People of Color in Books That I Read in 2018: Part 1: Novels

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February is Black History Month and a good time to review how people of color have been represented in fiction that I read in the previous year.  And February is quickly slipping away from me.  I haven’t yet finished reviewing all of the picture books that I read in 2018, but I have reviewed the novels.

Looking at this year’s numbers, 28% percent of the books that I read this year (picture books included) included a person of color in any capacity—which is 1% more than 2017’s numbers. However, only 12 books that I read in 2018 included a person of color as the protagonist, a dismal 7% of my total books read, less than half as many as in 2017. That’s terrible. That’s on me. I did not this year seek out as many picture books to read independently as I have done in other years. Only 1 of the 12 books with a POC as the protagonist was a book mandated for story time in 2018.

I want to help others find these novels with characters of color, help others to know where to look for representation.  This will be the fourth year that I am doing this.  You can find the previous years’ posts collected here as well as links to more complete Goodreads lists.

Middle-Grade Fiction or Nonfiction (Ages 8-12)

Books with a POC as a protagonist

Yes, No, Maybe So, Book 1: Tara Takes the Stage by Tasmin Lane.  2018.

In this choose your own adventure novel, Tara Singh, an Indian American struggles between choosing trying out and practicing for tryouts for the school theater production and helping her family prepare to impress a Bollywood star who might put their sweet shop on the map. Tara’s crush, Hiro, a theater boy himself, is Japanese American. But is she also developing a crush on Rohan, an Indian American who works with her parents at the shop? Her best friend Yael is Jewish. I have yet only read this through the once, with the one ending, with the one set of choices.

The Heroes of Olympus, Book 5: The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan. 2014.

A Latino American, a Chinese Canadian, an African American, and a Cherokee (all half-Greek or -Roman deity, I suppose) travel from Rome to Athens and back to Long Island to help three white kids save the world by sending the primordial deity, Gaia, back to sleep. An Italian American immigrant and a Puerto Rican (one half-Greek deity, one half-Roman deity) go on a separate quest to restore an ancient Greek artifact to the Greek demigods in America and end the feud between the Greek demigods and the Roman demigods.

A diverse cast with no protagonist

Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods (2014) & Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes (2015) by Rick Riordan and illustrated by John Rocco.

These are harder books to put into any of these categories. They are each collections of mythology, so all the protagonists in the stories—or most of them—are Greek.  There are adventures and visits to places farther afield, primarily in northern Africa or modern-day Turkey and Georgia.  In Greek Heroes, Cyrene is given a queendom in modern day Libya by Apollo in exchange for becoming his lover.  Orpheus travels to Egypt.  Hercules meets Antaeus in modern-day Tunisia on his way to the Strait of Gibraltar between modern-day Morocco and modern-day Spain before wandering Spain and Portugal in search of Geryon’s cattle.  In Greek Gods, Dionysus unsuccessfully tries to invade India with his followers. He is successful in spreading his worship into the Middle East, but the Indians repel him. Because in these Riordan is recounting existing myths from ancient texts and cultures, he is bound to an extant to remain true to the tellings as they are recorded by others, though he can choose what to include and what to exclude from the myriad and sometimes contradictory stories about these characters and narratives.

A white protagonist with a secondary character who is POC with a speaking role

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. 2005.

Charon is described as having darker skin. He’s a god, the ferryman of souls to Hades’ realm, and an employee of Hades’. Percy guesses at first that Medusa is a Middle Eastern woman because of her dress. I assume she wears a burka as that would best hide her eyes.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 3: The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan. 2018.

Piper McLean, a Cherokee, returns as a secondary character, bordering on a protagonist, but Apollo—here appearing in the mortal, pimply, gangly form of Lester Papadopoulos—and Meg McCaffrey are protagonists.

Teen Fiction (Ages 13-19)

Books with a POC as a protagonist

The Raven Cycle, Book 3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater. 2014.

Raven Cycle, Book 4: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater. 2016.

In comments on an Instagram post from March 8, 2019, Stiefvater confirmed that Blue’s mother, Maura, and her extended family are African American.  Blue herself is then half-African American, half-Welsh tree creature (spoiler in white).  Henry Cheng, a half-Korean half-Chinese American, is less of a prominent character in the third book but borders on being a protagonist in the last book of The Raven Cycle. His mother, his friends in the Vancouver crowd, all are Asian American as is their landlady.

A white protagonist with a secondary character who is POC with a speaking role

Timekeeper, Book 1 by Tara Sim. 2016.

Brandon, Danny’s assistant and friend, is dark-skinned and Daphne, a fellow clock-mechanic and Danny’s rival but later an ally of his, is half-Indian, half-British.

Adult Fiction (Ages 20+)

White protagonists with diverse background characters

Temeraire, Book 2: Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik. 2006.

Temeraire and his crew of Englishmen and at least one girl travel with a delegation of Chinese ambassadors and officials along the west African coast and then across the Indian Ocean to China where they see how dragons are treated in that country, Temeraire meets his family, and Laurence struggles with the politics of the English-Chinese relationship. I love that this book series discusses what was happening in China (albeit a China where dragons are real) during the Napoleonic Wars, China often being left out of any discussion about that conflict.  However over the course of the whole book I never really got to the point where I felt like I knew any of the many Chinese characters, so I feel like they must be background characters, characters that helped to drive plot and created tension. Perhaps I should give them more credit. Perhaps other readers felt the presence of one or more of the Chinese characters more strongly.  The Chinese culture as a whole is viewed fairly favorably by Laurence and Temeraire in this novel, though there is clearly quite a bit of palace politics and intrigue at work within the higher echelons of the Chinese government in the novel.  While traveling along the coast, Temeraire and Laurence fly over land for a while, but see mostly undeveloped wilds.  In Cape Coast, modern-day Ghana, the crew witnesses an unsuccessful slave revolt, which greatly upsets both Temeraire and Laurence, who even before visiting Cape Coast are both vociferously against slavery as an institution, though as yet neither has been particularly active in quashing the institution either.  The ship stops in Cape Town, South Africa too, but Temeraire is feeling poorly, and to the best of my recollection, neither Laurence or Temeraire much observe the city.

Do you think or know that I misrepresented or misinterpreted any of these?  Please comment below.  Let me know.

Edited on June 22, 2019 to reflect information discovered in March 2019.

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About Kathryn

My love of books has been carefully cultivated by the adults who raised me and also by the friends who love to share. My life has led me down long library shelves, to online forums, fanfiction sites, the front of a lecture hall, and into the desks of college classrooms. With an English degree and a couple master’s classes in Children’s Literature, I am now a bookseller for Barnes & Noble. I have been an editor for Wizarding Life Networks (the people who brought you Wizarding Life, Panem October, and MyHogwarts now HogwartsIsHere).

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