Long after segregation, the educational system in the United States is far from perfect—or even fully integrated. I was lucky enough to have a scholarship to a private school when I was in high school, and while there were many wonderful opportunities, it was a tough place to be. Ten years later I can still call some wonderful people my friends, but I can also remember the painful racialized bullying I experienced in the form of constant microaggressions.
Whether you’re a scholarship kid or not, being one of the few kids of color at a predominantly white school comes with a lot of challenges. There are clear lines drawn between the haves and have nots—and that reality is reflected on the page, too, as in Sherman Alexie’s seminal The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which will soon celebrate its tenth year in publication. Whether you’re the leader of the cool clique, or on the outside looking in, here are some YA books that will make you feel less alone.
The Education of Margot Sanchez, by Lilliam Rivera
Everyone around Margot is partying and sleeping late this summer, many of them in the posh Hamptons. Meanwhile, she’s at home in the Bronx, working all day in her father’s supermarket to repay him for the time she stole his credit card to buy some new clothes to fit in with the girls at her fancy school. Okay, and she’s also maybe hanging out with a sort of bad boy. It’s not that her friends don’t know what borough she’s from, but they don’t seem to understand why she can’t come party in the Hamptons with them. Balancing work and fun can be rough when you’re one of the few kids with an actual job.
Piecing Me Together, by Renée Watson
Jade goes to a wonderful school. She has one great friend whom she connects with over shared interests, not shared skin color. She loves learning Spanish and making collages. And yet she’s always being offered “opportunities”—like Woman to Woman, a mentorship program for black girls. No one wants to feel pitied, but it also hurts when she’s passed over for academic and artistic enrichment. As a scholarship kid myself, I can relate to feeling like even the most well-meaning adults see you only as someone in need of help, a project.
Dear Martin, by Nic Stone
Few things are worse than someone thinking you couldn’t possibly be as smart or successful as you are. And one of the most frustrating things for a person of color to experience is to have their achievements written off as “just affirmative action.” Justyce may be Ivy League material, but he’s also the subject of media scrutiny—and disliked by the cops. Anyone watching current events should see and feel the connection to the Black Lives Matter movement and backlash against social justice in schools made explicitly clear in this stunning debut.
Black Boy, White School, by Brian F. Walker
Ant isn’t just at private school, he’s at boarding school, so he can’t even go home every night to something safe and familiar. He’s one of a handful of black kids at his new school, and both the students and the teachers are always calling him Tony and assuming he’s into basketball. Like Ant, I can definitely identify with someone making assumptions about my name, interests, and background simply because of how I appear at first glance. But he works hard to prove himself beyond the presumptions his classmates make.
Outrun the Moon, by Stacey Lee
Is it sad or reassuring to know that in over a hundred years, things haven’t really changed? In 1906 San Francisco, Mercy Wong schemes her way into a fancy school across town from her parents in Chinatown. Though her white classmates are a little shocked to see her, she does make a lot of friends, but that makes her feel like she’s losing what she has of her family. Mercy is managing, until an epic disaster forces her to prove where her loyalties lie. I can relate to how she has to suppress or bring out certain aspects of her personality depending on the social and geographic setting.
Fresh Off the Boat, by Melissa de la Cruz
Vicenza is an immigrant from the Philippines, and her friend back home in Manila is waiting to hear about her glamorous new life. Vicenza gives her all the deets—but they’re mostly lies. Her classmates may be well off, but she’s looking through bins at the Salvation Army for something cute to wear. And why can’t she find a boyfriend? I definitely saw myself in the desperation to hit the same fashion trends as my classmates, though doing so was well beyond my budget.