Contemporary Multicultural Novels and Memoirs for Young Adults

Connecting Through Story

-by Guest Blogger, Susan Tetrick

When we want to understand another point of view, get a feel for history, a story can be our best connection.  When I was small, my mother asked the wizened old gentleman at our dry cleaners if he would show me his arm.  His gnarled fingers unbuttoned the crisp cuff of his shirt and rolled up his sleeve, revealing the tattooed numbers of Auschwitz.  He told me what it felt like to be a number, someone without a name.  Stories reach us in a way a recitation of facts can’t.  Each of the following multicultural novels or memoirs gives us a glimpse into the truth of someone’s life: a Palestinian American in Jerusalem, a girl in Nazi Germany, a teenager on a reservation, a boy trying to break free from apartheid, a young Chinese immigrant, a sixteen year old on trial for murder.  These are stories you’ll remember and want to share with the teens in your life.

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“Have you read The Book Thief?”  Jessie, a sophomore, wanted to share an unlikely favorite novel; its heroine: Liesel Meminger, a young girl living in Nazi Germany.  Liesel is abandoned by her mother, then cared for by foster parents Hans and Rosa.  Patient Hans comforts her during nightmares and teaches her to read.  Gradually, Liesel becomes a lover of words, even rescuing a book from the Nazi fires and finally, she becomes the book thief.  The author, Markus Zusak, lets us learn the plight of German Jews through Liesel’s eyes and we grieve with her at the horrors of Nazi Germany and of war.  When you part with Liesel on the last page, you’ll miss her company and the people she loved.

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Monster, by Walter Dean Myers is the story of sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon, on trial for murder.  In his effort to survive the terror of his situation, he imagines his life through the lens of a movie.  As readers, we turn the pages quickly, feeling the pervasive loneliness and fear of a young man in jail, the possibility of the death penalty or life in prison and the tension of whether our judicial system will offer justice.  We learn the truth of Steven’s life through flashbacks and watch as he endures his trial and verdict. You’ll probably won’t put this novel down until you’ve turned the last page.

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What is it like to be a young boy living in the slums under South African apartheid?  In Kaffir Boy, Mark Mathabane shares the autobiographical account of his struggles to survive a childhood of deprivation and cruelty.  As readers, we live Mark’s fear as police hunt undocumented workers, including his parents.  We feel his hunger, the cold cement that is his bed, smell the stench of the streets and understand his longing for justice. We cheer as he finds success in school and sports.  You will be gripped by the story of a brave young man’s escape from apartheid.

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Author Sherman Alexie and illustrator Ellen Forney must remember what it feels like to be fourteen.  The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian tells the story of Arnold Spirit, also known as Junior, a fourteen-year-old Native American living on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Each chapter is a journal entry, often hilarious, always insightful and sometimes heartbreaking. Forney’s cartoon illustrations are as much fun as the text and always tell the truth about life as a fourteen year old.  We live through his first day of  white Reardan High.  No bus and no gas money, he hitchhikes 22 miles to school, negotiates friendships, finds a girlfriend, and copes with poverty, family struggles and loss.  Junior shares his pride at being a Spokane, the truth of life on the reservation and his dream of success in the white world.  This is a novel to read with your teen.

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In Habibi, acclaimed poet Naomi Shihab Nye brings her lyric talents to the story of Liyana Abboud.  Liyana, along with brother Rafik, American mother Susan and Palestinian-American father Poppy, leave St. Louis for a new life in Jerusalem, her father’s native city.  Liyana yearns for the friends and familiarity of home, but is intrigued with new smells, food, language, customs and all the noisy relatives who are ready to love her.   We get a glimpse of the challenges anyone faces in a new culture as we walk with her through the Jerusalem streets, but Liyana’s friendship with a Jewish boy challenges her family and the traditions of a divided city.

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Midnight in the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates, is the story of an immigrant Chinese family living in Canada in the 1950s.  Su-Jen and her mother Jing escape communism to join Su-Jen’s father in Canada, but instead of prosperity, find ceaseless hard work and isolation.  Su-Jen learns English.  Soon, she excels at school and becomes the family’s link to the English-speaking world.  Everyday, she melds new beliefs with the old ways of her mother.  She forges friendships, copes with bigotry, and fends off bullies.  Slowly, the real story of her family unfolds as Su-Jen struggles to understand family secrets and the grief of loss.  Both teens and adults will remember the lessons of the Dragon Café.

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