Adolescence is generally hard for everyone. As young people awkwardly fumble through these formative years, YA novels – which touch on social inequality, sexuality, and identity – can help them navigate this difficult time in their lives. Just last year, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) saw a rise in books about immigrants and refugees – echoing the issues of the real world. But one area that can still see improvement is the representation of Latino characters in books. In 2011, the CCBC – which tracks trends in children and YA literature – found that a little more than 3 percent of the 3,400 books it reviewed were written by or about Latinos. The New York Times reported that this number hadn’t changed in the last decade or so.
Fast forward a few years to 2016 and the numbers still remain low. Out of the 3,400 books the CCBC reviewed, only 166 had significant Latino content and 58 were authored or illustrated by Latinos. And while there’s still work to do in the industry, there’s now at least more of the kind of books that speak to the varied and rich Latino experience – the kinds we wish we had when we were young adults. So with that in mind, here are eight books – which have all the classic makings of a YA novel, like heartache, family, and impending adulthood – but that specifically center on Latinidad:
'The Education of Margot Sanchez' by Lilliam Rivera
In Lilliam Rivera’s debut YA novel, Margot Sanchez is a South Bronx native who feels the need to keep up with her wealthier private school classmates. “She’s just trying to navigate that world,” Rivera told Remezcla. “She’s going to assimilate and copy the people who are in power – and usually the people in power are the white people. Because that’s what her parents are teaching her to do.”
In her pursuit of her classmates’ approval, she buys herself a new wardrobe with her dad’s credit card. She’s then forced to work at her dad’s grocery store as punishment – something that goes against her perfectly curated image.
'Mexican WhiteBoy' by Matt de la Pena
In this coming-of-age story, Danny – a tall and skinny kid – grapples with his two identities. As a half Latino, half white teen, he doesn’t know where he fits in. Worse, people are always labeling him. At his private school, no one expects he’ll amount to much. Around San Diego, people immediately assume he’s Latino. But they dismiss him when they learn he’s half-white and doesn’t speak Spanish. To connect with his Latinidad, he spends time with his dad’s side of the family to learn who he truly is.
'Juliet Takes a Breath' by Gabby Rivera
Juliet Takes a Breath tells the story of Juliet Milagros Palante (aka La “Sin Verguenza”), a 19-year-old Puertorriqueña from the Bronx who comes out to her family just before heading to Portland to intern for her favorite feminist author, Harlowe Brisbane. Unsure of whether her mother will ever speak to her again, Juliet uses her summer to figure out how to proceed. The story is loosely based on the author’s own coming-out experiences.
'Crossing the Line' by Malín Alegría
In her series Border Town, Malín Alegría captures what life is like for those who live between two countries. The first book, Crossing the Line, follows the Garza sisters, Fabi and Alexis who live in fictional border town Dos Rios. Fabi, the older sister, who does her best to guide Alexis through high school. But Alexis, young and naive, ignores her sister’s warnings and falls with a bad crowd.
As Kirkus Review reports, the book confronts heavier issues after Chuy, an undocumented immigrant, is mugged while covering a shift for Fabi at her parent’s restaurant. Her family suspects it’s one of their relatives, who had a history of getting in trouble.
'More Happy Than Not' by Adam Silvera
Four months after Aaron Soto’s father committed suicide, the 16-year-old – who feels extreme guilt after his dad’s guilt – attempts to find happiness once again. When his girlfriend leaves for art camp, Aaron begins hanging out with a new friend, Thomas, who he feels attracted to. As the New York Times wrote in its review, “The book serves as a powerful treatise on the complexities of coming out, as well, in a place where such an announcement is not reflexively met with loving embraces from nurturing, progressive adults.”
As Aaron grapples with his sexuality, he seeks the help of Leteo Institute – a company that removes painful memories, much like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He wonders if Leteo can help him erase his sexual orientation as well.
'Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass' by Meg Medina
Though Yaqui Delgado’s name is featured on the cover of this YA novel, this is really the story of Piddy Sanchez – a high school girl bullied by Yaqui Delgado and her friends. Yaqui believes Piddy is stuck up and questions her Latinidad. Piddy – who at first has no idea who Yaqui is – is more concerned with uncovering details about her father.
'Shadowshaper' by Daniel José Older
Afro-Boricua Sierra Santiago is a young artist living in Brooklyn who comes from a long line of shadowshapers – meaning that just like her grandmother, she can imbue art with spirits. Her abuelo once revealed the Shadowshapers to anthropologist Jonathan Wick, who has appropriated their power and is now trying to kill all the other Shadowshapers. And it’s up to Sierra to stop him.
'The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano' by Sonia Manzano
After decades of working on TV, Sonia Manzano – aka María from Sesame Street – wrote The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, her first novel. The YA book takes place in El Barrio in 1969, where 14-year-old Ross yearns for something she believes her neighborhood can’t provide. So we see her change her name to Evelyn to become more mainstream and feel at odds with her family, who she thinks are stuck in their ways. When her grandmother moves in with them from Puerto Rico, things in her world begin to change. The Young Lords – a group of young, urban boricuas galvanized by the Civil Rights Movement – came into existence in 1969.
As the Young Lords – working alongside the Black Panthers – occupy churches and burn garbage to bring attention to their community, Evelyn’s grandmother tells the young girl about how the current political climate parallels the 1937 Nationalist uprising in Puerto Rico. She learns about PR’s history of oppression and because of her activist abuela becomes inspired to join the Young Lords – much to the dismay of her mother.
Throughout the novel, Manzano weaves in real-life events that she experienced during her youth.