Celebrate YA Books That Feature Haitian Culture
May’s Haitian Heritage Month is a celebration in the United States of Haitian heritage and culture. It was first celebrated in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1998. The Haitian Heritage Month celebration is an expansion of the Haitian Flag Day, a major patriotic day celebration in Haiti and the Diaspora.
Until I started compiling this list, I hadn’t realized I’d read so many YA books with Haitian characters, some written by authors with Haitian ancestry and some not. The most well-known Haitian-American author is probably American Book Award-winning author Edwidge Dandicat. All the books she’s written are for adults, although the collection of stories in her book Krik? Krat! earned her a National Book Award nomination and does have appeal for older teens. The collection includes the Pushcart Prize-winner “Between the Pool and the Gardenias.” Danticat examines the brutality of her native Haiti in the stories in this book, particularly as it affects ordinary Haitian women, in tales that soar with raw emotion.
Other noteworthy YA books about Haiti include:
In Darkness by Nick Lake (2013 Michael L. Printz Award)
As 15-year-old Shorty lies trapped in the rubble of a hospital following the 2010 Haitian earthquake, he isn’t sure at times whether he’s alive, a ghost, or a “zombi.” As he awaits rescue, he relives his gangster life in a dangerous Port-au-Prince slum, where he searches for his twin sister, Marguerite, after they’ve been separated by gang violence. In his stressed state, Shorty communes with the spirit of Toussaint l’Ouverture, leader of the slave uprising that ultimately transformed Haiti into the world’s first black republic. Lake’s book is challenging, and the images and graphically violent descriptions of slavery and its present slum brutality are hard to read, yet they are powerful and moving. In the author’s note, Lake says that little in the book is made up and even the supernatural elements feel real. Readers will agree, and, like me, may be inspired to want to learn more about Haiti’s history after reading this book.
Taste of Salt: A Story of Modern Haiti by Frances Temple (1992)
This is probably the first YA book I read about Haiti. Based on real incidents and people, it is the fascinating story of fictional Djo, one of Aristide’s boys, street urchins whom the priest gathered together to give an opportunity for a different life and a chance at an education. Jeremie is a young woman educated at a convent school, the only way out of the slums into which she was born. They meet at Djo’s hospital bedside where he is near death from a beating at the hands of the Tonton Ma coute, the deposed Duvalier’s private army of thugs; she is responsible for getting Djo’s story on tape. While he is in a coma, she writes her own story. Both of their accounts are full of the grim realities of life in modern Haiti, complete with the sense of hopefulness and helplessness in a country where politics plays such a major role.
Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin (2007 National Book Award Finalist and 2008 Best Book for Young Adults)
Thirteen-year-old Karina is a member of a large immigrant family from Haiti living in New York state in 1986. She and her siblings are subjected to almost daily “beat-ups” by their violent stepfather but are afraid to call the police on him. After someone anonymously calls the authorities, he’s arrested for child abuse and their home life improves. The severity of her older sister’s injuries and the urging of her younger sister, their uncle, and a friend tempt her to testify against him. But her mother and other well-meaning adults persuade her to claim that she, Karina, beat up her sister, not their stepfather. Karina realizes that to protect herself and those she loves she will have stop him once and for all. In addition to the violence of their home-life, this gritty and hard-to-put-down story is full of fascinating details about Haitian culture with a hopeful ending.
Safekeeping by Karen Hesse (2012)
This moving novel of a future America is scary because it’s not dystopian in the sense that a plague or a natural disaster causes life in the U.S. to change, yet change it does. While American teenager Radley, 16, is away volunteering in an orphanage in Haiti, the American People’s Party takes over and the new president is assassinated. Chaos ensues: the police and military patrol regularly and there’s widespread looting and vigilante groups everywhere. Alarmed by the news, Radley flies home, but her parents aren’t at the airport to meet her. Alone with a dead cell phone, no cash, worthless credit cards, and no proper travel papers to cross state lines, she’s forced to walk from the airport in New Hampshire to Vermont. This is just the start of what will turn out to be a year of extraordinary hardship and heartbreak mixed with extraordinary hope and courage.
Fresh Girl by Jaira Placide (2002 Golden Kite Award)
Mardi was born in New York, but her parents sent her to Haiti to be raised in her grandmother’s house while they worked. When a coup d’état means 12-year-old Mardi and her sister must flee, they suddenly arrive in Brooklyn to live with parents they hardly know. Now it’s two years later. Mardi has adapted to her new life while savoring sweet memories of her home in Haiti. But she is also haunted by her secret: a soldier raped her when she fled. This ambitious first novel is an insightful story of how family love and support can heal and help us move from world to world.
Shaken by Eric Walters (2011)
It’s 2010 and Joshua, 15, his minister father, and his sister have traveled from Toronto to Port-au-Prince Haiti in order to help build an orphanage. In confronting the poverty and injustice that surrounds him, Joshua struggles to find meaning in the cruelty of the world. Then the earthquake hits. It causes him to discover his inner strength, and he finds he has the courage and passion to help others.\
Stormwitch by Susan Vaught (2006 Best Fiction for Young Adults)
It’s 1969 and Ruba has just moved to Mississippi from Haiti to live with her grandmother. Life in Mississippi is very different from her old life, where she spent days beach-combing with her maternal grandmother and learning the lore of magic and history. Ruba realizes magic isn’t welcome in her new grandmother’s house. She struggles to understand her strange surroundings and the hate that some of the white people in town seem to have toward her. It isn’t long before Ruba finds herself threatened by the KKK and drawn into the fight for civil rights. Then Hurricane Camille comes barreling toward the coast and changes everything, bringing Ruba and her family a measure of justice and a new acceptance.
The Broken Bridge by Philip Pullman (1992)
Ginny’s peaceful life in a Welsh village with father Tony is disrupted when it’s revealed that she has an older half brother, Robert, also 16. She’s been told that her mother was a Haitian artist who died soon after her birth. Now she learns that Robert’s recently deceased mother — not hers — was Tony’s wife, a discovery that casts doubt on what little she knows about her origins. Already struggling for self-identity as a teenager, a gifted artist, and almost the only dark-skinned person she knows, the news that her mother may still be alive makes Ginny resolve to search for the answers to her past. This novel, with its richly varied cast, is not as well-known as Philip Pullman’s other books, but it’s a very engrossing read.
These aren’t always easy books to read, but they are great examples of teen books that deal honestly with the struggle that Haitian people have experienced and continue to experience.
– Sharon Rawlins, currently reading Such Wicked Intent: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, Book II by Kenneth Oppel