Identity and race in young adult fiction

Ahh, who doesn’t love heartbreaking books about family, racism and explosions? No? Just me? In a follow up to my previous post about race in YA fiction, I’ve had to add three more outstanding books to my Bibliocommons list. (Not all of them are super upsetting, I promise!)

Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Perez

Cover of Out of DarknessNaomi is Mexican, recently moved with her two (white-passing) half-siblings to live with their father in East London, Texas. This hasn’t been great for her — her step-father seems more interested in a housewife than a step-daughter, so she spends more of her time washing his oil-stained shirts than trying to keep up with schoolwork. Naomi is strong in a quiet way; she protects her twin siblings, she keeps her budding relationship with (African American) Wash secret, she plans their escape. It’s not her fault that the school starts using untreated gas from the local oil fields…

See No Color, Shannon Gibney

TCover of See No Colorransracial adoptee Alex loves two things more than anything: her (white) family, and baseball. She’s one of the best players on the team and spends most of her time training for, talking about or playing the game. Unfortunately some spanners are thrown in the works: puberty (hampering her baseball performance) and the discovery of letters sent from her African American biological father. Cue identity crisis, fairly par for the course for a YA novel, but with some added angst related to racial identity (raised white, born black, hello imposter syndrome) and a complicated romance with African American baller Reggie.

Peas and Carrots, Tanita Davis

Cover of Peas and CarrotsAnother book about adoption! This time we follow white Dess and her transferral to an African American foster family (in order to live with her biracial little brother). Dess has a hard shell to crack, having dealt with physical abuse from her father, multiple foster and group homes, and a drug-addict mother. Luckily her foster sister Hope (Bambi eyes, bookish) and the rest of her lovely family manage to warm her heart and mine after some inevitable conflict.

My heart is bruised and battered but still up for more. Can anyone recommend any more fantastic books that make you reach for the tissues? Although I’ve just started The Ballroom, which is set in a mental asylum in 1911, so maybe some lighthearted reads would be a good change of pace.

Ranginui Walker: Teller of truths

Cover of Mata Toa: The life and times of Ranginui WalkerAt the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival in 2009, I was lucky enough to attend a session in which Ranginui Walker, academic, historian and biographer shared the stage with his own biographer and friend Paul Spoonley.

Over the course of the hour Walker came across as an intelligent, committed man with a great deal of personal integrity. Someone who never intended to be “the voice of Māoridom” for Pākehā New Zealand but somehow ended up there (and as you can imagine this was not often a comfortable position to be in). He spoke quietly and modestly of his accomplishments while there was no doubt that the courteous and stately manner was underlaid by a steely resolve. This is often the case with people who tell difficult truths.

Cover of Ka whawhai tonu matou: Struggle without endHis contribution to our understanding of ourselves as a country cannot be overstated. His 1990 history of New Zealand from a Māori perspective, Ka whawhai tonu matou: Struggle without end (along with Michael King’s The Penguin history of New Zealand) is a must read for anyone interested in how New Zealand came to be the place it is. It was a revelation to many and is a seminal work, which was later updated to address the Foreshore and Seabed debate. It is still a great and relevant read for all New Zealanders.

He wrote many other books that illuminated some aspect of the Māori experience of Aotearoa from a highly-acclaimed biography of Sir Apirana Ngata to a tribal history of his own beloved Whakatōhea iwi.

Ranginui Walker passed away yesterday at the age of 83. New Zealand has lost a great writer, thinker, and person.

Further Reading