“StarLion” Is a Dynamic Superhero Story with Heart

"StarLion" Is a Dynamic Superhero Story with Heart

Long ago, the Gods of Olympus were forefathers to historical figures such as George Washington and Thor. Now they are superheroes.

Ten years ago, several of these superheroes gave their lives to stop the disastrous events of the Green Night. In the aftermath, a new generation of heroes are trying to do their part to fill the space left behind. One of them is Jordan Harris, a young Black boy with the power to manipulate gravitons. When he is arrested one night while doing vigilante work, he must go undercover at the superhero training academy Fort Olympus. While there, he discovers a world-threatening conspiracy that forces Jordan to work together in a team to save the day.

One of the first things that drew me into the book was Jordan Harris himself. His superpower is delightful, because he can manipulate gravity particles known as gravitons to travel through the air and fight. To explain further, Jordan can activate gravitons under his feet, leap into the air, and jump from building to building in order to do his vigilante hero work. In another scenario, he can pack gravitons into his fist in order to enhance the impact on his opponent. Jordan is also a bit of a nerd; he admires a Black superhero known as Kinetic, and his prized possession is a pair of gloves Kinetic signed with the words, “Be your hero.” Most importantly, Jordan is eager to prove himself, and his character arc is immensely satisfying as he comes into his own.

Of course, Jordan is not the only character undergoing growth, for he is joined by a stellar cast of teen and adult superheroes. Of the teen ones, my personal favorites are Alicia Jackson (a Black girl with plasma blast powers) and Ruben Alvarez (a Latino boy who is half demon), while Kinetic is my favorite of the adults. Like Jordan, Alicia desires to prove herself due to a personal connection to the events of the Green Night, and watching her learn better ways to use her powers is incredible. I also liked seeing Alicia define herself by taking the time to choose her hero name. Meanwhile, Ruben’s character development is thoughtful: his powers are initially feared, and Ruben must learn to control a lot of fear and anger that affect his powers. Last but not least, Kinetic is a tough and stern guy whose surprising connection to Jordan belies a soft maternal side.

Yet every hero needs a villain, and the mystery of the antagonist and their eventual reveal was interesting enough to keep me reading. I found their reasoning behind their actions a bit dull, but that could have been due to my own expectations. To give them credit, the antagonist does drive home a quote from the book that says villains aren’t born, they are made due to circumstance.

Together, all of these characters and their interactions give this book a lot of heart. If you like seeing a bunch of characters who half like and half hate each other learn to work together, then you’ll enjoy the dynamic between the characters. They put in a lot of work to learn to improve the use of their powers and then to synchronize with each other as a team. As the main protagonist, Jordan is the glue that brings everyone together, and it is emotionally satisfying to see him learn to trust others, since he is used to dealing with things alone.

Enhancing the book’s action and characters is fantastic anime-inspired artwork of specific scenes as well as brief profiles for each of the main characters. Highlights are the book’s cover, illustrated by A2T will Draw, the character profiles by Jeffery Cruz, and the “Regulus” scene by Daniel Bretas. These illustrations provide a visual element that make the novel almost like a comic book and allow the characters to shine brighter.

All in all, StarLion: Thieves of the Red Night is a dynamic superhero story with heart. If you enjoy coming-of-age superhero stories, give this book a try.

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.

“SLAY” Is a Creative and Geeky Read for Young Black Readers

“SLAY” Is a Creative and Geeky Read for Young Black Readers

By day, Kiera Johnson is an honors student, but by night she is Emerald, a video game character in the massive multiplayer online game SLAY. Unbeknownst to her friends, family, and boyfriend, Kiera is also the developer of SLAY.

For a little while, SLAY is a sanctuary where Kiera and other Black gamers can display and express their Blackness without the pressure of expectations and racism. But one day a Black boy is killed over SLAY’s in-game currency and now Kiera’s game is in the news. To make matters worse, a racist has started to troll Kiera from within the game and threatening to sue her for discrimination. Now, Kiera must find the strength to reclaim SLAY and stand up for the game and herself.

Slay book coverOne of the things that I enjoyed about this book is the concept of the game SLAY. Not only is it a cool mashup of a card battle game and a fighting game, but I really appreciated the amount of detail that the author put into the game’s rules, the player versus player battles, and the cards themselves. Having a video game exclusively for Black people with cards inspired by Black culture and the diaspora is delightful. Some of my favorite cards were the Gabby Douglas card, which gave the player the power to do gymnastics, and the Unbothered Card, which shields you from attack energy and then has a surprising effect. Not to mention, the player versus player battles are described in a way that it makes you feel you’re watching the battle as a spectator.

The book also does a good job of showing why SLAY matters to people. In between chapters focused on the book’s main protagonist, Kiera, we also have chapters focused on various SLAY players around the world. One chapter focuses on a mixed Black SLAY game moderator living in Paris and dealing with microaggressions, and another deals with a Black father learning to understand their kids by playing SLAY. There is even a chapter with a closeted Black trans girl playing SLAY. These chapters demonstrate how SLAY is a place to escape, where players can be their authentic selves and pour their hearts and passions into it. These chapters provide new perspectives on the game to consider, especially once the game becomes a topic of debate among people who don’t play it or aren’t the game’s demographic.

In fact, this debate is one part of Kiera’s larger central conflict as a character, which mainly stems from the fact that she feels she has to hide and conform parts of herself that don’t fit the ideals and expectations of Blackness pushed onto her by both Black and white people. Some of these people include her Black boyfriend, Malcolm, her mother, and white peers like Wyatt and Harper. These pressures never go away when you’re Black, and they are especially harmful for young Black people just coming into who they are. The exhaustion and exasperation that Kiera feels is shown in dialogue such as, “It’s why I created SLAY. I may have to deal with Jefferson all day, but when I come home, I get to pretend I’m not the minority, that my super curly hair isn’t ‘weird’ or ‘funky,’ or ‘new’ and ‘different.’”

Although Kiera initially feels it’s impossible for anyone to understand the pressures she faces, she gradually takes steps to get some people to understand. One of the most important steps she takes is with her family, especially her younger sister, Steph. Not only does this bring them closer together through SLAY, but Steph also becomes one of Kiera’s biggest real-world supporters when a certain character shows their true colors and becomes a threat to Kiera. Their sibling bond is very poignant to watch and ended up being my favorite relationship in the book.

In fact, Steph’s guidance also causes Kiera to become more socially aware. Before Kiera opened up to Steph, she was aware of how being a Black girl caused other people to treat her, but she felt she was alone in her experiences because of Steph’s tendency to overanalyze things at times and the fact that she and Kiera are the only Black girls at the school they attend. Once Kiera opens up to Steph, she also opens up to other people who play SLAY and finds that her experiences are echoed by others and that these experiences don’t have to ruin her self-image or the thing she’s created. Accompanying Kiera’s personal journey were easy-to-understand explanations of terms like “Slay” and “hotep,” which could help young Black readers who may need to explore and define Blackness on their own terms.

While the book is mostly great, I would have liked to see more of SLAY’s game world outside of the player-versus-player battles. Kiera didn’t just make a PVP card battle game—she made an entire world with players, cards, and areas inspired by Black culture. In hindsight, this exploration may not have fit the narrative well, since the book is mainly set in the real world, but maybe a spinoff book could resolve this issue in the future. I also didn’t like how Kiera felt that she had to make nice with white siblings Wyatt and Hayley even after their racism and microaggressions made her uncomfortable. Instead, I wish she could’ve had at least one Black friend in the same state or country who played SLAY.

All in all, Brittney Morris’s SLAY is a creative, geeky read that will touch young Black readers, whether or not they play video games. It demonstrates that even though you may have to fight to do so, you can be your fullest self regardless of what anyone else thinks.

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.

Most Anticipated 2022 Reads

Most Anticipated 2022 Reads

Slay book cover

SLAY by Brittney Morris

Although this book came out in 2019, I waited far too long to get my hands on a copy. It tells the story of a teenaged Black girl game developer named Kiera Johnson and her game SLAY, a massive multiplayer online card battler game inspired by Black culture. Kiera’s identity as the game developer is kept secret until an unexpected tragedy brings the game into the news and a racist threatens to take Kiera to court.

Full disclosure: I finished this book in days because I found Kiera’s personal journey and the world of SLAY very engrossing as a Black non-binary femme gamer. Be on the lookout for my review of this book coming soon to The Afro YA.

The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow

Last year, I happened to nab a digital copy of this book on sale because its premise seemed up my alley.  In short, a Black girl who loves books and an alien who loves music must work together to save the world. Set in a dystopian world controlled by aliens known as IIori, Ellie Baker maintains a secret library until she is discovered by an Illori commander. Although the commander is supposed to deliver Ellie to be executed, their secret love of pop music results in their bonding with Ellie, and the two of them decide to rebel against the IIori.

Books and music are in my top five favorite personal comforts, so how can I not read about people who love these things trying to save the world? Not to mention, the book’s cover is gorgeous.

The Sound of Stars
Slay book cover

Moonflower by Kacen Callender

Kacen Callender has been one of my favorite Black queer YA authors in recent years, and when I found out that they had a middle-grade book about a heavy topic that was personal to me, my interest was piqued. The novel stars a non-binary twelve-year-old named Moon who travels to the spirit world each night hoping to never return to the world of the living.

This novel is an allegory for depression and suicidal ideation, and Kacen Callender revealed in a Publisher’s Weekly article that it was partly inspired by his own experiences. Given that you’re never too young to experience depression, I am interested to see how Callender presents this experience through a child’s eyes.

StarLion by Leon Langford

 

Although I have written about this YA fantasy book elsewhere, I have yet to take the time to actually read it. The premise alone sounds exciting: a young boy named Jordan has the power to control gravity, but he gets arrested. Instead of going to jail, he decides to go undercover at superhero training camp featuring the Gods of Olympus. When he learns of a world-threatening plot, Jordan must join forces with other superheroes in training to stop it.

I have a soft spot for characters who don’t act so heroically when they first start out, so Jordan piques my interest. Did I mention the book’s cover looks fun and exciting?

 

The Sound of Stars
Slay book cover

Right Where I Left You by Julian Winters

A year or so ago, I heard that author Julian Winters was working on a queer Black YA book set at a fictional version of Comic-Con. This book turned out to be Right Where I Left You, and based on this premise and my enjoyment of Winters’s previous books, I am excited for this. Right Where I Left You tells the story of two queer boys of color, Isaac and Diego, who are best friends. Isaac tries to get a pair of passes to Legend Con to spend time with Diego before college, but things don’t go as planned when Isaac’s old crush Davi shows up.

Not only am I curious about how Isaac and Diego manage to have a good time despite not getting convention passes, I’m also excited to see how their relationship will change when one of them seems to start catching feelings for the other. This is a geeky friends-to-lovers book that I have been dying to read, so I will definitely be on the lookout for it.

 

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.

 

 

Best Books to Give Black Readers This Holiday Season, 2021

Best Books to Give Black Readers This Holiday Season, 2021

Although this year was just as trying as last year, I still managed to read and recommend many great YA books by Black authors.

I even had a few surprises when I was directly asked by two Black authors to review their books.

Winter is the perfect time to curl up with a good book, so why not give them as presents this holiday season? Check out the best books to give Black readers during this 2021 holiday season.

Legacy: Women poets of the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes

I reviewed this poetry book earlier this year, and it is still lingering in my mind. This 2021 book bridges the past and present by featuring the unheralded voices of Black women Harlem Renaissance poets and Grimes’s own original poetry. The latter’s poems utilize the “Golden Shovel” method, taking one line from a Harlem Renaissance poem and using the words to create an entirely new poem. Accompanying the poems are sumptuous visual art pieces by some of the finest contemporary Black women illustrators. Although this collection is intended for a middle-grade audience, poetry lovers of all ages can appreciate this book.

(Full Review)

Getting By by Jaire Sims

When I was approached to review this 2020 book about a Black gay autistic protagonist figuring out his identity and future, I couldn’t say no. Given that there are only a small handful of books about Black autistic characters by Black autistic authors, I felt duty-bound to review this book as a Black neurodivergent reader. Despite experiencing bullying, his first romantic relationship, and some uncertainty about his college plans, the protagonist, Carver, remains honest and true to himself. While the formal narration style might not be for everyone, this book is a hidden gem that shines bright.

(Full Review)

The Tristan Strong Trilogy by Kwame Mbalia

 

This year saw the release of Tristan Strong Keeps Punching, the final book in Kwame Mbalia’s epic adventure series inspired by African and African American folktales and mythology. Centered on a twelve-year-old boy named Tristan Strong, the series sees its protagonist overcome internal and external threats to the land of Alke, a world populated by Black folk heroes and mythological characters. The previous two books, Tristan Strong Destroys the World and Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in The Sky, were released in 2020 and 2019. It was my immense joy to review these books, and I look forward to reading more from the author.

(Book 3 Review) | (Book 2 Review) | (Book 1 Review)

Every Body Looking by Candice IIoh

This novel in verse follows a Nigerian American teen named Ada as she begins college and starts figuring out what she truly wants for herself. Told in poems that express Ada’s past and present as well as trauma and triumphs, this book shows how Ada’s passion for dance affects her coming-of-age experiences as a Black girl. Although this book discusses sensitive topics such as fatmisia, misogynoir, sexual assault, and parental verbal abuse, Ada’s love of dance gradually allows her to embrace everything about herself that the world rejects. As the book progresses, Ada taps into her burgeoning talent while exploring career goals and her orientation.

(Full Review)

Things We Couldn’t Say by Jay Coles

 

Although I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was asked to review this book, its sensitive and opinionated Black bisexual protagonist, Giovanni, instantly won me over. Gio is a young man dealing with a lot: the return of the mother who abandoned him, his shaky relationship with his father, and a crush on a new boy at school. Yet it is through navigating these experiences that Gio learns the true meaning of love when it comes to family and romance. This book teaches how complicated love can be with a contemplative cast of characters and down-to-earth conversations.

(Full Review)

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 EKATERINA BOLOVTSOVA via Pexels

 

“Tristan Strong Keeps Punching” Burns Bright and High

“Tristan Strong Keeps Punching" Burns Bright and High

While attending a family reunion in New Orleans, Tristan Strong is also doing his best to find his scattered friends from Alke who were brought into the real world. However, friends are not the only things that came from Alke.

When Tristan has an unexpected run-in with Alke’s oldest foe, King Cotton, Tristan pursues him and discovers a nefarious plot involving haints and departed spirits of the past. Now, Tristan must rally gods and heroes and new allies in the real world in order to defeat King Cotton once and for all.

One of the most notable things about Tristan Strong Keeps Punching is how it skillfully bridges the fictional world of Alke with the real world. Given that the folk heroes, gods, and other Alkeans now have their world literally stitched together with the real world, it is both fun and educational to see how they have been affected. This is especially notable because of the connections to the past and present that certain Alke characters and certain real-world inspired characters have. For example, there are the USCT, the United States Colored Troops, a group of soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The spirits of these soldiers not only serve as one of many guides to Tristan, they also have a surprising link to one of the Alkean folk heroes.

In fact, having the Alkean characters brought into the real world also allows for teachable historical and modern moments that aren’t sugarcoated for its younger audience. Instead, they say, “Look closer at the complicated world you’re living in, see its ugly racist roots, and then build something better.” Lessons like this often involve Tristan coming to a realization after using his powers to learn the untold stories of cities and places like New Orleans, Louisana, and Vicksburg, Tennessee. On the modern side of things, Tristan also encounters certain human individuals who are just as bad as King Cotton due to their desire to “discipline” Black kids by kidnapping them and stripping them of their spirits.

It is delightful to see how some of the Alkeans manage to adapt to the real world despite everything going on. A really cool facet of this is a group of children who form the skateboarding group called Rolling Thunder, partially as a refuge. With a new character, Grannie Z, watching over them and Thandiwe (the princess of Alke’s Isihlangu region) leading them, they are a pretty resolute and exciting bunch. There is also the contemporary version of High John’s spirit bird, Old Familiar, which has a coolness similar to Alke’s Story Box becoming a high-tech cell phone.

Both the past and present of the real world and the Alkeans allow for a variety of Black experiences to be shown in this novel. Moreover, these experiences are summed up in a beautiful allegory, “Black is a rainbow.” Black joy and Black pain are shown to be neither worse nor better than the other, but experiences that are connected and worth acknowledging. Despite the pain and hardship that Black people have experienced and continue to experience, we are also capable of fighting for and making our own Black joy. In fact, the character Gum Baby is probably one of the best embodiments of this, as she can literally fight and laugh at the same time.

In order for Tristan to fight for the past and present properly, he undergoes brilliant character development when he slowly confronts his anger in full. In the first book, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, Tristan’s anger is part of the grief he experiences after losing his best friend, Eddie. Now, Tristan’s anger isn’t just personal; it is felt by the entire community of Alkeans and amplified through their losses and untold stories. Since Tristan is an Ananseem, the anger of the Alkeans becomes his and manifests in a literal fire that Tristan must learn to control.

Given that the world often considers angry Black people to be threats, seeing Tristan learn to acknowledge and harness that anger is wonderful. Tristan puts it best when he says, “Anger uncontrolled is chaotic; anger given purpose is a tool.” Tristan shows that anger is multifaceted and a necessary emotion, because anger can fuel the desire to set wrong things right.

Not only is this book filled with amazing characters, real-life facts, and magic, but it is also a testament to resilience, surviving, and thriving. Tristan Strong Keeps Punching is an epic conclusion to the tale of Tristan Strong, burning bright and high.

 

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.

Pride Spotlight: Black Queer YA

Pride Month Spotlight: Black Queer YA

June is Pride Month. With the pandemic still affecting the economic situation of LGBTQ people and current legislation negatively affecting trans youth, it may seem we don’t have much to celebrate.

Yet the fact that we continue to survive, fight, and triumph in small and large ways is worth being happy about. One of the most notable things is the rise of Black LGBTQ+ authors in young adult fiction.

A decade ago, the only Black queer author I knew of who wrote teen fiction was Jacqueline Woodson. Now I can name at least a dozen authors. From verse novels to fantasy, Black LGBTQ+ authors have been leaving a colorful mark for a new generation to see. Check out some of the Black queer YA books I’ve enjoyed over the past few years.

The Black VeinsThe Black Veins book cover by Ashia Monet

Nothing says summer like a road trip, even a world-saving one. This is what happens to Blythe Fulton, a Black bisexual Elemental Guardian, after her family is kidnapped and taken to the Trident Republic. Of course, she can’t rescue her family on her own, so she must recruit other Elemental Guardians to help her.

In addition to the magic and action, I really enjoyed the downtime the characters experience in this book. The friendship is so fun and heartwarming, especially because there is some flirting but no romance whatsoever.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Not only is this book set during Pride Month in NYC, but it is also about a Black trans demi boy learning to have pride in himself. After his pre-transition photos are leaked, Felix Love must find the culprit while reexamining who he is and the kind of love he wants from others.

Felix’s personal journey is poignant because it shows that one’s gender identity isn’t necessarily set in stone after coming out. Furthermore, it demonstrates the importance of standing up for who you are, even if it means having hard conversations with friends and family.

The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters

Spending summer working in a bookstore may seem like a lot of fun, especially when it’s a safe space. But what if the bookstore is in danger of closing? Eighteen-year-old Wesley Hudson deals with this with the used bookstore Once Upon a Page. Not to mention, he is struggling to plan his older brother’s wedding, figure out his future plans, and confess his crush on his best friend, Nico Alvarez.

All of these things are a part of something that Wesley has been avoiding: adulthood. As Wesley deals with a lot over the course of the novel, he manages to figure out what is most important to him with the help of a colorful cast of characters.

Let’s Talk about Love by Claire Kann

Being in college is difficult, especially when your girlfriend breaks up with you for being asexual. On top of that, Alice is also trying to figure out her career path. Things become even more complicated when she ends up with a crush on her new library co-worker Takumi. What’s a Black biromantic girl to do?

This book lives up to its title as Alice figures out what she loves to do in order to identify her future career and redefine what love means, both romantically and in terms of friendship. Not only does this book show how complex love can be, it also shows that it’s worth discussing and exploring with others.

Magnifique Noir by Briana Lawrence

College-aged everyday young women by day. Magical girls by night (and sometimes day too). This is the basic premise of Magnifique Noir, a book series about a Black queer team of magical girls. The first book in the series focuses on gamer girl Bree Danvers and boxer Lonnie Knox as they take their first steps as magical girls alongside baker Marianna Jacobs, who is the most experienced of the three.

The second book copes with the aftermath of the first and demonstrates the importance of mental health and taking care of yourself. Both feature short comics and colorful art that enhance the narrative and give the sparkly antics extra shine. They also tackle certain experiences in a mature manner, such as misogynoir, difficult parents, and online trolls.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

My favorite definition of poetry is “imagination written in verse.” When this definition is applied to verse that tries to define the poet’s self, the verses themselves become a source of power. This is the case with The Black Flamingo, which tells the story of Michael Angelis, a Black British gay man with Greek-Jamaican heritage.

Through performance and verse, Michael blossoms beautifully as we read his story from childhood to burgeoning young adulthood. By using a flamingo as a metaphor to figure himself out, Michael learns to stand out and be proud.

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 Anete Lusina from Pexels