“Black Girl Unlimited” Shows the Magic of Surviving and Thriving

In 2013, D.C. native Cashawn Thompson coined the phrase “Black girl magic” to celebrate the resilience and accomplishments of Black girls and women. Since then, the phrase has become a movement to acknowledge Black women from various fields and backgrounds. With her novel Black Girl Unlimited, author Echo Brown gives Black girl magic to a character that is partially inspired by Brown’s own experiences.

Echo Brown is a poor, dark-skinned Black girl who lives on the East Side in a small apartment, with little food. Her parents have drug addictions. She is also a wizard who can create portals to the West Side, where schools have plenty of resources for students and families are white and rich. Moving back and forth between both worlds, Echo is soon forced to give up parts of herself to fit in, and a dark veil threatens to engulf her. Now, Echo must call upon her magic to fight to be her fullest self.

With her novel Black Girl Unlimited, author Echo Brown gives Black girl magic to a character that is partially inspired by Brown’s own experiences.

One of the most notable things about this book is how honest it is. It doesn’t sugarcoat the many factors that influence the lives of Echo and those around her, including poverty, drug addiction, mental illnesses, colorism, sexual violence, and misogynoir. When the book opens, Echo’s house is on fire, and her mother, April, is passed out in a cocaine-induced coma. Echo is six years old. Yet the book is also honest in showing the magic that can come from Black people doing what they must to survive and thrive. Echo’s mother, April, is in fact the first person shown to be a wizard in the novel, providing for her children by making something out of nothing.

The book is also honest in showing the magic that can come from Black people doing what they must to survive and thrive.

The magic in this book is powerful because of how it is shown in the narrative. Through the use of elements of magical realism, Brown depicts magic as a force that can bestow something, change perspectives, and inspire others. Each chapter is organized into lessons that Echo learns as she comes of age and develops her magical abilities through experience and with the help of other wizards, who are family, neighbors, and friends. One of these abilities involves being able to see the light and darkness within others, which allows Echo to empathize more with others and be in touch with herself. Seeing the darkness is especially significant because of how Echo and other characters battle depression, which is symbolized by a black veil.

Yet the magic is only as powerful as the characters who use it. Significantly, the relationship between Echo and her mother involves multiple roles. Echo and April are mother and daughter and teacher and student, and what connects them is a complicated love rooted in intergenerational trauma. Both Echo and April experience the same trauma in different ways, and that affects their relationship and how they move through the world. Reading how the two of them experience and cope with trauma can be harrowing, but it can also provide comfort.

In addition to the characters who are wizards, there are also other notable characters who impact Echo in positive and negative ways. Echo’s brothers, Dre and Rone, give her a reason to survive and cultivate her magic to its fullest potential. On the other hand, Black male characters like Prince Mack and Mr. Coleman hinder Echo through actions and words that embody misogynoir, classism, and colorism. There are also characters like Tiffany, a Black girl who initially bullies Echo before she stops and takes a hard look at herself. Taken as a whole, the Black characters in this book are all flawed and relatable in some way.

Overall, Black Girl Unlimited is a brutal and beautiful read that shows there is magic in surviving and thriving.

One final aspect of this book I enjoyed was seeing Echo gradually learn to speak up for herself and others through her magic and as a budding writer. A poignant chapter shows Echo finally tapping into her true potential using poetry and magic. It is a communion of sorts that brings Black youth together in a dazzling way and left me feeling less burdened and more hopeful.

Overall, Black Girl Unlimited is a brutal and beautiful read that shows there is magic in surviving and thriving. To quote a poem from Dr. Maya Angelou, “Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.” Black Girl Unlimited demonstrates that the most vulnerable Black people can be powerful if they have the resources to grow and help each other.

Full cover flat illustration by Noa Denmon.

“Black Enough” Showcases Blackness Joyfully and Honestly

The myriad experiences that Black people have are enough to make a tapestry. Due to racism, respectability politics, and other factors, only certain experiences get acknowledged. In the young adult fiction anthology Black Enough, sixteen Black young adult authors examine the ways contemporary Black teens exist with their Blackness. The anthology is edited by author Ibi Zoboi, who also contributes a story to the book.

As a whole, the anthology does a good job of including stories that show Black teens from different walks of life. In addition to race, its Black teen characters also embody different socioeconomic classes, genders (and gendered expectations), and sexual orientations. Authors like Jason Reynolds and Tracey Bapiste showcase distinct writing styles that make their stories appealing to read. While these aspects give the coming-of-age stories included in the anthology strong appeal, those hoping for stories outside contemporary settings may find themselves disappointed. Furthermore, the lack of content warnings for sensitive topics such as sexual assault, death, and self-harm may trigger some readers.

Nonetheless, several stories stand out in this anthology. “The Ingredients” by Jason Reynolds is a really fun conversation between Black boys walking home from the pool who are hungry for something to eat. The conversation flows naturally from their time at the pool to what kind of sandwich they dream of eating. The dialogue is true to life and filled with joy and vivid detail that will make you smile—and maybe crave a sandwich.

Another well-written story is Tochi Onyebuchi’s “Samson and the Delilahs,” which tells the story of a Nigerian American debate team student who ends up joining a heavy metal band. The internal struggle of the main character, Samson, who is torn between his family’s cultural beliefs and his own interests, is palpable in his thoughts and dialogue. It was wonderful to see how Samson eventually learns to bridge the two.

A story that I personally resonated with is Nic Stone’s “Into The Starlight,” a romance between bougie, wealthy Black girl Mackenzie Davis and “ghetto” Black boy Mak. This story not only features honesty between these two as lovers but also takes class and respectability politics into account. It asks where the line between “bougie” and “ghetto” are, whether there is a gray area, and if the line should matter at all.

I also liked “Oreo” by Brandy Colbert, which tackles themes similar to “Into The Starlight.” Instead of class and respectability politics, it discusses class in terms of how some Black Americans end up losing or literally moving away from their roots in their aspiration for the wealth and opportunities given to white people. The story gives the term “Oreo” a deeper meaning than the one I personally knew, which is a Black person with so-called white personal interests. It also shows how Black parents and other Black family members can influence each other for better or worse.

Black Enough showcases and comments on Blackness in an authentic and thoughtful way.

Many of the stories in this book show how some of the internal conflict that Black teens have about their Blackness can be due to what their family—whether a mother, father, aunt, or uncle—has taught them and how that clashes with personal interests and white American culture. Leah Henderson’s “Warning: Color May Fade” has a Black female visual artist trying to break free from her parents’ expectation that she attend law school while also staying true to her Blackness. “Kissing Sarah Snart” by Justina Ireland features a Black gay girl who is learning to revel in her queerness while dealing with her mom’s mental health issues and her dad’s respectability politics. Every story ends differently, but all of them include Black teens learning to just “be.”

Given individual personal tastes, some stories will inevitably be more appealing than others, but this is the case with any anthology. Black Enough showcases and comments on Blackness in an authentic and thoughtful way. Although aimed at Black teens, Black adults can also take something from this collection of stories. If you need an introduction to some of the newer Black young adult authors out there, this book is a good place to start.

“Felix Ever After” Shows That the Love You Deserve Is Inside and Out

Having a sense of self-worth is important for any LGBTQ+ person, but especially for queer trans people of color. Our race often means that we are ignored among the LGBTQ+ community, while our gender identity and sexual orientation get scorned or overlooked among allocishet people of color. To that end, it is often up to QTPOC to support each other and show each other that we are worthy of life, love, and happiness.

In Kacen Callender’s Felix After Ever, protagonist Felix Love is an artistic trans boy who wants to experience romantic love. When his pre-transition photos are leaked for the world to see, he must figure out the culprit while examining his own sense of self and what kind of love he deserves. Through his experiences with others, Felix Love must look at who and what should determine his self-worth.

In Kacen Callender’s Felix After Ever, protagonist Felix Love is an artistic trans boy who wants to experience romantic love. When his pre-transition photos are leaked for the world to see, he must figure out the culprit while examining his own sense of self and what kind of love he deserves.

One of the most notable things about this book is how it shows the harmful effect of transmisia on Felix’s self-worth. His father helped Felix transition, but he can’t bring himself to say Felix’s name. Ezra Patel, Felix’s best friend, is sensitive and understanding, but another “friend” is revealed to be trans exclusionary. In turn, the behavior of family and friends, and the experience of having his pre-transition photos displayed, make Felix feel he wouldn’t be enough for any lover. The dialogue and scenes combine with Felix’s internal thoughts to convey his pain, but they also motivate Felix to confront transmisia by holding his family and friends accountable.

In fact, Felix’s relationships with family and friends are notable for their joy as well as their pain. Felix’s friendship with Ezra is wonderful and complex, in that they have fun together but also have hard, honest discussions about their future and themselves. At one point, Felix and Ezra fight because Felix is projecting his insecurities onto Ezra. As a rebuttal, Ezra points this out without invalidating Felix’s feelings. They do all of this while examining Ezra’s class privilege as the child of wealthy parents and the pressure that Felix feels as a child of a working-class father. Their friendship is never depicted as perfect, nor as competitive, but as a relationship based on support, care, and honest communication.

Felix’s relationships with family and friends are notable for their joy as well as their pain. 

Meanwhile, Felix’s father is a source of financial and emotional support, despite Felix’s issues with him. Given that Felix’s mom left them years ago, Felix and his dad must learn to make their relationship with each other work—not to mention Felix can’t quite let go of his mother, and he’s constantly drafting unsent emails to her. A particularly poignant bit of dialogue occurs when Felix and his dad discuss Felix’s mom and how some love can be unhealthy to hold on to when you’re getting less than you deserve. This conversation has an impact on Felix that stays with him when he undergoes his introspective journey.

Speaking of which, Felix’s internal journey is an emotional roller coaster. Prior to having his photos leaked, Felix was already feeling stressed because of interpersonal issues, his ongoing questioning about his gender identity, and feeling that he needs to prove himself by going to an elite university. Once things go south, Felix gets angry enough to pursue revenge against the person he assumes leaked his photos while dealing with online harassment in the aftermath. Yet his frustration also urges him to hold his loved ones accountable for their transmisia and seek answers about his gender identity via an in-person support group and online resources.

While some might find Felix unlikable for his revenge plan, his reaction is totally realistic, and his feelings are never invalidated—nor are they completely condoned. His revenge plan turns out to be less cut-and-dried than it first appears, and Felix must learn to channel his anger in a healthier way while holding himself accountable for any harm he causes. In this sense, Felix feels like a true-to-life character: he is neither perfect nor a completely bad person.

A final aspect of this book that was enjoyable is how Felix eventually uses visual art as catharsis for his newfound self-love. Art in any form has long been a refuge for QTPOC to express themselves, and to see Felix learn to take time for himself and literally draw his true self into existence is beautiful. If the book’s cover is any indication, Felix’s final portrait encompasses all that he is in his vibrant glory.

Art in any form has long been a refuge for QTPOC to express themselves, and to see Felix learn to take time for himself and literally draw his true self into existence is beautiful. 

Despite some slow, suspense-building pacing, after the first hundred pages Felix After Ever is an engrossing coming-of-age novel that presents queer pride in all its complicated and powerful aspects. Readers will root for Felix as he learns that the love he deserves can be found inside himself, as well as outside himself among others who truly care for and respect him.

“A Song Below Water” Is a Compelling Story of Sisterhood, Magic, and Police Brutality

When I first learned about Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water and how it featured Black mermaids, I couldn’t help but think of mythology, especially the Yoruba orisha Yemaya and the water spirit Mami Wata. Depending on who you ask, some people interpret them as mermaids. I thought of them because I’ve wondered what a modern interpretation of a Black mermaid would be like. A Song Below Water managed to answer my question in a thought-provoking and touching way.

Tavia Phillips is a siren who must hide her powers in order to keep herself alive. Her best friend, Effie, is struggling with a painful past and strange happenings in the present. While they are trying to navigate their junior year of high school, a siren murder trial shakes Portland, Oregon, to the core. In the aftermath, Tavia and Effie must come together and come to terms with themselves.

I’ve wondered what a modern interpretation of a Black mermaid would be like. A Song Below Water managed to answer my question in a thought-provoking and touching way.

One of the most notable aspects of this book is how it blends fantasy and reality almost seamlessly. Mythical creatures such as sirens, elokos, and gargoyles exist alongside humans, albeit not peacefully. Sirens (and other mythical creatures) have always been interpreted as an allegory for a dangerous woman, but this is especially noticeable when applied to a Black female protagonist. Tavia Phillips’s experiences as a Black female siren parallel what real Black women deal with every day, especially when it comes to police brutality. Not only are they considered dangerous for simply existing, but their voices are often silenced and dismissed when they try to speak up.

In fact, I found this book hard to read sometimes because it is a reminder of how difficult living can be for Black girls and women. Tavia is physically and emotionally scarred by a desperate attempt to get rid of her siren abilities as a child, while Effie is battling anxiety and nightmares as a result of a traumatic experience with mythical creatures. At one point, Effie even states, “Black and female and a siren is just layers upon layers of trauma. One time I said she’s [Tavia’s] too young to deal with this, and she said we don’t get to be.” Yet what kept me reading the book were the moments of joy that Tavia and Effie experience together and by themselves.

When it comes to Tavia and Effie’s friendship, they are close enough to be sisters. Sometimes I forgot that they weren’t related by blood because their interactions with each other were just as beautiful and memorable as those I’ve seen between real and fictional siblings. A particularly memorable scene is when Effie and Tavia are gushing over fan fiction written for Euphemia, the fictional mermaid who Effie plays at the Ren faire. Scenes like this show that despite the hardships they are dealing with, Effie and Tavia still create moments when they can enjoy their youth.

Sirens have always been interpreted as an allegory for a dangerous woman, but this is especially noticeable when applied to a Black female protagonist.

Tavia and Effie’s individual character development is just as powerful as their sisterhood. Over the course of the book, Tavia learns to embrace her siren abilities and use them as a force for change. The potential of her siren abilities is explored further as Tavia realizes just how powerful she can be. Meanwhile, Effie comes to terms with her past and learns that what’s “wrong” with her can be something that is wonderful, even when the world says otherwise. The mystery around Effie’s past and present keeps the plot intriguing and develops into a wonderful coming-of-age story.

As much as I appreciated many aspects of the book, there were a few I didn’t like. The lack of explanation for what an eloko was resulted in me doing my own research and doing my best to imagine what they looked like in my head. It might be difficult for other visual readers like myself to “see” what elokos are without a fuller description.

Another aspect of the story that made me a little uncomfortable is how Tavia uses spasmodic dysphonia as a cover story for her siren abilities, as well as how she sometimes uses American Sign Language when she can’t speak without exposing her siren abilities. Her use of ASL is understandable, but the author’s decision to have Tavia pretend to have what is a real muscle disorder is problematic from the point of view of disability advocacy.

 A Song Below Water encourages Black girls to embrace their power, stick together, and never let themselves be silenced.

It’s not clear whether A Song Below Water is a standalone or the first book in a series. Either way, it’s a compelling read. While the portrayal of police brutality and Black trauma doesn’t make the book easy to digest, the sisterhood and magic are major payoffs. A Song Below Water encourages Black girls to embrace their power, stick together, and never let themselves be silenced.

Top photo by Briona Baker on Unsplash.

“Tristan Strong Destroys the World” Is a Magical Tale of Intergenerational Trauma

Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Destroys the World begins one month after the events of the first book. Tristan Strong and the mythical world of Alke are traumatized—but their battles are far from over. When folk hero John Henry is attacked by a mysterious enemy and Tristan’s grandmother is kidnapped, Tristan must journey to Alke once more to save what’s left of the realm before its stories are lost forever.

One of the things that immediately grabbed my attention about this novel is the fact that Tristan is traumatized by his previous adventures. He has nightmares and distracted thoughts even when he needs to go save the world of Alke again. This is compelling, because I haven’t read a lot of books that show the effects of a grand yet dangerous adventure on a hero’s psyche. In most sequels, the hero seems perfectly fine emotionally and is ready to tackle the next adventure. It is wonderful for young readers to see that it is okay not to be okay, even when you’re a hero.

In addition, Tristan’s trauma allows him to better empathize with the residents of Alke, the world of beings from African and African American myths and folktales. Alke has literal scars and emotional ones, and things only get worse for it as the plot thickens. Yet there is also beauty, life, and history in Alke, and to see Tristan search for and attempt to protect those aspects of the world is poignant and emotional. By telling and collecting stories of Alke’s history, Tristan is able to put his skills as an “Ananseem” to good use in order to get to the heart of Alke’s current problems.

I haven’t read a lot of books that show the effects of a grand yet dangerous adventure on a hero’s psyche. … It is wonderful for young readers to see that it is okay not to be okay, even when you’re a hero.

Part of Alke’s history lies within characters old and new. This second book in the Tristan Strong series sees the return of spunky doll Gum Baby and crafty trickster god Anansi (albeit in phone form), but it also introduces new characters like the mischievous and mouthy boy Junior. The introduction of new African and Black women characters in this book makes up for the lack of them in the first one. There is adventurous folk hero Keelboat Annie, resourceful juke joint owner Lady Night, and regal goddess Mami Wata. And I would be remiss to fail to note that Tristan’s grandmother, Nana, also has a larger role in this book as Tristan’s source of strength and inspiration.

Alke’s history consists of elements rooted in African American history and culture. These elements range from the painful and ugly to the lively and the resilient, embodied in everything from the new antagonist, DJ Culture Vulture, to the jollof rice served at Lady Night’s juke joint. A personal favorite of mine is the SPB, the portable smartphone version of Alke’s Story Box and the new home for trickster god Anansi. It was fun to see more of the phone in action after the events of the first book, especially through the new “Diaspor-app” that allows Tristan to see how Alke’s stories are connected to the Diapora.

Combining Alke’s history, Tristan’s trauma, and Alke’s current issues, Tristan Strong Destroys the World offers a compelling tale of intergenerational trauma and recovery. Whether it be through family, history, or a bit of both, many African Americans deal with intergenerational trauma in one way or other. Not only is this story a good way to teach the concept to younger readers, but older readers can also learn something from it as well.

Tristan Strong Destroys the World offers a compelling tale of intergenerational trauma and recovery. … Not only is this story a good way to teach the concept to younger readers, but older readers can also learn something from it as well.

Tristan Strong Destroys the World is a powerful sequel to its predecessor. There is more magic, action, and stories to learn from than ever before. If the ending is any indication, things are going to be even more epic in the next book of the trilogy. For now, though, readers who enjoyed Tristan Strong’s first adventure can join him once more and have their world rocked.

Most Anticipated 2021 Reads

A new year means reading new books. While I don’t have a reading goal per se, I do have a long To Be Read list to get through. For every book that I already own, there are also yet-to-be-released books I want to read — not to mention books I won’t know I want to read until I hear about them! As you might imagine, there are a lot of books that I hope to read and review this year. Here are my most anticipated 2021 reads.

Legacy by Nikki Grimes

This book came out on January 5. It combines poetry and visual art to spotlight and pay homage to the lesser known Black women poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Using the poetic method known as “The Golden Shovel,” Nikki Grimes takes one line from poems by Angelina Weld Grimké, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and others and then uses them to create original poems of her own.  These poems are complemented with artwork by Black women such as Vashti Harrison, Ebony Glenn, and Nina Crews.

Although the Harlem Renaissance was my favorite time period to study in school, I only ever learned about Black male Harlem Renaissance poets like Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. As I am a poetry fan, this book will surely rectify the gaps in my knowledge by bridging the past and present and showing the worth of these words through pictures as well as poems.

A Phoenix Must First Burn, edited by Patrice Caldwell

This 2020 short fiction anthology was on my wish list for months before I nabbed the ebook at a discount. Taking inspiration from Octavia Butler, this anthology features sixteen sci-fi and fantasy stories starring Black girls, women, and gender nonconforming people. The authors featured include some familiar and others new to me, including Elizabeth Acevedo, L. L. Mckinney, and Somaiya Daud.

I don’t see many Black SFF anthologies by and for Black women and girls, let alone one that looks so inviting to teen readers who are new to the genres. Did I mention that the cover looks spectacular?

Black Girl Unlimited: The Autobiography of Echo Brown by Echo Brown

Combining magical realism and autobiographical elements, this 2020 novel features Black girl magic occurring amid poverty, sexism, racism, and more. Echo Brown is a teen wizard born and raised on the East Side who uses magic portals to travel to an all-white school on the West Side. However, going back and forth between two worlds has Echo leaving parts of herself on the East Side. Soon, Echo must use her magic to overcome a dark depression that threatens to overwhelm her.

Through family and personal experience, I know that not all magic comes with a letter to a boarding school. There is also magic in making ends meet, magic in personal recovery, and magic in survival. I look forward to seeing how Black Girl Unlimited will embody this.

A Crown So Cursed by L. L. McKinney

The third book in the Nightmare-Verse series is set to be published Fall 2021. After the events of the previous book, Alice Kingston is attempting to rest and recover. However, she and her friends start having dark visions of Wonderland’s past and future. When the evil that Alice thought she had defeated stirs once again, Alice thinks she will have to journey into Wonderland once more. However, the evil is already in the real world.

I have enjoyed the Nightmare-Verse series since I reviewed the first book, A Blade So Black, in 2018. I’m hoping this book will be just as thrilling as the others and will answer some of my lingering questions about the world building and characters.

If It Makes You Happy by Claire Kann

This queer summer coming-of-age rom-com is Claire Kann’s second novel and one I missed when it initially came out in 2019. It tells the story of Winnie, a fat Black queer girl who is unexpectedly crowned Summer Queen of the small town of Misty Haven. With such a huge spotlight on her, Winnie must confront her fears and insecurities to become the best version of herself.

Although I don’t own this book (yet), I would love to read it due to my soft spot for teen summer stories. The premise sounds like a ton of fun and something I’d want adapted into a movie. Besides, I loved Claire Kann’s first book, Let’s Talk About Love.

Top photo by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma’aji from Pexels