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Once upon a time, in my earliest tween days of reading the few young adult novels by Black authors and centering Black characters that I could find in the Teen section of the MLK library in D.C., there were books about girls, and there was Walter Dean Myers. I didn’t particularly notice, because as a Black girl who loved (and continues to love) love stories, I went for the love stories narrated by Black girls. And today, 25 years later, there are still only a couple of handfuls of stories centering Black boys, and an even smaller number of authors who are popular for writing them.
Now, more than ever, it is so important to center Black boys in conversation, and to remind the living, breathing Black boys in our country and world that they matter. That their lives are considered, and that their own stories are interesting. That as they grow mentally and physically from Black boys to Black men, they aren’t alone in their lived experience. That while they might grow up to be celebrities and star athletes, they might also have incredibly fulfilling lives outside of the spotlight. That their lives can be as messy, complicated, and complex as that of any generic white girl they’ve been exposed to all their lives.
And that no matter what, they are loved. They deserve love, in all its forms.
Books can do that. And while books about people who aren’t like us might make incredible impacts on our lives, it has nothing against the transformative feeling of reading a book about someone like us. Someone who might not share all of the same markers of where we’re from or how we live, but who might understand why we do what we do, and how we live. And while teen boys looking for a shared lived experience might gravitate towards stories centering Black girls or towards books featuring older characters, the increased availability of young adult novels centering Black boys of varying lived experience is the most important element in the literary awakening of Black boys in particular, and society as a whole.
Here are some books to start with if you’re interested in looking through the eyes of Black boys in YA fiction, all written by men and nonbinary people.
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Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles
Lamar Giles has written a few YA novels including Fake ID, a thriller, but this is a more common story about a boy with a crush. When the girl he’s liked since kindergarten volunteers for a purity pledge at their church, Del’s right behind her, only realizing what he’s signed up for later. The opportunity leads him to learn a lot of things — about himself, about life, and about respecting boundaries.
The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass
In this debut horror novel, we meet Jake, who can see the dead. He sees them all the time, and most of the time it’s no big deal. But when he meets the ghost of a teen who committed mass murder, things change, and things are going to get a lot more frightening for Jake.
The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds
Jason Reynolds has written a number of highly lauded and awarded books, including the most recent Carnegie Medal-winning Look Both Ways, but this 2015 novel is the one that has stuck with me the most — probably because it was the first of his I read and I got to hear him speak for the first time soon after reading it. In this quiet novel of love, strength, and grief, Matt works at a funeral home to help pay the bills after his mother dies. He meets Lovey, and he’s wowed by her strength in the midst of a great deal of pain, past and present.
Kings of B’More by R. Eric Thomas
Harrison and Linus are best friends forever, and Harrison is so grateful that he has his BFF to help him endure the second half of high school. But when Linus tells him that he and his family are moving out of the state at the end of the summer, Harrison sets out to give the pair one last hurrah around Baltimore, Ferris Bueller style.
Early Departures by Justin A. Reynolds
Jamal and Q haven’t been friends for years, not since Jamal’s parents died in an accident and, filled with grief, Jamal blamed Q. But after Jamal saves Q from drowning, only for him to die at the hospital, Jamal wishes he could set everything right. He gets that chance when Q is somehow reanimated — for a very short time.
There are so few YA novels with male friendship at the center, and a friendship between Black boys? Even rarer still, especially if there isn’t a police shooting or some other element of racial trauma. This book is full of trauma and grief, but very much different from others of its kind.
The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters
Wesley is excited for the summer before college. He gets to work at his favorite bookstore while living directly above it, and in the meantime maybe even convince his best friend and crush that they’re meant to be. But the bookstore is in danger of being purchased, and there’s a new guy at the store. Things aren’t going as Wes planned.
Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe
Halti has one dream: to go to Columbia University. And if he keeps it up, he might get his chance. But Corinne, his classmate and neighbor, knows something’s up about him, and uses her knowledge to blackmail him into helping her change her image. Since he’s well-liked and popular, that shouldn’t be a problem, right?
Survive the Dome by Kosoko Jackson
In this contemporary dystopia, Jamal is an aspiring journalist. When he goes to Baltimore to cover a protest in the aftermath of a Black man’s murder by police, he finds himself trapped in place when the city drops the Dome — something they call a safety protocol but that is definitely a way to control the people who are present in the city. Jamal is stuck in a city that isn’t his own, but his new friends Marco and Catherine might help him make it through the Dome.
Solo by Kwame Alexander
This book in verse is one of Alexander’s few young adult novels (most are middle grade, and then there’s the spectacular picture book The Undefeated). Blade would love to not be in the limelight, but unfortunately, he has a rock star for a father, washed-up deadbeat though he might be. They have little in common besides a love of music, and even that doesn’t do much for Blade. But when he learns something that could change everything he knows about his existence, he might be heading across the world to discover a new part of his life.
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
Even with someone sending the demiboy main character transphobic messages and outing/deadnaming him to the whole school, this book feels like a big warm hug. Felix is a joyful person with a joyful friend group who look after each other, even as Felix sets about a scheme to find the person who is torturing him.
Your Corner Dark by Desmond Hall
Born and raised in rural Jamaica, Frankie has just been accepted to a prestigious university in the U.S. But after his father is shot, Frankie’s path changes drastically, thanks to expensive treatment and his own relationship with gang life. We don’t get much YA in general set in the Caribbean, so it’s nice to get a story that is less U.S.-centric but still talks about the struggle of being a young Black man in the world.
Only on the Weekends by Dean Atta
I really want to recommend both this and The Black Flamingo, both of which are novels in verse (so don’t let the heft of this one deter you). This coming-of-age story features Mack, a hopeless romantic queer teen, and a cast of characters who you may or may not like. Mack has a huge crush on Karim, but then ends up moving away to Scotland, where he meets Fin. Nothing goes as planned.
StarLion: Thieves of the Red Night by Leon Langford
Not gonna lie, I discovered this thanks to a completely unconnected viral tweet (the answer is Adele, I’m sorry), but I’m so glad I came across it, because this book sounds delightful! Jordan received his powers from the gods, and longs to be a superhero. But warned off of that path, he instead acts as a vigilante. When he’s caught, he’s sent to Fort Olympus, a superhero training academy, to uncover a dangerous plot.
Things We Couldn’t Say by Jay Coles
Gio, his brother, and his father have lived without Gio’s birth mother for eight years. But now she’s back, and he isn’t sure how to deal with it. Does he forgive her and invite her into his life, or keep his heart intact by keeping her at a distance? Meanwhile, he’s hanging out with a new guy from school, and he isn’t sure what he wants from him, even though he knows he’s into people of multiple genders.
Monster by Walter Dean Myers
Walter Dean Myers is THE name in Black YA. Over the course of 45 years, he wrote countless books for kids and teens, fiction and nonfiction, historical and contemporary. Monster is over 20 years old (okay, that blows my mind) but is the timeless story of a young man on trial for murder. He decides to transcribe his own trial like a screenplay, but the lines get blurred.
Obviously, there are still more stories yet to be included. We only have a few authors writing queer stories, and trans Black boys are represented even less. There are varying socioeconomic statuses and interests, as well as characters living in different speculative genres, that we are still waiting to see. But hopefully there are more of those stories to come, and readers of the future will get to experience more Black boys, more Black ideas, more Black dreams being fulfilled.