“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 Tima Miroshnichenko

“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 Tima Miroshnichenko

“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 Tima Miroshnichenko

“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 Tima Miroshnichenko

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.

Top photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

 

 

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 Tima Miroshnichenko

Top photo by EKATERINA BOLOVTSOVA via Pexels