It’s been three years since a I wrote a blog post lamenting the paucity of books with Black lead characters for tween boys. In that post I recounted how I’d tried and failed to find five books with a Black boy protagonist that wasn’t about police brutality, drugs, gangs, social injustice or any other trauma.
This summer a friend messaged me asking for book recommendations for her tween nephew so I decided to give the experiment another try. The offerings have grown slightly but it’s still an uphill struggle to find books with Black boy leads that aren’t centered on trauma.
I really hope the next time I run this experiment there is more fantasy in the mix. I’m longing for Black boy heroes wielding swords, casting spells, joining secret crime fighting organisations, travelling to space, inventing gadgets and other out-of-the-box fare. I want Black writers to write their truths, to reflect the many worlds Black boys live in, to be unapologetic. But I also want escapism and magic for all children, especially Black boys.
Here are 15 beautifully written books with Black boy heroes.
The Last Last-Day-Of-Summer: A Legendary Alston Boys Adventure
By Lamar Giles
Otto and Sheed are the local sleuths in their Virginia town. As the summer winds down and the first day of school looms a mysterious man appears with a camera that literally freezes time. It is up to Otto and Sheed – with the help of some very strange people and even stranger creatures – to put aside their differences and save their town, and each other, before time stops for good.
The Last Mirror On The Left: A Legendary Alston Boys Adventure
By Lamar Giles
Missus Nedraw of the Rorrim Mirror Emporium remembers the time freeze from The Last Last-Day-of-Summer, and how Otto and Sheed took her mirrors without permission in order to fix their mess. Usually that’s an offense punishable by a million-year sentence, but she’s willing to overlook the cousins’ misdeeds if they help her with a problem of her own. One of her worst prisoners has escaped to a parallel world, and only the Legendary Alston Boys of Logan County can help bring the fugitive to justice.
Black Boy Joy
Edited by Kwame Mbalia
A collection of 17 stories, comics and poems celebrating the joys and wonder of Black boyhood from 17 bestselling authors – including: Jason Reynolds, Tochi Onyebuchi, Dean Atta and Lamar Giles. Edited by Kwame Mbalia.
Tristan Strong Punches A Hole in the Sky
By Kwame Mbalia
Seventh grader Tristan Strong has been sent to his grandparents’ farm in Alabama to heal after the death of his best friend Eddie in a bus accident. On his first night there, a creature shows up in his bedroom and steals his best friend’s notebook. Tristan gives chase and wrestles with the creature under a Bottle Tree. During the tussle he punches the tree, accidentally ripping open a chasm into the MidPass, a volatile place with a burning sea, haunted bone ships, and monsters hunting the inhabitants of his world.
Tristan finds himself in the middle of a battle that has left Black American folk heroes John Henry and Brer Rabbit exhausted. In order to get back home, he and his new allies need to entice Anansi, the Weaver, to come out of hiding and seal the hole in the sky. But bartering with the trickster Anansi always comes at a price.
Look Both Ways
By Jason Reynolds
A collection of 10 interlinked stories about children walking home from school. The stories cover bullying, homophobia and bereavement and other issues with humour and empathy.
Reynolds is currently the US national ambassador for young people’s literature.
By Jerry Craft
Seventh grader Jordan Banks loves nothing more than drawing cartoons. But instead of sending him to the art school of his dreams, his parents enroll him in a prestigious private school where Jordan is one of the few kids of colour. As he makes the daily trip from his mid-income neighbourhood to the upscale school, Jordan soon finds himself torn between two worlds. Can he learn to navigate his new school culture while keeping his neighborhood friends and staying true to himself?
Bud Not Buddy
By Christopher Paul Curtis
It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan, times are hard and ten-year-old Bud is on the run. Thankfully he has a few things going for him:
– He has his own suitcase full of special things.
– He’s the author of Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.
– His late momma never told him who his father was, but she left a clue: flyers advertising Herman E. Calloway and his famous band, the Dusky Devastators of the Depression!!!
Bud’s got an idea that those flyers will lead him to his father. Once he decides to hit the road to find this mystery man, nothing can stop him—not hunger, not fear, not vampires, not even Herman E. Calloway himself.
The Taking of Jake Livingston
By Ryan Douglass
Jake Livingston is one of the few Black kids at his prep school. It’s hard enough fitting in but to make matters worse, Jake can also see the dead. Most of the dead are harmless, but not Sawyer, a troubled teen who shot and killed six kids at a local high school before taking his own life. Now Sawyer is a powerful, vengeful ghost who has plans for his afterlife – plans that include Jake. High school quickly becomes a survival game – one Jake is not sure he’s going to win.
By Lamar Giles
Nick Pearson is hiding in plain sight. In fact, his name isn’t really Nick Pearson. He shouldn’t tell you his real name, his real hometown, or why his family just moved to Stepton, Virginia. And he definitely shouldn’t tell you about his friend Eli Cruz and the major conspiracy Eli was uncovering when he died. About how Nick had to choose between solving Eli’s murder and “staying low-key” like the Program said to do.
But he’s going to tell you – unless he gets caught first…
By Alex Wheatle (First in the Crongton Knights series)
Lemar is sensitive about being the second shortest guy in his year and bearing the nickname, Liccle Bit. But when his crush, Venetia King, starts paying attention to him he thinks he’s on a fast track to a first date. Instead, a new gang war breaks out, South Crongton’s notorious gang leader takes an interest in him and Liccle Bit finds himself on a fast track to something much more sinister.
By 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 their relationship. A heartfelt, coming-of-age story written in verse.
By Jason Reynolds
Running is all Ghost (aka Castle Cranshaw) has ever known. But he’s been running for the wrong reasons – until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic medallist who recognizes his talent. If Ghost can stay on track he could be the best sprinter in the city.
Let Me Hear A Rhyme
By Tiffany D Jackson
It’s 1998 and three Brooklyn teens are hatching a plot to turn their murdered friend into a major rap star by pretending he’s still alive. They create a new rap name for him and put out a demo. When it catches the attention of a music label rep, the teens must prove their friend’s talent from beyond the grave. As the pressure grows the teens are forced to confront the events that led to their friend’s murder.
By Jason Reynolds
Miles Morales is just your average teenager. Apart from his secret identity as Spider Man. Lately his spidey-sense has been on the fritz. When a misunderstanding leads to his suspension from school, Miles begins to question his abilities and wonder if he deserves his scholarship spot at the prestigious Brooklyn Visions Academy.
He can’t shake the vivid nightmares haunting him or the relentless buzz of his spidey-sense in every history class, amidst his teacher’s lectures on the historical “benefits” of slavery and the modern-day prison system. But after his scholarship is threatened, Miles uncovers a chilling plot, one that puts his friends, his neighborhood, and himself at risk.
Charming as a Verb
By Ben Philippe
Henri is a star debater, a popular student, a dutiful first-generation Haitian son, and the trusted dog walker for his wealthy New York City neighbors. But his easy smiles mask a burning ambition to attend his dream college, Columbia University.
Corinne Troy is Henri’s classmate and neighbor and the only person immune to his charms. When she uncovers his less-than-honest dog-walking scheme, she blackmails him into helping her change her image at school. Soon what started as a mutual hustle turns into something more surprising than either of them ever bargained for…
Great list, thank you for sharing this. Some of Jason Reynolds’ books have made it to the UK which is great. I enjoyed Dear Martin and Dear Justyce but they did centre to an extent on violence and gangs.
It’s fantastic that UK readers are able to access Jason Reynold’s books too. They do have an edge to them which reflects the experiences and struggles of many young people, but can rule some of them out when you’re looking for books with no gangs or violence. Expanding the range of books with Black lead characters would def help there. More choice.
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