October is Black Speculative Fiction Month, a month dedicated to celebrating Black creators in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. This includes novels, comic books, film, television, and more. For novels alone, there are a lot of options depending on your age and what your personal tastes are.
In recent years, some of the best Black speculative fiction novels have been published for young readers in the middle grade and young adult genres. From gods and goddesses to wizardry, there is plenty of magic and adventure to go around. To that end, let’s take a look at six must-read Black SFF books for middle grade and young adult readers.
To Corrine La Mer, jumbies are just stories made up to scare kids like her. But on Halloween night, Corrine chases an agouti all the way to the forbidden woods and notices a pair of yellow eyes following her. After that night, strange happenings abound: a beautiful stranger named Severine appears, speaking to the town witch. Then, Severine bewitches Corrine’s father, taking the first step to claiming Corrine’s home for jumbies. Now Corrine must discover an old magic she never knew she had and join forces with her friends to save everything and everyone she loves.
In the South Side of Chicago lives a twelve-year-old girl named Maya who sees things like werehyenas and a strange man made of shadows in her dreams. Although people try to rationalize these occurrences, Maya believes they are something from her Papa’s stories. Then her Papa goes missing, and Maya is pulled into a new world of gods and nightmares as she discovers an amazing secret: she is half Orisha and half human. With the disappearance of her Papa, the veil around the neighborhood that kept her safe is failing, and now she is in danger from the Lord of Shadows, the man from her dreams. The Lord of Shadows is determined to destroy the human world, and Maya is the only one who can stop him.
Tristan Strong is a twelve-year-old boy grieving the loss of his best friend, Eddie, and smarting from being defeated in his first boxing match. While visiting his grandparents’ farm in Alabama, he accidentally unleashes an evil haint and creates a hole between the real world and a magical world of African American folk heroes and West African gods. Now he must work together with them and undergo an epic quest to retrieve Anansi’s story box to save the world. This is an epic, funny, and poignant adventure that introduces African folklore to a new generation of readers. If you want, check out my full review.
Fusing magical realism with autobiographical elements, Black Girl Unlimited is an emotional rollercoaster that hits very close to home. Echo Brown is a Black wizard from the East Side, where parents are addicted to white rocks, apartments are small, and food can be scarce. Yet there is magic, too; portals transport Echo to a rich school on the West Side. Although Echo finds a teacher who becomes a mentor, going back and forth from the East Side to the West takes a toll. Soon, she begins to leave parts of herself behind, and a dark depression threatens to overwhelm her.
In the first book of Sarah Raughley’s Effigies series, four girls with the power to control the elements come together to battle evil. Part of this evil consists of Phantoms—massive monsters from your worst nightmares. When an effigy dies, another girl replaces her and gains her power. However, technologies have arisen to combat the Phantoms, so now the Effigies have become international celebrities. One day, the barrier protecting New York City fails, a man who can control the Phantom appears, and a girl named Maia unexpectedly becomes the Fire Effigy. Forced to work together with three other girls who don’t get along, Maia and the others must learn to hone their new abilities to save the world.
In this urban fantasy retelling of Alice in Wonderland, and the first book of the Nightmare Verse series, L. L. McKinney fuses fantasy and reality in a dazzling way. Alice Kingston, the book’s protagonist, is a Black teenager living in Atlanta, Georgia, and a warrior known as a Dreamwalker. Together with her mentor, Addison Hatta, she fights Nightmares, creatures that serve as the embodiment of human fear. When Hatta ends up poisoned, Alice must journey deep into Wonderland to search for a cure and face a darkness that threatens Wonderland and the real world. If you want, check out my full review.
Whenever I learned about the Harlem Renaissance poets in grade school, I always heard the same names: Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. While I would grow to enjoy their works, part of me wished that I could have learned about more poets besides them. Now, author, poet, and journalist Nikki Grimes has released Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance to fill that large gap in my—and others’—education.
One of the most unique aspects of the book is its format, in which a poem by an unsung Black woman from the Harlem Renaissance is followed by an original poem by Nikki Grimes and an illustration by a Black woman visual artist. Each poem by Nikki Grimes utilizes the “Golden Shovel method,” a technique originating with the poet Terrance Hayes and inspired by poet Gwendolyn Brooks. In this volume, the form involves Grimes’s taking one line from a poem by a Black woman from the Harlem Renaissance and using the words to make a new poem. The result is a wonderful way to pay tribute to the poets of bygone times and bridge the past and present. All the poems and artwork are featured in three sections: “Heritage,” “Earth Mother,” and “Taking Notice.”
In “Heritage,” Black women past and present aim to instill the next generation with Black pride. A particular set of poems I enjoyed from this section are “I Am Not Proud” by Helene Johnson and “Having My Say” by Nikki Grimes. Together, these poems show that Black women can and should be vocal because of their skin tone, rather than in spite of it. A notable line from Grimes’s poem reads, “For me, boldness is a requirement that came / as part of my Black girl package / along with my sass, and bodacious hip swing!” Following these poems is an illustration by Shada Strickland that is just as bold, featuring a Black girl courageously standing on top of a large old-fashioned pink record player as a Black woman in a nearby window turns the handle.
The section “Earth Mother” is exactly as it sounds, featuring poems about Black women’s relationship to the earth and the natural world. One notable set of poems is “Rondeau” by Jessie Redmon Fauset and “Tara Takes on Montclair” by Nikki Grimes. Both poems involve Black women reveling in the beauty of nature, with tantalizing imagery. The line that stands out the most in both poems is, “I joyous roam the countryside / look here the violets shy abide.” These poems are accompanied by a pretty illustration by Daria Peoples Riley that has a Black girl in white surrounded by purple violets.
Finally, the section “Taking Notice” features poetry and artwork that gives voice to people and experiences that often go unseen and heard. A powerful set of poems from this section includes “Flag Salute” by Esther Popel and “A Mother’s Lament” by Nikki Grimes. Popel’s poem displays the anti-Black brutality present in America’s past, underscoring it with a sardonic take on the Pledge of Allegiance. Meanwhile, Grimes’s brief poem echoes Popel’s sentiment to reflect on the present as she reckons with the ancestral blood spilled in America’s name. Taking both poems to greater heights is April Harrison’s collage-like illustration of a Black women shedding a tear as she watches a slave trip sail away.
Although the majority of the poems work especially well as pairs, there are also some poems that shine well individually. One that stood out to me was “Jehovah’s Gesture” by Gertrude Parthenia McBrown, which likens nature’s turbulence to boisterous jazz musicians. Another, “Seeing” by Nikki Grimes, pays tribute to the resilience and magic that poor and low-income mothers find and provide. Whether you read the poems in pairs or individually, there are many layers and different interpretations to be discovered.
All in all, Legacy is a triumphant collection of poetry and visual art that gives Black female Harlem Renaissance poets a chance to shine. It pulls them out of history’s shadows and into the light of the present day, with Grimes’s poems and Black women illustrators as a beacon. Not only can a new generation of younger readers learn these poets’ names, but adult readers can appreciate them, too.
Due to my intensely personal experience with depression, I was really interested in Morgan Parker’s semiautobiographical debut young adult book, Who Put This Song On? Set in 2008 in a conservative Southern California town, the book follows the story of Morgan Parker, who is told depression is something that happens to people who lack faith, and that her Blackness shouldn’t be mentioned too much. Following a mental health crisis, Morgan decides to figure out who she is. Armed with an expansive soundtrack of mostly 2000s emo music, Morgan examines herself and everything she has been told in order to find out who she wants to be.
One of the things I immediately liked about the book was the voice of Morgan Parker’s teen self. She sounds tired, but also curious and resilient. She has hit rock bottom, but she is willing to climb out of the hole depression caused her to fall into. Above all, Parker’s teen self has a voice filled with hard-won clarity that results in honest observations about her mental health, her identity, and the world around her.
Morgan’s teenage voice is enhanced with diary entries, emails, and a Yellow Notebook in which she and her friends write about their exploits in sex, romance, and crushes. One of my personal favorite lines is, “I have no idea if I have the hypothetical and figurative balls to be a Black Panther or actual Rosa Parks… sometimes I don’t even know if I want to keep being alive. But as long as I’m here, and I’m me, I will definitely be intense, ridiculous, passionate, and sometimes hilarious.”
In addition to Morgan herself, the secondary cast of characters is also worth mentioning. There’s her white best friends Meg and James, her Black love interests David Santos and Sean Santos-Orenstein, the racist history teacher Mr. K, and Morgan’s family. All of these characters affect Morgan both positively and negatively, and the nuanced way they are presented adds depth to the narrative. At one point, Meg has to be called out by Morgan when Meg says, “You’re not really Black,” even though Morgan considers Meg a friend.
It’s worth noting, too, that the way Morgan is treated by her small town and family is influenced by mental health stigma, her religiously conservative community, and the 2008 political climate. To her white peers and white adults, Morgan is expected to be excited at the possibility of a Black president as well as an authority on Black history, even as she is asked not to bring up her Blackness too much.
Moreover, Morgan’s family alternates between treating Morgan like a difficult, fragile person to be around and treating her as someone who is trying her best to live. They know Morgan is going through a difficult time, but they don’t quite understand it. They let Morgan see a therapist and help her get access to antidepressants, but they also try to avoid the issue and frequently blame Morgan herself until they realize their mistake.
Still, there are characters in the book who are more sensitive toward Morgan’s mental health issues and open-minded about her questioning of religion, Blackness, and her place in the world. Cousins David and Sean Santos fill this role as both love interests and new friends. When David first meets Morgan, he helps her through a panic attack, and they talk about their favorite movies. Both David and Sean are notable for being presented as added emotional support, rather than cure-alls for Morgan’s depression.
Finally, the music references are a fun bonus throughout the book. Although I was only familiar with one or two of the artists, it was nice to see a Black girl coping with her depression through emo music without anyone giving her a hard time about it. Seeing so many different 00’s emo music artists mentioned rang true to my own experiences of my teens and early twenties.
In the end, this book was a heartfelt exploration of identity and mental health. Who Put This Song On? shows that you don’t have to let your mental illness or other people determine who you can be, even if you’re tired of fighting. By questioning what you are taught and forming your own sense of self, you can change your personal potential for the better.
Grief that results from the loss of a loved one is something we all experience at some point. Experiencing death as a teenager or young adult is especially painful, however, because these are formative years when having your loved ones around is crucial. In Ashley Woodfolk’s 2018 book The Beauty That Remains, Autumn, Shay, and Logan gradually learn to cope with their grief and become connected by their mutual love for the band Unraveling Lovely.
Told through the viewpoints of the aforementioned characters, The Beauty That Remains provides a strong, intricate narrative about grief that is very notable. In the initial aftermath of their losses, each of the characters copes differently. Autumn tries to go about her daily life as it was before the death of her friend Tavia but soon finds herself sending emails to Tavia and pushing away Tavia’s brother, Dante. After her twin sister, Sasha, dies, Shay attempts to run away from her grief. Finally, Logan deals with the death of his ex-boyfriend Bram through self-destructive behaviors such as drinking.
In addition to the leads, their lost loved ones are fully fleshed out characters who have a presence in their lives even after their passing. Tavia, aka Octavia, is boisterous, loving, and inspirational; she is a nice foil to the quiet, introverted Korean artist Autumn. Sasha’s enthusiasm about music is both painful and comforting to Shay, a Black indie rock music blogger. Bram’s troubled and gregarious nature haunts gay red-headed musician Logan to the point where he can’t write songs, but he can watch his ex-boyfriend’s old YouTube videos.
Not only do the lead characters cope with their grief differently, they also get help for it in different ways. Logan is forced to see a psychiatrist by his parents after he gets caught with his father’s liquor. Following an emotional breakdown, Autumn slowly learns to open up to Dante, her older sister Willow, and Tavia’s ex-boyfriend Perry. Meanwhile, Shay gets an unexpected intervention that leads her and her mother to different support groups. It is moving to watch each character find solace in someone or something they didn’t think would help them process their grief.
All of the characters show how complicated and messy grief can be. Sometimes, grief will make you lash out at loved ones, avoid them, or self-destruct. These responses are neither healthy nor excusable, but they happen. Grief can also result in strong physical reactions, such as the panic attacks that Shay has. Autumn’s sister Willow sums up the situation well when she says that Dante and Autumn have suffered “a great trauma.” Given that some people think grief is a temporary mood, like anger or sadness, it is gratifying to see grief depicted as something that strongly impacts mental, physical, and emotional health.
As a result of coming to terms with their grief, each of the lead characters is able to see “the beauty that remains,” which can be understood as the good things they still have despite who they have lost. Not only do they have loving friends and family who are still alive, they also have small and big things in their lives that they can enjoy. For Autumn, it’s drawing and reading books. For Shay, it’s running track. And for Logan, it’s writing songs. Yet the common love they all share is music, especially the band Unraveling Lovely.
Most of us know that music can be a powerful way to soothe and convey feelings that are otherwise difficult to express. When seen through the lens of grief, music can be both painful and wonderful. This is demonstrated when Shay walks out on a live performance of an Unraveling Lovely song that was sung to Sasha before she died. Music is a coping mechanism for all the characters, but they engage with it in different ways. Shay is a music blogger for her and Sasha’s website BAMF (Badass Music Fanatics), Logan is the former vocalist and songwriter for the band Unraveling Lovely, and Autumn listens to music, watches music-inspired films, and has Unraveling Lovely’s former guitarist Dante as her love interest.
While there was much about The Beauty That Remains that I enjoyed, I would point out that the book’s huge cast is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, the characters are diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, and orientation, and almost every character plays a role in the healing the lead characters undergo. On the other hand, there were times I mixed up the characters or forgot who certain ones were, especially those who were in different bands. However, this did not ruin my enjoyment of the book.
All in all, The Beauty That Remains is a raw and liberating meditation on grief and music. Grief is a traumatic experience that everyone deals with differently, but this book shows that with help, you can still have wonderful things in your life despite the loss you’ve experienced. With music as their common thread, the characters blog, sing, and listen to words that bring them solace and keep the memory of their lost loved ones alive.
Created by Briana Lawrence, the illustrated novel series Magnifique Noir tells the story of Black queer young women as they come of age as young adults and as members of the magical girl team Magnifique Noir. Book 2 of the series picks up a few weeks after the ending of Book 1. In the aftermath of a difficult battle, the new generation of the magical girl group Magnifique Noir is trying their best to move on. As they start to balance their everyday lives with their magical ones, the past comes back to haunt them in unexpected ways.
A noteworthy theme of this book is the pressure on Black women to be “the strong one.” Black women are always expected to put everyone else before themselves. Even though they are magical superheroes, the ladies of Magnifique Noir are still human. They have to learn to check in with themselves and each other. This is especially apparent in the book’s first two chapters, in which one of the girls is having nightmares about the team and their loved ones dying — a development that reflects the influence of the Japanese anime series Madoka Magica. The darkness of the situation is softened by the display of concern from her friends and her eventual decision to talk about the nightmares.
Another theme, related to the insistence that Black women be strong, is the expectation for Black women to always be wholesome. Rooted in respectability politics, this expectation denies Black women agency in terms of how they present and express themselves. A later chapter comments on this theme when the ladies attend a burlesque show inspired by Magnifique Noir. Kayla, a Black female burlesque dancer, is slut shamed by a white woman for her sexually charged take on Magnifique Noir’s Cosmic Green. Even though their superhero identities are a secret, Magnifique Noir stands up for Kayla as civilians.
The decision to tackle the expectation of wholesomeness as it applies to Black women sets this book apart from other works inspired by magical girl anime. Given that the magical girl anime genre primarily features schoolchildren and was originally targeted at kids, it is rare to find books about adult magical girls doing adult things like seeing a burlesque show. Yet there are still some sparkly sweet moments could easily fit alongside classic magical girl manga like Sailor Moon.
One of my favorite moments takes the form of an illustration called “8 Bits of Rainbow” by artist Fried Unicorn Rainbow. It is a small yet dynamic and colorful piece depicting an awesome team-up between Magnifique Noir members Cosmic Green and Radical Rainbow. Another memorable illustration is “Rest Well, Magical Girls” by artist coloured_braids. It features three of the ladies in PJs sleeping together in the same bed. It is a tender moment captured well with pink pillows peaceful expressions, and the amusing contrast between the girl’s sleepwear.
In addition to illustrated moments, there is also great dialogue, scenes, and entire chapters devoted to queerness. One highlight features the character Marianna Jacobs figuring out how to define her asexual orientation with the help of Blaze, Magnifique Noir’s leader. The moments that build up to this one sensitively portray Mari’s orientation as something she is new to, but not something that she needs to change. Another notable moment is the romantic tension between Magnifique Noir’s Radical Rainbow (a lesbian) and Prism Pink (confirmed by the author to be a trans woman). Their scenes together capture the nervousness and excitement of having a crush very well.
One final bit of praise must go to the backstory about the old members of Magnifique Noir. While there are still some questions left unanswered, what is revealed is done in a way that will shock and perhaps surprise the reader. It was also great to see an older woman like Blaze growing a little closer to the girls and becoming more involved in their civilian lives as well as their magical ones. In this way, she becomes more like an auntie spending time with her nieces.
Adding a darker tone and some mature content, Magnifique Noir Book 2 continues to deliver a wonderful coming-of-age storyline with affectionate, powerful, and fun moments. This book shows Black women that they don’t always have to be strong or perfectly wholesome. No matter what you have to work through or how unwholesome you might seem, you are still magical.
As a Black Asian nonbinary queer femme from the United States, I find it fascinating to learn about what life is like for queer trans people of color around the world. Some countries have more queer freedom than others, but somehow international QTPOC always find a way to create a space to be themselves. This is exemplified in Dean Atta’s verse novel The Black Flamingo, which is heavily inspired by UK LGBTQ+ culture. It tells the story of Michael “Michalis” Angeli, a gay British young man with Greek Jamaican heritage. Growing up, his multifaceted identity makes him feel out of place. After deciding to attend a university in Brighton, Michael joins a drag club and slowly discovers how to combine his identities and his lived experiences to make himself feel whole.
One of the most notable aspects of this book that immediately drew me in was how it flawlessly combines standard poetry with narrative storytelling. As in Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, this book’s protagonist becomes a poet and gradually uses his poetry to express his blossoming sexuality as well as his gender and his racial experiences. One of my personal favorite poems in this book is titled “I Come From,” which features Michael reveling in his heritage and the experiences that have shaped him to that point: “I come from DIY that never got done. / I come from waiting by the phone for him to call. / I come from waving the white flag to loneliness. / I come from the rainbow flag and the Union Jack.”
The narrative storytelling in verse is also remarkable because it shows Michael’s life from childhood to early adulthood. I haven’t read too many coming-of-age verse novels that present the character at different stages of their life. This choice allows the reader to see how both small and large experiences shape Michael as he grows up. For example, Michael recalls wanting to have a Barbie doll as a child and how his mom initially thought he was kidding, since boys are socially conditioned to like “boys’ toys” like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In a more affecting episode, preteen Michael takes an Easter trip to Cyprus and hears about a black flamingo on the news.
In fact, seeing how different experiences shaped the development of Michael’s drag character, “The Black Flamingo,” was thought-provoking and poignant. Inspired by events such as having his dreadlocks touched by white people and reciting his poetry at an open mic, Michael’s becoming The Black Flamingo allows him to transform into a more confident and fuller self. The character also serves as the result of Michael’s growth as a person and how he has learned about, and unlearned, things like internalized racism and Black queer lives of the past and the present.
Furthermore, some of the experiences that influenced “The Black Flamingo” also give the reader an interesting glimpse into LGBTQ culture in the United Kingdom. The contrast between a gay bar and a Black queer gay bar, and the homophobia casually tossed around by schoolchildren with terms like “bwatty bwoy,” show how complex the experiences of Black queer UK youth are, especially those of the children of immigrants. Michael has to unlearn a lot, especially regarding gender norms and heteronormativity. Neither completely fertile nor arid, UK LGBTQ culture is represented as something that Black queer people must navigate well in order to grow into the people they want to be.
Michael’s story also gives the reader a solid introduction to drag culture, with clear and creative explanations of what it is and what it isn’t. Since Michael is new to drag culture, the reader is able to learn about it alongside him. I love these lines that sum up what Michael wants from drag culture: “I’m just a man and I want to wear a dress and makeup onstage…. I’m a man and I want to be a free one.”
While The Black Flamingo is enjoyable as-is, it would have been interesting to see what the Jamaican side of Michael’s family thought of his queerness. Michael doesn’t mention his queerness to them at all, since he knows it’s illegal to be gay in Jamaica and that his family might have brought some of that prejudice with them to the UK. It is entirely possible that some of Michael’s family will not accept him. Yet given how completely Michael’s Greek mom accepts his queerness, it would have been nice to see at least one member of Michael’s Jamaican family do the same.
On the whole, The Black Flamingo is an electrifying, poetic declaration of identity. Through poetry, coming-of-age perspectives, and drag, the novel offers a triumphant tale of transformation and self-expression.