Are you looking for the best YA books for teens about race?
Note: I’ve used affiliate links in this post – any affiliate sales generated if you buy a book from this list will be donated to Stop Hate UK, a charity set up in response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Since 1995, the charity has supported UK victims of racism and racial injustice.
The Good News
Raising a teen can be a pretty heartening affair. At a time when we are all taking a close look at our biases and behaviour, and looking to address systemic racism, my teen is often my guide.
We’ve always talked a lot about social justice in our house and at 14, Flea is often the person sharing videos and stories with me. She has a keen understanding of institutional and systemic racism, and regularly reads articles and watches videos online.
We’ve worked together on this post, sharing what we think are some of the most interesting and inspiring books for teenagers about race, racism and social justice. Between us, we have all of these books, but some titles are new to me and come recommended by my 14 year old.
Why We Need to Read Books About Race
It’s important to encourage our teenagers to read widely, and that includes reading about a broad spectrum of people, environments and cultures. We can’t rely on our kids to solve the problem of systemic racism. That’s our job to start. But what we can do? Is raise kids who give a f–k about justice and civil rights. Chances are your kids’ eyes are open to this stuff more than you – but as a parent, you can help them be better informed on that journey.
Any non-black person who is working to be a better ally needs to be informed. It’s not a case of asking black people to reach us. That’s not their labour, it should be ours. So watch the news. Follow a broad mix of accounts on social media. Talk about these issues. And encourage your kids to read books about black people, by black people.
It’s not a case of picking a list of 10 woke books and thinking you’re done, although I hope this list will inspire your teens. It’s about making black stories as much a part of your child’s ongoing reading and learning as any other story. Also – not all the books I’ve included below are JUST about racism (although many of the titles do cover this). Because I don’t think we want to raise young people to only view black people in terms of their pain. Do we?
Best YA Books About Race
If you’re interested in being a better ally, check out these titles that we think are among the best YA books about race and social justice, and how discrimination can affect our lives.
Please note, I’ve included links to purchase each title. If you click on these links and buy a book, I may receive a small affiliate payment. Any payments received from this post will be donated to the charity mentioned at the top of this article.
All American Boys, Jason Reynolds
This is, in my view, one of the best recent YA books about race. It centres on the story of two American teenager boys, Rashad and Quinn. When Rashad is attacked by a white police officer at a grocery store, Quinn is the only witness. The community outrage builds and each boy needs to make choices about what is important, and when to speak out about injustice. Written by two friends who found themselves increasingly frustrated by police brutality. Buy on Amazon
Dreamland Burning, Jennifer Latham
This particular novel is an interesting exploration of historical racism, and helps kids to explore the idea of how we relate to episodes of racism that pre-date our own lives. After a skeleton is found on her family’s property, Rowan is inspired to investigate the murder of William, a teen involved in the 1921 Tulsa race riot. Buy on Amazon.
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
You may have watched the heartbreaking film of this movie but (as is ever the case) the book is better. I actually think it’s one of the best YA books about race of the last five years. Starr is caught between the world of her primarily white private school and her primarily poor, black neighbourhood. When she becomes a witness to a racial murder by a white police officer, Starr needs to think about justice, and how to navigate what seems like two different worlds. Buy on Amazon
Racial Profiling, Alison Behnke
This book is a comprehensive guide to the history of racism in the U.S. from the time of slavery until just before Trump’s election. IT’s packed with examples of racial profiling in law enforcement, education and business. It also covers the worrying rise in xenophobia and Islamophobia. If you’re looking for books to help young people become better informed allies, this is a good place to start. Buy on Amazon
Dear Martin, Nic Stone
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. Buy on Amazon
The Lines We Cross, Randa Abdel-Fattah
Many of our teens are studying Romeo and Juliet in school, and The Lines We cross is an interesting Australian take on that classic tale. Michael goes to an anti-immigrant rally with his parents, while Mina is a Muslim refugee from Afghanistan who is at Michael’s school. This story makes the political personal through an engaging teen love story, where two teenagers are caught between vastly different ideas about religion and nationality. Buy on Amazon
This is my America, Kim Johnson
Tracy, a 17 year old black teenage girl, writes letters every week asking a charity to help save her father, who is on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. As the clock runs down, Tracey’s brother is accused of killing a white girl, and goes on the run. It’s a dramatic, thrilling story but also looks at racial injustice and how communities’ racist histories can inform the present day. Buy on Amazon
Piecing me Together, Renee Watson
Jade works hard at her private school to try and get out of her poor neighbourhood. Jade is invited by her school to be mentored by an older student, but it just makes her feel like an outsider. This novel looks at the way that black students can often be labelled and that Jade, like all teens, is trying to find ways to speak and express her own ambitions. Buy on Amazon
American Street, Ibi Zoboi
This novel is the story of Fabiola, a Haitian born immigrant who moves to Detroit. When her mother is detained by immigration officers, Fabiola’s life takes on a new direction. This is a really creative novel, and incorporates elements of magical realism, along with more gritty, urban elements. Great for kids who like fantasy stories. Find it on Amazon.
Our Wayward Fate, Gloria Chao
This is another novel about being an outsider at school, this time in the person of 17-year-old high schooler Ali Chu. As the only Asian person at her school in Indiana, Ali first tries to blend in. Then another Taiwanese American student joins the school and together, Ali and Chase begin a whirlwind romance. This novel has elements of Romeo and Juliet but also is a retelling of a classic Chinese folktale, The Butterfly Lovers. Buy on Amazon
Watch us Rise, Renee Watson
Flea loved this book and it inspired her to want to get involved in activism for social justice. It’s written by the same author as Piecing me Together, which features on this list.
Watch us Rise talks about a pair of friends who are fed up with the way women are treated at school, and start a Women’s Rights Club. They start posting about every social injustice they see, focusing on racism and sexism. The girls go viral, attracting the attention of vicious trolls, but the girls refuse to be silenced. It’s an uplifting read, and will appeal to teens who enjoy John Green style books. Buy on Amazon
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
Song of Solomon is a serious and at times graphic novel that’s best suited to older teens. It explores racism in 1930s America, as Macon leaves his home in the Midwest to return to his family’s roots in Alabama. Macon arrives in Alabama looking for treasure but actually finds a troubling history of hate crimes, murder, church bombings and more. It’s a lyrical novel and one that gives teens lots to think about, in terms of gender, power and race. Buy on Amazon
How it Went Down, Kekla Magoon
This is another story about the shooting of an innocent black teenager. How it Went Down addresses the conflicting accounts that often blur the truth of such attacks, and how they drive racial tension. This is a gripping story and lays bare the lie that our teens live in a post-racial world. Buy on Amazon
This Side of Home, Renee Watson
This lovely coming-of-age story centres on identical twins Nikki and Maya. As the sisters approach college, the world around them is changing, as their neighbourhood becomes home to hipster coffee shops and expensive boutiques. While Nikki embraces the change, Maya worries about losing her black heritage. It’s a thoughtful story with interesting things to say about growing up, and growing apart from childhood and family members. Buy on Amazon
Kingdom of Souls, Rena Barron
I wanted to include this YA fantasy novel here because it is unusual to find a fantasy novel series that features black lead characters. Kingdom of Souls is a fantasy trilogy that is inspired by the world of West Africa, and centres on the story of Arrah, a young woman from a family of powerful witch doctors. Unable to do magic, Arrah is shunned by the community and decides to sell years of her life in exchange for magical power. This is honestly just a fantastic story and I think it’s great to see fantasy embracing a world that isn’t European inspired. Buy on Amazon
Best YA Graphic Novels about Race
March, John Lewis
This graphic novel trilogy is written by US congressman John Lewis. I do think graphic novels are some of the best YA books about race for teens, because they can engage young people who don’t enjoy reading novels. Also, the illustrations often bring more depth to the story. The March Trilogy recounts Lewis’ lifelong involvement with the civil rights movement. Book One focuses on Lewis’ early years as the son of an Alabama sharecropper who went on to discover nonviolent activism in college. Buy on Amazon
American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang
This is another graphic novel trilogy, and one of the best YA books about race that we’ve found.
The trilogy kicks off with this coming-of-age story about Jin Wang and his best friend, Wei-Chen Sun. The book incorporates and invites us to think about stereotypical views (and drawings) of asian people, particularly those accepted in American popular culture. The three stories explore ideas of racial alienation, and encourages kids to learn about and accept differences in racial and ethnic identity. Buy on Amazon
I am Alfonso Jones, Tony Medina
Alfonso Jones just bought his first suit. But an off-duty police officer mistakes the clothes hanger for a gun, and shoots Alfonso. When Alfonso wakes up, he’s in the afterlife on a train with well-known victims of police violence, and must face his new reality while his family mourn for him. This graphic novel is a really absorbing look at the impact of police violence on communities. Buy on Amazon
These are some of our favourite books about race for teens. But if we’ve missed one of your recommendations, please let me know in the comments, or on Twitter!