8 Books About Multiethnic Experiences

These eight recent and forthcoming novels, most of them #OwnVoices, highlight the experiences of biracial and multiethnic children and teens.

During its fraught and complex history rife with both trauma and love, the United States has always been home to biracial and multiracial people. For just as long, those people have been asked to choose sides, made to feel like outsiders, and ostracized or exoticized for physical features that confuse or amuse others.

As we close out the second decade of this millennium and prepare for the 2020 United States Census, it’s worth considering how definitions of racial identity have changed over the years. 2020 will mark the third time that the Census Bureau has allowed participants to select more than one racial identification, and about nine million people chose to do so in 2010. Notably, it was confirmed that then-president Barack Obama, who is biracial (black and white), checked only the box for black on the questionnaire. The media attention this choice received reflects the highly politicized climate around race in America. The Census also segregates Latinx/Hispanic heritage or origin, keeping it separate from the concept of “race.” Additionally, the government definition of white includes Middle Eastern and North African people, many of whom identify as people of color. Undoubtedly, then, the number of people who identify as biracial, multiethnic, or similar is much higher than nine million. Children’s and young adult literature about these individuals, their families, and their communities are more than a grouping of humorous stories about melded family recipes or depressing tales of cultural disconnect and liminality—they also reflect what our country actually looks like and the lives of the people, counted or uncounted, in the Census.

These recent and forthcoming novels, most of them #OwnVoices, highlight the experiences of biracial and multiethnic children and teens.


 

Chapter Books

SOONTORNVAT, Christina. Snow Place Like Home. illus. by Barbara Szepesi Szucs. 128p. (Diary of an Ice Princess: Bk. 1). Scholastic. Jul. 2019. pap. $5.99. ISBN 9781338353938.
Gr 2-5– This heroine isn’t just mixed race—she’s half Groundling, half Windtamer. Lina, a princess whose maternal side of the family can control weather, just wants to attend a normal Groundling (human) school with her normal friends. But she also has to learn how to harness and manage her powers. Using magical “races” as a metaphor for human races and ethnicities can be a dangerous road to tread, but Soontornvat engages with both, allowing younger readers the chance to see biracial identity as something empowering and worth celebrating, not just a source of shame or stress.

 

Middle Grade

DRAPER, Sharon M. Blended. 320p. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Bks. Oct. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781442495005.
Gr 4-7– Isabella isn’t just half white and half black. She’s half her white mother’s child and half her black father’s child, and when your parents are divorced, that’s complicated. She is constantly moving between neighborhoods and families; the only thing that doesn’t change is how torn she feels. Just when her families are supposed to come together to support her at a big piano recital, a violent incident occurs, causing even more race-related stress. Draper skillfully presents racial politics and the problems with colorblindness in a way that respects the intelligence and lived experience of young readers.

LAROCCA, Rajani. Midsummer’s Mayhem. 352p. Yellow Jacket. Jun. 2019. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781499808889.
Gr 4-7– Shakespeare meets Masterchef Junior in this story of a girl whose determination to prove herself to her family actually puts them in enchanted danger. Mimi discovers a forest full of wonderful ingredients and begins baking with them, but she soon wonders whether the strange behavior of her parents and siblings are caused by the treats she has been making. LaRocca honors Western literary classics and puts them in conversation with contemporary Indian American traditions, with delicious results.

MALDONADO, Torrey. What Lane? 160p. Nancy Paulsen Bks. May 2020. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780525518433.
Gr 5-6– Stephen, who is biracial, feels split between his black friends and his white friends. When an unarmed black teenager is shot by a police officer, Stephen’s friend groups have different reactions to the incident. Maldonado draws on his own mixed identity and experience teaching middle schoolers in crafting this story about choosing sides.


 

YA

DAVIS, Ronni. When the Stars Lead to You. 400p. Little, Brown. Nov. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316490702.
Gr 8 Up– Interracial relationships in largely racially homogenous spaces can be difficult to navigate. It’s even more complicated for Devon because she is biracial and her boyfriend is white. Socioeconomic differences make the couple even less likely to succeed. But what might be hardest of all for Devon is understanding how to handle, support, and love her boyfriend as he goes through clinical depression. Davis’s story is a great example of how being biracial is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to intersections of identity.

QUIGLEY, Dawn. Apple in the Middle. 264p. (Contemporary Voice of Indigenous Peoples: Bk. 1). North Dakota State University Pr. Aug. 2018. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9781946163073.
Gr 6-8– Oreo. Coconut. Apple. These aren’t just foods. They’re loaded terms, sometimes pejorative and sometimes playfully deprecating, used to describe members of nonwhite communities who “look” black, Latinx, Asian, or Indigenous but are considered “white on the inside.” Apple, who is white and Ojibwe, feels little attachment to her Indigenous heritage—but she is more than a little stung when somebody calls her a racial slur. A formative summer with her mother’s relatives on the reservation helps her reevaluate and reclaim all parts of her background.

RIBAY, Randy. Patron Saints of Nothing. 352p. Penguin/Kokila. Jun. 2019. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780525554912.
Gr 10 Up– Jay is Filipino, white, and firmly American. He never would have guessed he’d end up spending his time before college in the Philippines trying to uncover family secrets and understand family traditions—all while coming to terms with President Duterte’s war on drugs and the death of his own cousin. Ribay’s affecting novel reveals the many layers of biracial identity and how it can expand beyond the individual experience of having parents from two different places.

WILLIAMS, Ismée. This Train Is Being Held. 304p. Amulet. Feb. 2020. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978419734939.
Gr 8 Up– Two teens meet on a subway. Alex, a Dominican-American boy, doesn’t realize the white-passing girl he has his eye on can understand everything he and his friends are saying in Spanish—Isa is actually half Cuban. For more than a year, they have connections and missed connections, all stemming from a simple courtesy of holding the door open so the other can catch the train before it leaves the station. Isa’s mixed identity shapes the way she navigates her world and her relationship to Alex, but the plot does not hinge on coming to terms with being biracial—that’s just one part of her identity.


Sarah Hannah Gómez is a former school librarian and current doctoral student in children’s literature at the University of Arizona. She holds dual master’s degrees from Simmons College. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @shgmclicious

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