My nephew is 11 and obsessed with Derek Landy’s Skulduggery series. They’re a set of fantasy books about a skeleton detective and are as madcap as they sound. Every time I pop round he has his head stuck in a new book in the sequence. Either Landy has a factory churning these books out or he’s extremely prolific.
I keep artfully suggesting to my nephew that maybe he might consider expanding his reading diet a little, throwing in the occasional non-Skulduggery to stretch himself. (A recent study suggests UK teens are not reading enough challenging books). He politely ignores me.
Now with his sisters, I’d advance to Phase Two. I’d drop off a couple of books on every visit until one of them piqued their interest. The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas) was a big hit, as was Oh My Gods (Alexandra Sheppard) and Everything Everything (Nicola Yoon). Cinder (Marissa Meyer) alas, got a lukewarm reception. Thankfully, when you’re looking for teen fiction with a young female lead, you’re spoilt for choice. I can keep this up for a good few years.
However, when it comes to options for boys, the shelves suddenly look bare. There are a million articles about how/why boys hate reading. I’m going to take a leap of logic and suggest that publishers have responded to these studies by acquiring fewer books for tween and teen boys, the result of which is boys reading even less. It’s a downward spiral.
Despite the odds, because I like a challenge, I stepped boldly up to the plate.
I decided I would:
– find eight titles for my nephew
– five of which would feature a BAME main character
– I would skew towards fantasy/mystery/adventure since he loves those genres
– and I would try to avoid books with racism/police brutality/gangs/gritty anything
I’ve spent two weeks searching for those eight books and I am finally admitting defeat on meeting my criteria. Surprise, surprise, it’s the diversity part of the challenge that has thwarted me.
A study by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found that of the 9,115 children’s books published in the UK in 2017, only 391 featured black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) characters – ie 4% of all books published.
1% of these books had a BAME main character. (32% of UK schoolchildren are of BAME origin).
So, in 2017, only 1% of the books published in the UK had a BAME main character. How many of that 1% were for tween boys? I mean these numbers really are not on my side.
Further still, that same study showed of the 4% of books that featured a BAME character, over half were defined as ‘contemporary realism’ – so good luck trying to find a racially diverse UK fantasy novel for tweens – and 10% contained ‘social justice’ issues.
The numbers are dreadful. Yet, they didn’t become real for me until I went looking for a fantasy chapter book for my 11-year-old nephew with a BAME main character and came up empty.
There are children’s books by writers of colour with BAME main characters, but many of them are YA ie for older teens (I’m still torn on whether fantasy writers Tochi Onyebuchi and Tomi Adeyemi are suitable for the 10-13 crowd. I guess it depends on the child). Or they have a serious social message related to a societal injustice embedded in them. Which isn’t what I’m after.
Overall, it was a dispiriting exercise. I only managed to find 4 books with BAME leads, none fantasy. I truly hope someone somewhere is doing work to address this. In the meantime, here is my list.
Eight Tween Reads for Boys
1. Crossover – Kwame Alexander
12-year-old Josh and his twin Jordan have basketball in their blood. They’re kings of the court, star players for their school team. Their father used to be a champion player and they each want nothing more than to follow in his footsteps. But on and off the court, there is conflict and hardship that will test Josh’s bond with his brother. In this heartfelt novel written in verse, the boys find that life doesn’t come with a play-book and it’s not all about winning.
Running. That’s all Ghost (real name Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons – until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medallist who sees something in Ghost: crazy natural talent. If Ghost can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. Can Ghost harness his raw talent for speed, or will his past finally catch up to him?
3. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – JK Rowling
Harry Potter has never even heard of Hogwarts when the letters start dropping on the doormat at number four, Privet Drive. They are swiftly confiscated by his grisly aunt and uncle. Then, on Harry’s 11th birthday, a giant of a man bursts in with astonishing news: Harry Potter is a wizard, and he has a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. An incredible adventure is about to begin!
Stanley Yelnats’ family has a history of bad luck, so when a miscarriage of justice sends him to Camp Green Lake Juvenile Detention Centre (which isn’t green and doesn’t have a lake) he is not surprised. Every day he and the other inmates are told to dig a hole – five foot wide by five foot deep – reporting anything they find. The evil warden claims that it is character building, but this is a lie and Stanley must dig up the truth.
5. Liccle Bit (1st in the Crongton Knights series) – Alex Wheatle
Venetia King is the hottest girl at school. Too bad Lemar is the second shortest guy in his year and everyone calls him Liccle Bit. When Venetia starts paying Liccle Bit attention, he hopes he’s on a fast track to a first date. Instead, when a new gang war breaks out, he finds himself on a fast track to something much more sinister. South Crongton’s notorious gang leader has taken an interest in Liccle Bit. Before he knows what’s happening, he finds himself running errands. But when he hears about a killing on the estate, Liccle Bit is forced to question his choices.
Everyone’s heard the rumours. Call Tall Jake and he’ll take you to Malice, a world that exists inside a horrifying comic book. A place most kids never leave. Seth and Kady think it’s all a silly myth. But then their friend disappears, and suddenly the rumours don’t seem so silly.
7. Pig Heart Boy – Malorie Blackman
Cameron is 13 years old and desperately in need of a heart transplant, when a pioneering doctor approaches his family with a startling proposal. He can give Cameron a new heart – not from a human, but from a pig!
8. Ruins of Gorlan – John Flanagan
The Rangers have always scared Will, with their dark cloaks and shadowy ways. What he doesn’t know is that the Rangers are the protectors of the kingdom. Highly trained in the skills of battle and surveillance, they fight the battles before the battles reach the people. Now Will has been chosen as a Ranger’s apprentice and a large battle is brewing.
If you have any book suggestions for a tween/teen boy that features a Black or Asian main character, please do share below.