Dr. Mac's Top 10 Resources for Finding Great Multicultural Books
Early on in graduate school, I was tasked with teaching a multicultural, young adult literature undergraduate class because of my experience as a secondary literacy teacher. Despite my nearly decade-long experience teaching young adults, I was terrified to teach this class because the few multicultural titles I taught were included as supplements in textbooks or anthologies or consisted of some of the classic multicultural options traditionally taught in ELA classrooms. Like many other literacy teachers, because I was not exposed to books with diverse characters in my formal schooling, I didn’t know what existed or where to look.
Fortunately, we live in a prosperous time for those educators who wish to teach with multicultural perspectives in mind. On the one hand, in the wake of the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series, the young adult literature market has exploded in recent years. Certainly, young adult literature has always existed—books by Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Gary Paulsen have filled classroom shelves, as have titles like Where the Red Fern Grows, Holes, and The Outsiders—but Harry and Katniss awakened publishers to a cash-cow that hadn’t yet been tapped; a growing group of voracious readers was asking for more and more books.
Then, in 2014, a group of authors launched the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign to protest and draw attention to the lack of perspectives and points of view in children’s and young adult literature. Coupled with alarming statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center out of the University of Wisconsin (did you know more books are being written about bunnies and trucks than any non-white race or ethnicity???), this campaign, armed with the power of social media, put out the call for diverse books and pluralistic representations in literature. The result? A boom in multicultural, young adult titles. Now, young people have more opportunities than ever before to see how their own complex identities—across race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, language, social class, and so on—are reflected in literature (the numbers still aren’t great, but they are getting better). After all, research shows that a book’s quality matters for those readers wanting to become more multiculturally aware, to approach others and other points of views with empathy, and to take on and learn from perspectives different from their own.
I still teach a course on multicultural young adult literature every fall at the University of Notre Dame. Now though, instead of not knowing where to look, I find myself overwhelmed with an abundance of resources by good people who believe that stories matter and who believe that reading allows us to respect difference while underscoring our common humanity.
I change up my syllabus every semester and try to choose recognized books published within the past couple of years. As a result, I have found several resources that have been incredibly helpful to me in culling good books. So, on that note, I offer below my “go-to” list of resources for finding inclusive young adult literature. I hope they serve you and your students well.
Of course, just because a book shows up through any one of these resources, doesn’t necessary mean that it’s free from bias or stereotypes. Educators are encouraged to read and review any title for the quality of its representation. If you have no idea what that means or how to evaluate books in this regard, then I’d suggest taking some time to read over Social Justice Books’ excellent, thorough, and fairly basic guidelines. Their criteria have served me well over the years. For example, until reading this resource, I had never really considered the importance of choosing and teaching books set during contemporary times. Though I knew it was important to discuss with students, for example, the importance of the lasting effects of slavery-era racism, Social Justice Books’ guide helped me to see how important it is to discuss these concepts as they are connected to the present day. The website also features reviews, with justification, of books based upon this guideline.
To close, I’d like to offer a reflection from author Matt de la Peña, whose award-winner Last Stop on Market Street is one of my favorite recent picture books. My class was fortunate enough to video conference with him recently, and in talking about the surge of multicultural young adult books, he said, “I think diverse books are for all readers… it’s about seeing the world through someone else’s point of view.” If books both implicitly and explicitly shape young readers’ understanding of the world and their role in it, then our grand visions for our classrooms, neighborhoods, communities, country, or even the world, should include the time to learn from other people’s perspectives—and the books that help us to do so.
1. Barnes and Noble Teen Blog // At first, I was skeptical of this blog because I wasn’t sure what type of commitments a corporation would have in promoting certain books over others. However, this has become my first go-to resource over the years, as I’ve found the writers to be pretty “woke” and passionate about all things YAL. I love their “best of the best” posts, but my favorite is their annual “best of the year” post (see 2017 and 2018), where there are sure to be several multicultural standouts. Every now and then, they will a dedicate a post to a certain group of people, identity category, or issue (like immigrants or teens with anxiety).
2. Goodreads // This social media site for book lovers has been with me since the beginning. One of my favorite features is their Listopia function. Search for anything you want to get a whole list of relevant titles: Multicultural YA, Diversity Bingo 2017, 2018 YA/MG (middle grade) Books with POC (people of color) leads, Latina Leads, 2018 YA books with LGBT Themes, etc. The lists go on and on…and are particularly helpful in learning about what’s hot now. Aside from these lists, Goodreads hosts an annual readers’ choice awards and monthly new releases and best books.
3. The Walden Award // I came to The Assembly on Literature for Adolescent (ALAN) of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) late in my academic career, but boy, do I love it! One of my favorite parts of their good work: The Walden Award. A rotating committee of ALAN members comprised of teachers, professors, and librarians selects 5 of the top young adult novels every year, and of those 5 finalists, one is crowned with The Walden Award. They’ve been pretty spot on the past several years, and this semester, at least half of my course books were Walden finalists and winners of their respective year. It’s the Oscars for book lovers. Really.
4. We Need Diverse Books // Yes, the one that started it all has a Tumblr AND blog that is frequently updated with recs for relevant reads. Still looking? They’ve compiled their own list of websites and resources to help you find the perfect diverse book. ’Nuff said.
5. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center out of the University of Wisconsin // This Center has really expanded their work in recent years, certainly in light of their research into the publishing statistics of children’s and young adult literature. The website is full of resources, but I always look forward to their yearly CCBC Choices, which lists some of the best books of the year by theme and age level. A monumental amount of time and effort, I’m sure, goes into the compiling of these lists.
6. YA Wednesday Blog // Professor Steve Bickmore is a friend of mine, and he started this weekly (!!) blog a couple of years ago. It’s a great resource for book recommendations, for knowing about recent trends and happenings in the YA world, and for seeing what smart people around the country are doing with YA lit. While the topics aren’t always about multicultural YA, I still visit here pretty regularly.
The following are resources that I return to less often, but they regularly offer the best YA of the year:
7. Social Justice Books // Discussed above.
8. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature // Like The Walden Award, this award comes from an organization I trust. I appreciate, too, that their vision for “young people” doesn’t pigeonhole them into a particular age range.
9. NPR’s Book Concierge for Young Adult Great Reads // I love playing around with the categories on this site. It’s a cool feature to find the right book!
10. Publisher Weekly’s Best Books // Again, organized by year.