I know there are really no boy books or girl books, just people books. But nevertheless, when working on our presentation on diverse books for Spring Institute, my friend Nakenya and I realized that our teen historical reading had only starred girls. This was not the representative spread we were hoping for.
When I started looking, I found that there is a big reason I haven’t read a lot. There isn’t a lot of teen historical fiction featuring boys of color, especially not with #OwnVoices authors. Most of what’s out there is either about slaves or child soldiers, both of which are very difficult for me personally to read about. Although I set out to find some less depressing books, I should remember that teens (my past self included) are much tougher about reading difficult topics than my current, mother of a teen self.
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick. Balzer + Bray, 2012.
This one I picked more because it was one that my son’s class had been reading as part of a Cambodia unit rather than because it was easy. (He said it was the middle toughness of three options they were given.) American writer McCormick interviewed a real-life survivor of the Khmer Rouge and turned those into this book, fictionalized so that she could smooth over the gaps in his memory from these interviews taking place decades after the traumatic events in question. My son’s teacher says that this is mostly what we have access to here, as there aren’t really many survivors of this period who are fluent enough in English to tell their own stories directly. McCormick writes it with his not-native American grammar, which was grating to read at first, though she says she tried writing it in standard English and felt that it lost his voice.
Once I got use to that, though, the story is compelling. Arn was 12 years old, with a poor but loving family headed by his aunt, while his mother was off in the city making a living as an opera singer. But the dawning of the Khmer Rouge forced the whole village to the road, first with families together and then separated. Arn is forced to do increasingly horrible things to survive, though he jumps at the chance to be a musician for the extra food and putting off, at least for a while, the need to be a soldier. There is death, suffering, and sexual abuse, though that at least is not graphically described. In the end, Arn survives to be adopted by an American. It is a moving story, and I cared very much about Arn even as I knew that if he was dictating his own story, he had to have made it to the end. But if you are reading it to learn more about this dark period of Cambodian history, you’ll need to read some background material as well. One of the key principles of the Khmer Rouge was not telling the ordinary people anything about what was going on, so that Arn has no idea of the bigger picture.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. Read by Christian Coulson. Harper Collins, 2017.
I picked this one because it was recommended by Ana on Fangirl Happy Hour, and I thought it might be more cheerful than the previous title. It’s since been selected as one of the ten titles in the 2018 Michigan Thumbs Up! Award (Michigan teens vote on this short list to pick the winner.) Henry “Monty” Montague has been given every advantage an 18th century British lordling should be, and yet he is miserable. He is not personally ashamed to enjoy sex with both boys and girls, but Eton and his father are, his father trying very hard to beat it out of him. A last ditch effort to get Monty to reform is to send him off on a Grand Tour of Europe, with his best friend Percy (hooray! The object of his deepest, most secret affection) and (horrors!) his younger sister Felicity and a tutor. Percy is the son of an English merchant and the unnamed Caribbean woman he married. The merchant having died as soon as he got back to England, Percy has been raised by his aunt and uncle, treated almost like a member of the family but not allowed to attend Eton with Monty.
The story starts off very painfully as Monty humiliates himself with constant consumption of alcohol, running away to parties, and casual sex and seems quite unaware of the effect this has on those around him. However, some particularly egregious behavior in Paris puts the whole party in flight. They acquire an odd new quest, are beset by highwaymen and pirates, and quite deprived of niceties such as alcohol, beds, and clean shirts. This deprivation makes Monty much more pleasant to spend time with, as well as allowing Felicity’s awesomeness to shine. (She is to be the lead in book two, which I’m very much looking forward to.) He also slowly comes to realize his own prejudices about Percy, allowing their relationship to develop on a much better footing. There is lots of adventure and some very sweet romance. I listened on CD, where Christian Coulson does a fine job of portraying the simultaneously spoiled and abused young lord and those around him.
Juba! by Walter Dean Myers. Amistad/HarperCollins, 2015.
In the late, great Walter Dean Myers’ last book, he pulls together scraps of information about the real man William Henry Lane to write a novel based on his life. Lane was a dancer who went by the stage name of Juba, and though my love pointed out that a career on the stage doesn’t really avoid stereotypes, I was excited that he was neither a slave nor a child soldier.
It’s 1840s New York City, and Lane lives in the vibrant Five Points area. He has dancing fever and is inspired both by the Irish dancers around him and by traditional African dances. He rents a room from and works for an Irish fish seller, along with his best friend Stubby, who wants to be a chef. Lane wants a real career on the stage, not just working for coins on the street, but contests and competitions are failing to pan out. His future opens up when Charles Dickens, visiting the US, sees him perform at a local bar and includes a glowing write-up in his best-selling book about the visit. As New York isn’t working out, and he’s at risk of being taken into slavery in the US, Lane joins a white minstrel troop and travels to England, where even he has to put on the humiliating blackface. But England is thrilled to see him, and he finds both some success and true love in addition to freedom from the threat of slavery. Spoiler: the ending was much sadder than I’d hoped, as Juba dies young and quite suddenly. Still, I was happy to have the life of a unique person nearly lost to history brought back.
Though it never says so explicitly in the book, Lane/Juba is credited as one of the key inventors of tap dancing (see this short bio at Blackpast.org ) and the only African-American dancer of the time allowed to perform with whites, even getting top billing at shows. How great it would be if movies had been invented in time to film his dancing! In the meantime, Myers’ book captures at least some of the joy of his dance.