Most Anticipated 2023 Reads

Most Anticipated 2023 Reads

2023 promises some fantastic YA reads by Black authors.

One of my most anticipated favorites comes from promising author Amber McBride, while another book has been on my TBR for ages.

With life being what it is, I can’t promise that I will get to all of these books. Nonetheless, I will do my best to write about 2023 Black YA reads, as well as some older books that I have been meaning to get to. Without further ado, here are my most anticipated Black YA reads for 2023. 

We Are All So Good at Smiling by Amber McBride

This is a book I heard about through the Twitter grapevine last year. The premise alone had me sold—a novel in verse telling the story of a Black hoodoo-practicing, fairy-tale-loving girl named Whimsy as she navigates clinical depression and a mysterious garden from her past. However, my anticipation for this book increased once I read the author’s previous book, Me, Moth (briefly reviewed here), which featured clinical depression from a different perspective.

 

 

 

Cool. Awkward. Black., edited by Karen Strong

This YA short story anthology is dedicated to Black nerds and features all sorts of subgenres, such as fantasy, sci-fi, and slice-of-life. I found out about this anthology on Twitter the same day We Are All So Good at Smiling was released. Having been a Black teen nerd turned Black nerdy adult, this anthology is totally up my alley.

 

 

 

 

As You Walk on By by Julian Winters 

Y’all know that I have been a Julian Winters fan from the moment he debuted with the book How To Be Remy Cameron (reviewed here). Imagine my surprise when I found out on Twitter that he has a new book coming out this year. Described as “The Breakfast Club meets Can’t Hardly Wait,” the book tells the story of seventeen-year-old Theo Wright as he seeks refuge in an empty bedroom during a house party following a promposal gone wrong. While there, he meets other teens who are also avoiding the party and learns he is not as alone in his troubles as he thinks.

 

 

Nothing Burns as Bright as You by Ashley Woodfolk

I will read almost any author if they do a novel-in-verse, and Ashley Woodfolk is no exception. Of course, it helps that I enjoyed one of her previous books, The Beauty That Remains (review here). This particular book came out last year, but I still want to try and get it if the publisher ever decides to support the worker’s union. Described as “an impassioned standalone tale of queer love, grief, and the complexity of female friendship,” the book tells the story of two girls troubled by a tumultuous history. 

 

 

 

Fate of Flames by Sarah Raughley

This book has been on my TBR for so long. I bought it after I saw a Twitter post describing it as “Pacific Rim meets Sailor Moon.” Part of the official synopsis is as follows:

Phantoms, massive beasts of nightmare, began terrorizing the world. At the same time, four girls—the Effigies—appeared, each with a unique power to control a classical element. Since then, they have protected the world from the Phantoms. At the death of one Effigy, another is chosen, pulled from her normal life into the never-ending battle.

When Maia unexpectedly becomes the next Fire Effigy, she resists her new calling. A quiet girl with few friends and almost no family, she was much happier to admire the Effigies from afar. Never did she imagine having to master her ability to control fire, to protect innocent citizens from the Phantoms, or to try bringing together the other three Effigies.

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 Photo by cottonbro studio via Pexels

Best Books to Give Black Readers This Holiday Season, 2022

Best Books to Give Black Readers This Holiday Season, 2022

The year has been long and frightful, but the books I’ve read have been delightful.

I was especially surprised to enjoy books that I didn’t review for this column but enjoyed on my own time. I also can’t ignore the enchanting books that I have reviewed or written about, because they made my sporadic posts this year. At the same time, there are also promising books that I haven’t read but still want to promote.

Without further delay, here are the books I recommend to give as gifts to yourself or to your loved ones this holiday season.

 

All Signs Point To Yes: A Love Story For Every Star Sign by Cam Montgomery, g. haron davis, and Adrianne White

Released during summer 2022, this is a multicultural YA anthology inspired by love and astrology. A haunted Aquarius finds love behind the veil. An ambitious Aries will do anything to stay in the spotlight. A foodie Taurus discovers the best eats in town (with a side of romance). A witchy Cancer stumbles into a curious meet-cute.

Whether it’s romantic, platonic, familial, or something else you can’t quite define, love is the thing that connects us. All Signs Point to Yes will take you on a journey from your own backyard to the world beyond the living as it settles us among the stars for thirteen stories of love and life. These stories will touch your heart, speak to your soul, and have you reaching for your horoscope forevermore.

 

The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow

Speaking of stars, this YA dystopian sci-fi book was one of my favorite reads this year. Two years after aliens known as the IIori invaded Earth and decimated a third of the population, a seventeen-year-old girl named Ellie Baker lives in an IIori-controlled center in New York City.

Although she is reduced to a state of surviving rather than living, she also quietly rebels against the IIori by hosting an illegal library of books. When her library is discovered by Morris, an IIori commander who loves banned pop music, the two gradually learn to trust each other and turn their mutual quiet rebellions into a louder one.

(full review)

 

 

Star Lion: Thieves of Red Night by Leon Langford 

When you combine anime-inspired artwork with superhero schools, you get this fun book. 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.

(full review)

 

All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson

This powerful memoir-manifesto chronicles the author’s Black gay coming-of-age from his childhood to his teen and college years. It is a book about not only identity, but also family and community. This book had an unexpected personal impact on me as a thirty-one-year-old Black non-binary queer person, but I definitely could’ve used this book when I was a teen.

 

 

 

 

Right Where I Left You by Julian Winters

This queer and geeky YA read replaced Winters’s previous book as one of my favorite comfort reads. In fact, I called this book “the perfect summer vacation” in my review. It tells the story of Isaac Martin, an Afro-Mexican gay comic book geek who has been looking forward to spending one last summer with his best friend, Diego Santoyo.

The two of them were supposed to be attending Legends Con, the biggest pop culture convention in Georgia. When Isaac misses his chance to buy passes, he ends up gradually getting closer to his crush, Davi, and getting to know Diego’s gamer friends instead. However, as the day of the biggest teen Pride event approaches, Isaac finds himself drifting farther apart from his best friend.

(full review)

 

 

Me, Moth by Amber McBride 

Full disclosure: I’m still in the middle of reading this book. However, I am enjoying it too much not to recommend it.

This is a 2021 novel-in-verse about a young hoodoo-practicing, dance-loving Black girl named Moth and a Navajo boy named Sani. It is so lyrical, gorgeous, emotional, and nothing like any novel-in-verse I’ve read before. 

After losing her family in an accident, Moth goes to live with her aunt, but she still feels alone. Soon she meets Sani, a boy with depression who is trying to figure out where he comes from. Together, the two of them take a road trip in order to find themselves and understand how each of their families’ histories shapes who they are now.

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 Photo by cottonbro studio via Pexels

“Mental Health High” Is a Complicated Read with a Messy Protagonist

"Mental Health High" Is a Complicated Read with a Messy Protagonist

After receiving a pink slip to attend summer school, Krissa Mia Williams gets abducted and taken to a mental health facility where everyone has special abilities. After Krissa receives her diagnosis, she believes she is a monster until she gets the opportunity to prove herself.

One of the most notable aspects of D. N. Kris’s Mental Health High is how it shows the messier parts of mental health issues, especially for mental health diagnoses that aren’t widely talked about. At a certain point in the book, it is revealed that Krissa has a personality disorder that some people associate with abusive adults.

Yet Krissa is a teenager who comes off as angry, whiny, and selfish, and people write her off with their own preconceived notions even before she gets her diagnosis. Her family thinks she is a lazy rebel, while Roy, her initial guide to Mental Health High, thinks she’s stuck up. It is also mentioned that an unspecified childhood trauma resulted in her personality disorder. While Krissa may come off as unlikeable to some, her character and certain aspects of the plot show that other people’s low expectations of others can be just as damaging as more overt forms of trauma.

Another memorable feature of this book is its format. Novels in verse allow for a more poetic narrative, and this book is no exception. Certain lines display the author’s spoken word roots, such as these: “All alone / The tears finally break through / knowing my life sucks / nobody gives a fuck / and the contemptible family I was born into is just / my luck.”

Mental Health High blends poetry with urban fantasy themes, which is something I haven’t seen done before. Although the urban fantasy themes are rougher than the heartwarming feel-good magic school of other books, this doesn’t make this book unworthy of reading. With a little more development, the fantastical aspects of the book would have been even better.

One of the flaws of the book is that there are several things that go unexplained and are presented as if the reader should just go with the flow. The character Roy, for example, never formally introduces himself, and seeing Krissa suddenly mention his name despite never meeting him beforehand was confusing. There is also the fact that it is never really shown how the kids who attend Mental Health High get their special abilities, though there is an explanation of how “guiding” allows them to use mental illness as a literal power. Finally, a rival “school” that appears halfway through the book is a sinister version of Mental Health High, but we only get bare bones information about it and its goals.

Another issue of this book is the lack of female characters other than Krissa. There is one female supporting character who is an antagonist, but she is also a character who embodies the “mentally ill violent person” stereotype. Given that mental health issues are stigmatized among Black women and other women of color, it would have been nice to see Krissa bond with another Black girl with mental health issues instead of only commiserating with mentally ill male characters.

If this book had a sequel and maybe became a series, then subsequent books could address the flaws of this book and give Krissa a fuller character arc. Krissa could become more sympathetic and powerful, the supporting cast could be expanded, and this book’s unresolved plot points could be tied up. While this book does have its highlights, the lack of information and uninspired cast of characters other than the main protagonist made it a somewhat tedious read.

At the same time, this book is worth reading for Krissa alone. Krissa isn’t a quirky fun manic pixie dream girl with mental health issues — she’s bitter, tired, and angry. Krissa is basically what happens when you’re so used to hearing you’re a crappy person that you become a crappy person. Yet by the end of the book, she’s learned that even she has the potential to do the right thing. She’s not trying to be a hero, but to keep others from suffering like she has. She represents the messiness of mental health acceptance — someone who isn’t likable, but who still deserves to be given a chance to heal.

All in all, D. N. Kris’s Mental Health High is perfect for those who want a more complicated depiction of mental health issues. If you’re tired of the tormented and likable mental health lead, then 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.

Top photo by Photo by cottonbro studio via Pexels

“Right Where I Left You” Is Geeky Queer Bliss

"Right Where I Left You" Is Geeky Queer Bliss

Isaac Martin is an Afro-Mexican gay comic book geek who has been looking forward to spending one last summer with his best friend, Diego Santoyo.

The two of them were supposed to be attending Legends Con, the biggest pop culture convention in Georgia. When Isaac misses his chance to buy passes, he ends up gradually getting closer to his crush, Davi, and getting to know Diego’s gamer friends instead. However, as the day of the biggest teen Pride event approaches, Isaac finds himself drifting farther apart from his best friend.

One of the best things about this book is the complex depiction of various relationships that Isaac has and develops. At the beginning of the book, Isaac has a loving and mildly tense relationship with his Black mom due to their different opinions on Isaac’s dad, Carlos. He also has a somewhat tense relationship with his older brother, Iggy, and solid relationships with his older sister, Bella, his abuelito, and his best friend, Diego. As the book progresses, some of Isaac’s core relationships change due to his attempts to form new ones with Davi and with Diego’s gamer friends.

While Julian Winter’s past works also feature relationships ranging from family to crushes, this book shows how difficult it can be to keep them all balanced when you experience changes and have some unresolved issues. For instance, Carlos’s divorce from Isaac’s mom creates some cracks in Isaac’s relationship with Iggy, as well as his relationship with their mother.

At same time, Diego and Isaac have different plans post–high school, and Isaac’s social anxiety keeps him from communicating as well as he wants to. Diego wants to design his dream game, while Isaac will be attending college by himself in the fall. Isaac is scared to open up to new people and worries he will be alone once he goes to college, and this causes him to be clingy with Diego and also distance himself from potential new friends.

In addition to the various relationships, the depiction of different geeky interests is diverse and fun. Isaac’s love of comic books, particularly the Disaster Academy series, is displayed in the forum posts and fanfic comments featured at the beginning of each chapter as well as at other moments of the book. Diego’s passion for video games is shown through conversations with his friends and in his career aspirations. One of Diego’s friends, Zelda, enjoys cosplaying (i.e., dressing up as fictional characters) and the singer Whitney Houston, literally wearing both passions wholeheartedly.

Though the book does not take place at a pop culture convention, it introduces exotic hangouts for its characters that are wonderfully descriptive. There is the comic book store, Secret Planet, that has the homely feel of an indie bookstore, and Twisted Burger, a fast food restaurant with delicious burgers and enormous milkshakes. These places are presented in a way that makes them appear so well in the mind’s eye, you may wish they were real.

A final aspect of this book that is notable is how this book shows how difficult it can be to navigate queer identity and experiences. In particular, the queer crush subplot was well done, because Davi was going through something that wasn’t necessarily uncommon, but that is not talked about much. Isaac’s character arc shows how you can end up unintentionally lashing out and getting in your own way in the pursuit of personal happiness. Isaac also learns that some friendships don’t require deep bonds for every person, especially if the other person is initially hard to connect with.

All in all, Julian Winters’s Right Where I Left You is geeky queer bliss. With a memorable cast of characters, an assortment of teachable relationships, and a plethora of pop culture references, this book is the perfect summer vacation.

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 Photo by cottonbro studio via Pexels

“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.

Top photo by Photo by cottonbro studio via Pexels

“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.

Top photo by Photo by cottonbro studio via Pexels