Latinx representation in literature is scarce but the following writers and books helped elevate Latinx stories this year. We got to meet strong Latinx heroines written by strong Latina writers amplifying our stories and cultura in the literary space. The following ten books are some of the top young adult books ranging from suspense to magical realism to contemporary life with a Latinx angle. From Elizabeth Acevedo’s Afro-Latina lead in With the Fire on High to a biracial queer Latina in Michelle Ruiz Keil’s All of Us with Wings to the Latina feminists in Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams, read on to discover ten of the best Latinx young adults novels of 2019.
The Truth Is by NoNieqa Ramos
In The Truth Is by NoNieqa Ramos, Verdad de la Reyna is a 15-year-old queer, Puerto Rican with post-traumatic stress disorder coping with a multitude of traumas that would overwhelm any adult. As she navigates transphobia, colorism, and homophobia, Ramos deftly displays Verdad’s own biases as she comes to terms with her queerness and internalized anti-blackness. This powerful novel is loaded with heartbreaking moments but also a message of resilience and discovering self-love made that much more meaningful with such a young protagonist. Ramos is also a queer Puerto Rican who grew up in the Bronx and through her works — including the novel’s predecessor The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary — she’s amplifying the voices of marginalized communities.
With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Food is huge in Latinx culture and for this follow-up to the mega-successful debut The Poet X, Dominican author Elizabeth Acevedo takes a cue from the beloved novel Like Water for Chocolate showcasing a teen’s love affair with food. With the Fire on High tells the story of Afro Emoni Santiago, a single mom on her senior year of high school balancing motherhood, school, family, a budding romance and her passion for culinary arts. The dishes reflect both her African American and Puerto Rican roots and through her cooking she learns about her heritage but also makes each dish her own, letting her personality shine through. “I hope young Latinx readers, particularly if they are Afro-Latinx, see that they are allowed to be the heroes, they are allowed to live loudly and colorfully and with their whole selves,” Acevedo told HipLatina earlier this year.
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia
Dystopian feminist novel We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia is a vehicle for Mejia to dissect the oppression Latinas and queer Latinx face interweaved the elements of fantasy for a truly one of kind tale of brujeria and resistance. The protagonist is Dani Vargas, a top student at a school for girls where they’re exclusively trained for marriage and motherhood. Dani finds herself in a forbidden love affair while also battling with the possibility that her secret about her identity will be revealed, ruining her opportunity to stay at the prestigious school. The fear of disappointing her parents — who made great sacrifices to get her in — is apparent throughout the novel as Mejia’s way of exploring how those sacrifices can impact self-worth and identity development. Mejia — who is Mexican-American — also explores white privilege among Latinx and how Dani comes to terms with her own privilege which is weighed down by her intergenerational trauma. Showcasing queer love while exploring heavier themes of privilege, identity politics and resistance with a fantasy backdrop, makes this a one-of-a-kind entry into the YA Latinx genre. Book II of this duology, We Unleash the Merciless Storm comes out in February of next year.
Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera
Imagine a world where machismo doesn’t exist and instead has been replaced with toxic femininity and you can get an idea of what Dealing in Dreams by Puerto Rican writer Lilliam Rivera is about. The dystopian feminist novel follows 16-year-old Nalah and her all-girl gang Las Mal Criadas on their journey toward the exclusive Mega Towers where they learn reaching the top isn’t what they thought it would be. Rivera explores how violence is a way of life and can be erroneously seen as a necessary tool toward salvation, leaving Nalah to decide what she wants for her life. This action-packed fantasy novel balances the more serious moments with major action with the crew of badass mujeres who can take care of themselves, making them one of the most memorable female heroines in YA books from the last few years.
Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno
Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno is a beach read for the bruja in you, mixing a little romance, Cuban culture, and spiritual elements. Moreno is a Cuban-Colombian who grew up in Miami. Biculturalism is also a part of the book with Rosa torn between her Cuban abuela and her mom, an erratic presence in her life in Port Coral, South Florida. Rosa fears she’s cursed when it comes to dating and she believes the sea is somehow involved, a reference to generational trauma of exile. As she begins to fall for a handsome and mysterious man named Alex Aquino, whose family owns the marina, she finds herself on a path toward healing and breaking the supposed curse. As she finds her way to Cuba, she begins to learn who she is through her roots and in turn discovers who she wants to be, with some romance interspersed throughout making it an authentic story of discovering love and yourself in the process.
Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika & Maritza Moulite
Dear Haiti, Love Alaine is an enchanting love letter to Haiti from Haitian sisters Maika and Maritza Moulite which is all about discovering your roots with some magical realism mixed in. Alaine Beauparlant is a 17-year-old living in Miami who plans to go to Colombia and follow her journalist mother’s footsteps when things go sideways and she ends up on a two-month trip to her homeland. With a lot of heart and humor, this story unfolds to reveal Alaine’s newfound appreciation for Haiti even as she discovers long-held family secrets. This is the Moulite’s sister’s debut novel and immediately received praise from critics and readers alike for its honest depiction of family relationships and Haitian culture.
All of Us with Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil
Magical realism and brujeria are at the core of Michelle Ruiz Keil’s All of Us with Wings, her debut novel about familia, love, and healing from trauma. The story is set in post-punk San Francisco, where 17-year-old Mexican-American Xochi lived alone until she became the governess of 12-year-old Pallas and moved in with her pagan musician family. One night they accidentally summon ancient beings (“Waterbabies”) determined to right the wrongs of Xochi’s past, unraveling life as they know it and setting her on a path toward healing. Xochi is a bisexual and biracial Mexican-American and through her story, Keil showcases what healing and recovery from trauma can be, especially for marginalized communities. The book features the perspectives of various characters (including a cat!) and deals with difficult topics including rape, underage relations, domestic violence, and drug use but it ends on an empowering note.
The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante
Hi! I'm Alex Villasante. In #TheGriefKeeper sisters Marisol & Gabi flee violence in El Salvador, crossing into the US. They're caught by ICE & given a choice: be deported or take part in a clinical trial for a device that transfers grief from one person to another. #LasMusas pic.twitter.com/bft9ZhY5rh
— Alex Villasante (@magpiewrites) August 29, 2019
This heartbreaking story by Alexandra Villasante depicts the tragic consequences when love and humans are deemed “illegal.” The Grief Keeper follows 17-year-old Marisol’s journey from life in El Salvador to making the trek to the U.S. border to escape the dangers of her homeland after her brother is murdered and her mom goes into hiding. She and her younger sister, Gabi, escape to the border to seek asylum but with the threat of deportation, she agrees to become a grief keeper, using a device that literally transfers the pain of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to her. As she acclimates to this new life, she finds herself falling for Rey, a white woman for whom she’s the grief keeper. This stunning debut takes on anti–LGBTQ sentiments, internalized racism, and the border crisis to reveal the heart behind what many only know through headlines. As Marisol works to help those with their pain, she learns to cope and work through her own to highlight how love and human connections are catalysts for healing and freedom.
Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal
This suspenseful thriller draws from the folklore of El Cuco with a series of mysterious murders in Puerto Rico. Five Midnights is Ann Dávila Cardinal’s debut and follows 16-year-old Lupe Dávila known as “the Gringa-Rican from Vermont” who gets more than the tourist experience in Puerto Rico when she gets entangled in some murderous activity. She meets Javier Utierre, 18, who has already had friends killed by this mysterious figure and together they set out to find the truth only to discover the Cuco could be the villain. Even though it’s a suspenseful take on the popular myth, it also has a bigger message about community, identity and battling inner demons.
They Could Have Named Her Anything by Stephanie Jimenez
They Could Have Named Her Anything by Stephanie Jimenez is a coming of age story with a young protagonist who battles adult issues that may be triggering for some readers. When 17-year-old Maria Anís Rosario befriends her classmate Rocky, she’s introduced to the culture of the bougie Upper East Side, a far cry from the small home she shares with her family in Queens. Maria and Rocky each have something the other wishes they had, money and a close-knit family, respectively, and it’s their actions toward attaining that that unravels their friendship. From issues of consent to racism, privilege, and betrayal, this story is a powerful look at how class and race affect their friendship.