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Books We Love... 

that you need to read

A book recommendations blog by writers of colour

  • Writer's pictureJhalak Prize

Maisie Chan, winner of Jhalak Children’s & Young Adult Prize for her middle grade book book Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths (Piccadilly Press) recommends five books that influenced her as a person and writer.

I loved this book so much that I did my B.A. dissertation on it! I didn't grow up with a Chinese mother in my life, so I was fascinated by the prospect of what that relationship might have been like if I had and this book was all about the mother-daughter relationship. It was one of the few books I'd read with a myriad of Chinese diaspora characters. I remember crying whilst reading it and also later when I watched the film by Wayne Wang. I think it's one of the first books I read where I realised how much representation mattered.

I read this book with a lump in my throat and a heavy stone-like feeling in my chest. The book is narrated by a black boy who was shot by a policeman, his ghost seeks justice and answers. It's a book that makes you question things, feel anger, and have empathy. It's a brilliant and important book about black lives, police brutality, and about young lives taken too soon.

This is one of my favourite books. A.M. Dassu put her heart into this book. The detail and care that has been taken to chart the journey of a Syrian boy's life from his home country to the stark reality of a somewhat hostile Britain. It's well researched and beautifully written. One of the best things about the book is the sense that this could happen to anyone. Anyone in the world could become a refugee at some point in their lives.

This is a picture book but for all ages. It's a clever and also sad book (with a hopeful ending) that follows the life of a cicada who works everyday in a thankless office job where he is underappreciated and dispensable. I love the illustrations and the allegory about human existence. I think Shaun Tan is an immense talent and the power of pictures can be seen clearly in all of his work. What I appreciate with this book is that children and adults can both enjoy and understand this book and what it's trying to say.

Catherine Johnson is such a good writer! This novel is brilliant. It's historical so you learn something new about people of colour in England in the 1800s. It's full of intrigue and action. Is Princess Caraboo who she says she is? It's a great example of how you can push the boundaries of what young adult fiction is. It was one of the first YA books I read when I was starting to think about becoming a children's author and it made me realise how much variety there is out there for children and teens which was not the case when I was a child.

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Just in time for Christmas: Award-winning children’s author Rashmi Sirdeshpande picks some of her favourite Children’s/YA reads from past Jhalak Prize longlists. She’s an official World Book Day author for 2022 and her latest non-fiction book, Good News illustrated by Adam Hayes, has been shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Awards 2022.

This book is just gorgeous through and through! I fell in love with it as soon as I had it in my hands. Combine Atinuke’s utterly charming and captivating storytelling with Onyinye Iwu’s beautiful artwork (she is 100% one to watch!) and you have a series that will enchant readers young and old. Tola is the most wonderful character - small and full of determination - and her story will transport you instantly to Lagos. Imagine! Where were these books when I was growing up? I’m so glad they are here now and available to children everywhere so they can travel the world through these pages and see it for all its richness.

A fun, fast-paced adventure set in the beautiful and vibrant world of Serendib, a fascinating fictional setting inspired by Sri Lanka. Wonderfully atmospheric, I was immediately immersed in the story. Transported, in fact. And I know it’s one that has been loved and enjoyed by children all over the world. I mean what more can you ask for? It’s got mystery, fantastic friendships, brilliant banter, a gorgeous jungle setting, and an actual ELEPHANT, and it gets extra points because it features a bold protagonist (Chaya), a jewel thief who doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone.

Written by the absolute queen of historical fiction, this book shines a light on the true story of 18th century freedom fighter and leader of the Jamaican Maroons, Queen Nanny. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about this fierce and glorious woman who waged war against British colonisers. She was the mastermind behind an epic resistance movement and while the book doesn’t hold back in its descriptions of the terrors inflicted upon enslaved people, it is a truly uplifting tale of courage and determination. And it’s written in such an accessible way, bringing this important and heroic story to a young audience in a way that is exciting, empowering, and hopeful.

This book blew me away. I can’t stop thinking about it. Inspired by a real-life uprising in Jamaican plantations in 1760, Cane Warriors is a beautifully written, powerful and hopeful book that everyone needs to read. It’s absolutely brutal but with the most tender moments of family and friendship and faith in a brighter future. We see this world of the plantations and the uprising through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Moa, a character crafted and written with such care and sensitivity and depth. In this way, Alex Wheatle introduces us to a heart breaking piece of British history that we all need to understand and learn from and heroes for every single one of us to hold close to our hearts.

I can’t make a Children’s/YA list without including Patrice Lawrence, a formidable writer with the most incredible voice. And this is the thing. Eight Pieces of Silva is a pacy page-turner of a story but above all, for me, it’s a masterclass in voice. I loved Becks from the second I met her on the page. Books are a journey in empathy and with this one, you truly do see the world through her eyes and feel with her every step of the way. And don’t get me started on how much I LOVE the pop culture references in this book - Black Panther, for example! It’s all so real and fresh and bang on in every way. Loved it.

Editor's note: We are particularly delighted that Rashmi picked Eight Pieces of Silva, our inaugural C&YA winner

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Peter Kalu, novelist, poet, essayist, critic and educator, was on our judging panel in 2021. In the second of his blog posts, he recommends the books he read and loved, and that are essential additions to the canon.

Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us About Love and Relationships by Dr Camilla Pang

A pop science book written by someone on the autistic spectrum. Chapter 1 on the virtues of tree thinking over box thinking is excellent. I have not come across the comparison before. It actually makes a deeper and cogent point of the expression ‘to think outside of the box’ and many of the other common sayings the author focuses on. Of the ‘Help’ books I’ve read this year, this is one of the most impressive.

A series of essays from a radical black feminist perspective and containing within its arguments firm challenges to consumerist feminism and neo-liberal feminism. The style is not academic: it does not have that drily, sideways crawl – that ‘scholastic stink’ that James Joyce noted adhered to much of academic writing to carry; nor is it journalistic – it eschews any needy, look-at-me flamboyance of style, wit or aphorism. Instead, the style is almost self-effacing in service of a series of well-argued essay-polemics that as a whole point out the deficit in analysis from standard liberal feminism and show the insights gained through examining the same issues using a radical black feminist lens. Feminism Interrupted quietly gets on with doing the intellectual work of challenging feminist orthodoxy. These are closely-argued essays that are intellectually stimulating, and Olufemi’s is a voice to listen out for.

A collection of poems, with energies and themes that range from the experimental to language to the blues. The gimbal poetry featured in the collection is worth noting, with its inherent considerations of movement, migration, circulation and stasis: to create a new poem is one thing, to create a new poetry form – one that works for the centrifugal 21 century in the way the sonnet must have worked for the iambic 16th century – is something else.

To language. It’s been a puzzle for me why polyglot poets write their works in one language only, when they possess two or more. The Ghanaian language, Ga features in Geez. There are poems I don’t fully understand but which I feel, and the lacunae open up rabbit holes of speculation.

Towards the end of the collection are a series of superb 12-line praise songs for well-known blues players. These form a mini book in themselves, and, what a launch it would be if musicians were found to play the poems’ rhythms on piano and strings, and Parkes, or a succession of singers, caressed the mic and howled the lines. As soon as this Covid time is over, let us hope the publisher, Peepal Tree hold this evening. As the ‘he’s a fool’ doctor in Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U says: ‘You gotta have fun!’

An excellently researched study of Toussaint Louverture using French, Spanish, English, American and Haitian sources, Black Spartacus gives a new insight into the life, thoughts and tactics of Touissant L’Ouverture. Black Spartacus’s broad thesis – of the innate originality and creativity of the Haitian thought and its primary influence on L’Ouverture represents a strong challenge to CLR James’ The Black Jacobins emphasis on French Enlightenment theory’s influence on L’Ouverture. The book’s argument that the Haitian Revolution – and not the American Revolution or the French Revolution – was the true harbinger of emancipation is a revolutionary toppling of orthodox Western thought that will gather and make waves for decades to come. This is a brilliantly written history with a radical, closely argued core.

Lote is a great intellectual banquet. Black Modernism is one of things it explores, particularly modernism’s rejection of neat endings, of consistency of character, its embrace of randomness and of a sense of an ordered world being unachievable. Lote also exhibits many tropes of postmodernism: multiple registers, multiple tones, multiple stylistic references. Its embrace of these modernist and postmodernist devices renders conventional/realist concerns with plot and character development secondary within its text. Instead, the book as a whole ripples with linguistic extravagance, rococo thought chains, esoteric research and methodological invention.

Ultimately, Lote as a text resists categorisation. It is fiction. But there is no hard-driving plot. It does have a fictional main character, Mathilda. But many other figures are actual historical figures rather than inventions and there significant sections of biography. The text can switch register easily from novel to art history to biography to news report to diary. For this reason, as well as the density of erudite references (the main character’s principal vocation is biographical research) it is not the kind of book that demands it be read in one sitting. But it is no lesser thing for that. Ultimately, qua literary text, the issue of polemics matters little here. The book is a triumph, a celebration of black oddity, extravagance and flamboyance. Lote is a breath-taking and singular addition to the weltering multiplicity of black literary voices/texts: a sauntering, sparkling, deep-diving joy of a novel.

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