18 Books for National Caribbean-American Heritage Month

In 2006, President George Bush signed a proclamation to establish June as National Caribbean-American Heritage Month. The purpose of the month is “to ensure that America is reminded that its greatness lies in its diversity.” The Caribbean—or West Indies—has thousands of islands; however, only 13 are independent countries. Many well-known American entertainers, athletes, and other public personalities are from the islands or are descendants of those who immigrated to the states. The literary world has benefitted from adult and children’s authors whose stories exude the language, culture, and traditions of the various islands. All of the authors of the books listed, except for Latisha Redding, are of Caribbean heritage. The stories are fiction and include picture, middle-grade, and young adult selections. Happy Reading! Our stories matter.

Looking for Bongo – Eric Velasquez 

Oh no! A boy’s beloved stuffed toy, Bongo, is missing. No one can help him. When he asks his abuela where Bongo is, she answers, “Yo no sé. I don’t know.” Mom and Dad haven’t seen Bongo either. Gato just says “Meow,” and runs away. When Bongo finally turns up behind Dad’s drum, the problem of Bongo’s whereabouts is resolved . . . but it doesn’t answer how Bongo got there! The boy decides to set a trap to catch the Bongo thief.

Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale – Marjuan Canady, Illustrator – Nabeeh Bilal 

Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale follows Winston, a young inner city boy who goes to Brooklyn, NY to get ingredients for his Aunt’s callaloo dinner when he magically is transported to the Caribbean island of Tobago. Here, he encounters mythical folkloric characters that roam the island. Winston’s fears and fantasies fuse together as his dreams become reality. He must find his way out of this haunting paradise to make it back home.

Calling the Water Drum – Latisha Redding, Illustrator – Aaron Boyd 

Henri and his parents leave their homeland, Haiti, after they receive an invitation from an uncle to come to New York City. Only able to afford a small, rickety boat, the family sets out in the middle of the night in search of a better life. Out at sea Henri dreams of what life will be like across the great waters. Then the small boat overturns, and Henri is placed on top of the boat as his parents drift further out at sea. Overcome with grief, Henri retreats into himself and is no longer able to speak once he reaches land. Encouraged by his uncle and neighbor, Henri takes a bucket and plays on it like a drum. The drumming becomes a link to his past and a conduit for his emotions. Slowly, through his drumming and the kindness of his uncle and friend, Henri learns to navigate this new and foreign world without his parents. Calling the Water Drum is a tender and timely tribute to the bravery of immigrants and refugees, and the resiliency of the human spirit.”

Rice & Rocks – Sandra L. Richards, Illustrator – Megan Kayleigh Sullivan 

Giovanni’s friends are coming over for Sunday dinner, and his grandmother is serving rice and beans. Giovanni is embarrassed he does not like ‘rice and rocks’ and worries his friends will think the traditional Jamaican dish is weird. But his favorite Auntie comes to the rescue. She and Giovanni’s pet parrot, Jasper, take him on a magical journey across the globe, visiting places where people eat rice and rocks. This exciting story celebrates the varied traditions of every culture while also highlighting the delicious similarities that bring us all together.

The Face at the WindowRegina Hanson, Illustrator – Linda Saport 

Dora learns to overcome her fears of a mentally ill woman who lives in her community in this gentle and compassionate story set in contemporary Jamaica, West Indies.

A Shelter in Our Car – Monica Gunning, Illustrator – Elaine Pedlar 

Zettie and her Mama left their warm and comfortable home in Jamaica for an uncertain life in the United Sates. With Papa gone, Mama can’t find a steady job that will sustain them and so they are forced to live in their car. But Mama’s unwavering love, support, and gutsy determination give Zettie the confidence that, together, she and her mother can meet all challenges. Monica Gunning’s moving and authentic story about homelessness in an American city was developed with the help of the Homeless Children’s Network in San Francisco. Elaine Pedlar’s strong and lively illustrations bring the story to life in vibrant chalk pastel.

The Color of My Words – Lynn Joseph 

Twelve-year-old Ana Rosa is a blossoming writer growing up in the Dominican Republic, a country where words are feared. Yet there is so much inspiration all around her–watching her brother search for a future, learning to dance and to love, and finding out what it means to be part of a community–that Ana Rosa must write it all down. As she struggles to find her own voice and a way to make it heard, Ana Rosa realizes the power of her words to transform the world around her–and to transcend the most unthinkable of tragedies.

The Jumbies – Tracey Baptiste 

Corinne La Mer claims she isn’t afraid of anything. Not scorpions, not the boys who tease her, and certainly not jumbies. They’re just tricksters made up by parents to frighten their children. Then one night Corinne chases an agouti all the way into the forbidden forest, and shining yellow eyes follow her to the edge of the trees. They couldn’t belong to a jumbie. Or could they? When Corinne spots a beautiful stranger at the market the very next day, she knows something extraordinary is about to happen. When this same beauty, called Severine, turns up at Corinne’s house, danger is in the air. Severine plans to claim the entire island for the jumbies. Corinne must call on her courage and her friends and learn to use ancient magic she didn’t know she possessed to stop Severine and to save her island home.

Game World – Christopher John Farley 

Dylan Rudee’s life is an epic fail. He’s bullied at school, and the aunt who has raised him since he was orphaned as a child, just lost her job and their apartment. Dylan’s one chance to help his family is the only thing he’s good at: video games. The multibillion-dollar company Mee Corp. has announced a televised tournament to find the Game-Changers: the forty-four kids who are the best in the world at playing Xamaica, a role-playing fantasy game that’s sweeping the planet. If Dylan can win the top prize, he just might be able to change his life. It turns out that Dylan is the greatest gamer anyone has ever seen, and his skills unlock a real-life fantasy world inside the game. Now actual monsters are trying to kill him, and he is swept up into an adventure along…Dylan must solve a dangerous mystery in three days and uncover secrets about Xamaica, his family, and himself. But will he discover his hidden powers before two worlds–Xamaica and Earth–are completely destroyed?

Behind the Mountains – Edwidge Danticat 
It is election time in Haiti, and bombs are going off in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. During a visit from her home in rural Haiti, Celiane Espérance and her mother are nearly killed. Looking at her country with new eyes, Celiane gains a fresh resolve to be reunited with her father in Brooklyn, New York. The harsh winter and concrete landscape of her new home are a shock to Celiane, who witnesses her parents’ struggle to earn a living, her brother’s uneasy adjustment to American society, and her own encounters with learning difficulties and school violence.

Secret Saturdays – Torrey Maldonado 

Sean is Justin’s best friend, or at least he thought he was. Lately Sean has been lying, getting into trouble, fighting, and hanging out with a tougher crowd. When Justin discovers that Sean has been secretly going to visit his father in prison and is dealing with the shame of that, Justin wants to help before his friend spirals further out of control. Should Justin risk losing his best friend in order to save him? 

Marisol and Magdalena: The Sound of Our Sisterhood – Veronica Chambers 

Separated from her best friend in Brooklyn, thirteen-year-old Marisol spends a year with her grandmother in Panama where she secretly searches for her real father.

Touching Snow – M. Sindy Felin 

Karina has plenty to worry about on the last day of seventh grade: finding three Ds and a C on her report card again, getting laughed at by everyone again, being sent to the principal — again. She’d like this to change, but with her and her sisters dodging their stepfather’s fists every day after school, she doesn’t have time to do much self-reflecting. Finally her stepfather is taken away on child abuse charges, and Karina thinks things might turn into something resembling normal. The problem is, he’s not gone for good. And as Karina becomes closer with a girl at the community center where her stepfather is not showing up for his parenting classes, she starts to realize a couple things. First, for all the problems her family had tried to escape by immigrating from Haiti, they brought most of them along to upstate New York. And second, if anything is going to change for this family, it is going to be up to Karina and her sisters to make it happen. M. Sindy Felin’s debut novel is the story of a young girl’s coming-of-age amid the violent waters that run just beneath the surface of suburbia — a story that has the courage to ask: How far will you go to protect the ones you love?

The Chaos – Nalo Hopkinson 

Sixteen-year-old Scotch struggles to fit in—at home she’s the perfect daughter, at school she’s provocatively sassy, and thanks to her mixed heritage, she doesn’t feel she belongs with the Caribbeans, whites, or blacks. And even more troubling, lately her skin is becoming covered in a sticky black substance that can’t be removed. While trying to cope with this creepiness, she goes out with her brother—and he disappears. A mysterious bubble of light just swallows him up, and Scotch has no idea how to find him. Soon, the Chaos that has claimed her brother affects the city at large, until it seems like everyone is turning into crazy creatures. Scotch needs to get to the bottom of this supernatural situation ASAP before the Chaos consumes everything she’s ever known—and she knows that the black shadowy entity that’s begun trailing her every move is probably not going to help. A blend of fantasy and Caribbean folklore, at its heart this tale is about identity and self-acceptance—because only by acknowledging her imperfections can Scotch hope to save her brother.

Land of Love and Drowning: A Novel – Tiphanie Yanique   

In the early 1900s, the Virgin Islands are transferred from Danish to American rule, and an important ship sinks into the Caribbean Sea. Orphaned by the shipwreck are two sisters and their half-brother, now faced with an uncertain identity and future. Each of them is unusually beautiful, and each is in possession of a particular magic that will either sink or save them. Chronicling three generations of an island family from 1916 to the 1970s, Land of Love and Drowning is a novel of love and magic, set against the emergence of Saint Thomas into the modern world. Uniquely imagined, with echoes of Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, and the author’s own Caribbean family history, the story is told in a language and rhythm that evoke an entire world and way of life and love. Following the Bradshaw family through sixty years of fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, love affairs, curses, magical gifts, loyalties, births, deaths, and triumphs, Land of Love and Drowning is a gorgeous, vibrant debut by an exciting, prizewinning young writer.

The Star Side of Bird Hill: A Novel – Naomi Jackson 

This lyrical novel of community, betrayal, and love centers on an unforgettable matriarchal family in Barbados. Two sisters, ages ten and sixteen, are exiled from Brooklyn to Bird Hill in Barbados after their mother can no longer care for them. The young Phaedra and her older sister, Dionne, live for the summer of 1989 with their grandmother Hyacinth, a midwife and practitioner of the local spiritual practice of obeah. Dionne spends the summer in search of love, testing her grandmother’s limits, and wanting to go home. Phaedra explores Bird Hill, where her family has lived for generations, accompanies her grandmother in her role as a midwife, and investigates their mother’s mysterious life. This tautly paced coming-of-age story builds to a crisis when the father they barely know comes to Bird Hill to reclaim his daughters, and both Phaedra and Dionne must choose between the Brooklyn they once knew and loved or the Barbados of their family. Jackson’s Barbados and her characters are singular, especially the wise Hyacinth and the heartbreaking young Phaedra, who is coming into her own as a young woman amid the tumult of her family.

Efrain’s Secret – Sofia Quintero 

Ambitious high school senior Efrain Rodriguez dreams of escaping the South Bronx for an Ivy League college like Harvard or Yale. But how is his family going to afford to pay for a prestigious university when Moms has to work insane hours to put food on the table as it is? And Efrain wouldn’t dare ask that good-for-nothing father of his who has traded his family in for younger models. Left with few options, Efrain chooses to do something he never thought he would. He embarks on a double life—honor student by day, drug peddler at night—convinced that by temporarily capitulating to society’s negative expectations of a boy like him, he can eventually defy them. Sofia Quintero makes a stunning debut writing for young adults with this gritty, complex, and real exploration of the life of an urban teen whose attempt to leave one world behind for a better one could cost him everything.

American Street – Ibi Zoboi 

In this stunning debut novel, Pushcart-nominated author Ibi Zoboi draws on her own experience as a young Haitian immigrant, infusing this lyrical exploration of America with magical realism and vodou culture. On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life. But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own. Just as she finds her footing in this strange new world, a dangerous proposition presents itself, and Fabiola soon realizes that freedom comes at a cost. Trapped at the crossroads of an impossible choice, will she pay the price for the American dream?




1 Comment

  1. Elizabeth Wagner says:

    I loved a picture book. Island Baby. A book about a boy his grandfather and a flamingo. I think the story takes place in Barbados.