[Originally published September 2014, on Racialicious.com]
Like most of my friends in elementary school, I was obsessed with The American Girl Doll series. The American Girl Dolls lacked comprehensive diversity back then, in that they had one single doll of colour until 1997. I owned Felicity Merriman, a white girl who lived in colonial Williamsburg, but received Addy Walker, a former slave who escapes from the South into Philadelphia, soon after she debuted in 1993. As per my mother’s rule, I read all six of Addy’s books before being gifted the doll. But unlike Felicity’s, I didn’t often revisit them for pleasure. In my constant search for American historical fiction with protagonists of colour written for young readers, I often come across the same problem I did when I was younger: it’s all really depressing.
Addy Walker’s story begins in Meet Addy while she’s still enslaved, and I have vivid memories of one paragraph where her overseer forces her to eat tobacco leaf worms. If you had asked me, when I was younger, to state a fact about Harriet Tubman I would have told you about the time her mistress threw a porcelain sugar bowl at her head. Meanwhile, Felicity’s biggest worry in life in Meet Felicity was saving a horse. My favourite young adult historical fiction author, Ann Rinaldi, wrote stories that spanned across races, but her romantic stories about southern belles and women of the revolutionary war were always more fun to read than her sanitised retellings of the Jeffersons and the Hemmings or Sioux boarding schools.
In pre-Mattel age when the American Girl Doll franchise was still owned and partially run by Pleasant Rowland and her Pleasant Company, I devoured their 90 page novels about young girls scattered throughout various points of American history. Back then they were a genuinely decent source of early education and introduction into various facets of American history for an 8 year old girl. I credit the dolls and their books for the love of middle and young adult historical-fiction I took into my adult life, but that doesn’t mean they were all fun.
Maybe I fixated on strange things when I was younger, but it was always the worst elements of these books, American Girls and others, that stuck with me, and I get the feeling that’s not the experience for the little girls with a wider variety of characters who look like them to choose from.
White characters not only get a wider variety of books to choose from, but books in a wider variety of settings. Characters of colour in American hist-fic tend to exist strictly within certain boundaries of time or not at all. African-Americans exist within the boundaries of slavery, the Jim Crow South, or the Civil Rights movement. Native Americans exist in the mythical west until about 1870 or so, Asian-Americans exist during World War 2, only in the west (and only from Eastern countries), and I had to reach out to our followers to fill in the gaps my childhood reading material left when it came to Latin@s.
These stories need to be told, of course. Diverse literature for young readers is extremely important. The world needs YA literature about Japanese Internment during the Second World War, but they shouldn’t be the only books Japanese-American children get to see themselves reflected in. This isn’t an advocation for erasure or a minimalisation of the realities that people of colour have historically faced, but rather a desire for authors and publishers to realise that all of us existed in America outside the times of our most publicised oppressions. And that, even during the most difficult times, we still had lives that didn’t necessarily completely revolve around the overhead political themes of the day.
With that in mind, and because I’m 26 year old woman who still reads almost exclusively YA and middle grade fiction, I’ve compiled a list (that is by no means complete) of historical fiction with POC characters that might allow young and middle adult readers to have a little more fun with their reading escapism.
American Fairy Trilogy, by Sara Zetel: Having received an advanced copy of Dust Girl, the first book in this series, from Random House, I set it into my ‘Donate’ pile because neither the jacket flap or cover read as interesting to me. Callie, the book’s main protagonist, is a mixed race girl living with her mother in the middle of the Kansas dust bowl during The Great Depression. Not only is she mixed race (Black and white), she’s also half-faerie. Now, only one of those things was obvious from the cover or the description of the first book, and I’ll let you guess which one that was. It wasn’t until the publisher sent the third book in the series that I peered at the cover and wondered to myself, “is this series about a Black girl?”
After a quick Google to confirm my suspicions I started the series and couldn’t put it down. Callie’s story goes from the Kansas dust bowl to the golden age of Hollywood, and out into jazz age Chicago as she searches for her father who’s been kidnapped by the Unseelie Fae. Actor Paul Robeson is a significant minor character, topics like minstrelsy, interracial relationships, and passing are discussed, the fantasy world is well constructed, and the fifteen year old characters act like fifteen year old characters.
(I was also, admittedly, drawn in by the idea that Black characters almost exclusively ruled the Seelie court. But that’s just me.)
Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Sáenz: I haven’t gotten to Aristotle and Dante myself and would normally be hard pressed to consider a book set in 1987 to be historical fiction (I am not that old, thank you). But rave reviews from friends and suggestions from our readers prompted me to include it here. It’s described as a gay coming of age novel, one that doesn’t seem to have a dedicated plot, but instead tracks an evolving friendship between two boys in Texas.
From the official summary: “Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship — the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.”
The Diviners, by Libba Bray: Plucky girl psychic Evie O’Neill is the main character in Bray’s book, but much like in her last YA historical fantasy series, A Great And Terrible Beauty, she rounds of her cast of paranormally gifted main characters with an MOC, Memphis, a healer, and his younger brother Isaiah, a prophet. Both live in Harlem in the height of the renaissance. The Diviner’s greatest flaw is an annoying protagonist whose attitude and overuse of 1920s slang I never could quite accept. The rest of it — a richly painted New York City that ranges the backstages of Broadway theatres to the abandoned mansions of Harlem, a plot filled with magic and murder, and a fun cast of supporting characters — makes that one flaw an easy enough one to overlook.
More than just long, this is a densely written book, with a lot of vivid detail for those of us really looking for the ‘historical’ in historical fiction. Some much younger readers may be turned off by how long it takes to get through a chapter, but for the rest I encourage you read it before the sequel comes out in 2015.
And Now Miguel, by Joseph Krumgold: I include this book with a caveat — it was written in 1953, based off a movie of the same name. While I remember enjoying it when I was younger, I don’t remember clearly whether or not it is written in a style that may reflect attitudes and language of of the 1950s.
That said, this is definitely a book for younger readers. Mexican-American Miguel lives in New Mexico with his shepherding family and wants to go with the men in his family on their annual herding trip up the mountain. He prays to his town’s patron saint to allow him to go, and his wish comes true, but at a cost. His older brother is drafted into service for World War Two, and so Miguel has to go on the herding trip in his place. It’s an easy ready with an easy, obvious moral for younger readers: Be careful what you wish for.
If I Ever Get Out Of Here, by Eric Gansworth: These days I don’t read many books with male protagonists (I know, I know — a misandrist to the end), but Gansworth’s book tells the story of two teenage boys (one Native American and one white) bonding over rock n’ roll in upstate New York in 1975. Given my love of 1970s rock I am, at the very least, intrigued enough to include it here. The summary reads:
“Lewis “Shoe” Blake is used to the joys and difficulties of life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation in 1975: the joking, the Fireball games, the snow blowing through his roof. What he’s not used to is white people being nice to him — people like George Haddonfield, whose family recently moved to town with the Air Force. As the boys connect through their mutual passion for music, especially the Beatles, Lewis has to lie more and more to hide the reality of his family’s poverty from George. He also has to deal with the vicious Evan Reininger, who makes Lewis the special target of his wrath. But when everyone else is on Evan’s side, how can he be defeated? And if George finds out the truth about Lewis’s home — will he still be his friend?”
A Spy in the House, by Y.S. Lee: I’d hand this book to the teenager that’s already devoured the BBC’s Sherlock and/or loves Elementary. Taking place in Victorian London, Lee’s book is a slight departure from the rest of the list. Mary Quinn is an Asian-Irish orphan saved from the gallows by a school that specialises in training women spies. Her first mission has her going undercover as a lady’s maid in a London to discover the whereabouts of stolen goods from India. Her work leads not only to her first successful mission, but the unlocking of her past.
Keisha Discovers Harlem (The Magic Attic Club), by Zoe Lewis: The Magic Attic Club books were similar to the American Girl Doll franchise, but existed at a slightly lower price point. The books revolved around a group of girls who discovered a steamer trunk of clothing and a magic, time traveling mirror in a friends’ house. This was not the world’s best series (there’s a reason the company folded in 2007 while American Girl lives on), but Keisha got to do a lot, and they tended to have a lighter tone than the AGD books, while still being equally as informative.
Flygirl, by Sherri Smith: This one is downloading onto my kindle as we speak. Elementary School Me was obsessed with World War Two and plowed through books like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Summer of My German Soldier, Number The Stars, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, and several others. Like school curriculums, much of YA discourse focuses on the Holocaust and the European Theater. Literature about the American side of the war is heavily focused on white protagonists, with Under The Blood Red Sun and The Bracelet (a picture book) being the two Asian-American focused stories that stick out from childhood.
Flygirl is about a mixed race girl named Ida who lives in Louisiana during the war. Her father was a pilot and all she wants to do is sign up for the Women Airforce Service Pilots. She could do so by passing as white, but has to consider what that means for her family, life, and identity. This is potentially heavy material, but I’m recommending it solely because this is exactly the kind of book I would have been looking for back in the fourth or fifth grade.
Mare’s War, by Tanita Davis: The same goes for Mare’s War, another book I haven’t read, but will since it’s about Black women serving in the Women’s Army Corps (something I still imagine myself doing). The summary reads as follows:
“Meet Mare, a grandmother with flair and a fascinating past.
Octavia and Tali are dreading the road trip their parents are forcing them to take with their grandmother over the summer. After all, Mare isn’t your typical grandmother. She drives a red sports car, wears stiletto shoes, flippy wigs, and push-up bras, and insists that she’s too young to be called Grandma. But somewhere on the road, Octavia and Tali discover there’s more to Mare than what you see. She was once a willful teenager who escaped her less-than-perfect life in the deep South and lied about her age to join the African American battalion of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.
Told in alternating chapters, half of which follow Mare through her experiences as a WAC member and half of which follow Mare and her granddaughters on the road in the present day, this novel introduces a larger-than-life character who will stay with readers long after they finish reading.”
Bud Not Buddy & The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis: Two books mired within the Great Depression with two equally spunky child characters searching for their fathers. I haven’t read Bud since middle school, but I’ve yet to ever go wrong recomending Curtis, a Coretta Scott King and Newbery Award winning author.
The Fire Horse Girl by Kay Honeyman: Another caveat: I haven’t read this one yet, and it’s only caught my eye because it deals with Chinese organised crime in the 1920s. Your 9th grader probably shouldn’t be watching Boardwalk Empire, but in case they do and they’d like a different take on organised crime during the same era, here we go. The summary:
“Seventeen-year-old Jade Moon was born in 1906, the year of the Fire Horse, an ominous sign for Chinese girls. It signals willfulness, stubbornness, and impetuousness, all characteristics that embarrass her father and grandfather and cause derision and cruelty by her too-small village. So when Sterling Promise, a long-lost adopted cousin, appears and proposes she immigrate to America using false “paper son” papers, Jade Moon and her father agree to the plan. Jade Moon views this offer as escape and freedom; her father as the only opportunity to marry off his undesirable daughter. The interminable boat ride — and even more onerous imprisonment off California’s Angel Island — finally transitions to her treacherous entry into America. Jade Moon’s disguise as a young man and her homelessness pave the way for her involvement with the tong, a Chinese organized crime syndicate, and breathtaking danger at every turn.”
As I noted, this is by no means a complete list. Think of it as a jumping off point, rather than a comprehensive study guide and enjoy!