The best teen/YA Caribbean novels for readers everywhere

Joanne C. Hillhouse Author Of Musical Youth
By Joanne C. Hillhouse

Who am I?

I am an Antiguan-Barbudan writer. When I was a teen, there weren’t a lot of books from my world. So, I was excited when the Burt Award for teen/young adult Caribbean literature was announced. While that prize ran its course after five years, it left a library of great books in this genre, including my own Musical Youth which placed second in the inaugural year of the prize. I have since served as a judge of the Caribbean prize and mentor for the Africa-leg. I love that this series of books tap into different genres and styles in demonstrating the dynamism of modern Caribbean literature. For more on me, my books, and my take on books, visit my website.

I wrote...

Musical Youth

By Joanne C. Hillhouse,

Book cover of Musical Youth

What is my book about?

Musical Youth follows Zahara, Shaka, and their mixed group of friends over a summer of music, creativity, personal discovery, and love in Antigua. It has been a CODE Burt Award finalist for teen/young adult Caribbean literature; and a Kirkus Book of the Year, and top teen and romance indie. It received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, and has variously been described as a “must-read”, “compelling”, “beautifully crafted”, and “un-put-downable” by readers and critics alike.

While tackling themes like colourism and family secrets, it also manages to be joyful. Per Caribbean Beat magazine, its strength is in “never shying away from the truth about our problems, while simultaneously celebrating the hard-won historical joys of our freedom – as citizens and music makers alike.”  

The books I picked & why

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Children of the Spider

By Imam Baksh,

Book cover of Children of the Spider

Why this book?

Each book listed – including mine – was a top-three finalist for the Burt Award for teen/young adult Caribbean fiction. Children of the Spider stands apart as a blend of fantasy adventure and Caribbean folklore, its teen protagonists on their world-saving mission. It moves from the jungles of Guyana to the city, which is another kind of jungle, and has a fresh take on the legendary West African demi-god Anansi. These kids (a girl who makes a desperate leap between worlds, a boy not slowed by his handicap, and a boy from the streets) have nothing but each other and a trickster spider, maybe, as they face down monsters which seem to be everywhere. It’s an adrenaline rush across a magical landscape. It’s the Anansi reboot for me!

Daylight Come

By Diana McCaulay,

Book cover of Daylight Come

Why this book?

I actually have two books by this Jamaican author and environmental activist to recommend but this one feels more urgent. It is a climate change future dystopia set in the Caribbean, which in reality is among the most vulnerable to climate change notwithstanding its comparably small carbon footprint and often muted voice. In this story, youth is an asset and the sun has become deadly; it is survival of the fittest, and the fittest are whoever can survive the rough terrain, the angry packs, the totalitarian state, and the night. It is also a story built on love and alliances and adaptation; the things that could potentially save us in this reality. It’s the climate change messaging for me!

All Over Again

By A-dziko Simba Gegele,

Book cover of All Over Again

Why this book?

This has often been recommended for boys (including by me) but, since there is no such thing as exclusively boy books and girl books, I’m calling this a good book period – with a highly entertaining and deeply endearing adolescent-ish boy, surrounded by a robust cast of supporting characters, at its center. More vignettes than plot, it is rooted in character and voice – in this case, the rare and highly effective use of the second voice. Tonally, it’s a callback to the adventures of boyhood captured in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and the mostly harmless incorrigibility of the boy protagonist as he moves between home, school, and community (the community, in this case, being rural Jamaica), getting into trouble and growing up. It’s the heart and humour for me!

Home Home

By Lisa Allen-Agostini,

Book cover of Home Home

Why this book?

The interiority of a depressed, perpetually anxious, and possibly suicidal teen girl recently relocated from Trinidad to Canada is captured with detail and sensitivity. Her trusted circle consists of a single friend from home, her aunt and aunt’s partner with whom she lives in Edmonton, and a new boy, who stirs other complicated feelings in her. The fractures in her relationship with her mother, back home, remain unhealed. It is a deeply melancholic book but it can also potentially make any young person struggling with the same issues feel a little less alone. All of Burt's books are published by Caribbean publishers; to Home Home’s credit, it is one of a handful to have also been released with the US publisher. It’s the realness and insight for me!

The Art of White Roses

By Viviana Prado-Núñez,

Book cover of The Art of White Roses

Why this book?

The Puerto Rican author draws on her grandmother’s experience to tell the story of a girl in Cuba on the cusp of revolution. While the historical fiction follows the day-to-day of the girl emerging to teen-hood and her family – brother, mother, father, and abuelo – it also feels dangerous as bombs go off, people are disappeared, and shadows of a more personal kind encroach on her familial bliss. Through this prism, the reader gets a sense of the class and power dynamics at play, from school where sadistic nuns are the law to the Law which acts with cruel impunity, and the resentment, heartache, and violence simmering underneath the alluring resort island. It’s the pressure cooker on the verge of blowing its lid for me!

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