More and more educators are realizing that the time to have difficult conversations in our classrooms is now. About three years ago, I came to this conclusion myself. Despite being nervous and scared, I taught about social justice and #BlackLivesMatter for the first time. Would I say the wrong thing? Would a parent become angry? But my students were beyond grateful. They were glad an adult was taking them and their place in the world seriously. Since then, I’ve done a lot more reading and growing as a person. In case you’re just starting to Black Lives Matter unit, here are some of the best fiction books for teaching about #BlackLivesMatter.
Now, this is by no means an exhaustive list of book. More and more publishers are releasing young adult novels that discuss social justice, police brutality, and a broken system in America.
My hope is just to offer a really great starting point.
Teaching a whole class novel study on any of these books would be well worth your time. But remember you have other options as well. You could assign a literature circle of book club using all of these titles, too.
If you can’t change your curriculum to add or swap in a new unit, you could also highlight these Black Lives Matter fiction books as great independent reading choices.
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Black Lives Matter Fiction Book Pick #1: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
A multiple award-winner, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a must-read, even if you don’t teach it. The book follows the story of Starr Carter, the single witness to the police shooting of her best friend. She struggles to find her voice in a growing movement and to win justice for her friend.
If I had to pick a best fiction book for discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, this would be it.
For one thing, Thomas balances her story well. There are good and bad black characters, good and bad white characters, good and bad cops, good and bad white allies, etc. Thomas’s foils illustrate her points beautifully.
The novel also does more than just show the effects that police brutality can have on a person, a family, and a community. It discusses the systemic racism that exists in America. Starr and her father have a deep discussion about the system. It’s a pointed conversation about how it affects prison rates, education, and opportunities for the oppressed.
Perhaps the best feature of The Hate U Give however is that students love it. The characters in the novel are real, funny, and totally relatable. Several semesters’ worth of my students have raved about this book.
This book does have two downsides to teaching: it is long and there is a lot of strong language. If you have a class of strong readers and can assign reading as homework, then this a great pick.
You can still teach The Hate U Give with struggling readers. Build in scaffolds and use the audiobook.
(I talk in more detail about my experience teaching the book here.)
You’ll probably also want to get principal or district approval for this one, since the F- word appears 69 times.
Black Lives Matter Fiction Book Pick #2: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
All American Boys is a collaboration by the great Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.
It was one of the earliest fiction books to reflect on Black Lives Matter. All American Boys‘ storytelling technique makes it a standout for teaching. Two characters’ points-of-view weave together to craft the tale.
First, there is Rashad, a young black teen who is brutalized by a police officer. Interestingly, Rashad is also the son of a police officer. Through Rashad, the reader can see the unfairness, the cruelty, and the long-term consequences of police brutality. But there is also empathy for the difficult decisions police officers must make on a daily basis.
The second protagonist is Quinn, Rashad’s white classmate who is friends with the police officer. Through Quinn, the reader sees the struggle of a white character learning about his own privilege. Quinn has a difficult time reconciling his officer friend’s behavior with his good qualities. He also struggles through doing what’s right, even when it goes against his loved one’s wishes.
I love All American Boys because it offers two different perspectives and offers a point of entry into the conversation for any reader.
Unlike The Hate U Give, All American Boys is also more PG. The book’s language is much milder and is better for teaching in more conservative schools or districts.
If you’re worried about upsetting parents, All American Boys just may be your best option.
Black Lives Matter Fiction Book Pick #3: Dear Martin
Dear Martin starts with a bang. After just a couple of pages, your kids will be hooked. If you have a class of reluctant readers, low-level readers, and are short on time, Dear Martin is your novel.
At the beginning of the novel, a police officer assaults the main character Justyce after mistakenly assuming Justyce is up to no good. This sends Justyce into a mental tailspin. He tries to figure out how to proceed, how to identify himself, and how to move forward.
To cope, Justyce begins writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Unlike All American Boys, I find the perspectives in Dear Martin a little limiting. The only white characters in the novel are stereotypical “white men” except for SJ, who Justyce repeatedly refers to as Jewish instead of white.
The book also doesn’t speak about social justice, demonstrating, or creating positive social change as much as it just discusses the issue of police brutality.
That said, Dear Martin is still my go-to when teaching The Hate U Give just won’t work.
The book also discusses identity issues around race, education, and the neighborhood in which one is raised. These issues are incredibly relevant to our present-day students. Because of the additional thematic questions posed by Stone’s novel, I still find it a really valuable novel to teach.
I discuss teaching this novel in more depth here.
Black Lives Matter Fiction Book Pick #4: Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Ghost Boys takes an entirely different storytelling approach. Ghost Boys follows Jerome, a twelve-year-old boy shot and killed by a police officer.
The novel focuses on Jerome’s spirt as he tries to make sense of his death. Throughout the book, Jerome learns about the history of lynching and brutality against black people in America while working through the grief process.
Ghost Boys provides historical context for lynching and police brutality in America today through the other “ghost boys”–young black men killed for the color of their skin, including Emmett Till.
When Jerome visits Sarah, the daughter of the police officer who took Jerome’s life, the novel offers a new perspective. Through Sarah, the novel attempts to discuss the complexities around racism in America.
Middle-grade students will do better with Ghost Boys. The Lexile is lower than other books on this list, the book is shorter, and the protagonist is younger.
I probably wouldn’t recommend Ghost Boys as a whole class novel for high school, unless your class was predominately below grade level in reading ability. (In this case, Ghost Boys is a perfect choice!)
If, however, you choose to do literature circles or book clubs or need a great, meaningful read-aloud, this is your novel!
Black Lives Matter Fiction Book Choice #5: How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
How It Went Down centers around the killing of Tariq Johnson, an unarmed black boy who was wearing a hoodie when he was killed. (Sound familiar?)
Snippets from a variety of witnesses, neighbors, family, and friends make up the action of this novel. Everyone has something to say about Tariq’s death, but no two accounts are the same.
One thing I like about How It Went Down is that the Magoon never really comes out and says exactly what happened. The reader must make inferences based on the thoughts and interviews of the other characters, before finally deciding for themselves how exactly “it went down.”
The ambiguous nature of the story makes for great discussions. Your students will have an endless amount of witness testimony and character opinions to debate about.
The story weaves together commentary from many characters. If you decide to teach this novel, create a character map with your students.
How It Went Down could also be a great choice for reluctant or struggling readers because the vignettes are short. It’s the perfect choice for students who like to puzzle through problems or who have short attention spans.
This fiction book focuses less on the Black Lives Matter movement (although there is still plenty to discuss!), but I think does a better job of highlighting day-to-day instances of racism and judgment faced by people of color.
Any of these fiction books would be great for beginning a dialogue around the Black Lives Matter movement. These conversations are incredibly important to have in our classrooms, especially if you’re a white teacher.
Remember, you could use all of these books together as part of a literature circle or book club.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the great fiction books inspired by Black Lives Matter, but it’s a great place to start. I hope it helps.
Keep teaching bravely!