Just a little over a month ago, my niece Tovah was born. A beautiful little girl with a big fuzzy head and a classic newborn scowl. When I found out my big sister was having a baby girl, I was ecstatic. Then, as the due date got closer, I started to conceptualize my niece as a real human being that will one day face the real world. She’ll have to face the good and the bad; she’ll have to be thirteen one day. I picture my niece as an awkward teenager, most likely facing self-doubt on the daily while having to deal with puberty and middle school. All I think about is how I want to be there for her when she looks in the mirror and hates her skin or her hair or her nose.
I remember how I felt when I was thirteen and how I hated all the things about myself that made me special. I remember secretly cutting off my stick straight pubes with kitchen scissors in the bathroom I shared with my sister, stealing her Nair to remove the little caterpillar mustache above my lip, and crying over the boy that chose a white girl over me. I always felt like being a girl of color made middle school an entirely different breed of awkward.
Whether you hit puberty a little earlier than all the white girls or you were the only one that wasn’t allowed to go to the dance, growing up as a person of color can feel like blindly walking through a corn maze with no one to guide you. I found solace in reading—in middle school I was an avid reader, searching for something relatable to make me feel less alone. Even when I delved into the world of fantasy, where anything could happen, characters happened to be white and straight. The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Sarah Dessen books were marketed to teenage girls at the time. There wasn’t a lot of representation in the young adult novels, but I really wish there had been. I hope by the time Tovah is thirteen, she’ll be obsessed with a book about a fearless Pakistani girl with wild hair and a big nose so she’ll have someone like her to look up to. Until then, I compiled a list of books that are perfect for her when I can’t be there to tell her that her skin glows and her voice is powerful.
Becoming Naomi León
By Pam Muñoz Ryan
Naomi León runs away to Oaxaca, Mexico with her younger brother and great grandmother to search for her father. She comes to terms with family, culture, and identity. Also, this book makes you want to carve soap.
The House on Mango Street
By Sandra Cisneros
In a series of short vignettes, The House on Mango Street paints the life of Esperanza, who is growing up in Chicago. This is the kind of book you read in a single afternoon, but lingers inside you up to adulthood. I can appreciate the book even more now for how it resonated with me. It taught me how to maneuver the complexities of growing up with a clash of cultures in the Midwest.
By Tanuja Desai Hidier
Born Confused explores the life of an ABCD: an American-Born Confused Desi. Dimple Lala is at odds with her very traditional parents and appreciates her culture in an alternative way. She uses photography and music to find her niche in an Indian community where tradition and culture usually dominate.
By Nancy Osa
When Violet Paz turns fifteen, her grandmother insists that she throws a quinceañera. As her birthday approaches, Violet learns to appreciate her Cuban roots for the first time.
By Mitali Perkins
There’s something about finally going to your homeland that changes you. Jazz reluctantly follows her family to India to help them at an orphanage, but as the monsoon and India encapsulate her, she accepts a side of herself she never knew.
By Jhumpa Lahiri
This book may not be targeted towards a younger audience, but I can be the cool aunt that gives her niece the books that her friends’ parents told them not to read quite yet. This book is the quintessential culture clash book that moved me to tears when I read it in a high school lit class.
By Jeffrey Eugenides
Middlesex follows generations of transitioning. From immigrating, moving from childhood to adulthood, and transitioning gender identities, it really encompasses the discomfort and exultation of finding yourself.
By Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi’s memoir is a graphic novel about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It is a personal look on her childhood and facing her family’s history and beliefs. You can put yourself in her shoes as she grows up amongst her family life and society’s expectations.
The Glory Field
By Walter Dean Myers
I read this book in a middle school language arts class, and I think it sparked my love for novels that follow a single family for generations, like Middlesex. The Glory Field begins with the family enslaved in the deep south and goes through generations of oppression in the United States. It’s a great introduction into an extremely crucial part of American history, so it’s great for a middle schooler trying to learn how to be woke and empathetic.
Inside Out and Back Again
By Thanhha Lai
Inspired by the author’s childhood experience of fleeing Vietnam and immigrating to Alabama. This is a child’s eye view of family and culture and the struggle to accept a new life in America without sacrificing all the things she loved in Vietnam.