Mixed, But Not Mixed Up: Biracial Characters in YA Lit
I’m not that far past being a teen myself, but as someone who is biracial, I think today’s YA audience is a bit luckier than I am when it comes to finding someone who shares their background in a novel. Since teens of today have been allowed to identify legally as “more than one race,” it makes perfect sense that more YA novels have featured biracial characters.
The best part? Sometimes they don’t even have to be problem novels about racism. Progress, folks!
I presented research on this topic at YALSA’s YA Lit Symposium, and I still have plenty more titles on my reading list. I also discovered an academic text on being mixed race in YA (sadly, due to a half.com snafu, I have yet to read it): Mixed Heritage in Young Adult Literature by Nancy Thalia Reynolds (Scarecrow Press, 2009).
Here, though, are a few titles I’ve read thus far that your mixed and unmixed teens alike should find compelling and fun.
- Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa (Delacorte Press, 2003) is about Violet Paz, a half-Cuban, half-Polish American girl whose family is insisting she have a quinceaÃ±ero, or a traditional coming-out for girls when they turn 15. That would be fine, except that Violet’s father refuses to delve into his youth in Cuba, and Violet feels that it would be insincere to have a Cuban party when she knows next to nothing about Cuba. So she takes it upon herself to do a little research, at the risk of keeping secrets from her family. Osa’s approach to the topic is light, and you don’t have to be mixed to enjoy the book.
- Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la PeÃ±a (Delacorte Press, 2008) has a plot that depends much more heavily on parsing one’s mixed identity, but it’s also just about family, summer vacation, girls, and baseball. Danny happens to be really good at baseball, and he happens to like a girl who is just the same — and just the opposite — as him: she’s half-white and half-Mexican, and she grew up knowing her Mexican family and living in Mexico, while Danny’s estranged Mexican father is one of the reasons he’s spending the summer away from his white mother and her boyfriend. I love how real the setting and the dialogue feel in this book.
- The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson (Flux, 2011) is one of my favorites, simply because it’s about a student revolution — so of course it takes place in the capital of student activism, the Bay Area. Asha and her friend Carey are both mixed, and their eponymous slogan is meant just to be an inside joke but ends up a rallying cry for the tons of mixed race teens and college students they end up meeting, all of whom are tired of being told to “just pick one.” Instead of being an insular story about one girl and her friend, this book is about finding a community and finding oneself because of that.
- The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow (Algonquin, 2010) is actually published for adults, but I think it would be popular with high school students as well. Like the author herself, Rachel is half-Danish and half-black, and after a family tragedy, she is sent to live with her African-American grandmother in Portland. Because she grew up feeling Danish, Rachel finds it especially difficult to fit in with the mostly black community she now lives in, and she can’t figure out whether to call herself black, biracial, or Danish — or what any of those terms mean.
These are just four of countless titles that I’m beginning to find. While lots of historical fiction for teens and kids has dealt with being half-black and half-white, especially in the context of slavery, it’s only the more recent titles I find that acknowledge that there are individuals mixed in all sorts of ways, like Taiwanese and white (Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen, Little, Brown, 2006), Finnish and black (Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, Simon Pulse, 2010), or Jewish-Japanese and Cuban (I Wanna Be Your Shoebox by Cristina Garcia, Simon & Schuster, 2008). It’s about time that all of these teens starting having a voice that says both that they’re more than one color and also that color is just the beginning of an identity.
— Sarah Hannah GÃ³mez, currently reading The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson