I am late in posting this entry; our Africa week in the Teen Room actually happened last week, but I was too busy with end-of-month activities to write this. We enjoyed our summer reading activities, however: the teens made interesting African masks, participated in an African geography game and "weird foods" trivia find, played several rounds of mancala, and tasted harissa, mangoes, peanuts and black-eyed peas. Choosing the activities -- particularly the foods -- really challenged us, as Africa is such a vast and diverse continent!
Likewise, choosing books from the Young Adult collection to feature presented another challenge. We discovered that not much contemporary Young Adult fiction is actually set in Africa, but that there is much that deals with African-American issues. So, this is the direction we took; we looked at award-winning African American authors, whose work primarily looks at the problems and perspectives of Negro teens living in America. For this blog, I am only focusing on two: Walter Dean Myers and Sharon Draper.
No discussion of important African-American authors writing for teens would be complete without mention of Walter Dean Myers. Award-winning author Myers writes about African American life - particularly adolescence - in multiple, varied voices. Some of his best work includes the following novels:
The Beast: This short, dramatic novel recounts the experiences of high school senior Anthony "Spoon" Witherspoon, who comes home from prep school to discover that his girlfriend, Gabi, has changed in ways so extreme he no longer recognizes her. He discovers that Gabi has fallen into drug addiction, and what follows is the story of his attempt to understand, to find hope, and to help the girl he loves. Through it all, Spoon discovers a disturbing truth: drugs touch everybody, and sometimes the people you think will never fall, actually do.
Kick: In Myers' most recent novel, he ventures into new territory, even for a veteran writer like him: he co-authors this novel with a teenage boy he met through a fan e-mail. Together with Ross Workman, Myers writes a novel about a soccer player who runs into trouble helping a friend. Veteran police sergeant Jerry Brown is asked to look into the case of a 13-year-old boy who crashed a car belonging to his friend's father. Brown takes a special interest in the case when he is informed that the boy, Kevin Johnson, is the son of an officer who was killed in the line of duty. As Brown delves more deeply, he begins to suspect that the friend's family has something to hide. He also develops a bond with Kevin, who, although angry and troubled, is basically kindhearted and well-intentioned.
Fallen Angels and Sunrise over Fallujah: These books can be read separately, but enrich each other when read together. Fallen Angels is the story of seventeen-year-old Richie Perry. Just out of his Harlem high school, Perry enlists in the Army in the summer of 1967 and spends a devastating year on active duty in Vietnam. Myers portrayal of Perry, as well as his comrades in this poignant novel, earned him a Coretta Scott King award for African American literature in 1989. The second novel, Sunrise over Fallujah, goes back to the Perry family: this time, Richie's nephew, Robin, leaves Harlem and joins the army to stand up for his country after 9/11. While stationed in Iraq with a war looming that he hopes will be averted, he begins writing letters home to his parents and to his Uncle Richie). Robin finds himself in a diverse Civil Affairs unit of both men and women, with a mission to serve as a buffer between winning over the Iraqi people and concurrent military operations. As the war unfolds, the military angle of Robin's job escalates, and he experiences increasing horrors of violence, death, destruction, insecurity, sorrow, and extreme fear. Ultimately, he comprehends the reasons Uncle Richie never wanted to talk to their family about what happened in Vietnam.
Another perennial contributor to the body of Young Adult African American literature is Sharon Draper. Her works explore both the male and female points of view; a good counter-balance, as Myers' main characters tend to be male. Consider these works by Draper:
Double Dutch: This novel follows a brief time in the lives of middle school students who are training for a major double dutch competition. With this backdrop, the complex personal lives of several major characters are explored, such as Delia, who can't read; Randy, who's father is missing; Yolanda, who embellishes and outright lies to impress others; and the Tolliver twins, the enigmatic tough guys. Their lives intermingle and overlap daily in and out of school as they each try to discover themselves and reconcile their multitude of problems.
The Battle for Jericho and November Blues: Sixteen-year-old Jericho is psyched when he and his cousin and best friend, Josh, are invited to pledge for the Warriors of Distinction, the oldest and most exclusive club in school. Just being a pledge wins him the attention of Arielle, one of the hottest girls in his class, whom he's been too shy even to talk to before now. But as the secret initiation rites grow increasingly humiliating and force Jericho to make painful choices, he starts to question whether membership in the Warriors of Distinction is worth it. The hazing ritual finally becomes devastating beyond Jericho's imagination. In a follow-up novel, Draper picks up the story with November, the girlfriend of Jericho's cousin Josh. November and Josh have sex the night before he dies in a freak accident -- the result of the hazing rituals -- and now November must face an unplanned pregnancy and the destruction of her dreams of a college scholarship.
Copper Sun: One of few YA novels actually set in Africa, this story follows the journey of 15-year-old Amari from her African village to the Americas. Amari's life was once perfect. Engaged to the handsomest man in her tribe, adored by her family, and living in a beautiful village, she could not have imagined everything could be taken away from her in an instant. But when slave traders invade her village and brutally murder her entire family, Amari finds herself dragged away to a slave ship headed to the Carolinas. Readers of this novel may also appreciate Sold by Patricia McCormick.
As mentioned, there are many other good authors who do an excellent job of portraying both historic and modern problems and perspectives of African American teens. A visit to the library will introduce you to the works of both Myers and Draper, as well as several others.