“The Sound of Stars” Shows the Power of Art in Dark Times

"The Sound of Stars" Shows the Power of Art in Dark Times

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.

One of the strengths of this book is its compelling cast of characters. The main human protagonist, Elle Baker, is a Black bi demisexual with anxiety. She also loves books. Though she is very tired of the world that the IIori has forced her and her loved ones to live in, she is resilient, too. Before she meets Morris, the Ilori commander who is the book’s second protagonist, she is only surviving for the sake of her family and the chance to give people strength by loaning books from her illegal library.

Despite being a different species from Elle, Morris is also surviving more than living. Though he shares the DNA of the highest-born family in the IIori Empire and physically resembles a Latinx teen boy, he is treated badly due to being a lab-made IIori rather than a natural-born IIlori. He is also different from true IIori in that he feels emotions in a way similar to humans, has a strong appreciation of music from human music artists, and considers life to be sacred. Yet Morris is complicit in the destruction and subjugation of the human race, having following orders to maintain his own survival. There is also more to his role than initially meets the eye, a quiet rebellion similar to Elle’s that I can’t explain for spoiler reasons.

Not only does the book let the reader get to know Elle and Morris by alternating between each of their points of view, but Elle and Morris are also shaped by their experiences with certain secondary characters. Before and after the alien invasion occurred, Elle and her family had to deal with racism in their everyday lives from some white people who felt they were a threat. Mr. Hughes, landlord of the building that Elle and her family live in, is one example. To make matters worse, Elle’s mom is an alcoholic, while Elle’s dad is a shell of his former self after having been given the IIori vaccine that makes people obedient to them. Elle’s best friend is Alice, a blonde bi girl who was Elle’s first crush. Though Alice is loyal and a good listener, I wish Elle had been shown with Black girl friends, too.

Morris, on the other hand, has only his personal assistant, Avirola, as a loyal companion. His parents are far away, and his brother, Brixton, is loyal to the high-born IIori. Morris is engaged to Orsa, a cruel and vicious female IIori who he was arranged to marry and does not love at all. When asked by Elle why he loves music, he replies, “Music makes me feel. I like feeling.” For Morris, music is the only way he can feel like himself and not like someone unwanted.

Although Elle and Morris have their own artistic tastes, they gradually bond over music and stories. This is a poignant way for them to connect considering that all artistic forms of human expression are banned by the IIori. In addition to enjoying music and books from real-life authors and music artists, there is a fictional pop group known as The Starry-Eyed that the two gush over. The group’s thoughts and lyrics are featured throughout the book to give depth to Elle and Morris’ relationship and exemplify the importance of people using art to relate to each other.

In addition excellent characterization, Alechia Dow’s The Sound of Stars is a page-turner due to how it balances the bleakness of a postapocalyptic alien invasion with the hope of people connecting with each other through art. This is very true to life, because despite an ongoing pandemic, acts of racist violence, and the banning of books written by marginalized groups, people have still found strength and joy in books and music. The hope and despair that Elle and Morris feel is expressed in many quotable lines of dialogue such as, “If someone keeps stripping away our things, rights, freedoms, then we’ll hold on to what we know. That’s what we’ve always done.”

In fact, aside from Elle’s not having more Black friends, the only issue that I had with this book is that it ends on a cliffhanger. Although I didn’t go into the book expecting everything to be resolved at the end, finally reaching the ending made me want to read more.

All in all, The Sound of Stars is a beautiful book that shows the power of art in dark times.

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

“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

Favorite YA Comfort Reads

Favorite YA Comfort Reads

Everyone likes to reread certain books for various reasons, including comfort. There is nothing like rediscovering an old favorite book when you need some relief from bad times.

In the young adult genre, there are a variety of books that can become comfort reads depending on the reader’s tastes.

For me personally, I like both wholesome and low-stress reads as well as books that feature difficult subject matter in creative ways. From coming of age with poetry to becoming a magical girl in college, here are my favorite young adult comfort reads by Black authors.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X tells the story of Xiomara, an Afro-Latina teen who feels suffocated by her mother’s strict religious parenting and frustrated by the way the world perceives her as a brown girl with burgeoning sexuality. Initially, she writes down her thoughts in a secret poetry journal to have a safe place to express herself without judgment. Eventually, she joins the school’s poetry club and gradually learns to express herself openly.

Afro-Dominican poet Elizabeth Acevedo deeply moved me with this book. I felt I was seeing some of my younger self in these pages as Xiomara wrote poems about herself and the world around her. Since the novel is in verse, I also got to see Xiomara’s thoughts on things that would influence her poetry, such as other poets and music. This book is a reminder to never lose your creative voice, even when others try to silence it.

 

Let’s Talk about Love by Claire Kann

In addition to being one of the all too few YA books that feature a college-aged protagonist, this book also features a Black biromantic asexual lead named Alice. During an eventful summer, Alice must figure out what she wants to study in college while dealing with a crush on library assistant Takumi and the changes in her friendships with Feenie and Ryan.

I really liked how some of this book focuses on a “coming-to-terms” rather than a coming out narrative around sexuality, because you can still have some complicated feelings about your orientation even after coming out to yourself and others. I also like how love is examined through different relationships and things besides romance, and how Alice unabashedly indulges in her love of pop culture and food.

 

The Stars and the Blackness between Them by Junauda Petrus

Told from the dual viewpoints of an African American queer female teen named Mabel and a Trinidadian female teen named Audre, this book tells the story of two girls finding comfort in each other when each of them experiences bad events. I originally borrowed this book from the library a year or so ago, but I was so moved that I eventually bought my own copy.

This book is unabashedly Black and queer, featuring Mabel and Audre extolling the virtues of things ranging from Whitney Houston to Afro-Caribbean herbal healing. They also live their lives regardless of what others deem respectable. One line from this book sticks with me: “The stars and the blackness between them is the melanin in my skin.”

 

The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters

Nothing says comfort like a book set in a bookstore. This novel tells the story of Black gay comic book geek Wes, whose summer plan of working at the used bookstore Once Upon a Page are interrupted by looming adulthood. Now Wes has to figure out how to balance his crush on his best friend, Nico Alvarez; helping out with his big brother’s wedding planning; and saving his favorite bookstore before the end of the summer.

This book felt like the summer vacation bookstore version of the teen film Empire Records. You’ve got a quirky cast of characters, a homey atmosphere in the bookstore, and a coming-of-age story that is fun and poignant. If Once Upon a Page were a real bookstore, I would totally visit it.

 

Magnifique Noir Book 1: I Am Magical by Briana Lawrence

The first book in Briana Lawrence’s Magnifique Noir series tells the story of college student and gamer girl Bree Danvers. After having a few run-ins with monsters and a mysterious magical girl named Galactic Purple, she is invited to become a member of the magical girl team Magnifique Noir.

This visual novel combines illustrations, mini comics, and text to tell a colorful, cute, and down-to-earth magical girl story with an all-Black and queer magical girl team. In between battling monsters with frosted cupcake attacks and 8-bit video game graphics, the women also tackle things like street harassment, dysfunctional families, and misogynoir. Throughout it all, these Black women support each other and help each other remember that they are magical.

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 No Revisions on Unsplash

National Poetry Month Spotlight: Poetic YA Featuring Black Protagonists

National Poetry Month Spotlight: Poetic YA Featuring Black Protagonists

April is National Poetry Month, and one of the best ways to read poetry during this time is in young adult novels.

Not only are there novels in verse, but there are also books featuring poetry or lyrical writing that enhance the overall narrative. Last year, I spotlighted novels in verse by Black YA authors. Now, here are more poetic books to read to celebrate National Poetry Month.

Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne

Angel is a young woman who moves to Brooklyn after a romantic relationship hurts her. However, change can be hard when you’re far from the place and people you used to call home. Angel gradually gets to know her uncle and her classmates while discovering Black literature and a passion for creating music mixes. As time passes, Angel begins to fill the holes in her heart with friendship, family, and art.

In between chapters are poems that give you a peek into Angel’s head as she navigates the changes in her life. Some poems deal with self-doubt, while others take up thoughts on family and mindfulness. As the book progresses, you see Angel start to see herself and those around her in a whole new light. This is a tender, uplifting book that shows the how a community of friends, family, and peers is invaluable to personal healing.

 

Me, Moth by Amber McBride

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. This novel in verse is the debut book of Amber McBride and is considered one of the best books of 2021 by Shelf Awareness, NPR, and TIME.

 

Muted by Tami Charles

Seventeen-year-old Denver dreams of singing well enough to escape her small, white hometown. With her best friends Dali and Shak, she does just that by getting the attention of R&B star Sean “Mercury” Ellis. At first, the perks and the recording time seem worth it—until Denver starts losing her voice in more ways than one. Now, she must decide whether achieving her dream is worth the cost of being exploited.

Partly inspired by the author’s own experiences in the music industry, as well as by news stories, this novel in verse shows how friendship, family, and self-love can keep you grounded in an industry that seeks to diminish Black girls. The book’s honors include features in Essence, Marie Claire, and Bookbuzz.

 

Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

Amal is a sixteen-year-old Black Muslim boy who, along with four other boys, is wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Through his gifts for poetry and visual art, Amal learns to hold onto his humanity and express the truth of what really happened to him. This is a story of how systematic racism impacts Black young men and how hard it can be to fight against it.

In addition to the talented Ibi Zoboi, the heart of this book is also written by prison reform activist Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five. This 2020 book is partly inspired by Yusef’s experiences as an incarcerated teen and the poetry he wrote during this time. Its accolades include being Shelf Awareness’s Best Book of the Year, a Goodreads finalist for Best Teen Book of the Year, and being a NYT best-seller.

 

Concrete Kids by Amyra León

An autobiographical novel in verse, this book tells the story of the author’s childhood as she navigates foster care, grief, and self-love. It is an inspirational book of resilience and dreams that is part of the series known as Pocket Change Collective. Pocket Change Collective consists of a series of small books by big thinkers on a variety of ideas and experiences, ranging from gender identity to Black womanhood to the plastic crisis. Concrete Kids has been an A Goddard CBC’s Social Justice Prize Nominee, as well as an A YALSA Amazing Audiobook for Young Adults.

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