At the Cybils Awards, we care a great deal about diversity in children’s books. We put great importance on finding and promoting books which meet our high standards and which have protagonists from under-represented groups. In addition to the importance of diverse characters, though, it’s equally important to find and recognize books written by voices from marginalized groups. Such books not only provide authentic voices, but also inspiration for young people from those groups. The following list of books feature both diverse characters, and authors who belong to one or more under-represented groups.
A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott (2009 nominee). When 15-year-old Genna makes a wish on the fountain at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, she finds herself transported back in time to 1863 Brooklyn, in the middle of the Civil War. Brooklyn may be part of the North, but that doesn’t mean that it’s safe for a Black woman. Racial tensions are brewing, tensions that will soon explode into violent race riots. Genna is caught in the middle, not knowing if she’ll ever be able to make it back home to her time, her family, and the young man she loves. Sequel: The Door at the Crossroads. Also by this author: The Deep (2014 nominee), Ship of Souls (2012 nominee).
Feral Nights by Cynthia Leitich Smith (2013 nominee). Feral Nights is the first book in series spun-off from Smith’s popular Tantalize series. Werecat Yoshi searches for his missing sister, while werepossum Clyde and human Aimee are trying to solve the mystery of the murder of their friend Travis. Cynthia Leitich Smith is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation. Sequels: Feral Curse (2014 nominee), Feral Pride (2015 nominee). Also by this author: Tantalize (2007 nominee), Eternal (2009 nominee), Blessed (2011 nominee), Diabolical (2012 nominee),
Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson (2014 nominee). Johnson’s The Summer Prince has received much acclaim, including winning the 2013 Cybils Award. Her second YA novel, Love is the Drug, is less well-known, but a great read deserving of some attention. Love is the Drug is a story about finding one’s identity set against the backdrop of a global pandemic. Emily Bird is under pressure from her mother to fit in at the mostly-White elite Washington DC prep school, and after that to attend an equally prestigious college. But Bird is not sure that her mother’s ambitions are what she wants in life. When a virulent flu pandemic spreads, Bird starts to suspect that her scientist parents may be involved, and Bird herself may be in danger from sinister government forces. Love is the Drug also vividly shows the deep income and racial inequalities in our nation’s capitol. Also by this author: The Summer Prince (2013 winner).
Underneath by Sarah Jamila Stevenson (2013 nominee). Sunny Pryce-Shah is devastated when her cousin Shiri commits suicide. Then Sunny starts to hear thoughts, and from cryptic comments in Shiri’s journal, she suspects that Shiri may have had the same problem. Hearing thoughts is more of a curse than a power. Sunny is already dealing with so much, but she knows that she has to get the ability under some kind of control before it pulls her apart like it did her cousin. Sunny is biracial with Pakistani heritage on her father’s side.
The Living by Matt De La Peña (2014 winner). What starts as a way for Shy to earn money to help his family back in a small town close to the San Diego/Mexico border turns out to be a horrific ride when the dreaded ‘Big One’ hits the West Coast. Added to the mix is a deadly disease that has killed not only Shy’s grandmother, but others. The Living has a gripping plot featuring a Mexican-American protagonist and a cast of diverse characters. It starkly portrays racism and classism among the rich cruise patrons, and the greed that drives some in power to commit questionable acts. Sure to appeal to reluctant readers with its multi-layered characters and action-packed scenes, this novel nails the horror of being caught in a disaster and portrays the courage and strength that can come when people are faced with terrible odds. (Cybils finalist blurb by Kim Baccellia, Si, se puede.) Sequel: The Hunted (2015 nominee).
Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older (2015 finalist). Sierra Santiago’s love of painting murals takes a paranormal twist in Shadowshaper. She learns she has the gift of shadowshaping — infusing ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. Older paints a vivid picture of a Brooklyn neighborhood filled with magic, lush images, and a diverse culture. The voice is authentic, nailing some cultural aspects along with showing glimpses of gentrification in older neighborhoods. Readers will be swept away and applaud one strong heroine that tries to bring balance back to her world. (Cybils finalist blurb by Kim Baccellia, Si, se puede.)
The Mark of Noba (2015 nominee) by G.L. Tomas. Sterling Wayfairer is a senior in high school. Unknown to most of his classmates, he’s also a caregiver for a mother with schizophrenia. Other than that, his life is pretty normal for a teen, until he starts seeing a dark-skinned girl named Tetra that no one else in his class seems to remember ever seeing. Strange things happen when he encounters her, but Sterling is the only one who seems to notice. Sterling discovers that he and Tetra have a connection, and that he isn’t the person he thought he was. Together, Sterling and Tetra must battle an ancient evil that has infiltrated the high school.
Coal: Book One of the Everleaf Series by Constance Burris (2015 nominee). Coal is a sixteen-year-old human who has lived in the fey realm since he was five. His best friend is Princess Chaldecony, soon to be queen. Although he loves her, he knows he can never be with her because as a human, he’s an outsider and low status. When the princess pressures Coal to help her abduct a human child, it sets them on a path of conflict that could cause Coal to lose everything he’s ever valued. Also in this series: Black Beauty (2015 nominee).
Seven Tears at High Tide by C.B. Lee (2015 nominee). Sixteen-year-old Kevin makes a wish on the sea, and the sea responds. Kevin wishes for love, and shortly thereafter he meets a young man named Morgan. What Kevin doesn’t know is that Morgan is a half-selkie, chosen by the sea to fulfill Kevin’s wish. Kevin also doesn’t know that he only has the summer to spend with Morgan, and that at the end of the summer Morgan must return to the sea. As the two fall in love, the end of summer – and with it, a difficult choice – quickly approaches. Seven Tears at High Tide is a very sweet and enchanting fantasy romance featuring a bisexual mixed race Chinese-American protagonist.
Dove Arising (Dove Chronicles) by Karen Bao. Living on the moon, fifteen year old Phaet Theta works in the greenhouse and dreams of being a bioengineer. But when her mother falls ill and is taken away and quarantined, it falls to Phaet to find a way to care for her younger siblings. Her only chance to keep the family out of the ghetto-like district known as the Shelter is to join the militia. Although Phaet is three years younger than most of the other recruits, she is determined to complete the training and rank high enough to achieve a good placement in the militia. Sequel: Dove Exiled.