“Tristan Strong Destroys the World” Is a Magical Tale of Intergenerational Trauma

Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Destroys the World begins one month after the events of the first book. Tristan Strong and the mythical world of Alke are traumatized—but their battles are far from over. When folk hero John Henry is attacked by a mysterious enemy and Tristan’s grandmother is kidnapped, Tristan must journey to Alke once more to save what’s left of the realm before its stories are lost forever.

One of the things that immediately grabbed my attention about this novel is the fact that Tristan is traumatized by his previous adventures. He has nightmares and distracted thoughts even when he needs to go save the world of Alke again. This is compelling, because I haven’t read a lot of books that show the effects of a grand yet dangerous adventure on a hero’s psyche. In most sequels, the hero seems perfectly fine emotionally and is ready to tackle the next adventure. It is wonderful for young readers to see that it is okay not to be okay, even when you’re a hero.

In addition, Tristan’s trauma allows him to better empathize with the residents of Alke, the world of beings from African and African American myths and folktales. Alke has literal scars and emotional ones, and things only get worse for it as the plot thickens. Yet there is also beauty, life, and history in Alke, and to see Tristan search for and attempt to protect those aspects of the world is poignant and emotional. By telling and collecting stories of Alke’s history, Tristan is able to put his skills as an “Ananseem” to good use in order to get to the heart of Alke’s current problems.

I haven’t read a lot of books that show the effects of a grand yet dangerous adventure on a hero’s psyche. … It is wonderful for young readers to see that it is okay not to be okay, even when you’re a hero.

Part of Alke’s history lies within characters old and new. This second book in the Tristan Strong series sees the return of spunky doll Gum Baby and crafty trickster god Anansi (albeit in phone form), but it also introduces new characters like the mischievous and mouthy boy Junior. The introduction of new African and Black women characters in this book makes up for the lack of them in the first one. There is adventurous folk hero Keelboat Annie, resourceful juke joint owner Lady Night, and regal goddess Mami Wata. And I would be remiss to fail to note that Tristan’s grandmother, Nana, also has a larger role in this book as Tristan’s source of strength and inspiration.

Alke’s history consists of elements rooted in African American history and culture. These elements range from the painful and ugly to the lively and the resilient, embodied in everything from the new antagonist, DJ Culture Vulture, to the jollof rice served at Lady Night’s juke joint. A personal favorite of mine is the SPB, the portable smartphone version of Alke’s Story Box and the new home for trickster god Anansi. It was fun to see more of the phone in action after the events of the first book, especially through the new “Diaspor-app” that allows Tristan to see how Alke’s stories are connected to the Diapora.

Combining Alke’s history, Tristan’s trauma, and Alke’s current issues, Tristan Strong Destroys the World offers a compelling tale of intergenerational trauma and recovery. Whether it be through family, history, or a bit of both, many African Americans deal with intergenerational trauma in one way or other. Not only is this story a good way to teach the concept to younger readers, but older readers can also learn something from it as well.

Tristan Strong Destroys the World offers a compelling tale of intergenerational trauma and recovery. … Not only is this story a good way to teach the concept to younger readers, but older readers can also learn something from it as well.

Tristan Strong Destroys the World is a powerful sequel to its predecessor. There is more magic, action, and stories to learn from than ever before. If the ending is any indication, things are going to be even more epic in the next book of the trilogy. For now, though, readers who enjoyed Tristan Strong’s first adventure can join him once more and have their world rocked.

“Who Put This Song On?” Is a Heartfelt Exploration of Identity and Mental Health

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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Most Anticipated 2021 Reads

A new year means reading new books. While I don’t have a reading goal per se, I do have a long To Be Read list to get through. For every book that I already own, there are also yet-to-be-released books I want to read — not to mention books I won’t know I want to read until I hear about them! As you might imagine, there are a lot of books that I hope to read and review this year. Here are my most anticipated 2021 reads.

Legacy by Nikki Grimes

This book came out on January 5. It combines poetry and visual art to spotlight and pay homage to the lesser known Black women poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Using the poetic method known as “The Golden Shovel,” Nikki Grimes takes one line from poems by Angelina Weld Grimké, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and others and then uses them to create original poems of her own.  These poems are complemented with artwork by Black women such as Vashti Harrison, Ebony Glenn, and Nina Crews.

Although the Harlem Renaissance was my favorite time period to study in school, I only ever learned about Black male Harlem Renaissance poets like Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. As I am a poetry fan, this book will surely rectify the gaps in my knowledge by bridging the past and present and showing the worth of these words through pictures as well as poems.

A Phoenix Must First Burn, edited by Patrice Caldwell

This 2020 short fiction anthology was on my wish list for months before I nabbed the ebook at a discount. Taking inspiration from Octavia Butler, this anthology features sixteen sci-fi and fantasy stories starring Black girls, women, and gender nonconforming people. The authors featured include some familiar and others new to me, including Elizabeth Acevedo, L. L. Mckinney, and Somaiya Daud.

I don’t see many Black SFF anthologies by and for Black women and girls, let alone one that looks so inviting to teen readers who are new to the genres. Did I mention that the cover looks spectacular?

Black Girl Unlimited: The Autobiography of Echo Brown by Echo Brown

Combining magical realism and autobiographical elements, this 2020 novel features Black girl magic occurring amid poverty, sexism, racism, and more. Echo Brown is a teen wizard born and raised on the East Side who uses magic portals to travel to an all-white school on the West Side. However, going back and forth between two worlds has Echo leaving parts of herself on the East Side. Soon, Echo must use her magic to overcome a dark depression that threatens to overwhelm her.

Through family and personal experience, I know that not all magic comes with a letter to a boarding school. There is also magic in making ends meet, magic in personal recovery, and magic in survival. I look forward to seeing how Black Girl Unlimited will embody this.

A Crown So Cursed by L. L. McKinney

The third book in the Nightmare-Verse series is set to be published Fall 2021. After the events of the previous book, Alice Kingston is attempting to rest and recover. However, she and her friends start having dark visions of Wonderland’s past and future. When the evil that Alice thought she had defeated stirs once again, Alice thinks she will have to journey into Wonderland once more. However, the evil is already in the real world.

I have enjoyed the Nightmare-Verse series since I reviewed the first book, A Blade So Black, in 2018. I’m hoping this book will be just as thrilling as the others and will answer some of my lingering questions about the world building and characters.

If It Makes You Happy by Claire Kann

This queer summer coming-of-age rom-com is Claire Kann’s second novel and one I missed when it initially came out in 2019. It tells the story of Winnie, a fat Black queer girl who is unexpectedly crowned Summer Queen of the small town of Misty Haven. With such a huge spotlight on her, Winnie must confront her fears and insecurities to become the best version of herself.

Although I don’t own this book (yet), I would love to read it due to my soft spot for teen summer stories. The premise sounds like a ton of fun and something I’d want adapted into a movie. Besides, I loved Claire Kann’s first book, Let’s Talk About Love.

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Six Middle Grade and YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Titles for Black SFF Month

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.

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

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.

Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron

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 Punches a Hole in The Sky by Kwame Mbalia

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.

Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown

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.

Fate of Flames by Sarah Raughley

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.

A Blade So Black by L. L. McKinney

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.

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Nikki Grimes’s “Legacy” Is a Triumphant Collection That Bridges the Past and Present

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.

In “Heritage,” Black women past and present aim to instill the next generation with Black pride.

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.

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 way.

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.

“The Beauty That Remains” Is a Raw and Liberating Meditation on Grief and Music

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.

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