Recommended Fiction Books About Racism for Your School Library

Written by Brandi Hartsell

In light of recent events happening in our country, you might be looking for ways to discuss racism with kids and teens. These books have been recommended by School Library Journal and/or other professional organizations/publications. Reviews have been included where available. Book descriptions are from Goodreads and are included where full reviews are not available.

Picture Books

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Momma, Did You Hear the News? by Sanya Whittaker Gragg, MSW

Little Avery becomes concerned after seeing another police shooting of an unarmed man. His parents decide it is time to have “The Talk”. They teach him and his brother a catchy chant to help remember what to do if approached by an officer, while also emphasizing that all policemen are not bad. A to the L to the I-V-E…come home ALIVE….THAT is the key!

“Essential both for its counsel and for its representation of a family confronting police brutality with young children.” Highly recommended. Starred Review- The School Library Journal

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Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham

A white child sees TV news coverage of a white police officer shooting a brown person whose hands were up. Upset, he asks his mother why; she deflects, assuring him that he is safe. Later, they visit an aunt and uncle, where the TV, always on, shows a rally in response to the police shooting. The child glimpses a moving press conference with the victim’s family while his aunt claims she simply “can’t watch the news.”

The book’s narrator accompanies the child as he faces history and himself. The activities section urges kids to grow justice (“like a bean sprout in a milk carton”) inside of themselves, seek out and listen to the truth about racism and white supremacy, and prepare to be changed, heartbroken, and liberated by this experience.

“A much-needed title that provides a strong foundation for critical discussions of white people and racism, particularly for young audiences. Recommended for all collections.”SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL (*Starred Review)

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Something Happened In Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, PhD, Marietta Collins, PhD, and Ann Hazzard, PhD

Something Happened in Our Town follows two families — one White, one Black — as they discuss a police shooting of a Black man in their community. The story aims to answer children’s questions about such traumatic events, and to help children identify and counter racial injustice in their own lives.

National Council for the Social Studies-Children’s Book Council 2019 Notable Social Science Trade Book for Young People

Upper Elementary and Middle Grade

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Black Brother Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Gr 4–6—Donte is having a difficult time adjusting to life at Middlefield Prep. Going to public school in New York City to now being one of the only black boys at a prep school in Newton, MA, is a dramatic shift. What’s worse, all the kids at school keep bullying him and singling him out as different, while his lighter-skinned brother, Trey, passes with ease. After one too many incidents with Alan, the captain of the school fencing team, Donte decides that he has to beat him at his own game. This quest sets Donte and Trey off on a mission to find Mr. Jones, a black former Olympic fencer and Boston Boys and Girls Club employee, who agrees to teach them how to fence. Along the way, Donte makes friends, becomes an excellent fencer, and finds his place in the Boston area. In the first part of the book, Donte’s school calls the police after he throws his backpack to the ground, and he is forced to go to juvenile court. Rhodes points out his privilege in being well off, and how the court is willing to treat him differently after seeing his white father and white-passing brother. Donte’s story is a good primer for younger readers on microaggressions. Though the first few chapters of the book focus heavily on Donte’s mistreatment at school, the story quickly moves into a heavy focus on his fencing journey. The depiction of Donte’s confidence growing with each lesson and as he makes friends at the Boys and Girls Club is interesting and exciting. Readers will want to learn more about the sport. VERDICT Give to readers who love Jason Reynolds’s “Track” series or Jewell Parker Rhodes’s other offerings for young readers.—Kelsey Socha, Ventress Memorial Library, Marshfield, MA School Library Journal

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Blended by Sharon M. Draper

Gr 4–7—Eleven-year-old Isabella is biracial; her mother is white and her father is black. Other people sometimes describe her as “exotic,” but she doesn’t think of herself that way. Isabella is also from a blended family. Her mother, a waitress at Waffle House, has a serious boyfriend, a white guy who drives a truck, manages a bowling alley, and has dozens of interesting tattoos. Her father is a successful corporate attorney who drives a Mercedes and has a serious girlfriend, who is black, an interior decorator with a son that Isabella is looking forward to having for a big brother. Her parents share custody and each Sunday they meet at the mall and do “the exchange.” Mostly, it’s done curtly, without talking, so Isabella “hates, hates, hates it.” She finds solace in playing the piano and practicing for a big recital. Shifting between two sets of parents, no matter how much she cares about them and how different their lifestyles are, is hard. As new tensions begin to rise, Isabella works to find her place in the world. Draper has a way of speaking to the heart of tween concerns. The dialogue is realistic and the alternating chapters between Isabella’s time with her mom and dad underscores the protagonist’s discomfort moving back and forth between them. The story could have ended there and worked well as a frank, honest portrait of a modern, blended family. But a dangerous, racially biased event near the end of the novel offers a deeper exploration of the unique struggles faced by young people of color. While the event is disturbing, Draper writes with grace, compassion, and respect for the intelligence and emotional lives of young readers. VERDICT This is Draper at her best, penning a current and ultimately uplifting story. It deserves a place on library shelves along with her other outstanding works.—Carol Connor, Cincinnati Public Schools, OH School Library Journal

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Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real threat. As a ghost, he observes the devastation that’s been unleashed on his family and community in the wake of what they see as an unjust and brutal killing.

Soon Jerome meets another ghost: Emmett Till, a boy from a very different time but similar circumstances. Emmett helps Jerome process what has happened, on a journey towards recognizing how historical racism may have led to the events that ended his life. Jerome also meets Sarah, the daughter of the police officer, who grapples with her father’s actions.

“Rhodes captures the all-too-real pain of racial injustice and provides an important window for readers who are just beginning to explore the ideas of privilege and implicit bias.”— School Library Journal, starred review

 

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A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée

Gr 4–8—Twelve-year-old Shayla is just starting middle school. She and her friends, Isabella and Julia, aka “The United Nations” because of their diverse backgrounds, want to stick together just like they did in elementary school. They soon discover that middle school is different and conflicts with friends and crushes ensue. In the midst of the typical middle school angst, a not guilty VERDICT in a legal case concerning a police officer shooting an African American man is announced and Shayla begins to relate to the Black Lives Matter movement in a way she never has before. Shayla, always trouble-averse, ends up challenging her school’s administration when black armbands are banned. She grows through the experience and becomes more comfortable in her own skin. The author does a beautiful job illustrating the pain a family goes through in the wake of such a ruling. Reminiscent in writing style to works by Lauren Myracle and Jason Reynolds, this novel starts by showing Shayla having typical middle school problems, then switches to the very specific problems she faces as a young black girl in America. There is also a powerful subplot concerning Shayla’s changing perception of her lab partner, Bernard, an African American boy, who she sees as a bully at the beginning of the novel and slowly comes to see as having been boxed into that role by systemic bias. VERDICT Give this to middle grade readers who aren’t yet ready for Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. Highly recommended.—Kristin Lee Anderson, Jackson County Library Services, OR School Library Journal

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Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson 

Gr 4–6—In sixth grade, Haley is part of a special class of six kids that include Holly, Esteban, Amari, Tiago, and Ashton. On the first Friday of the school year, Ms. Laverne tells them to grab their books and follow her. She leads them to what used to be the art room and gives them some simple directions. They are supposed to sit in a circle and talk. The students are confused at first. What are they supposed to talk about? Ms. Laverne assures them they can talk about whatever they want to and need to. The next Friday, Haley comes in with a recorder, telling her friends it’s so that they won’t forget each other. Through the “recordings,” readers get to know each of the six classmates through their own words. Each character reveals the difficult things they’re balancing in their lives, whether it’s an incarcerated parent, a dead parent, a family split apart by immigration policies, a father who lost his job, or their daily struggles with racism and microaggressions. Woodson’s spare, lyrical, and evocative prose carries the story seamlessly, weaving in themes of justice and family, friendship and courage. VERDICT This is a timely and beautifully written story that should be on library shelves everywhere.—Stacy Dillon, LREI, New York School Library Journal

Young Adult

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All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Rashad is absent again today.

That’s the sidewalk graffiti that started it all…

Well, no, actually, a lady tripping over Rashad at the store, making him drop a bag of chips, was what started it all. Because it didn’t matter what Rashad said next—that it was an accident, that he wasn’t stealing—the cop just kept pounding him. Over and over, pummeling him into the pavement. So then Rashad, an ROTC kid with mad art skills, was absent again…and again…stuck in a hospital room. Why? Because it looked like he was stealing. And he was a black kid in baggy clothes. So he must have been stealing.

And that’s how it started.

And that’s what Quinn, a white kid, saw. He saw his best friend’s older brother beating the daylights out of a classmate. At first Quinn doesn’t tell a soul…He’s not even sure he understands it. And does it matter? The whole thing was caught on camera, anyway. But when the school—and nation—start to divide on what happens, blame spreads like wildfire fed by ugly words like “racism” and “police brutality.” Quinn realizes he’s got to understand it, because, bystander or not, he’s a part of history. He just has to figure out what side of history that will be.

Rashad and Quinn—one black, one white, both American—face the unspeakable truth that racism and prejudice didn’t die after the civil rights movement. There’s a future at stake, a future where no one else will have to be absent because of police brutality. They just have to risk everything to change the world.

Cuz that’s how it can end.

“Timely and powerful, this novel promises to have an impactlong after the pages stop turning. ” – School Library Journal, starred review

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Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

Six years ago, Moss Jefferies’ father was murdered by an Oakland police officer. Along with losing a parent, the media’s vilification of his father and lack of accountability has left Moss with near crippling panic attacks.

Now, in his sophomore year of high school, Moss and his fellow classmates find themselves increasingly treated like criminals by their own school. New rules. Random locker searches. Constant intimidation and Oakland Police Department stationed in their halls. Despite their youth, the students decide to organize and push back against the administration.

When tensions hit a fever pitch and tragedy strikes, Moss must face a difficult choice: give in to fear and hate or realize that anger can actually be a gift.

“A strong addition to the current wave of excellent social justice–themed contemporary realistic titles. Give this to fans of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give.”—School Library Journal (starred review)

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The Day Tajon Got Shot by The Teen Writers of Beacon House

Gr 8 Up—Tajon Williams, a black teen, sells weed as a means of getting his mother and sister away from his abusive and alcoholic father He is threatened at gunpoint by the neighborhood drug dealer into handing over his weed supply without receiving money from him. Their transaction is interrupted by a white police officer, and Tajon is shot twice while running from the officer. The shooting is witnessed by Razia, a longtime school friend of Tajon. She knows Tajon did not have a gun, contrary to the police officer’s claims. Her sister, Angel, is best friends with Ashley, a white female member of the basketball team who figures out the police officer is none other than her own father, Pete. Her brother, Zach, lashes out at Pete for shooting his friend. When the school finds out Pete is their father, it is Ashley who unwittingly earns the wrath from Angel and the basketball team. The 10 teen writers of Beacon House have brilliantly crafted a YA book in which they take on the perspectives of 10 central characters. Each is given multiple layers. However, Pete’s nameless wife and Ashley and Zach’s mother are not as nuanced. Readers will appreciate the usage of multimedia, such as newspaper headlines, social media, and protest signs and posters. The book gives off an element of anticipation, which will cause readers to wonder the outcome of the comotose Tajon’s condition. Readers will also be alarmed at the list of unarmed people of color killed by police in the United States, from March 2015 to the writing of this book. VERDICT This smart and courageous YA novel will open up a dialogue started by young voices who deserve to be heard. A strong purchase.—Donald Peebles, Brooklyn Public Library School Library Journal

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Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Gr 9 Up—Justyce is an African American teen caught between two worlds. He knows that the education he’s receiving at a private school will grant him more economic opportunities, however he begins to question the effects his private school education on his own identity. Some of his classmates believe that the racial pendulum has swung too far, giving African Americans an unfair advantage over their white counterparts. The kids he grew up with believe Justyce has assimilated too much and has forgotten where he came from. He questions his blackness, his relationship with his biracial girlfriend, and his attraction to his white debate partner Sarah Jane. Through a series of journal entries, Justyce attempts to figure out his place in the world by exploring the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. A violent altercation between a retired white police officer and his best friend causes Justyce to examine what it means to be an African American male in 2017. The length and pace of this well-written story make it a perfect read for reluctant and sophisticated readers alike. The main characters are well balanced and will resonate with teens. However, the voice of African American women is largely absent from the narrative. The characterization of Justyce’s mother and his girlfriend are one-dimensional compared to some of the other protagonists. Still, this important work should be read alongside Jason Reynolds’s and Brendan Kiely’s All-American Boys and Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down. VERDICT An good choice for school and public libraries.—Desiree Thomas, Worthington Library, OH School Library Journal

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Gr 8 Up—After Starr and her childhood friend Khalil, both black, leave a party together, they are pulled over by a white police officer, who kills Khalil. The sole witness to the homicide, Starr must testify before a grand jury that will decide whether to indict the cop, and she’s terrified, especially as emotions run high. By turns frightened, discouraged, enraged, and impassioned, Starr is authentically adolescent in her reactions. Inhabiting two vastly different spheres—her poor, predominantly black neighborhood, Garden Heights, where gangs are a fact of life, and her rich, mostly white private school—causes strain, and Thomas perceptively illustrates how the personal is political: Starr is disturbed by the racism of her white friend Hailey, who writes Khalil off as a drug dealer, and Starr’s father is torn between his desire to support Garden Heights and his need to move his family to a safer environment. The first-person, present-tense narrative is immediate and intense, and the pacing is strong, with Thomas balancing dramatic scenes of violence and protest with moments of reflection. The characterization is slightly uneven; at times, Starr’s friends at school feel thinly fleshed out. However, Starr, her family, and the individuals in their neighborhood are achingly real and lovingly crafted. VERDICT Pair this powerful debut with Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys to start a conversation on racism, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement.—Mahnaz Dar, School Library Journal School Library Journal

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How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

Gr 9 Up—When 16-year-old Tariq, a black teen, is shot and killed by a white man, every witness has a slightly different perception of the chain of events leading up to the murder. Family, friends, gang members, neighbors, and a well-meaning but self-serving minster make up the broad cast of characters. The police bring their own personal biases to their investigation of the case. When all points of view are combined, the story of a young man emerges and with it, a narrative that plays out in communities across the country every day. Heartbreaking and unputdownable, this is an important book about perception and race. How It Went Down reads very much like Julius Lester’s Day of Tears (Hyperion, 2005) in a modern setting and for an older audience. With a great hook and relatable characters, this will be popular for fans of realistic fiction. The unique storytelling style and thematic relevance will make it a potentially intriguing pick for classroom discussion.—Kristin Anderson, Columbus Metropolitan Library System, OHSchool Library Journal

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I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina

Gr 9 Up—Alfonso Jones loves to play trumpet and is thinking of trying out for his class’s hip hop—themed Hamlet. On a shopping trip with his crush Danetta, the African American teen, who is looking for his first suit to wear in celebration of his father’s release from jail, is shot by a white off-duty cop who incorrectly assumes the suit hanger is a gun. The rest of the graphic novel jumps among Alfonso’s past, the aftermath of the shooting, and his experience on a possibly never-ending train ride with other victims of police violence, including Amadou Diallo as his guide. Medina’s juggling of the three threads isn’t always graceful, but the variation of Robinson and Jennings’s panels and design pushes the narrative forward. A teacher’s dialogue with Alfonso’s classmates is illuminating and realistic. The outrage and grief are palpable, and the black-and-white illustrations enforce the gut-punching pull of each character’s journey. And as Alfonso meets the historical figures who preceded him, readers will understand the systemic racism that underlies these violent cases. VERDICT A brutally honest and bleak but necessary selection for all graphic novel collections.—Shelley M. Diaz, School Library Journal School Library Journal

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I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal

An NAACP Image Award Nominee, I’m Not Dying with You Tonight follows two teen girls—one black, one white—who have to confront their own assumptions about racial inequality as they rely on each other to get through the violent race riot that has set their city on fire with civil unrest.

Lena has her killer style, her awesome boyfriend, and a plan. She knows she’s going to make it big. Campbell, on the other hand, is just trying to keep her head down and get through the year at her new school.

When both girls attend the Friday-night football game, what neither expects is for everything to descend into sudden mass chaos. Chaos born from violence and hate. Chaos that unexpectedly throws them together.

They aren’t friends. They hardly understand the other’s point of view. But none of that matters when the city is up in flames, and they only have each other to rely on if they’re going to survive the night.

“Segal and Jones have proven themselves a dynamic duo in crafting this fast-paced, honest, and page-turning YA novel…Librarians will want to purchase this relevant and discussion-­worthy YA novel.” – School Library Journal

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Light It Up on Kekla Magoon

Gr 9 Up—A community that had already experienced tragedy at the hands of law enforcement is once again dealing with the effects of police violence after the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old African American girl. A witness is left struggling to rein in his anger and support his family. The local community organizer sees the tragedy as an impetus for social change and possible promotion. The local gang lord uses the girl’s death as a way to solidify his authority within his gang and within the community. Her young friends are left wondering if they will be next. The policeman’s daughter has to deal with the tarnished image of her father. The alt-right see her death as an opportunity to insert their fringe ideology into a mainstream conversation. Many will try to co-opt her voice in an attempt to make sense of their own roles in this tragic event. Ultimately, it is her community that bears the brunt of the collateral damage inflicted by this event. This book provides a nuanced view of the ways the death of a young black girl affects a community. Different voices are fully expressed and the complex and flawed nature of each character is fully explored. VERDICT Reminiscent of Magoon’s previous title How It Went Down and Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between the World and Me, this is an important title for public and school libraries interested in thought-provoking portrayals of black life.—Desiree Thomas, Worthington Library, OH –School Library Journal

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Monster by Walter Dean Myers

“In a riveting novel from Myers (At Her Majesty’s Request, 1999, etc.), a teenager who dreams of being a filmmaker writes the story of his trial for felony murder in the form of a movie script, with journal entries after each day’s action.

Steve is accused of being an accomplice in the robbery and murder of a drug store owner. As he goes through his trial, returning each night to a prison where most nights he can hear other inmates being beaten and raped, he reviews the events leading to this point in his life. Although Steve is eventually acquitted, Myers leaves it up to readers to decide for themselves on his protagonist’s guilt or innocence.

The format of this taut and moving drama forcefully regulates the pacing; breathless, edge-of-the-seat courtroom scenes written entirely in dialogue alternate with thoughtful, introspective journal entries that offer a sense of Steve’s terror and confusion, and that deftly demonstrate Myers’s point: the road from innocence to trouble is comprised of small, almost invisible steps, each involving an experience in which a “positive moral decision” was not made.” (Fiction. 12-14) -Kirkus Reviews

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Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles

Gr 9 Up—Narrated by 17-year-old Marvin Johnson, this novel gives readers a glimpse into the life and the tragic death of his identical twin Tyler. Their family is headed by a single mother separated from her husband due to incarceration. It’s senior year and for the first time, the twins are growing apart. Tyler now prefers his friends over all else, forsaking academics and his curfew. Marvin, on the other hand, is questioning the change and feeling an imbalance in the relationship. Gang violence erupts in a party both twins attend and Tyler ends up dead from an unprovoked altercation with a police officer. Marvin, who was being scouted by MIT for a college scholarship, begins a downward spiral that could only end with the clearing of his deceased brother’s name as a wrongdoer. Social media, as in real life, plays a vital part in the advocacy for victims’ rights at the hands of police, as well as for the efforts needed to organize public protests and vigils in memory of Tyler. Tensions arise in the community between proponents of the Black Lives Matter movement and those who push for “All Lives Matter” in response. This well-written, fast-paced story eloquently addresses how to grieve, plan, and participate in the burial of a loved one, a sensitive subject for all youth. It also succeeds in not avoiding tough subjects, such as systemic racism. VERDICT For fans of All-American Boys and The Hate U Give, this emotion-filled title is a standout debut.—Sabrina Carnesi, Crittenden Middle School, Newport News, VA School Library Journal

Not Yet Released

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Dear Justyce by Nic Stone

Release date: September 29, 2020

*This title has not yet been professionally reviewed, but based on praise for Stone’s Dear Martin it is sure to be another recommended title.

The stunning sequel to the #1 New York Times bestseller Dear Martin. Incarcerated teen Quan writes letters to Justyce about his experiences in the American juvenile justice system. Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas.

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This is My America by Kim Johnson

Release Date: July 28, 2020

Gr 9 Up—Desperate to raise awareness for her father’s wrongful conviction case, Tracy Beaumont, 17, hijacks her track-star brother Jamal’s TV interview. With less than a year until their father is executed for a crime he didn’t commit, Tracy hopes the interview will gain the attention of Innocence X, an organization that helps overturn convictions. But the move puts her at odds with Jamal and their school newspaper’s editor, Angela. Before Tracy can make things right, Angela is murdered and Jamal is the number one suspect. Now this likable, dogged narrator has two battle fronts and is passionately seeking justice. The story hits the ground running with the TV interview but loses momentum as it moves into introducing the rest of the characters and setting. The awkward pacing is most notable at the beginning, but persists with several stops and starts throughout the story. Despite the pacing issues, there is excitement aplenty, with skeletons in closets, a love triangle, dynamic secondary characters, and a seamless blend of realistic fiction and murder mystery. VERDICT The emotional descriptions are a bit perfunctory and consequently some of the events don’t land with the expected emotional weight, but overall this is a strong debut. Will appeal to readers of Angie Thomas and fans of criminal justice podcasts like Serial and In the Dark.—Aaren Tucker, University of Illinois School Library Journal

 

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