear Martin for me is one of the best books to come out of modern literature for teenagers and young adults. Our protagonist Justyce McAllister is a 16 year old boy who’s future is looking nothing but bright. Despite coming from a unprivileged background, his grades and dedication to his education shows that he is meant for greatness, but after being taken into custody by a police officer by false accusation he realises that the world doesn’t always see boys like him for who they are, but rather a stereotype of misjudgments. After his experience he decides to start writing letters to the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to try and make sense of the world around him and where he fits in it. But following in his footsteps is sometimes easier said than done, and with a series of unjust acts of racism following Justyce wherever he seems to look brings big questions and hurdles to face.
With an intricate look at the American justice system, culture on both sides of the coin and the prejudices that we’re all guilty of holding in us at times, this book is wholly encompassing and makes the reader feel everything that Justyce does. If I could recommend schools only a few books to have on their shelves, this would be one of them.
2. High-Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson
Set over a scorching summer holiday in south-east London, sisters Nick and Norva get their sleuthing skills tested to the max when they discover a murder has taken place in their very block of flats that they live in. And so they set out to get to the bottom of this mystery where their friend and art enthusiast is victim. With great detective skills, twist & turns, brilliant characters and laughs spread throughout, this winner of the younger readers category for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2020 is certainly a great addition to anyone’s bookshelf. Perfect for fans of Murder Most Unladylike and for any young detectives, it’s fun, fast-paced and unique. And the good news is that Sharna Jackson has penned a sequel to this duo’s story which promises to be just as entertaining and enthralling!
3. And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou is one of those special people that life has been gifted with, and although she is no longer with us, her words of inspiration, good humour and courage are still as important as ever. This collection of poems has some wonderful work in it, and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t be moved by some of her words. Although probably a cliche, my favourite poem of hers is And Still I Rise, the books namesake. To read it or to watch a video where she performs it, is inspiring. I highly recommend her works of biography too, as well as looking online at the small videos she recorded for Oprahs Super Soul Sunday. We have a lot to learn from this phenomenal woman.
4. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give follows the life of 16 year old Starr who’s life is split between her home in the rougher neighbourhood of Garden Heights and her school life in the predominantly white and privileged environment of Williamson Prep. Forever feeling like she’s being split in two, either deemed as too white for her neighbourhood or too black for her education, the struggle of wanting to be accepted as just Starr herself, in both areas of her life is overwhelming at times. But with her tight-knit family, a small circle of friends and her high-school boyfriend she just about managed to balance the two lives, but it’s not until she sees her childhood best friend Khalil be killed unarmed at the hands of a police officer, that the stark reality of what can happen when the colour of your skin is judged and how it can lead to the worst and most unjustifiable type of human behaviour born through racism. And yet throughout the grief and heartbreak that follows for both Starr and her community, the world seems to want to paint Khalil’s death as sad but justifiable.
With incredibly important questions asked and topics covered, Angie Thomas covers racism in all it’s forms, the hurdles faced in mixed-raced relationships, what makes true friends, culture and most importantly finding your voice to help bring justice. THUG is a novel for our times that completely blew me away. Full of emotion, truth and raw passion for the path of equality, I don’t say it lightly when I say that this has to be a future classic, and a book that everyone should read.
[Left:My lovely hardback edition very kindly bought back from New York by my friend and fellow bookworm. Centre: My kindred spirit with the awesome Angie Thomas. Left: My original paperback proof signed on the day that my kindred, my mum and I met Angie Thomas after her winning the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2018.]
5. Little Leaders by Vashti Harrison
What can I say about the Little Leaders series other than they are blooming awesome! The illustrations are just wonderful; softly drawn with attention to detail, she seems to capture the personality of the person she is drawing in her own unique hallmark style. I loved the fact that she introduces the reader to not only some well known amazing human beings throughout history and present day, but she also includes people that are very much less heard about. A real celebration and joy of a book series – perfect for little ones and not so little ones alike.
Vashti Harrison Little Leaders series include – Bold Women in Black History, Visionary Women around the World, Exceptional Men in Black History and a board books including Dream Big, Little One, Think Big, Little One, and Follow Your Dreams, Little One.
[Side note – if you’re on Instagram check out Vashti Harrisons account @vashtiharrison. It’s full of absolutely stunning artwork and animation!]
6. Clean Getaway by Nic Stone
Another feature from the awesome Nic Stone, this time for a younger audience aged around 9-12 years of age. In Clean Getaway we meet 11 year old Scoob and his 80-something Grandma (or better known as G’Ma) who together, sneak away on a spontaneous road trip across America in an old camper van style wagon. A summer with his beloved G’Ma is just what Scoob wants after being in his Dad’s bad books for getting into trouble at school, but after the initial excitement of being on the road, things start feeling a little bit strange. His G’Ma doesn’t seem quite herself, but considering she’s revisiting the road trip that she should have taken with his Grandad whom he never got to meet, he kinda understands some of her ups and downs of her emotions. But after learning more about his family, could there be more to this road trip than he originally thought?
Fun and with an easy pace and unique dynamic, Clean Getaway was a completely different book to any I’ve read. Having the two main characters as grandmother and grandson is something I’ve not come across before so I really enjoyed reading about their relationship, and it gives the reader a reminder that friendships don’t have to be for just people of your own age – sometimes the best of friends are generations apart. Nic Stone also deals with the subject of the history of racism in America with delicacy and with just the right amount of detail without the target audience being too bogged down with the heavy stuff. The topic of a mixed-heritage family is also prominent throughout the book, with Scoobs grandma being white and Scoob himself black, which again I haven’t found in many books especially for this age group. With family at the heart of this story as well as finding the courage to do what’s right, Clean Getaway reminds us that family is always the most important thing, even when you don’t always see eye to eye, and that we are all guilty of judging a book (or person) by it’s cover but that we should always try out best not to until we finish the very last page.
7. Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Poet X is a novel with a difference – it’s all written in verse. Myself and my writing friend Comfort have both read this book and loved it. In Poet X we meet Xiomara Batsita, an Afro-Latino 16 year old girl who’s trying to find her way in the world. Being twin to her brother who is studious, goes to church and gets straight A’s isn’t always easy even though she’s alway got his back. Xiomara is grappling with growing up in a world that frequently exploits young women; where her mothers overpowering desire for her to commit to religion becomes overwhelming; and dealing with school life that can be at times harsh, hard and a daily chore. To deal with all of the mountains that she faces, she turns to her poetry to find solace. In poetry she can express all the momentous things she’s feeling, breathe, try to make sense of the world and let her true self be.
Poet X is a work of art and I’m so glad there is finally a mainstream book that features an Afro-Latino protagonist. Elizabeth Acevedo covers a multitude of subject matter from sexuality, family relationships, first loves, religion, friendships, race, class and confidence. It’s a book that I’m sure is going to help many a reader navigate their adolescent years and feel as though they have been heard.
[If you’re lucky enough to get hold of the audiobook (unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available currently here in the UK but it’s always worth keeping a look out for), I highly recommend listening to it. I’ve heard a snippet if of it online and Elizabeth Acevedo’s performance of it takes the story to a whole new level. If you can’t access it, have a look on YouTube to see her perform some of her slam poetry – it’s well worth a watch.]
8. How to Argue with a Racist by Adam Rutherford
How to Argue with a Racist pretty much does what it says on the tin (or cover should I say). However it’s in no way a confrontational book about starting heated arguments, but rather an educated look at the history of racism, how it is still abundant in todays society and makes you feel better equipped to navigate the tricky waters of prejudices that occur on a daily basis. It covers racism in all its forms from the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Holocaust as well as the causal racism that occurs every day. It gives context, obliterates myths about ‘races’, looks at racism through the history of science and shows us how viewpoints have changed over the years. It’s encouraging and insightful and equips the reader with knowledge and opens the world up to a better understanding of racism and what we can do to stop it. It’s not heavy reading and isn’t overly long so it’s a great place to start and is one of the books that’s helping getting those important conversations started.
Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist is the only non-fiction book that’s featured on this blog but there are many, many good non-fiction books out there on the subject of racism, some of which I’ve included in my bonus recommendation section below).
9. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
I first encountered Queenie at the beginning of the year on a very rainy and grey January morning whilst walking to work and listening to my audiobook edition of it. Queenie kept me company and felt like a friend and for me living in the south-east, it had the bonus feel to it as I could picture some of the places that the story takes place in. I loved the personal story that Queenie is forced to take, and her crazy but loving family – I particularly loved the interaction between the different generations and the fact that it showed that we all have a lot to learn from each other, both young and old.
The dynamics of her friendships were a pleasure to encounter: the balance of gentle and level-headed Darcy and Kyazike who is feisty, loyal and hilarious in equal measures. It was also eye-opening for me, as although I’m (just) still a 20-something, I’ve never had to deal with racism or any of the difficulties that are faced simply because of having beautifully melanin rich skin. The conversations that I now realise must be commonplace in a day for people of colour when dating or working or simply just going about their business, made me feel just an inkling of what the frustration must be like for people going through it in real life. It reminded me just how important it is to keep talking about these issues, including all of the micro-aggressions that people have to put up with so often.
Reminiscent of Bridget Jones for the current generation, Queenie’s honest voice is funny, important and relatable. So many different elements of life are intertwined in her unique voice from mental health to everyday racism; navigating relationships to finding your place in the workspace as well as in the world in general. I’m very happy say that from my experience in the bookshop that Queenie is being enjoyed by so many different readers all of whom seemed to love it, and that to me, shows not only a really positive shift in society but also a mark of a damn good book! Funny, compassionate, educating and inspiring, Queenie really is a story of diversity, friendship and finding the strength to rebuild your life.
10. Look Up! By Nathan Bryon & Dapo Adeola
Look Up! is not only a picture book about siblings, about community and full of diversity, but it’s about one of my favourite things – space! Little Rocket loves science and with her imagination she can go anywhere, but she just wishes that her older brother who seems glued to his phone for all of eternity, would just get a little excited with her and would go stargazing with her to see a special display of nighttime wonders in the sky! But can Rocket entice her brother long enough to look up and not down?
A story that is full of brilliant illustrations and science facts, Look Up! leaves you with an overwhelming compulsion to look up the next time you’re walking down the road, looking out of your window or daydreaming whilst in a queue – and if you’re anything like Rocket, you’ll be sure to find something to awe at! Winner of Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2020 it’s not hard to see why this awesome duo of author and illustrator have made it onto so many bestselling lists!
[If you like Look Up! the second book in the series Clean Up! is out now and doesn’t disappoint. This time we go to Barbados with Rocket, her brother and mum to visit her grandparents and it’s there that Rocket realises just what we can do to help clear up our beaches and the environment to make the world a happier place for humans and animals alike.]
11. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This book is in need of no introduction. A firm classic and loved by generations To Kill a Mockingbird continues to be studied and read world wide. It was a book that I always wanted to read at school but instead was substituted with Of Mice and Men to study, so a few years after leaving school my mum kindly lent me her copy that I remember seeing throughout my childhood. Between the two of us it is now very well thumbed as you’ll see in the photo below, a little dog-eared and tatty but very well loved.
Narrated by our main character Scout, we visit a small Alabaman town during the 1930s where three children are spending their summers together getting into mischief and dreaming up stories the way only children can. Yet it’s this one summer when Scout, her older brother Jem and their summertime friend Dill experience life where the reality of life’s hardships, mysteries and confusion are in abundant, and it’s up to the children to learn some very important lessons that will test the town’s humanity and courage.
With the special glint of innocence and youth, the world is seen through nostalgic eyes of childhood where things seem much more simple, adventures await around each corner and the world is for the taking; yet we witness the children not only having to grapple with understanding the changes and hurdles that life brings with growing up, but also to bare witness to a series of events that show the harshnesses and injustices in the world reflected in their hometown of Maycombe.
Wise, courageous, good-humoured and honest Harper Lee’s storytelling is deemed literary gold for a reason.
[If fiction isn’t your thing or would like to try something a little different, check out the graphic novel adaption by Fred Fordham. It really captures the setting and is a different and fun way to read the iconic story of Boo Ridley and co.]
12. Children of Blood & Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
An epic story of magic, family and societal restraints this book is one hell of a ride to read! It gave me feelings of The Hunger Games but with it’s own completely unique spirit and storytelling. Rich with world building, complex characters and vivid descriptions of a world that isn’t too drastically far from our own, this has to be one of the best fantasy books in recent years. Set to be a trilogy and with the sequel already published and the rights sold for movie adaptation, this tale is full of that wonderful storytelling magic that makes you feels like you’ve been whipped away into a far off land and are going on an adventure with the characters themselves. Emotional, fast paced and with a fantastic and intriguing type of magic and myth weaved throughout, it’s a well researched and passionately written novel. A great book for getting stuck into and escaping in.
13. Half the World Away by Mike Gayle
I’ve only just recently read Half the World Away by Mike Gayle and my word does it pack an emotion punch! The story is set in modern day London and follows the lives of Kerry – a single mother, cleaner and number one Mariah Carey fan; and Noah – top notch lawyer, married with one child and living in the fancy part of town. Two strangers whose lives are miles apart, but with a past that is weaved intrinsically close together.
Noah doesn’t know it but Kerry is his half-sister. When they were children they were put into childcare and separated, and whilst Noah was little and adopted by a loving family, Kerry who was older and angry at the world didn’t have quite as good of a start to life, but one thing that she always knew she was lucky for and loved more than anything in the world, and that was her little brother. With decades of time passing the two have lived their separate lives but it isn’t until both of them are at individual crossroads that their paths once again cross.
With humour and duel narrative between both characters throughout the book, the story flows so effortlessly that before you know it you’re half way through! I loved the fact that you got to see both sides of their story together, and that despite their differences in lifestyles – how their relationship grows and how they are an anchor to each other.
I haven’t read many books that feature the two main characters as brother and sister, so I really loved that aspect. I also really appreciated the added topic surrounding Noah’s mixed-race heritage whilst growing up with his adoptive white family as well as him having partly different ethnicity to Kerry too. Another aspect that I loved reading about was Kerry’s absolute love and determination to give her child the best in life and her strength that never wavered throughout – she is a brilliant mum and felt less like a character and more like a person you’ve met.
With several deeper subject matters penned with compassion and with always the right balance of good humour, kindness and with a sharp eye for the human experience, reading Half a World Away has completely sparked my intrigue into picking up more of Mike Gayles books. A real good read and one that certainly gives you all of the emotions!
[If this sounds like your cup of tea, check out Mike Gayles latest book All the Lonely People – it’s certainly one of the next reads on my tbr pile!]
As an added extra here are some other great books that I’ve either read but have ran out of time to ramble about, or ones that I’ve heard awesome things about. I hope you enjoy and find something that you end up loving. Thanks for taking the time to read this weeks blog. Take care and as ever – happy reading! 🙂
Young Adults & Teen
- On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
- Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
- When Life Gives you Mangoes by Kereen Getten
- Grown by Tiffany D Jackson
- Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
- Who Put this Song On? by Morgan Parker
- Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
- Black Enough edited by Ibi Zoboi
- Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah
- Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi & Yusef Salaam
- Pride by Ibi Zoboi
- Everything, Everything & The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
- Girl Wonder by Malorie Blackman
- Anything by Jason Reynolds but especially Look Both Ways
- The Infinite by Patience Agbabi
- Skin we are In by Sindiwe Magona, Nina G. Jablonski & Lynn Fellman
- So Much! by Trish Cooke & Helen Oxenbury
- The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad, S.K. Ali & Hatem Aly
- Little People, Big Dreams series by Isabel Sanchez Vegara
- Izzy Gizmo by Pip Jones
- The Mega Magic Hair Swap by Rochelle Humes & Rachel Suzanne
- If I had a Dinosaur by Alex Barrow & Gabby Dawnay
- Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Hold by Michael Donkor
- The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
- The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
- The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- This Lovely City by Louise Hare
- If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
- March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell
- Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur by Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare & Natacha Bustos
- Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis, Sara Pichelli & David Marquez
- Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates & Brian Stelfreeze
- Motor Crush by Brendan Fletcher, Cameron Stewart & Babs Tarr
- Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
- I Know why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- Black & British by David Olusoga (if the original edition is a bit too daunting, try the teen edition which has all the same great writing and content but is just more condensed and bitesize.)
- Natives by Akala
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
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