I do not claim to be the authority on black authors. Far from it, in fact. I know that my exposure to black authors is not as wide as it should be. And as much as I’d love to blame the gatekeepers of publishing for that (it is, in part, their fault) I also have to blame myself. Books by black authors are out there; I have to do a better job of being intentional in selecting more books by diverse voices.
However, I do want to linger for a moment on my comment about the gatekeepers of publishing. For the past several years this has been an ongoing conversation amongst bookish people. The people over at Book Riot talk about it often, bloggers mention it often. It’s not a secret that publishing is almost exclusively white. In a 2019 study published to The Open Book Blog 76% of the publishing industry as a whole was white. To be fair, this includes publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents. But it’s still more than an overwhelming majority. That means (and I know you are capable of understanding this without my help, but humor me) that less than a quarter of the publishing industry is comprised of people of color.
So as part of my pledge to be more intentional in picking books by diverse authors, and in celebration of Black History Month, I’m dropping a list of my favorite books by black authors. This list is in no way comprehensive, definitive, or even all that Earth-shattering. But it is a list of books that I love by authors who are incredible. If you’re struggling to find new voices, maybe this list can provide a jumping off point for you.
And maybe you can leave me some suggestions in the comments to help me grow my list, as well. This year I’m expanding my horizons as much as possible and I am open to any suggestions I get.
But here, in no particular order, are books by black authors that I highly recommend.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
I read this book on a chartered bus packed with middle school students on the way to a water park for a music festival my orchestras were performing in back when I was still a music teacher. It was such a wonderful reading experience. It was one of those experiences I wish I could recreate, but I just can’t. The perfect weather. The perfect atmosphere. The perfect day. I loved everything about it. And that helps you to love a book even more.
I have written about this book previously on The Plucky Reader so rather than reinvent the wheel or redirect you, I’ve copy and pasted what I said there to here. It was featured in my Top 10 Books set in New York City from ages ago.
This book has been raved about by podcasters and book reviewers and Oprah. And they’re all right. It’s exactly as good as they all say it is. Everything about this book is beautiful. Everything about this book is real.
Behold the Dreamers is set in 2007 just before the stock market crash. It seems crazy to me that we are far enough out from that event that there is fiction about it. I was a freshman in college; it doesn’t seem like it could possibly have been that long ago. Jende is a Cameroonian immigrant to America living in Harlem. He works hard to provide a better life for his wife, Neni, and son. As the book opens, he is hired to be a personal driver for a very wealthy and powerful executive at an invest firm. Jende is a hard worker and very proud of his work. He takes pride in supporting his family and helping Neni through school.
Just as they’re finding comfort in their lives in Harlem, the stock market crashes and their world is throw into turmoil. It’s such a wonderful story about the immigrant experience in America. Imbolo Mbue is an immigrant from Cameroon, and it’s wonderful to have a firsthand view of the American dream from an immigrant. It’s an important and timely book. And it’s lovely.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
A beautifully crafted work of prose, The Mothers is another book I’ve featured previously on The Plucky Reader. I love the way Bennett incorporates the ladies from church as a Greek chorus who propel the story forward; it adds something special to her already incredible writing. I love how she deals with heavy topics and how real her characters are. Reading this book was like watching in on an actual family, not reading a work of fiction.
It was heart-wrenching, and it was not something that I could just read straight through like I did with Behold The Dreamers or other books on this list. It wasn’t a quick read for me. It was heavy and it made my heart ache. But it was important. And it was beautiful. It dealt with heavy topics. It dealt with abortion in a real way and presented it in a way that I’ll never have to consider, never have to think about. It reminded me of one of the myriad of reasons I love books. I can see the world through someone else’s eyes through books. I can borrow someone else’s lenses for a while.
I was surprised to learn it was a debut novel; it was so masterfully written. I loved everything about this book and this experience. Also, I was real mad when I learned that she’s younger than I am. Real bitter.
The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
This is another book I’ve previously mentioned on my blog. In fact, it was also in the same post as Behold the Dreamers. So I’m cutting corners and copy-and-pasting. Why not? My opinions haven’t changed.
The Sun is Also a Star is also a story about immigration and the American Dream. Using two narrators in alternating chapters, The Sun is Also a Star tells the story of Natasha and Daniel. Natasha is a science-minded, no nonsense kind of girl whose family is on the brink of deportation. When the book opens, she is working to make sure that she doesn’t get deported along with her family.
Daniel, on the other hand, is the son (or maybe grandson) or immigrants. Their family owns a business and he is expected to live up to his parents’ high expectations. He’s a dreamer with an insatiable love of poetry. He’s essentially me, if I were a hot book character and not a 30-year-old nerd.
Their paths cross and for one day, Natasha and Daniel fall have the most beautiful day together. But it’s only for one day.
I love compressed timeline. I love books that take place in the span of a few hours or a few days. (Don’t look to my writing for that. I need an entire school year and 180,000 words to tell a story.) I was charmed immediately by the characters and their stories. And I was charmed by the way Yoon spun together not just Natasha and Daniel’s lives, but so many other characters. It’s a subtle reminder that our actions pull strings we’ll never see. We effect people in ways we’ll never know.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I don’t think any list of books by contemporary black authors is complete without The Hate U Give. It was the first big BLM book. When it hit the scene, it spread like wildfire. Every bookstagrammer, podcaster, blogger, everybody was talking about it. And for good reason. It’s incredible! I mean. It’s a rough read. It’s an uncomfortable read. It does exactly what a book is supposed to do.
This was a book I couldn’t stop recommending to my students, to my coworkers, to strangers on the street. In an episode of What Should I Read Next? that I listened to recently, Anne Bogel’s guest said that she is a “book pusher;” she pushes books into the hands and lives of others and forces them to read those books. That’s what I did with The Hate U Give. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was poignant. I cried. A lot. I want to write Angie Thomas a letter thanking her for this book, but words can’t express my gratitude in was that doesn’t make me sound like a creep, so I just won’t. So… Angie, if you’re out there reading my blog (which, let’s fact it, I know you do every time I post. I know you wait with bated breath to for the things that I have to say, no matter how sporadically they come) I want to thank you for this book. For a book I can talk about with all my students. For a book that I can recommend to others who are looking for place to start. For a book that made me stop and realize that I know so very little about the struggles that are not part of my life, but are part of the everyday lives of others.
As Brave as You by Jason Reynolds
This book is for younger readers than the others on this list, but it’s wonderful nonetheless. It’s a Kirkus winner, it’s a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book. The story of two young boys proving they’re the very definition of brave find they have no idea what bravery is. They spend the summer in the country (which might as well be Hell on earth as far as they’re concerned) to spend time with their Grandfather. They’re shocked to find out he’s blind and they wonder just how brave he must be to face life every day. It’s a true coming of age tale that has readers questioning their understanding of bravery along with the characters.
It is worth every award and accolade it received and so much more. It has quickly become one of my favorite books to recommend to students.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
There was a while during which everywhere you turned in the bookish world, this book appeared. And with good reason. Jesmyn Ward is a 2-time National Book Award winner, and deserves all of the acclaim she ever receives. This book was beautifully written. It was fast paced. It was poetic and lovely and raw and heavy. It was everything I wanted in a book and so, so much more. With all the supernatural elements, the overarching family saga, the underlying, ever present commentary on race relations in America, this book is incredible and heart-wrenching. This could have only been born out of the mind of a literary genius, and I am so grateful that it was shared with the world.
And knowing that she is a professor at Tulane–which is only a few hours from me–really makes me want to enroll in some classes just to study with her. I want to absorb every bit of knowledge she’s willing to share with me. I want to sit in Ward’s genius. I want to have the opportunity to be blessed by her words and her scrutiny as a professor. I’m just that kind of nerd.
My list honestly could go on for hours, but I hope this is a good starting point for someone who is looking to expand their literary horizons. I would love to know what you’re reading today, who you’d recommend to me. I’d especially love some less mainstream recommendations. Send some my way, either in the comments here or send me an email at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you!
What books are you reading? How are you celebrating Black History Month?
The Plucky Reader