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The Barnes & Noble Book Club selection for July, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, captures the devastating story of two boys snared in the trap of the Jim Crow-era South and sentenced to a horrific reform school more aptly described as a prison run by abusive sadists. Based on the real story of a Florida reformatory that continued to operate for more than 100 years, destroying the lives of thousands of children, Whitehead’s latest book takes a necessary look at parts of America’s history that many would like to conveniently erase.
But what is a reader to do after finishing such a powerful book and discussing it at your local B&N Book Club meeting on August 13 at 7 p.m.? We’ve rounded up 12 more reads to keep you busy until next month. Check out our readalike picks for The Nickel Boys.
If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s 1974 novel tells a bittersweet story of love and injustice set in early 1970s Harlem. A young black couple—pregnant Tish, 19, and Fonny, 22, the father of her child—are madly in love with plans to marry. But when Fonny is falsely accused and imprisoned for a heinous crime, Tish and Fonny’s lives—as well as the lives of their families—are thrown into a tailspin as they attempt to clear Fonny’s name and reunite him with Tish before the birth of their child. Much like The Nickel Boys, If Beale Street Could Talk deftly explores the harsh realities of racism and inequality.
A Lesson before Dying, by Ernest J. Gaines
Set in 1940s Louisiana, A Lesson before Dying is an important and heartbreaking tale—much like The Nickel Boys—about Jefferson, a young black man who sits on death row convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, and Grant, another black man who has just returned to his hometown from the university. Grant’s aunt and Jefferson’s godmother convince him to visit Jefferson in prison to convey some of his own wisdom and perhaps even help Jefferson to face his impending death with dignity. But what does one say to a young man who has faced a lifetime of racism and injustice and whose only crime seems to be being black in rural Louisiana? Their visits lead them both on a path of self-discovery in a story that won’t soon be forgotten.
Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Racism and injustice against black men and women isn’t just a thing of the past. It’s very much a part of our country’s present, and—if we’re not vigilant—our future, as imagined in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a dystopian story collection that tackles painful subjects in an honest and necessary way. “The Finkelstein Five” offers an unflinching look at the brutality of prejudice in our justice system, while “Zimmer Land” reimagines racism as a sport in an amusement park. And the title story takes a deeper look at the horrors of consumerism and the viciousness it can breed.
Speak No Evil, by Uzodinma Iweala
What does it truly mean to be different in a sea of fundamental sameness? That’s precisely the question Uzodinma Iweala attempts to tackle in the much-anticipated follow-up to the 2005 book Beasts of No Nation. Harvard-bound teenager Niru not only has to deal with being black in a mostly white world and an immigrant in America, but he’s also coming to terms with the fact that he’s gay, which would be the ultimate sin to his Nigerian parents—a sin his father feels he must “cleanse” from his body in order to “cure” him. Like The Nickel Boys, Iweala’s book can be difficult to take in as Niru’s pain is utterly palpable throughout, but it’s also an important and necessary read about the core of our own humanity.
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison has written some truly magnificent books about racism in America, and her first-ever novel, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, is certainly no exception. In it, we meet an 11-year-old black girl named Pecola Breedlove, who believes she is ugly because of her dark skin and eyes. She longs to have blue eyes like the white dolls she is gifted as a child. In 1941, Pecola is living in a temporary foster home after her abusive, alcoholic father burns down her family’s house, but that seems to be one of the lesser horrors young Pecola experiences in her life in this stunning and tragic piece of literature from one of America’s greatest authors.
No-No Boy, by John Okada
John Okada’s only novel, which originally came out in 1957, was the first ever published by an American-born Japanese American. The powerful book tells the story of one of the “no-no boys”—Japanese-American men who resisted the draft after having been forced into internment camps during World War II. Ichiro Yamada got two years in a federal prison for refusing to fight for America, and now back home with his family, he faces disappointment from his parents and ostracism from many in his community. Okada’s book is an incredible story of Ichiro attempting to find his way in a world where he feels he doesn’t belong.
Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine’s powerful follow-up to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric offers a thought-provoking look at racism in the 21st century through essay, images, and poetry. Rankine effectively captures what it means to be black in America with anecdotes, observations, quotes, and more that detail mounting racial aggression all around us—at work, at home, at the grocery store, on television, online, on the tennis court with Serena Williams, everywhere. Citizen: An American Lyric is a powerful testament to the power of individuals and an emotional appeal everyone should read. It is a work of art that won’t soon be forgotten.
China Men, by Maxine Hong Kingston
Maxine Hong Kingston’s sequel to The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts chronicles Chinese-American history through a collection of 18 stories, both fictional and factual. The title itself offers a portrait of the book as a whole—”Chinaman” was a common racial slur against Chinese-Americans, but the men rejected racism, referring to themselves as “China Men.” Whereas The Woman Warrior gave a powerful perspective on the harsh realities of the female immigrant experience, China Men traces the history of Kingston’s male ancestors through memories, myths, and facts, showing readers what it was like for the men in her family in this strange new land.
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Heavy: An American Memoir, by Kiese Laymon
For readers who just couldn’t put down The Nickel Boys, Kiese Laymon offers up a powerful, painful, and unforgettable memoir about his own experiences of abuse, violence, and trauma from growing up black. Laymon beautifully and honestly expresses the nuances of his complicated relationships with his mother, grandmother, obesity, anorexia, sex, writing, and gambling. He shines light on secrets and lies he and his mother spent their whole lives trying to avoid in an effort to convey a universal truth about the ability to love responsibly and the desire to be truly free. This Barnes & Noble Discover Award Winner is a must read for those who just can’t stop thinking about The Nickel Boys.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis
Ayana Mathis’s incredible debut novel follows the life of Hattie Shepherd from the perspectives of her nine children all longing for connection with their mother. Set against the backdrop of the Great Migration, the movement of millions of African Americans out of the South between 1916 and 1970, Hattie’s story begins in 1923 when, at age 15, she flees Georgia and heads to Philadelphia in hopes of a better life. But what she gets is a disappointing marriage and the tragic loss of her firstborn twins to pneumonia. She ends up having nine more children, raising them with strength and courage but without the loving tenderness they need, determined to prepare them for the cruel realities of the world.
When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka
In Julie Otsuka’s moving first novel, she captures a shameful and devastating episode in American history from the perspective of one family shattered by prejudice and horrendous wartime injustices against Japanese Americans during World War II. The famliy’s father is arrested for treason and imprisoned in New Mexico, while the mother, daughter, and son are sent to a dusty internment camp out in the desert. Barbed wire fences and filthy, cramped lodgings are the family’s constant companion over the next three years as they are moved from camp to camp. Despite the book’s setting of more than 70 years ago, the themes of racism and freedom feel equally relevant today.
Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan
Hillary Jordan’s award-winning debut novel, set in 1946, finds city-bred Laura McAllan being forced to move from her comfortable home in Memphis, Tennessee to a remote cotton farm on the Mississippi Delta with her husband, Henry; their two daughters; and her racist and sadistic father-in-law. There she has no indoor plumbing or electricity, and when the rain waters rise, her family is literally stranded in a sea of mud. The return of two celebrated World War II soldiers to the Delta shakes things up for the family—one is Henry’s brother, who is everything Henry is not, and the other is the eldest son of blacksharecroppers and a newly minted war hero who finds that his bravery in combat counts for very little in the Jim Crow South in this powerful read.
What would you recommend to readers who liked The Nickel Boys?