“Cinderella Is Dead” Offers an Engrossing Twist on the Classic Fairytale

"Cinderella Is Dead" Offers an Engrossing Twist on the Classic Fairytale

Two hundred years after Cinderella found her Prince Charming, the girls of the city of Lille in the kingdom of Mersailles are now required to attend an annual ball to find princes of their own.

Those who are not chosen or who refuse to attend face consequences, while those who do attend risk being paired with a husband who will mistreat them. In the midst of all this is Sophia, a sixteen-year-old girl who is in love with her best friend, Erin. When Sophia decides to flee the ball and hide in Cinderella’s mausoleum, she discovers that there is more to Cinderella’s story than she has been taught.

One of the most intriguing things about Cinderella Is Dead is the world-building. By setting the story in a post-Cinderella world, author Kailynn Bayron shows us the legacy of Cinderella’s story, her descendants, and those who were around her. Since Cinderella’s story is held up as an ideal, the women of Mersailles are expected to marry young in order to provide a better life for themselves and their families. Men aren’t bound to this and are heralded as princes and knights in shining armor regardless of how they act toward women. Those with rich families in positions of power can give their daughters an advantage at the annual ball that the less privileged don’t have. Not to mention, being straight is expected of both men and women.

Yet next to no one notices how things are wrong in Mersailles. They see only the glamor of Cinderella’s story—or they are too afraid to fight those in positions of power. One bit of spoken dialogue goes something like, “By repeating a lie often enough, people believe it to be true.” Since Cinderella’s story is held up to be as sacred as religion, it is impossible for many to question it. In fact, the only people who end up questioning it are those who don’t fit the expectations of heteronormativity or submissiveness.

With a complex world comes a complex cast of characters—another strength of the book. It is particularly notable that nearly all of the characters are Black or mixed race Black, resulting in a narrative where race isn’t an issue. Almost all of the characters also have some degree of marginalization: protagonist Sophia is a lesbian, and secondary character Luke is gay but also, as a young man, someone who isn’t required to attend each ball. There are also characters who serve as a twist or extension of established characters, such as the prince, the fairy godmother, and the evil stepsister. Of the upended or legacy characters, the prince and the “evil” stepsister end up being the most interesting and creative.

Protagonist Sophia is someone who wants to make a change and fight social expectations but isn’t sure how to go about it. Due to living in a city with unrealistic expectations of women, Sophia is also unsure of her true potential. It doesn’t help that Sophia’s first love interest, Erin, is too scared to upend the rules of Lille to believe in or help Sophia. Thankfully, Sophia finds Constance, the last living descendant of Cinderella’s family, to help her form a plan to defeat King Manford. Constance is a little impulsive and brash, but she also is also a tender love interest and a thoughtful teacher. Constance telling Sophia some of the truth about Cinderella’s story and teaching Sophia how to use a dagger are some of the best scenes in this book.

The novel’s dialogue is another strong point that enhances its depiction of the characters’ emotions. One memorable conversation happens between Luke and Sophia when Luke dispassionately says, “People who don’t fit nicely into boxes the kings of Mersailles have defined are erased, as if our lives don’t matter. Have you ever heard of a man marrying another man? A woman being in love with another woman? Of people who find their hearts lie somewhere in the middle or neither?” To which Sophia bitterly replies, “Only as a cautionary tale.” This dialogue is reminiscent of how real queer people such as Oscar Wilde and Ma Rainey were criminalized for their orientation and sexual activities.

The budding romance between Sophia and Constance depicts how queerness is marginalized both in this novel and in real life, and it is endearing to read. Sophia initially admires Constance’s beauty and physical features and then begins to find it hard to concentrate or hold things whenever Constance touches her or is nearby. Meanwhile, Constance is keenly aware of Sophia’s budding feelings, and her initial flirting is amusing to watch. Sophia’s and Constance’s honest thoughts about their feelings about each other are especially sweet. I particularly liked when Sophia is admiring Constance and thinks, “Under the glinting moon, her hair is like a smoldering ember, her face so much like the splendor of the stars in the sky above us.”

All in all, Cinderella Is Dead is a dark, engrossing take on the Cinderella fairytale that challenges the reader to consider their role and the stories and history they have been taught to believe. It empowers queer women while also showing how queer and straight women can become a part of an oppressive system—and how men can become too entitled and privileged in this system, even as they are also marginalized. With a compelling cast of characters, magical dialogue, and creative twists, Cinderella Is Dead brings new life to a classic fairytale.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Top photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash.

“Every Body Looking” Dances with Verse and Self-Expression

“Every Body Looking” Dances with Verse and Self-Expression

Candice IIoh’s verse novel Every Body Looking begins with Nigerian American teen Ada graduating high school and taking account of how she wants her upcoming college experience to be.

Raised by a strict, religious Christian father and separated from her alcohol-addicted mother, Ada wants to take her life into her own hands but isn’t sure how to go about it. Due to past trauma and her shaky upbringing, she is so focused on other people’s expectations of her that she hasn’t really considered what she wants for herself.

One of the best things this book does to illustrate Ada’s personal journey is include poems that present the standard definition of a word before Ada expresses her own feelings about it. An early example uses the word “safety,” showing how the standard definition of the word applies to the definition of safety that Ada’s dad wants for her as she prepares to go to college. It’s a creative way for Ada to literally define herself by examining what she has been told in order to figure out what she really wants for herself.

Another way the book delves into Ada’s personal journey is through flashbacks to her younger years. Some of these flashbacks are vulnerable and harrowing, since they deal with how people inside and outside of Ada’s family made her feel like her body wasn’t her own. In one painful scene, Ada’s aunt comes to visit and ends up fat shaming Ada and reading her private diary. Another scene shows the police coming to Ada’s door when she is home alone blasting loud music. Although these flashbacks might be triggering to trauma survivors, Ada’s experiences of fatmisia, misogynoir, sexual assault, and parental verbal abuse show just how many systemic forces work to destroy Black girls’ sense of self.

Although these flashbacks might be triggering to trauma survivors, Ada’s experiences of fatmisia, misogynoir, sexual assault, and parental verbal abuse show just how many systemic forces work to destroy Black girls’ sense of self.

At the same time, these flashbacks also show glimpses of a young Black girl with dreams of wanting to dance like no one is watching. One prominent image throughout the book is young Ada drawing a Black girl dancing, who she names “Magic.” Ava’s passion for dance is shown when she remembers being awed by church dancers during a service and how she worked jobs to pay for dance lessons without telling her Dad. The image of the “magic” Black girl dancing is strong because it represents Ava’s hopes and dreams for herself.

It is these dreams that allow the reader to root for Ada as she takes the first steps toward achieving them during her freshman year of college. Like anyone at that age, Ada does make a few mistakes. She settles for a Black guy named Derek who only cares about sex because she doesn’t know she can do better. She takes an accounting course she hates because her dad wants her to. These mistakes are part of Ada’s exploration of her sexuality and her personal goals, and it is interesting to watch her stumble through things, especially since she doesn’t have many people to turn to for help.

In fact, I found myself wishing Ada had more people on her side during such a formative time. The only character who really helps Ava start to figure out what she wants is Kendra, another Black girl with an even bigger passion for dance than Ava. Kendra is delightful to read about because she has a no-nonsense, driven, and confident air about her that ends up having a positive influence on Ava. While Ava and Kendra have a memorable friendship, Ava is also shown crushing on Kendra a bit, too.

Given Ava’s upbringing, there aren’t many moments that allow Ava to explore her orientation other than some interactions with Kendra, rumors that she might “play for the other team,” and secret interactions with another girl that took place when Ava was in second grade. Given the way that heterosexuality is always implied and expected from others, it is nice to see that Kendra is even considering the possibility she might not be straight. Kendra never labels her own orientation, but it isn’t necessary for her, since she is still exploring who she is.

While Every Body Looking was mostly enjoyable, the ending fell a little flat. Without getting into spoilers, we see Ava make a few decisions for herself and for her future at the college, but we don’t clearly know what the results will be. Maybe this open-ended conclusion represents Ava finally putting herself first, even if she doesn’t know where she will end up.

All in all, Candice IIoh’s Every Body Looking dances with verse and self-expression that will surely encourage readers to keep trying for their dreams.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels.

Skein to Skein

Skein to Skein

by Charles Valle

Content Warning: Death or dying; pregnancy loss.

Minutes after we directed the doctors to turn off the ventilator, we knew our limited time with Vivian was ending. Certain moments remain a blur. The nurse disconnecting monitors and tubes, say, or swaddling Vivian’s lifeless body in the hot air balloon–patterned hospital blanket. Screen memories, perhaps.

Other moments remain quite vivid—the pathways to recall so well-travelled, they will be with me until my death. I recall the urgency of finding my camera to make sure I captured photos of my wife, Kathleen, holding Vivian for the first time. I recall the awkward transfer, the anticipation of what holding Vivian would feel like. And I held her. And I recall my surprise at how heavy 8 pounds, 3 ounces felt. Her full dead weight. Her head on the crook of my right arm. I recall trying to remember every feature of her face knowing I would never be able to hold her again.

While I was holding Vivian, a well-meaning nurse asked us if we wanted to have a harpist come and play in the room. I remember being so confused by the question. It was so far out of the possibilities we had been preparing for during the previous nine months. We had not considered that variable in the calculus of parenthood: a harpist playing in a cramped hospital room for my dead daughter. I may or may have not lost my shit at that point.

There were lots of other questions that day from the NICU doctors and nurses that I cannot remember responding to. I was clearly in some catatonic state. And, much as in the subsequent months after Vivian’s death, I recall watching people’s mouths move and attempting to process their words and, as if escaping my body, I would see myself attempt to answer. One of the questions concerned Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a remembrance photography organization, and whether or not we wanted them to take photos of Vivian. We must have answered affirmatively, because a week or two later we received black and white photos of Vivian—even more beautiful and heartbreaking than my jagged memories.

For months after, I would stare at those photos every day. At night when I couldn’t sleep, or staring out windows during work, daydreaming, the photos would haunt me and appear as if drawn by Caravaggio—severe contrasts of a fading reality with such a clear focus on the different parts of Vivian’s body.

My first attempts at writing about Vivian, and the grief work I was undergoing, were abject failures from a creative production perspective. Much like the initial impulse to find my camera and capture moments, my initial poetic instinct was to capture: the loss, the rawness of the trauma, the muddled mess of emotions that I couldn’t quite process, etc. The writing was therapy. My creative output consisted of fragments, broken lines, phrases unturned.

The years following Vivian’s death were, unsurprisingly, the most difficult of my life. Kathleen and I resolved to move forward. Moving forward meant integrating back into normal society—all the trappings and gestures of living in the United States during late stage capitalism. It meant negotiating the twenty-first-century spaces as a BIPOC poet: assigning, interpreting, and prioritizing meaning to the partisan theatrics, the accelerating wealth inequality fueled by Quantitative Easing, social media’s unveiling of racial injustices, the affects of disruptive technologies, the effects of climate change.

Moving forward also meant trying to have children again. We were very fortunate. We’d never experienced as much relief as we did when hearing the cries of our second child, Ivan. By the time our daughter, Olive, was born, our integration back into normal society appeared seamless. Most people had no idea just how broken we were.

Like most working poets, I struggle to find time to write. Scribbles on receipts, napkins, the marginalia on work notes, texts to myself, email drafts. The skeins of poetic fragments continued to pile up. In my upcoming book, Proof of Stake (Fonograf Editions), there’s a playful nod to Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-12 where I talk about my poetics of grief: “An integral / Lower limit memory / Upper limit intertextuality.” In thinking about grief and loss, I was always interested in the concept of displacement, area, and volume. Can we quantify grief? What are grief’s boundaries?

My personal experience with grieving taught me that my emotional responses occurred in waves. Similar to the stock market or equities charts, my grief would encounter resistances and supports. Up, then down, ad infinitum. There were long periods of consolidation. Supports breaking down. Higher highs. Lower lows. It’s maddening. It’s also completely fascinating to me.

Below is an excerpt from my elegy to Vivian. Knitting and weaving from various skeins, I ended up with a fifty-nine-page elegy that ruminates on a wide range of subjects, from the effects and winding paths of disruptive technologies, such as paper and cryptocurrency, to critiques and observations of art movements, diasporas, social unrest, and the history of the Philippines.

from Proof of Stake

 

And the portability of grief is such a wondrous thing
The transit so efficient
Every circumstance so easily succumbing
To tenebristic splendor
The unsettling realism of the eyes you never opened, Vivian,
The lifeless hand that could not grip my trembling fingers
Follow me across continents
From Europe to Asia, the dark
Background persists with single sources of light
Shining on different body parts
One day, it is your perfectly-shaped eyebrows
The next, the meconium spilling out of your nose,
Your mouth. I close my eyes in Cambodia and see
Your hands. I wake up in Iceland and the light focuses
On your chin, your lips. In Singapore, I burn incense
And imagine your voice. In the Philippines, I scatter
Your ashes on the leeward side of hope
And reflection, the prismatic nature of remains
Ashen and oaken, bits of bones
So far removed from any sense of
Purpose or structure
Mourning in residue
The structures of grief pressed
And dried. Textures so indecipherable
They disorient with ease
Emotional glyphs asperating sullied surfaces

Jareen Imam author photo

Charles Valle was born in Manila, Philippines, and immigrated to California when he was seven years old. He holds an AS in Chemistry from Saddleback College, a BA in English from University of California, Irvine, and an MFA in Poetry from University of Notre Dame. Since 2006, he has served as one of the Poetry Editors at FENCE Magazine. Charles currently resides in Portland, OR, where he works as a Change Manager for Nike as well as serves on the Board of Directors for the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC). His first book, Proof of Stake, will be published by Fonograf Editions later this year.

Top photo by Munro Studio on Unsplash

 

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

“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. 

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Full cover flat illustration by Noa Denmon.

 

 

Most Anticipated 2021 Reads

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.

 

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

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

“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.

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.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

Top photo by Briona Baker on Unsplash.