I'm in a delightful book group this summer where everybody just chats together about what they're reading, like goodreads, but more intentional, and with people who limit their contact with social media. And one of my friends put forth this call for desired books:
"Earlier this spring, a friend asked me for suggestions that fit in what she terms “the elusive genre.” The genre comprises sci-fi/fantasy novels appropriate for a 13-year-old, that engage in some way issues of racial and/or gender equity and justice, and/or feature authentic depictions of characters of minority races/ethnicities and/or who are female (EDIT: and/or that are written by authors who are female and/or minority races/ethnicities). And easy on the violence and romance, please."
Since it's been a long while since I've made a big list of book suggestions, I thought I'd do that here. I'll mention how the book fits into the categories above, and then say a little about the books and why I love them.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin is a true family read, it's set in China, with traditional Chinese folklore woven into the story, and it has gorgeous illustrations done by the author. Thirteen is not too old, but you could certainly read it much younger as well. As and added bonus, if you read this book you will learn the secret to happiness. If you read its sequel Starry River of the Sky you will learn the secret to peace, and if you read When the Sea Turned to Silver you will know the secret to immortality.
The City of Ember (first in a series) by Jeanne DuPrau is my favorite dystopia for a young audience. The main character is a young girl living in an underground city which was created in case the world outside was ever destroyed, but the instructions for reentry into the outerworld have been lost and they've been living under the surface for far too long. Although there doesn't seem to be a lot of consideration of race, there is a brave, determined main female character, and there are a lot of other social issues (such as scarcity, equality, and who we see as outsiders, especially in book 2).
Forest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park (first in the Wing and Claw series). This fantasy series is set in fantasy Asia with magical properties in herbs which can be applied to animals to change their behavior. It opens some fascinating ethical questions and also has a theme of immigration/racial bias based on from where and when your family came to the land. Main character is a boy, but there's a quartet of four main characters, two girls two boys, who do most of the action, author is Korean American.
First Light and When you Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. Both of these stories are sci-fi pretending (to varying degrees) to be contemporary realistic fiction. First Light depicts a scientifically advanced indigenous tribe who have hidden themselves away under the ice in Greenland-- two main characters, one girl, one boy. When you Reach Me is a little more subtle about everything, but some of the justice issues looked at in this book are economic ones-- there's also a pretty interesting plot around racial dynamics in the school. Both of these books are excellent-- When You Reach Me won the Newberry Medal, and it functions like a companion novel to A Wrinkle in Time.
The Inquisitor's Tale (Or Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog) by Adam Gidwitz This fantasyish story has a strong trio of two boys and a girl and looks at a lot of social justice issues (race, xenophobia, gender, antisemitism) in the context of medieval Europe. Also it's beautiful, really, really well researched and, for all it's sadness, a lot of fun.
Holes by Louis Sachar -- so it's only a little bit fantasy? There's a curse? And there are very few female characters in the book, (it's set at a juvenile detention camp for boys) BUT there's a pretty important racial theme going through it, and it's fantastic-- much better than the movie.
House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer - Nancy Farmer has been doing interesting, racially diverse fantasy for decades. This one is set in a small, imaginary country on the border between Mexico and the US whose entire export is drugs. Main character is a young boy who is a clone of the drug lord who owns the country-- bred so that his organs could be harvested for the drug lord, but things do not go according to plan. The story is thrilling, and opens lots of really interesting moral questions.it sounds like it would be too much to handle for middle grade, but I really think it's geared at 11-early teens. The sequel is also excellent.
Protector of the Small quartet by Tamora Pierce -- I don't necessarily recommend Tamora Pierce's other books, but this series is quite good, and really is a look at how institutionalized sexism might play out as a young girl seeks to be the first girl going through knight-training in the realm. I had a lot of fun reading them. Main character is quazi-European, but grew up in quazi-Japan so there's some intercultural interest there.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. It's certainly a romance as it is a retelling of Cinderella, but the crux of the story is Ella gaining agency over her self, and on my last reading it felt almost like a manifesto in terms of what her particular curse (of always being obedient) has to do with femininity in general. Also her best friend has dark skin and is socially isolated because of that, her accent, and her relative poverty.
Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George. This is just a fun fantasy story with a castle that's always changing, and a happy family who live there together. It doesn't take on big issues, most of the time, it's just a light, happy story about a clever and perceptive princess. Could be read younger, too.
Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera is the story of a young Mauri girl who wants lead her people, despite the leadership only going to men. There are a lot of deeply fraught family tensions, and by the end of the book she becomes the stuff of legend.
If you're in the mood for broody, weird, whipsmart, mind bending fantasy you must read Frances Hardinge-- Maybe start with A Face Like Glass, (gender issues, and massive class/wealth inequality issues), but then also her books Fly by Night (Chapter titles like A is for Arson, and questions like who's allowed to print what? what should the relationship between the state and religion be?) and FlyTrap (amazing double city, where the rich and the poor live side by side but never see each other) which are just so good. All of the books I've read of hers have female protagonists who are ready to turn the world upside down.
Iron Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill -- I keep trying to get my hands on The Girl Who Drank the Moon by this author (winner of the Newberry), but in the mean time I read this high fantasy. A little bit of steampunkish worldbuilding, a little bit of taking fairy tales to task for the messages they send, and a lot of solid storytelling, as "love makes heroes of us all."
Ms Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson -- I don't even read superhero comics, but I LOVE these. These stories are pulling apart questions of race and gender pretty forcibly, as Kamala Kahn, a little muslim teenager in NJ gains superpowers. Favorite line: "Good is not a thing you are, it's a thing you do." There's violence, but like, flashy superhero violence. Nothing too scary.
The Thief and sequels by Megan Whalen Turner-- okay so... these don't tick a lot of these boxes, (they have a fair amount of romance, and some violence, but no sex, and the violence isn't graphic) but they are written by a woman, contain multiple incredible queens, and have a lot to say about power and who is expected to have it and what that looks like. They are also some of my favorite books of all time.
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina is what The Hunger Games and Divergent would be if they were: 1) written by and cherishing a strong native (author is aboriginal Australian) voice, 2) interested in not just burning down bad civilizations, but also reforming them through a hopeful democratic movement without turning to violent uprising, 3) knew how to build romantic tension without just having extended make-out scenes... It's certainly YA not middlegrade, but it's not too steamy for a 13 year old, I don't think, and I was really impressed with its quality.
Okay. I have more suggestions for older YA as well which I'm happy to write about, but I'll leave it at this for now. Enjoy!
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