Words are often mirrors.
Rewinding even as far as nine years ago, I read things that reflected facets of myself. That’s not to say that I only read the genre or the same kind of plot. Most of the books I picked up had one thing in common: I knew the character because they were some part of me or some part of who I wanted to be. Whether it was the ability for someone as ordinary as Cinderella charming the prince due to her sheer kindness and beauty or Annabeth Chase’s sharp intellect, whether it was Hermione Granger’s distinct femininity and even more distinct courage or Katniss Everdeen’s resourcefulness. My role models were in these characters.
They weren’t just role models, they were life goals. This was so much so that my first foray into writing at the tender age of seven was a tale of wish fulfillment: a sweet story about a frog searching for belonging before realizing he had it all along.
My tastes have evolved since elementary school obviously. I can read diverse genres and types of writing. But for a book to truly be considered my most favorite? I have to see myself in it.
That brings me to the point of representation. When I was younger, seeing Hermione be brilliant or Rory Gilmore go back to Yale was enough. As I started to grow into my identity however, I started to find that they were missing a critical aspect of my identity: my culture. It was one of the only things I couldn’t seek out in a book.
Luckily, stories about women of color are becoming more and more prevalent. I’d like to share a few of my favorites. Some are serious, some are cliche, most are distinctly YA because I am me, but all of them feature diverse and powerful leads.
- The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
The first time I read this book was after my biology finals last year, and it was just what I needed. The main character, Nishat, is a Muslim teenager who goes to a Catholic girls school. She is refreshingly sweet with a quirky sense of humor, despite how petty and stubborn she can be. Nishat comes out to her parents and is clearly ignored, and she is heartbroken at their reaction. She is ostracized at school after the ‘popular girl’ decides to spread racist rumors about her.
And then comes Flávia. Flávia is the gorgeous biracial girl that Nishat’s heart goes haywire for. Trouble comes when their teacher announces a business competition with a cash prize and Flávia decides to go with the same idea as Nishat: henna tattoos.
This story raises so many important questions about cultural appropriation, racism, bullying, homophobia, and family dynamics. I also really enjoyed the compelling competitive dynamic between Flávia and Nishat despite their clear attraction. Overall, I would definitely recommend!
- The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu
This is a powerful short story. I had to read it for an English project and ended up enjoying it very much. The main character is Jack, a boy born to a Chinese mother who speaks little English (bought out of a wife catalog by his father) and white father. He lives in a predominantly white place in Connecticut. As a child, he was close to his mother. His mother has a unique form of magic: she can breathe life into paper origami and make them sentient. One that is particularly important to him and the story is Laohu, a paper tiger.
However, a series of racist incidents leads him to neglect his Chinese culture and ostracize his mother.
What follows is thoroughly heartbreaking and a complicated story about finding the way back to your culture.
- Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
This is a novel about Indian-American Muslim teenager, Maya Aziz, and her limbo between two worlds. The world of her dreams is film school in New York, finally getting the boy she’s liked since grade school. The world she’s living in is the one her parents expect from her: a preordained life at a local college and marriage to a good Muslim boy her parents deem suitable.
And then something turns her community upside down. In the aftermath of a terrible crime, her community becomes frenzied; her close community becomes shaken with fear and bigotry.
I enjoyed this book. My only criticism of it would be that it focuses a little too much on her love life when there are other such hard-hitting themes.
- The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon
When Natasha, a Jamaican teenager who believes only in logic and scientific reason meets Daniel, the Korean boy who wants to be a poet, twelve hours before she and her family are deported, she is adamant about not falling in love with him. Unfortunately, that is just what happens.
I’m not someone who usually believes in the concept of love at first sight, but I adored the softness of their relationship.
But don’t be fooled. This book isn’t all about romance. It handles the focus of the life immigrants face quite well. On one hand, we have Natasha, an absolute science nerd and illegal immigrant from Jamaica who is being deported at the end of the day. On the other hand, we have Daniel, a child of South Korean immigrants who is expected to be a doctor but wants to be a poet. Nicola Yoon handles the topic of Natasha’s deportation so impactfully and doesn’t shy away from it. Daniel’s family dynamics are also written skillfully.
This book may not be for people who are more cynical, but a hopeless romantic like yours truly enjoyed it thoroughly.
- (Bonus) – To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
Because no matter how cliche and basic, I’ve watched Lara Jean fall in love with Peter Kavinsky at least five times.