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The Seven Princples of Kwanzaa in Teen Fiction

Kinara and Seven Kwanzaa Candles.

Kwanzaa is a holiday that lasts from December 26th through January 1st. The celebration originated in the 1960s and honors the impact of an African heritage on Americans.  While Kwanzaa is enjoyed by mainly people of African descent, the values shared at this celebration can be appreciated by everyone.  Originally defined in the Swahili language, Kwanzaa illustrated seven principles intended to guide and strengthen our community. (Kwanzaa)

  1. Umoja – Unity
  2. Kujichagulia – Self-Determination
  3. Ujima – Collective Work and Responsibility
  4. Ujamaa -Cooperative Economics
  5. Nia – Purpose
  6. Kuumba – Creativity
  7. Imani – Faith

Each principle is represented by a black, red or green candle; the colors of the Pan-African flag.  One candle is lit every night in a special order and each candle represents one of the seven principles.  To incorporate these ideals into your Kwanzaa celebration, here is a list of YA books that embody the seven principles.

  • Day one – Light the black candle for unity.

A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk

Burdened with a curse Shida’s name means trouble and she often feels her mother’s resentment for their bad luck.  Forced toa_girl_called_problem move back to Litongo after the death of her father, Shida is eager to move again to join the village of Nija Panda.  At the new village many challenges are presented and blamed on bad spirits and witches.  Shida and her friend Grace use a non-confrontational manner to uncover the troublemakers in their village. The story reveals a lot of strong messages about family, reality versus perception and problem solving.

  • Day two – Light the red candle next to the black candle for self-determination.

Nobody by Jennifer Lynn Barnes (Best Fiction For Young Adults Top Ten 2013)

Claire only wants to make people happy.  It sounds like a simple wish; an easy wish to fulfill. But what if you can’t love or be loved?  What if no one notices you long enough to let you into their lives? Claire is suddenly seen completely for who she is one random day at the swimming pool.  Not only is she seen but she sees the stranger, Nix, who is aware of her. Claire is in danger.   If Nix has been assigned Claire, she must be a Null and she must die.

  • Day Three – Light the green candle next to the black candle for collective work and responsibility.

Hooked by Liz Fichera  (BFYA Nominations)

So many descriptions call this a love story, but its also a sports novel.  Hooked uses Fredericka Oday, Native American, golf pro and hookedpart time waitress to highlight massive prejudice in her hometown. Will Fredericka, aka Fred and team mate Ryan risk their relationship and their winning season for the respect of peers like Seth?   The characters struggle to let go to deep hate, tormenting Fred and bullying Ryan in equal measure. This debut novel from Fichera highlights true sportsmanship on and off the green.

  • Day Four – Light the middle red candle for cooperative economics.

Ghetto Cowboy – G. Neri (2012 Odyssey Honor)

Cole has been sent to Philadelphia to live with his father, Harper.  The neighborhood has a stable of horses that they train on a meager budget.  Betting on the horses they race in the park provides a little more money.  When the police show up to take the horses based on charges that seem trumped up, Cole and Smush  tackle the conspiracy by plotting a rescue. Camaraderie among people who have only time and love to give but little in terms of material wealth provides a strong image of true community.

  • Day Five – light the middle green candle for purpose.

Every Day by David Levithan (Best Fiction For Young Adults Top Ten 2013)

Each morning A wakes up in a new body with a new life to learn from.  Using a series of personal rules about not changing the daily routine of the person they are visiting; A’s own pattern is abruptly altered when Rhiannon shifts that focus.  Filled with love for her, A’s only intention is to be with her; despite the consequences it has for each host they inhabit.

  • Day Six – light the end red candle for creativity.

Splintered by A.G. Howard

Descended from the original Alice who inspired Carroll’s tale of Wonderland; Alyssa must unravel her family curse before it drives both her and her mother mad.  As Alyssa tries to set things right, she begins her metamorphosis into a Netherling, a combination of moth and fairy. The entire volume is fixated on the artistic with beautiful examples of visual arts, linguistic flourishes, and musical accompaniments.

  • Day Seven – light the end green candle for faith.

If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch (BFYA Nominations)

Carey and Jenessa are off the grid.  They live in a trailer in the woods and are nearly self-reliant. Despite the poverty of their upbringing the small family trusts in their mother’s love.  When their lives must grow to include new parents and siblings a tenacious sense of strength pervades Carey.  Strangely strong without being nauseatingly optimistic, Carey’s belief in her own adaptability is admirable.

How can you incorporate the seven principles of Kwanzaa into your own life?  You can start by reading books that highlight how key values can unite instead of divide people.  Start each day of Kwanzaa by asking someone ‘Habari Gani?,‘   which is Swahli for ‘What’s the news?’  (Kwanzaa) While Kwanzaa is a not a holiday that focuses on gift giving, it can be traditional to give books.  To start your celebration, consider donating new or gently used books to your school or public library.

-Laura C. Perenic, currently reading Blood Red Road by Moira Young – 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults and a 2012 Amelia Elizabeth Walden Finalist.


Altman, Linda Jacobs. Celebrate Kwanzaa. Enslow Publishing. 2008

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Laura Perenic


  1. Diane Colson Diane Colson

    What a beautiful post! I love the way you demonstrated the deeper qualities of these books, beyond subject headings and genres.

  2. Laura C Perenic Laura C Perenic

    I am glad you enjoyed my post. I know there is a lot of confusion about the meaning of Kwanzaa. I hope this will inspire the inquisitive to learn more about other celebrations.

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