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.
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.
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.
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.
Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Destroys the Worldbegins 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.
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 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.
Summer tends to be the most fun time for teen coming-of-age stories because some of the best ones take place outside of school. The movie High School Musical 2 and Claire Kann’s book Let’s Talk about Love immediately come to mind. Now, Julian Winters’s The Summer of Everything is adding a new story to the teen summer coming-of-age lexicon, one that takes place in Santa Monica in the fictional used bookstore Once Upon a Page.
Wesley Hudson is an eighteen-year-old Black gay comic book geek who planned to spend his entire summer working at Once Upon a Page and somehow confessing his feelings to his best friend and crush, Nico Alvarez. Adulthood looms in more ways than one, however: his father keeps asking about his plans for a college major, his brother, Leo, wants him to help with wedding planning, and Once Upon a Page is in danger of being bought out. Soon, all these issues pile up, and Wesley must learn to face adulthood head on.
One aspect of the book that immediately drew me in was Wesley Hudson’s internal voice. He sounds chill, anxious, and nerdy all at once due to the pressures of adulthood towering over him. A bit of internal dialogue that demonstrates this goes, “Frankly, Wes doesn’t know who he wants to be in five minutes. An influencer? A teacher? Alive after suffering through that last chapter of his mom’s book?” Wes’s voice is also evident in the various lists he makes to weigh his options and determine how much he likes someone or something. For example, his list titled “Five Things I Love the Most” has Once Upon a Page at number two. He calls the store his “safe place” where he doesn’t have any stress and can be himself.
In addition to Wesley himself, there is a wonderful cast of characters that play a role inside and outside of the bookstore. Wesley’s best friend and crush, Nico Alvarez, is a kind and compassionate skateboarder and a good foil to Wesley’s flaws. Ella Graham is a fat bestie with sarcastic wit who is something of a slacker. Kyra is a Black lesbian who organizes the events for the bookstore. Zay functions as a sort of music DJ for the bookstore. Lucas, one of the youngest bookstore workers, is a shy comic book lover. There are other notable characters, too, like Wes’s inscrutable older brother, Leo, but the main teen cast stands out due to their fun personalities and diverse queerness. They are a near perfect cast for a coming-of-age teen rom-com.
With the help of all the characters, Wesley eventually grows into a more mature and level-headed person. One notable aspect of Wes’s coming of age is how the book shows that it is impossible for anyone to be completely sure of what they what with their life by a certain age. There is pressure on teens and twentysomethings to have certain things done in a certain amount of time, such as going to college or having a particular amount of money in savings. As demonstrated by dialogue between Wes and Zay, kids of color feel an intense pressure to live up to their parents’ expectations. Although Wes’s personal circumstances can’t be applied to everyone, there are moments of uncertainty and lack of direction that will resonate with the reader.
Providing the backdrop for Wesley and the others is the bookstore and the Santa Monica area where the story takes place. Both places come to life through sights, tastes, and sound that will even make the most unfamiliar reader feel as if they are right there with Wesley and the others. As someone who has frequented big chain and some small chain bookstores, I found the bookstore interactions were realistic and enjoyable to read. There are stressed-out parents telling their kids to hurry up and pick a book, coworkers “canceling” each other’s music selections for the store, and tender one-on-one conversations.
A particularly endearing aspect of the character interactions is how no particular type of relationship is depicted as more important than the other. This is especially notable given that some teen rom-coms tend to make the romance the central focus of the plot. Wes does have a crush on his best friend, but he also has to work on being a good friend to Nico in the meantime. Furthermore, Wes has to make a relationship with his brother, Leo, work in order to get his help to try to save the bookstore while he helps plan Leo’s wedding. Meanwhile, the group interactions are just as hilarious and heartfelt outside the bookstore as they are inside it.
My only issue with the book is how unrealistic Wes’s living situation seems at times. Even though he does have friends and family who bring him food, has his own job, and can live alone unsupervised, it felt a little weird to not see his parents check up on him more often, even if they are working abroad. It would be more understandable if Wes were living on campus in college, but his having barely any adults around seemed unusual.
All in all, The Summer of Everything is a fun and heartfelt teen summer story. If you’re looking for a bookish, geeky, and queer teen summer novel, then this four-star book should more than satisfy your needs.
Julian Winters is a best-selling and award-winning author of contemporary young adult fiction. His novels Running with Lions (Duet, 2018) and How to Be Remy Cameron (Duet, 2019) received accolades for their positive depictions of diverse, relatable characters. A former management trainer, Julian currently lives outside of Atlanta where he can be found reading, being a self-proclaimed comic book geek, or watching the only two sports he can follow—volleyball and soccer.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
October is Black Speculative Fiction Month, a month dedicated to celebrating Black creators in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. This includes novels, comic books, film, television, and more. For novels alone, there are a lot of options depending on your age and what your personal tastes are.
In recent years, some of the best Black speculative fiction novels have been published for young readers in the middle grade and young adult genres. From gods and goddesses to wizardry, there is plenty of magic and adventure to go around. To that end, let’s take a look at six must-read Black SFF books for middle grade and young adult readers.
To Corrine La Mer, jumbies are just stories made up to scare kids like her. But on Halloween night, Corrine chases an agouti all the way to the forbidden woods and notices a pair of yellow eyes following her. After that night, strange happenings abound: a beautiful stranger named Severine appears, speaking to the town witch. Then, Severine bewitches Corrine’s father, taking the first step to claiming Corrine’s home for jumbies. Now Corrine must discover an old magic she never knew she had and join forces with her friends to save everything and everyone she loves.
In the South Side of Chicago lives a twelve-year-old girl named Maya who sees things like werehyenas and a strange man made of shadows in her dreams. Although people try to rationalize these occurrences, Maya believes they are something from her Papa’s stories. Then her Papa goes missing, and Maya is pulled into a new world of gods and nightmares as she discovers an amazing secret: she is half Orisha and half human. With the disappearance of her Papa, the veil around the neighborhood that kept her safe is failing, and now she is in danger from the Lord of Shadows, the man from her dreams. The Lord of Shadows is determined to destroy the human world, and Maya is the only one who can stop him.
Tristan Strong is a twelve-year-old boy grieving the loss of his best friend, Eddie, and smarting from being defeated in his first boxing match. While visiting his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, he accidentally unleashes an evil haint and creates a hole between the real world and a magical world of African American folk heroes and West African gods. Now he must work together with them and undergo an epic quest to retrieve Anansi’s story box to save the world. This is an epic, funny, and poignant adventure that introduces African folklore to a new generation of readers. If you want, check out my full review.
Fusing magical realism with autobiographical elements, Black Girl Unlimited is an emotional rollercoaster that hits very close to home. Echo Brown is a Black wizard from the East Side, where parents are addicted to white rocks, apartments are small, and food can be scarce. Yet there is magic, too; portals transport Echo to a rich school on the West Side. Although Echo finds a teacher who becomes a mentor, going back and forth from the East Side to the West takes a toll. Soon, she begins to leave parts of herself behind, and a dark depression threatens to overwhelm her.
In the first book of Sarah Raughley’s Effigies series, four girls with the power to control the elements come together to battle evil. Part of this evil consists of Phantoms—massive monsters from your worst nightmares. When an effigy dies, another girl replaces her and gains her power. However, technologies have arisen to combat the Phantoms, so now the Effigies have become international celebrities. One day, the barrier protecting New York City fails, a man who can control the Phantom appears, and a girl named Maia unexpectedly becomes the Fire Effigy. Forced to work together with three other girls who don’t get along, Maia and the others must learn to hone their new abilities to save the world.
In this urban fantasy retelling of Alice in Wonderland, and the first book of the Nightmare Verse series, L. L. McKinney fuses fantasy and reality in a dazzling way. Alice Kingston, the book’s protagonist, is a Black teenager living in Atlanta, Georgia, and a warrior known as a Dreamwalker. Together with her mentor, Addison Hatta, she fights Nightmares, creatures that serve as the embodiment of human fear. When Hatta ends up poisoned, Alice must journey deep into Wonderland to search for a cure and face a darkness that threatens Wonderland and the real world. If you want, check out my full review.
Whenever I learned about the Harlem Renaissance poets in grade school, I always heard the same names: Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. While I would grow to enjoy their works, part of me wished that I could have learned about more poets besides them. Now, author, poet, and journalist Nikki Grimes has released Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance to fill that large gap in my—and others’—education.
One of the most unique aspects of the book is its format, in which a poem by an unsung Black woman from the Harlem Renaissance is followed by an original poem by Nikki Grimes and an illustration by a Black woman visual artist. Each poem by Nikki Grimes utilizes the “Golden Shovel method,” a technique originating with the poet Terrance Hayes and inspired by poet Gwendolyn Brooks. In this volume, the form involves Grimes’s taking one line from a poem by a Black woman from the Harlem Renaissance and using the words to make a new poem. The result is a wonderful way to pay tribute to the poets of bygone times and bridge the past and present. All the poems and artwork are featured in three sections: “Heritage,” “Earth Mother,” and “Taking Notice.”
In “Heritage,” Black women past and present aim to instill the next generation with Black pride. A particular set of poems I enjoyed from this section are “I Am Not Proud” by Helene Johnson and “Having My Say” by Nikki Grimes. Together, these poems show that Black women can and should be vocal because of their skin tone, rather than in spite of it. A notable line from Grimes’s poem reads, “For me, boldness is a requirement that came / as part of my Black girl package / along with my sass, and bodacious hip swing!” Following these poems is an illustration by Shada Strickland that is just as bold, featuring a Black girl courageously standing on top of a large old-fashioned pink record player as a Black woman in a nearby window turns the handle.
The section “Earth Mother” is exactly as it sounds, featuring poems about Black women’s relationship to the earth and the natural world. One notable set of poems is “Rondeau” by Jessie Redmon Fauset and “Tara Takes on Montclair” by Nikki Grimes. Both poems involve Black women reveling in the beauty of nature, with tantalizing imagery. The line that stands out the most in both poems is, “I joyous roam the countryside / look here the violets shy abide.” These poems are accompanied by a pretty illustration by Daria Peoples Riley that has a Black girl in white surrounded by purple violets.
Finally, the section “Taking Notice” features poetry and artwork that gives voice to people and experiences that often go unseen and heard. A powerful set of poems from this section includes “Flag Salute” by Esther Popel and “A Mother’s Lament” by Nikki Grimes. Popel’s poem displays the anti-Black brutality present in America’s past, underscoring it with a sardonic take on the Pledge of Allegiance. Meanwhile, Grimes’s brief poem echoes Popel’s sentiment to reflect on the present as she reckons with the ancestral blood spilled in America’s name. Taking both poems to greater heights is April Harrison’s collage-like illustration of a Black women shedding a tear as she watches a slave trip sail away.
Although the majority of the poems work especially well as pairs, there are also some poems that shine well individually. One that stood out to me was “Jehovah’s Gesture” by Gertrude Parthenia McBrown, which likens nature’s turbulence to boisterous jazz musicians. Another, “Seeing” by Nikki Grimes, pays tribute to the resilience and magic that poor and low-income mothers find and provide. Whether you read the poems in pairs or individually, there are many layers and different interpretations to be discovered.
All in all, Legacy is a triumphant collection of poetry and visual art that gives Black female Harlem Renaissance poets a chance to shine. It pulls them out of history’s shadows and into the light of the present day, with Grimes’s poems and Black women illustrators as a beacon. Not only can a new generation of younger readers learn these poets’ names, but adult readers can appreciate them, too.