The Meaningful Mundane:
6 Classic Books That Depict Black Girlhood
Kai Harris Recommends Jesmyn Ward, Toni Morrison,
Angie Thomas, and Others
I was 12 years old the first time I read a book with a Black girl as the main character. It was seventh grade and we’d been reading the Dear America series—hardbound books with big themes and cute little satin bookmarks. This one was I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly: The Diary of Patsy, a Freed Girl, written by Joyce Hansen. I remember being excited when I saw Patsy’s face on the cover—just about the same color as me and wearing her hair like I sometimes wore mine.
I also remember being embarrassed once I realized that all my classmates were making fun of Patsy. They didn’t want to read about some slave girl they had nothing in common with. Meanwhile, reading about Patsy was the first time I had even come close to seeing myself in a book. Her story was completely different from mine, but at least she looked like me, struggled like me. I was sure I had more in common with Patsy than I did with my complaining classmates.
After Patsy, I tried to get my hands on as many books with Black characters as I could. But when I did find Black girls in books, they were side characters or plot devices, and the books where Black people featured prominently were about slavery. I wondered, where are all the books about regular Black people, little Black girls like me who have struggles and pain but who also have fun and adventures? When I began writing my novel, What the Fireflies Knew, it was because I wanted to see parts of myself and my childhood on the page. KB’s story is not my story, but I hid little pieces of myself in her. And what emerged was a story of Black girlhood, featuring a curious, joyful, traumatized, and regular Black girl. I quickly discovered that when we are the main characters of our own stories, it shows us that we are valuable, we are worthy, we are seen and heard. We matter.
Black girlhood stories show the mundane, painful, and beautiful parts of growing up as a Black girl. They give voice to Black girls and women on topics of beauty, discrimination, class, racism, colorism, and mother/daughter relationships. They take the typical components of coming-of-age stories—confronting fears, taking responsibility, finding a sense of self, coming to terms with the unfair nature of the world—and reimagine them through the eyes of regular Black girls, just like me. They are difficult stories to write—because of their layers, their pain, their visceral and unfiltered truth. But they are necessary, for Black girls and for the world. Here are my favorite portrayals of Black girlhood in fiction; the books that taught me about writing Black girlhood, the books that taught me about myself.
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
With her very first novel, Toni Morrison changed many lives—including mine. The Bluest Eye tells the story of a young Black girl named Pecola who struggles with her identity. She desires blue eyes, which she equates with whiteness, after being treated poorly due to her dark skin. As the legend goes, Toni Morrison began writing the book because she wanted to talk and write about Black girlhood. She decided to venture away from the norm and write a story focused on the realities that Black people were facing, even though it eventually meant her book would become one of the most frequently banned books of all time. Still, The Bluest Eye stands as one of the most poignant tales of Black girlhood, filled with meaningful lessons on the negative impacts of racism/white supremacy and giving voice to characters often overlooked in fiction.
Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
One of the most honest, visceral, and profound accounts of Black girlhood I’ve ever read was in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. This book is told through the voice of 15-year-old Esch, as she and her family prepare for a hurricane—a hurricane they don’t yet know will be Hurricane Katrina. Ward’s novel spoke to me in ways I didn’t expect. Esch’s first person narrative gives priority to the unfiltered experience of a Black girl in a moment of extreme turmoil and indecision, which as readers, we become intimately connected to. We root for Esch, we cry for Esch, we love Esch. Her voice is authentically Black; her experiences authentically human. The way Salvage the Bones portrays Esch’s humanity, her full experience, is what convinced me to write a book, and was the book I used as an example when trying to put my own words out into the world.
Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
I first read Annie John—the evocative and soul-stirring coming-of-age tale of a young girl growing up on the island of Antigua—in 2019, as part of my PhD comprehensive exams. I was studying Black girlhood and didn’t expect to discover a title I was unfamiliar with. Imagine my surprise, then, when I began reading Annie John and found a character so much like my own main character, KB; so much like me. I read in awe as Annie, in her unique and unwavering voice, learned familiarly hard lessons on growing up and finding herself. Somehow its influence was felt throughout my own book before I had even read it. That is the power and beauty of Black girlhood stories.
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
One of the most impactful movies I remember watching when growing up was The Color Purple. The movie was released the year I was born, and I was pretty young when I watched it for the first time. Although I was too young to fully understand and appreciate many of the themes, I was moved by the Black cast, and specifically, the storyline of two separated sisters who find a way back to each other in the end. It wasn’t until high school that I read the book for the first time. I was drawn to the epistolary style and found Celie’s letters both beautiful and heartbreaking. Parts of the book were still confusing for me, but I felt connected to the trauma and loss Celie experienced. I re-read the book when I was in grad school and it immediately became one of my favorite books of all time. I am continually inspired by Alice Walker’s commitment to using writing as a means of showing the beauty and horror of truth.
Jacqueline Woodson, Red at the Bone
It was difficult to select just one book by Jacqueline Woodson for this list, because her writing regularly centers on youth of color, with Woodson wanting them to see themselves—finally, fully—in books. I decided on Red at the Bone, an adult novel in which Woodson explores history, community, and family legacy. What makes this story unique is Woodson’s decision to tell the story of a family by centering on the Black girlhood experiences of 16-year-old Melody as well as those of her mother, years before, at the same age. Books, according to Woodson, should act as both mirrors and windows, a metaphor from an eminent scholar of children’s literature, Rudine Sims Bishop—they should both reflect people’s experiences and offer windows into different worlds. By centering Melody and her mother’s stories, Woodson designs a powerful and poetic Black girlhood tale steeped in tradition and legacy that teaches the world about Black girlhood, while welcoming Black girls with open arms.
Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give
Based on the Black Lives Matter movement, Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give tells the story of 16-year-old Starr, who lives her life as a balancing act between two worlds. This balance is shaken when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her unarmed childhood best friend at the hands of a police officer. Though centered around this tragedy, The Hate U Give stands true to the legacy of Black girlhood fiction by giving Starr an authentic voice, allowing her to tell her own story in her own way. When I read this book, two things stood out to me. First: how easy it was for me to understand Starr’s perspective, because it felt so much like my own.
The second thing that stood out to me was how much my work-in-progress was like The Hate U Give. Again, I found so many connections between the stories I tell (and the ways I tell those stories) with other tales of Black girlhood. And this is the beauty of Black girlhood in fiction: the stories we tell about Black girls will resonate with Black girls, but they are also universal tales of self-love and acceptance, pain and joy, strength and trauma, which will resonate with every reader. They are stories that the world needs to hear.
What the Fireflies Knew by Kai Harris is available now from Tiny Reparations Books.