With Martin Luther King Jr. Day around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about inspirational figures who’ve stepped up and persisted in their fight against injustice and for a better future. While we might not have all the answers for how to make the world a better place, we can certainly observe and attempt to follow in the footsteps of those we look up to. And in literature, there are many outstanding fictional characters whose activism and ambition will hopefully inspire your own. Here are just a few to read about and learn from.
In 1992 Los Angeles, Ashley Bennett is spending the end of her senior year with her friends, skipping class to go to the beach, and drinking like the world’s going dry. She’s living her best teenage life when, one day, four LAPD officers are acquitted of beating a Black man, Rodney King, nearly to death. Suddenly, she is no longer a Bennett, a member of a wealthy family in an affluent neighborhood, a good student, a friend. She is considered just one of the Black kids.
Ashley tries to continue with her life as usual, but as riots break out in the city of Los Angeles, she begins to question her impact in her community she is surrounded by. A powerful addition to your TBR list, THE BLACK KIDS will push readers to explore what responsibility we have to ourselves and each other to be informed about our histories. After all, history directly impacts the present, no matter how hard you try to outrun it.
A New York Times bestseller
“Should be required reading in every classroom.” —Nic Stone, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dear Martin
“A true love letter to Los Angeles.” —Brandy Colbert, award-winning author of Little & Lion
“A brilliantly poetic take on one of the most defining moments in Black American history.” —Tiffany D. Jackson, author of Grown and Monday’s Not Coming
Perfect for fans of The Hate U Give, this unforgettable coming-of-age debut novel explores issues of race, class, and violence through the eyes of a wealthy black teenager whose family gets caught in the vortex of the 1992 Rodney King Riots.
Los Angeles, 1992
Ashley Bennett and her friends are living the charmed life. It’s the end of senior year and they’re spending more time at the beach than in the classroom. They can already feel the sunny days and endless possibilities of summer.
Everything changes one afternoon in April, when four LAPD officers are acquitted after beating a black man named Rodney King half to death. Suddenly, Ashley’s not just one of the girls. She’s one of the black kids.
As violent protests engulf LA and the city burns, Ashley tries to continue on as if life were normal. Even as her self-destructive sister gets dangerously involved in the riots. Even as the model black family façade her wealthy and prominent parents have built starts to crumble. Even as her best friends help spread a rumor that could completely derail the future of her classmate and fellow black kid, LaShawn Johnson.
With her world splintering around her, Ashley, along with the rest of LA, is left to question who is the us? And who is the them?
In 1913, in the small copper mining town of Calumet, Michigan, men are underground for more hours than they are aboveground, and women toil in the homes of the elite. Everyone works hard, yet still barely makes enough money to put food on the table.
Enter twenty-five-year-old Annie Clements, who spends her days observing and questioning the horrible conditions under which her community lives. Determined to end the torture, she decides to take a stand against the exploitative mining company by leading a rebellion. Annie pushes forward on her quest for justice despite the looming threat of prison and the potential failure of her marriage. A tale of immense courage, Annie Clements is an inspiration for local activists.
From the bestselling and award-winning author of The Sparrow comes “historical fiction that feels uncomfortably relevant today” (Kirkus Reviews) about “America’s Joan of Arc”—the courageous woman who started a rebellion by leading a strike against the largest copper mining company in the world.
In July 1913, twenty-five-year-old Annie Clements has seen enough of the world to know that it’s unfair. She’s spent her whole life in the mining town of Calumet, Michigan, where men risk their lives for meager salaries—and have barely enough to put food on the table for their families. The women labor in the houses of the elite, and send their husbands and sons deep underground each day, dreading the fateful call of the company man telling them their loved ones aren’t coming home. So, when Annie decides to stand up for the entire town of Calumet, nearly everyone believes she may have taken on more than she is prepared to handle.
Yet as Annie struggles to improve the future of her town, her husband becomes increasingly frustrated with her growing independence. She faces the threat of prison while also discovering a forbidden love. On her fierce quest for justice, Annie will see just how much she is willing to sacrifice for the families of Calumet.
From one of the most versatile writers in contemporary fiction, this novel is an authentic and moving historical portrait of the lives of the crucial men and women of the early labor movement “with an important message that will resonate with contemporary readers” (Booklist).
Starr Carter code switches every day, hoping to maintain the delicate balance between her two lives. By day she attends a rich, white, suburban prep school where she is the only Black girl in sight. And by nightfall she goes home to a poor neighborhood, where everyone looks like her.
Everything comes crashing down when Starr bears witness to the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, by police, and national headlines report on the death of yet another unarmed Black man. As anger and division grows, the media paints a new narrative of Khalil as a thug, a drug dealer, and even a gangbanger, and the police work to intimidate Starr into a false confession. Only Starr knows what truly happened that night, but she struggles with whether or not to speak up knowing it’ll put her family and her own life in danger. A reflection of our current events, THE HATE U GIVE is a must-read to spark conversation.
Seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is the creator of SLAY, an online role-playing card game where she duels other players disguised as Nubian persona. An honors student, math tutor, and one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy, NO ONE knows about her secret role, not even her boyfriend. Things go smoothly at first, that is until trouble in the online community begins to brew when a teen is murdered over a disagreement in the game. Now buzzing in the media, Kiera’s beloved creation is labeled racist and violent. If she speaks up to defend the game’s integrity, Kiera faces breaking anonymity. Kiera’s dilemma reminds us that speaking up impacts a cause much greater than ourselves, and that often our greatest act of justice is selflessness.
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2019!
“Gripping and timely.” —People
“The YA debut we’re most excited for this year.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A book that knocks you off your feet while dropping the kind of knowledge that’ll keep you down for the count. Prepare to BE slain.” —Nic Stone, New York Times bestselling author of Dear Martin and Odd One Out
Ready Player One meets The Hate U Give in this dynamite debut novel that follows a fierce teen game developer as she battles a real-life troll intent on ruining the Black Panther–inspired video game she created and the safe community it represents for Black gamers.
By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student, a math tutor, and one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy. But at home, she joins hundreds of thousands of Black gamers who duel worldwide as Nubian personas in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game, SLAY. No one knows Kiera is the game developer, not her friends, her family, not even her boyfriend, Malcolm, who believes video games are partially responsible for the “downfall of the Black man.”
But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, news of the game reaches mainstream media, and SLAY is labeled a racist, exclusionist, violent hub for thugs and criminals. Even worse, an anonymous troll infiltrates the game, threatening to sue Kiera for “anti-white discrimination.”
Driven to save the only world in which she can be herself, Kiera must preserve her secret identity and harness what it means to be unapologetically Black in a world intimidated by Blackness. But can she protect her game without losing herself in the process?
Ever since their separate encounter with the ancient text “The Marvels of Creation and the Oddities of Existence,” Zayneb and Adam have kept private journals detailing the “marvels” and “oddities” they each encounter in life. For Zayneb, an oddity is something that gives her pause, such as her teacher, who constantly reminds the class how “bad” Muslims are. After Zayneb confronts her teacher, she’s suspended, then heads to Doha, Qatar, to stay with her aunt. Meanwhile, after Adam receives his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, he decides to drop out from school and focuses on keeping his illness a secret from his father who’s grieving over the passing of his Adam’s mother. And then a marvel and an oddity occur: Adam and Zayneb meet.
As the protagonists face an equally unforgiving and hateful world around them, their experiences explore the importance of listening and the message that we must always be kind to others because we never know what they’re going through.
“The bighearted, wildly charming, painfully real love story I’ve been waiting for.” —Becky Albertalli, New York Times bestselling author of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
“Heartfelt and powerful.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
From William C. Morris Award Finalist S.K. Ali comes an unforgettable romance that is The Sun Is Also a Star meets Anna and the French Kiss, following two Muslim teens who meet during a spring break trip.
A marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes—because they make French fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.
An oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are.
But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry.
When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break.
Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her.
Then her path crosses with Adam’s.
Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam’s stopped going to classes, intent, instead, on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister.
Adam’s also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father.
Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals.
Until a marvel and an oddity occurs…
Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.
Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting.
Some people are born with a natural gift for the arts. Amal Shahid is one of those. Channeling his passion, he attends a diverse art school, though he is often unfairly viewed as unmotivated and disruptive by the biased teachers. That same bias lands him in prison at just sixteen years old, when an altercation in a gentrified neighborhood gets Amal convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. As Amal sinks into despair, he once again turns to his anchor of art and begins to toy with an idea: Can he change the way his story ends and preserve his humanity? Amal’s story is a powerful reminder that our ideas and action can carve the path to change, and that every person we encounter has a deep, resonate story behind what we may first perceive.
Image credit: iStock / yavdat