The celebration of Independence Day every July 4 is a time of mixed emotions for many in the U.S. Ambivalent feelings about the global impact of the country’s policies and actions are nothing new. Although many citizens and residents feel proud of aspects of the nation that they were born in or migrated to, in recent years the co-opting of patriotic messaging and symbolism by groups expressing intolerant views can evoke feelings of unease. YA literature does not shy away from scrutinizing uncomfortable subjects, and the fiction titles below are no exceptions. They all look at elements of U.S. identity and history that are not part of the dominant story that is typically taught in schools or featured in popular narratives. While some are attempting to rewrite narratives in ways that exclude marginalized communities, even going so far as to legislate against the teaching of certain ideas, these authors remind readers that a diverse range of people have always been around, contributing to the culture of the nation.
Mazie by Melanie Crowder (Philomel, Feb. 23): Despite facing limited options like other young women in Nebraska farming towns on the 1950s, one talented teen dreams of Broadway. Arriving in New York City exposes the White 18-year-old to new people and experiences, from the Black woman (a former dancer herself) running the boardinghouse where she stays and from whom she learns about racism in the industry to her first friendships with queer people. Mazie’s story shines a light on the diverse subculture of the theater world.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo (Dutton, Jan. 19): The history of lesbian communities is all too rarely told; lesbian communities of color are even more frequently overlooked. The sweet love between two young women in 1954 San Francisco, one Chinese American and one White, is the foundation upon which the author explores the impact of xenophobia, racism, and homophobia on individual lives. The teenagers, who only wish to be together without fear, must confront all of the above in addition to the usual pressures of high school.
An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi (Harper/HarperCollins, June 1): The period after 9/11 was particularly difficult for Muslim Americans; this deeply felt slice-of-life novel presents the experiences of one Iranian American family through the eyes of their younger daughter, Shadi, a hijabi teen. The lyrical, introspective prose introduces readers to a young woman burdened with worries over her father’s health, Islamophobia, academic pressure, the death of her brother, her mother’s depression, and being ghosted by her best friend—whose brother she is falling for.
The Great Destroyers by Caroline Tung Richmond (Scholastic, Aug. 3): This thrilling alternate history set in 1963, amid Cold War tensions between the United States and the USSR, focuses on the Pax Games, an international competition at which countries compete using mechanized suits of armor. Jo, who is Chinese American and White, joins Team USA. Her family is struggling financially, and a win would mean a lot, but her presence highlights deeply embedded racism from the Chinese Exclusion Act to FBI scrutiny and suspicion of Chinese Americans.
A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia (Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins, May 25): This is the sweeping story of a family of pre–Civil War Louisiana sugar-cane plantation owners with ties to the court of Marie Antoinette and fading fortunes dependent on their exploitation of Black people. It delves into their relationships, personal secrets, and disregard of others’ humanity while exploring the intricate hierarchies and relationships among enslaved people doing their best to navigate and survive an unjust and cruel system. It’s an astonishing work that unflinchingly shows messy and complex realities.
Laura Simeon is a young readers' editor.