Yesterday was World AIDS Day, a day to learn more about HIV/AIDS, support people living with the virus, remember those who succumbed to it, and fight for further research for a vaccination and cure. Although people living with HIV/AIDS no longer face the kind of systematic ostracization that they did in the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS outbreaks were at their highest, there is still a stigma associated with the virus and the people who live with it.
One way to fight ignorance and intolerance is through reading! Reading books that depict characters living with HIV/AIDS, their struggles, and their bravery, can help readers better understand the virus, how it affects those who are living with it, and how it affects their families and friends. Unfortunately, a preliminary search for young adult novels that feature characters with HIV/AIDS shows a few things:
- Young adult novels that feature characters living with HIV/AIDS are pretty rare.
- Young adult novels that feature characters living with HIV/AIDS are mostly in the “precautionary tale” vein, meaning the HIV-positive character is depicted as a pitiable subject who teaches the main character (and reader) about the dangers of sex and/or intravenous drug use.
- Young adult novels rarely feature characters living with HIV/AIDS in which the illness is normalized, meaning it is not the character’s defining characteristic.
That said, there are some YA novels that feature HIV-positive characters that are worth your time. Give these a try:
Blue Pills: a positive love story by Frederick Peeters
This beautiful graphic novel follows the love story of Fred and Cati, who is HIV-positive. In addition to learning how to navigate an emotional and sexual relationship while living with HIV, this novel also deals with every-day topics like raising a child, falling in love, and talking to mammoths. This graphic novel is just that – graphic; there are depictions of sex and adult language, so keep that in mind before you pick it up.
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
In this novel by popular YA novelist David Levithan, former boyfriends Harry and Craig attempt to break a Guinness World record by kissing for 32 hours straight. This novel is narrated by “the shadow uncles,” a Greek-chorus-style amalgam of men who died of HIV/AIDS during the 1980s epidemic.
I wish I could recommend more than two books, but I can’t! I’ll keep looking for more YA novels in which HIV/AIDS is handled with empathy and respect. In the meantime, check out Two Boys Kissing and Blue Pills. If you want to learn more about HIV/AIDS, check out the World AIDS Day website or visit the library for more information.
If you don’t know anything about the Boxer Rebellion (or Boxer Uprising) in China from 1899 to 1901, this fantastical two-volume graphic novel is a fun and educational primer! Gene Luen Yang, who is currently serving a two-year stint as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, wrote this amazing duology about two young people living through the rapid globalization and Christianization of China at the beginning of the 20th century.
The first volume, Boxers, tells the story of Little Bao, a boy who loves traditional Chinese theater, his village, and his father. When the “foreign devils” – Christian missionaries – come to his village and smash a statue of the local god Tu Di Gong, Little Bao begins to understand that his way of life is under threat. He seeks out martial arts training from a mysterious man named Red Lantern, who inspires the men of the countryside to protect their Chinese traditions from the encroaching foreign devils. Later, Little Bao trains with Master Big Belly, who reveals the secret ritual that gives him the power to defeat his enemies. With this priceless knowledge, Little Bao takes over where Red Lantern left off, training the men of his village in martial arts and teaching them the ritual that turns them into powerful gods during a battle.
Little Bao and the young, poor men from the Chinese countryside form the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, travelling from village to village, killing British soldiers, Christian missionaries, and the “secondary devils” – Chinese Christian converts who flee from the roving Society army. The weeks-long battle in Peking, the heart of the Chinese kingdom, end badly for the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist, and for Little Bao, who could never seem to reconcile his love for China with his understanding of justice and fairness.
In Saints, the second volume of this duology, Four-Girl is the much-abused and neglected daughter of a widow in the Chinese countryside who seeks out Christianity for some strange reasons. At first, she thinks that she is meant to be a devil, a malevolent presence in her little village. Through her relationship with the local acupuncturist, Dr. Won, she learns about Jesus Christ (and has a free supply of cookies to sate her hunger). Four-Girl drifts farther away from her family and closer to the Church, though she feels no real connection to Christianity. In the woods one night, Four-Girl meets a strange girl, clad in armor, who she later learns is the spirit of Joan of Arc. With the vision, Four-Girl begins her full conversion to the Christian faith, taking catechism classes and ultimately choosing a new name, a real name: Vibiana.
Vibiana is cast out by her traditional Chinese family and finds refuge in a walled village far from her home. The growing threat of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist bring more Christians and missionaries to their little enclave, where Vibiana helps watch over the orphans. Restless, Vibiana seeks out the vision of Joan of Arc and decides to become a maiden warrior for God. When the Society overtakes the village, Vibiana stands steadfast in her faith, even as Bao raises his sword to strike her down.
Yang’s visual storytelling is out of this world; his use of crisp, clean lines and pops of bright color lead the eye from one action-packed frame to the next. This glimpse into the little-known Boxer Rebellion, from the points of view of both a Boxer and a Chinese-Christian convert, will make you want to learn more about this important event in Chinese history! Fans of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Hope Larson’s Mercury will love the story and artwork in this wonderful duology. Check these books out in the library today!
When Marie-Laure loses her eyesight at the tender age of six, she has to start life over again, but she has the help of her loving father to guide her through the twists and turns of the streets of Paris. Her father, a master of locks at the Museum of Natural History, builds a perfect miniature replica of their neighborhood, which she traces again and again with her fingers. Later, she uses her hands to read and reread her favorite books while her father works diligently on his locks in the museum, or on the model of the city in their apartment. Marie-Laure and her father live a quiet life, full of love and happiness, until the rumbling of war begins to build in the west.
Werner’s childhood is significantly less charmed than Marie-Laure’s. As an orphan growing up in the shadows of a dusty, dirty mining town in eastern Germany, Werner has only his little sister and an old, cobbled-together radio to distract him from the constant hunger that he faces each day. Werner’s curiosity and tenacity helps him become a sort of expert in radio technology, a trait that consequently puts him on the fast-track with the Hitler Youth. Before he can begin to understand the implications of his trajectory, Werner is marching, shooting, and designing intricate radio systems at a Nazi school for boys.
When the war intensifies, Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris for the relative safety of Saint-Malo, a seaside town in northeastern France. There, Marie-Laure and her father take shelter with their reclusive Uncle Etienne, in a house that hides a powerful radio and a priceless gem. Werner, meanwhile, is sent from the brutal Nazi school to a special assignment in the military, tracking down freedom-fighters who use radio signals to communicate. Werner’s assignment leads him to Saint-Malo, where his life intersects with Marie-Laure’s in the most unexpected way.
This beautiful, haunting book is historical literature at its best. Doeer’s use of poetic language creates a lyrical and emotional experience that will make you pause, reread, and reflect. Doeer brings the reader’s senses to life, especially in Marie-Laure’s chapters, as we experience the world as she does, through touch, sound, taste, smell, and memory. At just over 500 pages, the length of the book might put you off, but don’t be afraid; this wonderful novel is worth the time. You’ll want to savor every chapter.
Fans of Geraldine Brooks’ The People of the Book and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go will enjoy this novel. I’ve also heard that the audiobook is fantastic!
When Rashad walks into the corner store for a bag of chips, he doesn’t think that the consequences of this action will result in anything more than “chip-breath,” so he plans on buying a pack of gum, too. After all, he can’t have chip-breath when he dances with his crush at a party later that night. But Rashad doesn’t make it to the party. A suspicious store-owner, a klutzy lady, and a fist-happy cop land Rashad in the hospital with a broken nose, broken ribs, and internal bleeding.
Quinn, a white teen who goes to school and plays basketball with Rashad, witnesses his friend’s brother, police officer Paul Galuzzi, dragging Rashad out of the corner store and wailing on him, despite the fact that Rashad is already handcuffed. Unable to look away, yet unable to do anything to stop the violence, Quinn watches helplessly as Paul hits Rashad again and again.
Now, Rashad is in the hospital, wondering why he was never allowed to explain that he wasn’t trying to steal a bag of chips and trying to figure out how he’s going to move forward. Quinn is confused about where his allegiances lie, as Paul helped raise him and the Galuzzis are like family, but he’s sure that Rashad would never do anything to deserve a beat-down like the one Paul gave him. The basketball team is splitting along color lines as the students of color side with Rashad and the white students side with Paul – or decide not to take a stance at all. Their whole town is starting to take sides when a video of Rashad’s arrest ends up online and the hashtag #RashadIsAbsentToday goes viral.
At the center of it all, in alternating chapters, Rashad and Quinn struggle with the ultimate question: what now? How can these two teens, so alike and yet so different, come to terms with what happened? How can they possibly make a difference? Who is the “All-American Boy?” Who can you trust, if not the police? What does racism look like in America today? Are you guilty if you do nothing to help?
This book is perfect in every way. By telling the story from Rashad’s and Quinn’s points of view, it allows the reader to approach the problem of police brutality and racism from two sides: the victim and the bystander. When it comes down to it, don’t most of us fall into one of these two camps? This is a question that authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely raise with this novel: if you are not one of the oppressed, and you do nothing to help those who are oppressed, does that mean that you are on the side of the oppressor? While this book may be difficult for some people to read, it is well worth the sadness and pain in order to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This book is timely, well-written, and will surely ignite the necessary discussions that we must have in order to address the national epidemic of racial profiling and police brutality. I would highly suggest this book to anyone, especially those who are struggling to understand their place in the national conversation about police brutality.
Willowdean Dickson, or “Dumplin,” as her mom calls her, is a self-proclaimed fat-girl and Dolly Parton fan. She and her mother live in Texas, the land of beauty pageants and greasy fast-food places. Willowdean is much more into the fast-food scene, working at Harpy’s alongside brooding hottie Bo. Her mom, a former beauty queen, is all about the Miss Clover City beauty pageant, allowing it to take over their home and her life as it draws near.
Everything seems peachy for Willowdean until she and Bo begin a secret relationship. Suddenly, Will can’t stand the way her body looks and feels, and her trademark confidence takes a major nose-dive. In order to show herself and her mom that she’s just as worthy as the skinny-minnies who enter the Miss Clover City pageant, Will signs up, and accidentally brings some new friends along with her. Willowdean doesn’t mean to start a revolution, but she sure has one on her hands when people find out that she is going to compete for the crown. Can she keep her cool and gain back her confidence?
One thing that is really excellent about this book is how honest Willowdean is about how she views her body. Most days, she is perfectly comfortable with being the “fat-girl” in the room. If you were to ask her about her bathing-suit body, she would say, “Do you have a body? Put a swimsuit on it.” (Love the original artwork by Simini Blocker!)
However, Willowdean has just a complicated relationship with her body as she does with the mysterious Harpy’s hunk, Bo. When Will’s and Bo’s relationship gets more physical, Willowdean’s confidence starts to crack and crumble right before the reader’s eyes. The way Willowdean deals with her self-consciousness is so real and heart-breaking; she not only begins to doubt herself and her own worth, but she also sabotages her relationships with the people closest to her.
Luckily, this book has an imperfect happy ending, not because it could have been written better, but because people are imperfect, Willowdean is imperfect, and the book is a realistic portrayal of real life, which is imperfect, whether you’re fat or skinny or in between.
Fans of Julie Murphy’s debut novel, Side Effects May Vary, John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park will love this new novel. Come down to the library to check it out today!