Young adult books connect Black girls globally

Helen K. Thomas
Helen K. Thomas. Courtesy photo.

A fan of young adult fiction growing up in Seattle, Helen K. Thomas majored in English at Spelman College. She then explored different ways of thinking about the genre in a Master of Arts in Cultural Studies program in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell.

Now, she’s researching the global appeal of the books with a Fulbright award to lead reading circles with teen girls in Lagos, Nigeria.

Although the coronavirus pandemic is far from over, Thomas plans to start her nine-month Fulbright this spring. The girls in her reading circles will be at least 6 feet apart and wearing masks.

Thomas will be affiliated with a particular school, but she also hopes to work in a community setting to reach more diverse girls.

The power of literature

“My goal is to see how these books create a greater sense of agency in the Nigerian girls’ sense of their future, and then also to see how reading these books creates a stronger sense of community and interest in other Black girls around the world,” Thomas said.

It also will be a personal journey for Thomas, who was born in Lagos and came to the United States as a 5-year-old. She made a brief visit to Africa a few years ago, but this will be her first opportunity to spend this much time in Nigeria.

A reader of all kinds of literature, Thomas always has had a passion for young adult books. On a library shelf, the books are identified with YA on the spine. YA authors are not afraid to lean into what it really feels like to be a teenager, she said.

“With YA, I love that you’re allowed to be emotional and explore the world genuinely and with a sense of curiosity,” Thomas said. “I’ve always loved the books that allowed me to step into somebody else’s shoes or reflected who I was growing up.”

YA influences

One of the books she recalls reading as a girl was the “The Skin I’m In” by Sharon G. Flake. Published in 1998, the book is about a “Black girl in middle school learning to stand up for herself and learning to be brave and love herself,” Thomas said.

Some other favorite authors are Brandy Colbert, perhaps best known for “Little & Lion,” and Tiffany D. Jackson, known for “Allegedly,” and “Monday’s Not Coming.” Featuring a Black woman author and Black girl protagonist, “Monday’s not Coming” is one of the books Thomas hopes will foster a sense of global citizenship in the reading circles in Nigeria.

“It’s so important to feel connected to other people that may look like you — that may not look like you,” she said. “Just because you live in one country doesn’t mean you are entirely different from somebody who lives in another country or different continent. I think literature is a way to build that empathy, and build that interest and build that connection.”

Thomas has written YA fiction as an adult, both short stories and book drafts. She’s also interested in screenwriting and was a 2020 fellow in the Jack Straw Writers Program in Seattle.

Researching culture

As a 2016 graduate of UW Bothell’s MACS program, Thomas said, “I carry what I learned with me every day in how I interact with people, how I see the world and better understand why what’s going on is going on.”

The faculty encouraged her intellectual curiosity and rigor, she added, noting that especially influential were Associate Professor Susan Harewood, Professor Ron Krabill, Associate Professor Lauren Berliner and Assistant Professor Sarah Dowling. “They were all genuine champions of the work that I was doing, and that really meant the world to me.”

“I really feel the work I did in my grad program at Bothell was a precursor for me being able to do the work I’m about to do on the Fulbright. I feel that while I was at Bothell, my interest in true research was born and flourished and encouraged,” she said.

“I’m excited to continue this research side of me, to bring that over from grad school and continue it with Fulbright.”

Fulbright is a prestigious federal program that funds teaching and research abroad to foster mutual understanding. More information is available from the UW Bothell Office of Global Initiatives.

YA favorites

Thomas read the popular “Hunger Games” series by Suzanne Collins and the “Twilight” series by Stephenie Meyer. Here are some other books Thomas loved reading:

  • “More Happy than Not” by Adam Silvera
  • “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds
  • “The First Part Last” by Angela Johnson
  • “Born Confused” by Tanuja Desai Hidier
  • “The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie.

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