The following is an annotated list of three African American novels:
Tyrell by Coe Booth
Tyrell is a teen who has faced some hard times and is struggling to turn things around. His pops has been in jail three times and is currently in prison, leaving his mom, brother, and him without support. His moms believes that the man is supposed to take care of the family, therefore placing an extra burden on Tyrell since she doesn't have her act together. Now forced to live in a run-down, roach-filled hotel, Tyrell tries to make things better for his family. As he develops a plan to DJ a party and make the money needed to find a new apartment, he deals with a girlfriend who won't allow him to fully be her man and a new girl who proves to be a little more temptation than he needs at this moment. While all this is going on, Tyrell struggles to avoid becoming like his father.
This novel did a great job of capturing the character of Tyrell. It utilizes Ebonics or the language variety of English that African Americans tend to use. The language really helps to develop the characters and make them more three dimensional. This novel was very real. You could envision Tyrell's struggles and sympathize with his anger and frustrations to make things right. Even the ending fits perfectly with the life he's leading. While this wasn't my normal book to read, I feel this is a great piece of urban literature. For another review see August 07.
The Skin I'm In by Sharon G. Flake
This is an older novel but another good character driven story. The main character is Maleeka, a young girl made fun of because she's too black. Her life suddenly gets turned upside down when a new teacher, Miss Saunders, comes and tries make the school better. Miss Saunders also turns Maleeka into her own special project because she can relate to the young girl. She too was made fun of because she has a large stain on her face. She tries to show Maleeka that she has talent and potential to be more than the students make her. Part of Maleeka's problem, though, is that she hangs out with a girl named Charlese who is a bad influence, forcing Maleeka to do things she doesn't want to do. Will Maleeka ever stand up to Charlese? Will she ever learn to be comfortable in her skin?
This novel also utilizes Ebonics but I felt Tyrell did it more convincingly. In fact, Tyrell was an overall more convincing novel. The Skin I'm In ends too happily ever after, but maybe that's because this novel is more about becoming a better person and more of a lesson novel while Tyrell is more of a character study. I'm not entirely sure, but this novel is good for helping kids reach their potential and developing their own self-esteem. One slight drawback with this novel is that it seems more geared for middle school, early high school. I don't think that older teens connect as much with the novel.
Forged by Fire by Sharon M. Draper
This is another older novel, but I read it because it was a favorite novel of some students. Gerald's life from the beginning wasn't easy. His mother neglected him at an early age, forcing him to be removed to the custody of his aunt Queen at the age of three. Aunt Queen loved him like her own and showed him what it was to be cared for. When he turned nine, though, his world changed when he mother re-entered his life and Aunt Queen died suddenly. Now he's forced to live with his mother, his step-dad Jordan, and his half-sister Angel. While his mother isn't as neglectful as she had been, Jordan is abusive to her and molests Angel. Gerald becomes a source of comfort for Angel, showing her the love Aunt Queen taught him, but he can only do so much to protect her from Jordan. When that becomes too much, he gets the police involved and Jordan istaken away, but only for a few years. Soon he returns but claims to be a changed man. Gerald knows, though, that it's only a matter of time before he slips up and their terror returns.
This novel was enjoyable and I could see why the students liked it. Gerald can easily stand for a source of strength for kids facing a similar situation. Their life wasn't easy, even in the end, but the novel showed that you don't have to put up with that abuse. It also instilled the importance of having outside resources and outlets for release. Gerald had a friend's father who became a father figure and someone he could go to for help. He also had basketball and Angel had dancing, an outlet where both of them to forget their troubles and just be themselves. This novel did a good job capturing their struggle.
All three novels have their strengths. Tyrell is a great at capturing the struggle that some African Americans might have, both in living their daily life as well as in their personal relationships. The Skin I'm In is a good resource for developing self-esteem while Forged by Fire is nice for dealing with abusive families. Some might be better examples of truly urban literature, but all are a sampling of African American characters.