Let’s face it - we need more ethnic minority voices in the world, and when it comes to literature, we need more stories told from the perspective of BAME protagonists. Here are six YA novels featuring ethnic minority protagonists that kept me way up past bedtime.
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When ‘angels’ (mysterious metallic beings with wings) start falling from the sky, Jaya Mackenzie’s father decides to uproot the family to Edinburgh to see if he can catch one and find out where they’re coming from. Jaya, however, who is our mixed-race, Sri Lankan-Scottish protagonist, is still coming to terms with her mother’s death and the unexplained disappearance of her best friend. She is determined not to get involved with her father’s plans, but when she comes across a live (and injured) angel, finds she must look after it, hiding it in an empty flat during the Edinburgh Fringe.
Sound like a lot? It is - but Cameron’s skill is to weave her ideas together into a light-hearted, easy-paced narrative that draws you in and has you hooked from chapter one, and it’s easy to see why this book was long-listed for the Bath Literary Awards.
Read it if you love … sci-fi/fantasy with a generous dose of human emotion.
There’s a reason why Angie Thomas’s 2017 debut is so highly praised. For me, this (along with Thomas’s follow-up, Concrete Rose, which came out in 2021) stands out as a book that has had the most profound influence on me as both a reader and writer - and no, it’s not just because Uncle Carlos is played in the 2018 film adaptation by Common!
Developed from a short story that Thomas wrote in response to the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant, sixteen-year old Starr Carter’s world changes overnight when she witnesses her friend Khalil being shot by a police officer. As a writer, I had to marvel at Thomas’s sensitive treatment of the complex dialogues around race and growing up black in America, as well as her quite frankly phenomenal characterisation: the Carter family are depicted with such skill and attention to detail that for me it felt as though they were real; like they were actually living their lives somewhere and I could go out and find them. I was genuinely sad when it ended. A fantastic novel and a must read for so many reasons.
Read it if you love … strong and believable characters, gritty realism and throwback jokes about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Set in eighteenth century London, British writer Catherine Johnson’s novel Sawbones follows the story of sixteen-year-old Ezra, a mixed-race orphan, who is apprenticed to celebrated surgeon William McAdam. When McAdam is killed during an attempted robbery, Ezra must team up with Miss Loveday Finch, the endearingly eccentric magician’s daughter, to try to untangle the web of mystery surrounding McAdam and how it connects to the death of Loveday’s father.
Read it if you love … historical fiction that touches on questions of race, belonging and independence.
If Agatha Christie set one of her famous mysteries in Enid Blyton's Malory Towers, then I imagine it would look a lot like Robin Stevens's acclaimed MG-series Murder Most Unladylike. Narrated by Hazel Wong (a Chinese protagonist! Yes!), we follow Hazel, best friend/super-sleuth Daisy Wells and the Deepdean Detective Society as they solve the truly extraordinary number of crimes that occur at their school and beyond. You can see the clear Christie influence in the far-flung and exotic locations they end up in, ranging from a London theatre to a Nile cruise ship and the famed Orient Express.
Unusually, the series actually gets better as it keeps going and you can even see Robin Stevens maturing as an author - although I have to admit that some of the earlier titles, like Arsenic for Tea and Mistletoe and Murder, rank among my favourites. I galloped through the first eight books during lockdown and was genuinely distraught when, at the end of Book 9 (Death Sets Sail), I had to finally say goodbye to Daisy and Hazel - although I’m of course looking forward to having Hazel’s sister May narrating The Ministry of Unladylike Activity, promised for release in 2022.
Read it if you love … boarding school dramas with a twist.
I feel like no list of novels exploring questions of race and BAME protagonists would be complete without a nod to Blackman’s 'dystopian Romeo and Juliet', Noughts and Crosses.
The first in a series of five, Blackman’s seminal novel follows the story of Callum and Sephy, two teenagers who fall in love across class and racial divides. Surprising, heartwarming and at times completely chilling, Blackman’s celebrated novel, partially inspired by the anger she felt after the death of Stephen Lawrence, is an eye-opening read, as important for adults as it is for teens.
Read it if you love … stories that pose big questions about race, society and what it means to fall in love for the first time.
As a YA author, I am honestly in awe of South London-born-and-raised Alex Wheatle.
Crongton Knights, the 2017 sequel to Liccle Bit (2015), follows the story of endearingly chubby McKay, a teenager living on the South Crongton council estate, as he ventures into enemy territory (North Crongs) on a mission to retrieve incriminating photos from the phone of his best friend’s best girl friend’s ex (got it?).
There is so much to love about this book, from McKay’s uneasy but ultimately heartwarming relationship with his brother and dad, to its descriptions of the bland, cafeteria-standard shepherd’s pie that we all remember from school. For me, though, it’s Wheatle’s use of language, his astonishingly lyrical way of writing that borrows from influences including US hip-hop, reggae and Jamaican dancehall, that really sets it apart, creating a truly unique method of storytelling. Funny, moving and memorable, I recommend it to everyone.
Read it if you love … gritty portrayals of big city life with a good smattering of humour thrown in.
How about you? Have you read any amazing books with BAME protagonists recently? Or how about something that had a lot of promise but fell just short of the mark? Let me know in the comments underneath, I'd love to hear from you!