7 Young Adult Novels That Encourage Discussions on Racism

Writers Tackling Racism Through Young Adult Literature

Educators in all subject areas can play a role in preparing students to counter racism, bigotry, or xenophobia. But one of the best ways to start conversations about racism with students is through literature. Books and stories give students an opportunity to see events from the perspective of fictional characters, helping them to develop empathy.

Representing several decades of young adult literature, the following award-winning young adult (YA) novels can help teachers facilitate student discussions on race and racism. While guidance has been provided below on appropriate reading age level, be aware that many of these YA novels contain profanity or racial slurs. 

Each selection below contains a quote by the author on their purpose for writing their stories. This can help students better understand the message.

As the author Nic Stone of “Dear Martin” explains:

"There’s plenty of evidence that reading builds empathy and has the power to connect people. Who better to connect to than someone you’re typically separated from?"

This contemporary YA novel is told in alternating chapters featuring the voices of a white high school football player (Quinn) and a black ROTC student (Rashad). The chapters also have different authors, whose race is the same as their character's. Those in Quinn's voice are written by Brendan Kiely; Rashad's are written by Jason Reynolds

Rashad is brutally beaten by a police officer after he is (mistakenly) accused of shoplifting from a convenience store. His extended absence from school results in school demonstrations and community activism. Quinn witnesses the attack but because of his personal connection to the police officer, he is reluctant to come forward to support Rashad. 

The novel received the 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor and the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children's Literature.

This book is best for ages 12 to 18. It contains violence and profanity.

Questions for Discussion:

  • Why is the spray-painted tag “Rashad Is Absent Again Today” so effective?
  • How were the protests effective in bringing attention to police brutality? Do you think the characters believe that these protests could bring about lasting change?
  • What about the authors' use of "team" or "teamwork"? Is this ironic? Two teams that are featured are football and ROTC. What other kinds of teams are there? 
  • Understand the references Rashad makes by researching the art of Aaron Douglas or read selections from the writing of Ralph Ellison.

Ivy league bound Justyce McAllister is at the top of his class at Braselton Prep, a predominantly white school. But a series of events make him more aware of racist jokes made by classmates. Later, when he and a black classmate attract the attention of a white off-duty cop, shots are fired, and he suddenly finds himself at the center of a racial profiling case. In a series of letters to the deceased Dr. Martin Luther King, Justyce wrestles with the complexities of race:

"How do I work against this, Martin? Getting real with you, I feel a little defeated. Knowing there are people who don’t want me to succeed is depressing. Especially coming from two directions.

I’m working hard to choose the moral high road like you would, but it’ll take more than that, won’t it?" (66)

The book is recommended for ages 14 + up with profanity, racial epithets, and scenes of violence.

Questions for Discussion:

  • Justyce and Manny’s debate teacher puts the words “all men are created equal” on the board. (p. 21) Discuss the meaning of these words within their historical context and now. How and why has their meaning changed?
  • Answer Justyce's question to Dr. King, "What is the point in doing good when you’re always profiled as bad?"
  • How does anti-Semitism through the character of Sarah Jane figure in the book's themes?
  • Is Blake a fully developed character or just a stereotype? Is Jared a fully developed character or just a stereotype?
  • What contribution does the media make to racism in the novel? How does the media influence our perceptions of racism-the perpetrators and the victims?

After fleeing a fight at a party, 16-year-old Starr Carter and her friend Khalil are stopped by a cop. A confrontation ensues and Khalil is shot and killed by the police officer. Starr is the witness who can dispute the police report, but her statement can put her and her family in danger. 

"Sirens wail outside. The news shows three patrol cars that have been set ablaze at the police precinct.… A gas station near the freeway gets looted.… My neighborhood is a war zone" (139).

Starr tries to find a way to honor Khalil and preserve her friendships and family's safety.

“That's the problem. We let people say stuff, and they say it so much that it becomes okay to them and normal for us. What's the point of having a voice if you're gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn't be?”  (252)

The book is recommended for ages 14 + up, as it contains scenes of violence, profanity, and sexual references. 

Questions for Discussion:

  • What is Starr's reaction to the detective's line of questions that deal with Khalil’s past (102–103)? How does this change her?
  • Discuss the scene when Starr admits to Chris that she was in the car with Khalil and shares the memories of Natasha’s murder ( 298–302). Why is this confession so significant?
  • How do the motifs of silence and voice support a theme? 
  • Explain the connection between the title and the phrase "Thug Life."
  • Will a reader’s race, environment, and socio-economic background have a major or minor effect on how they read and react to The Hate U Give?

"How It Went Down" is the story of a community's rage, frustration, and grief after the shooting death of a black teenager. 

The novel centers on sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson who is shot twice by Jack Franklin, a white man who claims self-defense. Franklin is released back into the community, but those who knew Tariq, including the 8-5 Kings gang members who had been recruiting him, as well as those who loved him, his mother and grandmother, provide the reader with the complicated details of his character and the circumstances that surrounded his death.

For example, in explaining what happened to Tariq, there is the comment by Steve Connor, step-father to Will, a young gang recruit,

“Like I always tell Will: If you dress like a hood, you will get treated like a hood. If you want to get treated like a man, you have to dress like a man. Simple as that.

It's how this world works.

It stops being about the color of your skin after a while and starts being about how you comport yourself. Inside, too, but mostly out.” (44)

Although the title implies that there is one explanation for Tariq’s death, none of the accounts line up, making the truth unknowable.

The book is recommended for ages 11 +up because of mild profanity, violence, and sexual references.

Questions for Discussion:

  • Describe Tariq's neighborhood. How does this setting impact the many characters in the story?
  • Comment on Verneesha's statement, “Anger would be more bearable than this sorrow.” What does that say about her relationship with Tariq?
  • What is the role of the media in this story? How does the press impact the relationship between Jennica and Noodle?
  • How does Tina help save Tariq's reputation?
  • This story has multiple narrators; some are reliable while others are not. Make a list of who is to be trusted and why. Make a list of who is not to be trusted and why.

Part story script, part diary, Walter Dean Myer’s 1999 YA novel employs realistic writing in retelling the story of Steve Harmon, a 16-year-old boy who is placed on trial for his alleged involvement in a drugstore robbery. In creating the realistic atmosphere in the novel, Myer effectively uses grammar appropriate for each character and grainy photos.

When Steve is terrified of going to jail, his attorney, O’Brien does not offer much comfort. She tells him,

“You're young, you're Black, and you're on trial. What else do they need to know?” (80).

The novel won the 2000 Coretta Scott King Honor, 2000 Michael L. Printz Award, 1999 National Book Award Finalist. It is ranked as one of the 2000 Quick Picks for Young Adults and 2000 Best Books for Young Adults (ALA)

The book is recommended for ages 13 +up because of violence (referenced prison attacks) and mild profanity.

"Monster" is also available as a B&W graphic novel.

Questions for teachers:

  • What does O’Brien’s assessment imply about the American justice system?
  • Explain the prison guard's statement, “It’s a motion case.  They go through the motions; they lock them up” (14).

  • Why do you think the book is called Monster?

  • How does the format of the story (screenplay) contribute to the development of character? of conflict? of theme?

  • Can the American justice system treat everyone fairly? Why or why not?

The graphic novel is divided into three parts. 

There is a coming-of-age story about Jin Wang and his relationship with his best friend, Wei-Chen Sun. There is the fantasy tale of an unhappy Monkey King. Finally, there is the cringe-worthy story of Chin-Kee, a grotesque caricature of every Chinese stereotype ("Harro Amellica!') in a squinting, drooling package. He is a throwback to the racist nature of American popular culture.

These three stories are connected, bringing the themes of racial alienation and problems of assimilation together and concluding in the familiar solution of learning to accept racial and ethnic identity.

The characters are drawn to emphasize racial stereotypes: buck-toothed images of Chinese and Chinese-Americans with bright yellow skin. The dialogue also highlights stereotypes. For example, in introducing Jimmy to the class, the teacher fields a question from a classmate:

"Yes, Timmy."
"My momma says Chinese people eat dogs."
"Now be nice, Timmy!" I'm sure Jin doesn't do that! In fact, Jin's family probably stopped that sort of thing as soon as they came to the United States!" (30).

The book is recommended for ages 12 + up because of sexual innuendo.

The graphic novel was the first to be nominated for a National Book Award. It won American Library Association's Michael L. Printz Award.

Questions for Teachers:

  • What is the lesson that the Monkey King tries to pass onto Jin? 
  • What are the four disciplines of invulnerability? Does knowing this matter?
  • In what way(s) does Chin-Kee serve as a stereotype for Asians?
  • What obstacles do young people face when they move from one culture to another? What are the obstacles in this novel?
  • Could this story be told effectively without the comic graphics? Why or why not?

The narrator is Arnold Spirit, Jr., a 14-year-old, stuttering, hydrocephalic kid living in poverty on an Indian reservation. He is bullied and beaten up. His parents are alcoholics and his best friend is abused by his father. He makes a choice to leave the reservation in order to attend a middle-class white school 22 miles away. He feels the conflict between two cultures explaining, "I’m red on the outside and white on the inside."

At this school, Junior experiences cultural stereotypes of Native Americans including racial slurs calling him “chief” or “redskin.” He is surrounded by those who have low expectations about Native Americans as he wrestles with past that viewed Indians as savages. This is clear when a teacher, Mr. P explains the attitudes during teacher training:

"I didn't literally kill Indians.  We were supposed to make you give up being Indian.  Your songs and stories and language and dancing. Everything. We weren't trying to kill Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture."

At the same time, Junior is painfully aware of how bleak or dark his future may be,

“I’m 14 years old, and I’ve been to 42 funerals...That’s really the biggest difference between Indians and white people.”

The novel won the National Book Award in 2007.

Recommended for ages 14 + up because of mild profanity, sexual references, and racial slurs.

Question for teachers:

  • Why does Junior throw his geometry book? What does it signify?
  • Why is Junior viewed to have betrayed his tribe?

  • Alexie uses a racial slur (the “n” word) and stronger language (the “f” word) in a joke (64). Do you think that in order to make his point, Alexie had to use words that would offend some people?
  • How does the friendship between Penelope and Junior develop?

  • What is the significance of Junior revealing that “We didn’t keep score” (230)?

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Bennett, Colette. "7 Young Adult Novels That Encourage Discussions on Racism." ThoughtCo, Mar. 12, 2018, thoughtco.com/ya-books-about-racism-4159589. Bennett, Colette. (2018, March 12). 7 Young Adult Novels That Encourage Discussions on Racism. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ya-books-about-racism-4159589 Bennett, Colette. "7 Young Adult Novels That Encourage Discussions on Racism." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ya-books-about-racism-4159589 (accessed March 21, 2018).