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.
As I sit and consider my favourite book genre, I think of how I never really understood what genres meant when I first started choosing what I wanted to read, and how liberating that was.
I’ve always loved reading, and with parents who propagated reading as the ultimate learning tool, I often found myself from a very young age in a bookshop or library, given free rein to choose whatever I wanted to read. My parents did not have English as their first language, and thus did not really care what I read, as long as I read. Lacking guidance in school (growing up in Malaysia) and supervision at home, I never explored literature through its canons. Rather, it was whatever the bookshops and libraries around me stocked. And as a child, my only criteria then were that the books were of my reading ability (or a little harder), had a nice cover, interesting title, and a premise/plot that was new to me. Outside that, anything goes.
The two books that propelled me into exploring literature more rabidly as a child are Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile and Susan Hill’s I’m The King Of The Castle. Though both are mainstream children’s books, they proved to be special to me, as they introduced me to what I would realise later to be the types of books that I like – books that push my boundaries of imagination, knowledge, and understanding of humanity.
The tricksy characteristics of the Enormous Crocodile, or how the elephant, Trunksy spun Crocodile on its tail and propelled it into the sun was mind-boggling for my eight-year-old self. Though I had read fantasy stories before (Enid Blyton and fairytales), this mixture of reality and fictional imagination acted as a catalyst for my love of science fiction and fantasy later in life.
The boys’ relationships in I’m The King Of The Castle were a brilliant introduction to psychological thrillers and horror that would come to be my love during my formative years. It was here that I learnt about human behaviour, social triggers, and the many faces of humanity that are reflective of real life. My understanding of the world comes from fiction, and I am still constantly looking at fiction for new stories that would allow me to learn more about the world.
So from these two books, I journeyed into different realms; soaked up romance novels, fought through crime thrillers, was kept awake by horror, as I made my way through the genres to science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. Science fiction (or hard science fiction) still remains my true love today. I don’t think I’m anywhere near a science fiction specialist, but I’m definitely a massive science fiction fan at heart, with Frank Herbert’s Dune firmly in its centre.
I’ve read it countless times, and yet it still entertains, teaches, and opens up new understandings of humanity to me. The far-fetched worlds that are grounded in our own world’s sciences are precisely what I feel is the perfect form of escapism. It is in these surreal worlds that we can scrutinise humanity and its actions without judgement, but with acceptance.
The best I’ve ever had? Well, it’s got to be science fiction as the ‘imaginative extrapolation from the possible’. After all, ‘cutting edge sci-fi is sci-fi that dares you to think differently’.
I fell in love with fantasy when I started reading the Harry Potter series as a kid.
A fourth-grade classmate brought Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fireto school for our teacher to read aloud. She only read one or two chapters, but it interested me enough that I got my mother to buy me Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Chamber of Secrets was a wonderful reading experience. My mind became filled with flying cars and broomsticks, Hogwarts castle, and mythical creatures. Sparks flew from the wands of Rowling’s witches and wizards flew into my imagination, where they bounced around and created a craving for more fantasy fiction.
While waiting for the next Harry Potter book, I wanted to read stories of epic adventures, gods and mortals, with well-written female protagonists like Hermione Granger. I consumed novels from the Dragonlance series, books on mythology, and female-lead books like the Song of The Lioness series. However, I read very little fantasy fiction with people of color in it.
In fact, I can remember only one moment when the existence of people of color in fantasy didn’t feel strange to me. I was reading Lirael by Garth Nix, a book that is part of a trilogy. I saw a description of the book’s protagonist, Lirael, that said her white skin “burnt” when outside and that she had long, straight hair. I looked at the cover and thought that she looked a little like my mother, who is Vietnamese. Even though she seemed racially ambiguous, I thought she could have been Asian.
Still, when it came to fantasy fiction, I didn’t think characters of color could exist. I had been taught through reading itself that the realm of fantasy was only for white men and women, and I’d never thought to look for anything else.
Once, I bought a fantasy trilogy with characters of color without realizing it. The Farsala Trilogy by Hilari Bell featured a setting and characters that were inspired by Persian folklore—but years of reading fantasy with white characters had taught me to read them as white.
By the time I found a fantasy with a protagonist of color whom I was able to recognize as such, I was in college. I was browsing the adult section of my local library at random when I found The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin. I decided to check out the book when I turned it over and saw the author was a black woman. It had never occurred to me that a black woman could write fantasy novels with characters who looked like black people.
This book blew my mind just as much as reading the Harry Potter series had. Instead of seeing a white cast of characters, I saw more brown than white. Not only was there a brown woman of color protagonist with curly hair, but also a fantastic mythology involving two brown-skinned gods and one white one. The plot involving these characters and more added even more color. I imagined the gods dressed in silver, yellow, and black and their universe as a limitless rainbow of planets and stars.
While The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was part of a trilogy, I didn’t read the other books until much later. I believed that fantasy authors of color were a rarity… I gradually forgot about the book.
It took me getting tired of seeing the same old faces and plots in fantasy to start searching for alternatives. I did online searches and gradually found fantasy books with black and Asian characters and authors.
It occurred to me that there were probably other people who, like me, didn’t know these books existed. Since I had a personal blog where I was already reviewing books, I started reviewing books with authors and characters of color. Soon, I was focusing on black speculative fiction, especially after I discovered independent black authors on the web. These authors would show me that not only was it possible for people of color to exist in fantasy fiction, but also they didn’t need society’s permission to do so.
A few years after I discovered black indie fantasy authors, I learned that this same lesson applied to black indie comic creators and artists. The first fantasy webcomic I read by a black creator was Agents of the Realmby Mildred Louis. Agents of the Realm sparked an appreciation for comic artists and creators of color that I hadn’t felt since I read Japanese manga.
After I discovered more fantasy webcomics with people of color characters and creators, I became fully immersed in comics, both mainstream and indie. The titles that made the most impact were Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and The Legend of Bold Riley by Leia Weathington. These comics made me see American comics in a new light by showing me how diverse creators can create diverse stories and characters that appeal to me. They also inspired me to spread the word about comics as a freelance writer—and they helped me understand what the fantasy genre meant to me.
Fantasy gave me a wild imagination, entertainment, and a sharper mind. It showed me that magic could exist in this world, another world, and in myself.
I fight for diversity in the fantasy genre because I didn’t know I could exist in a fantasy world or make my own until I was an adult.
Even though their sparks seem small, marginalized readers and authors have as much magic as everyone else. The more magic we acknowledge, the more fantasy will ignite reality.
I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. At the moment, I’m a graduate student in the sciences. And yet, I never was a big reader of science fiction when I was still a speck of a grade-schooler.
I was convinced from the age of eight, when I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, that what I wanted to read when I grew up (and for the rest of my life) was fantasy fiction. Just as I knew, at age ten, that I was Going. To Be. A Veterinarian.
I always loved Star Wars, but if my passion for a Galaxy Far Far Away didn’t burn as brightly as that for Middle-Earth, then that was OK. Spaceships and lightsabers — cool! But nothing similar in book form ever caught my interest. In high school, I picked up the first (chronological) entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, which she’s been writing since the ’80s. The book was Shards of Honor, and someone recommended it on the basis that I would enjoy the planetary space opera and the amazing female protagonist, Captain Cordelia Naismith. It didn’t take. Huh. I set it aside, convinced I’d obliterated my spec fic reader’s credit like a nerve disruptor to the head.
Then one July day, years later, I sat in an air-conditioned theater watching Guardians of the Galaxy romp across the screen. I was having fun! Watching this sci-fi epic lite!
I thought, “I need this in book form.”
So I went back to Bujold. I trusted Bujold, because her fantasy novels were and are incredible little slices of magic and humanity (read The Curse of Chalion for one award-winning example). I picked up the third Vorkosigan book, The Warrior’s Apprentice, the one that starts the story of Miles Vorkosigan, Cordelia’s son, from his perspective.
And it was so much fun.
I couldn’t believe what I had been missing for twenty-two years. Could I get that time back? The universe said no, but I would make up for it. I closed The Warrior’s Apprentice on the last page and immediately went back to read the two Cordelia books, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. Those two books have been in publication longer than I have been alive, and I had missed them. I devoured those books. I think I managed to read all of the published books, fifteen at the time, in less than three weeks. Someone probably should have fired me from my job (I made up for it during the other forty-nine weeks of the year, promise).
This was amazing space opera. It was more than fun. It was about politics and military antics, of course, but also about biology. Genetic engineering. Reproduction. Living with our disadvantages—physical, biological, social. Feminism, sexuality and gender, polyamory, what constitutes a family unit. It’s about Barrayar, this weird “sword and spaceship” planet that looks like what eighteenth-century Russia might have if it met wormhole travel and Cordelia Vorkosigan néeNaismith.
It’s about Barrayar, the book. I can understand now that I would never have gotten this book as a teenager, because now I can see that Bujold is writing just this most loving portrayal of motherhood, albeit wrapped in awesome space opera trappings. The Vorkosigan books came to me at the perfect time in my life. Like Cordelia in Barrayar, I was alone in a strange new place. I hadn’t really started to speak the language yet— the real language or the social, cultural one. College and the familiar trappings of home and the people I’d known there were behind me. I was re-evaluating everything I knew about the world so far. What adult friendship looks like. What an adult’s long view looks like. What love looks like.
The universe that Bujold creates is very much what I will now dub “biological sf.” Cordelia herself is a scientist—which might be part of the reason why I empathize with her so strongly. She introduces the uterine replicator, a sort-of artificial womb, to her adopted planet of Barrayar. That critical human need to reproduce underlies the whole series: it’s there in the Barrayarans’ somewhat-antiquated obsession with patrilineage and in Cordelia’s own maternal urges. The uterine replicator is poised to change Barrayaran society, but it has no effect on what’s embedded in Cordelia’s own DNA: her desire to protect her unborn son, a conflict that drives the major action in Barrayar.
Looking back at my own younger forays into the sci-fi genre, I see that the elements that piqued my interest were not the physical mechanics of a fictional world. Not faster-than-light travel; not all the warping of relativity required to make such a thing possible, despite the fact that my own interests as a scientist have always been much closer to physics than to biology. At the end of the day, I want to read a tale where astrodynamics and quantum mechanics are cool aspects of worldbuilding, but still just the window dressing. As one of Bujold’s characters says (in one of my favorite Vorkosigan saga quotes of all time), “All true wealth is biological,” and so are all great stories.
For me, space opera is all about people pushed to the frontiers of their experience by technology, space, and circumstance.
Bujold’s latest book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (which came out earlier this year), brings Cordelia’s story more-or-less full circle. Cordelia has lived on Barrayar for over thirty years at this point in the series’ chronology. She has watched her son grow, has seen Barrayar change due to her actions in championing the uterine replicator (which has imploded the Barrayaran woman’s traditional role as baby-maker), and has gained power in her own right as the appointed ruler of one of Barrayar’s colonies. But Cordelia’s home planet is and always will be Beta Colony, a sexually liberal and technologically advanced society. Straddling two worlds, Cordelia lets us explore not just reproduction through her story, but also sex, sexuality (a fluid concept on Beta), and how both are linked to or divorced from reproduction because of technological progress.
Things that were only hinted at or lightly touched in Bujold’s earliest books— the bisexuality and polyamorous relationships of a major character included— are truths baldly discussed by Cordelia and her fellow characters in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. It’s tricky to say if this is because the earlier novels were more action-packed space opera adventures, while this is an introspective look at middle adult life in a sci-fi future. I think the goalposts certainly have moved since Bujold started writing these books thirty years ago. I also think it’s because of authors like her, even coming sideways at these issues in the 1980s, that a new generation of writers can discuss sex, sexuality, gender, and feminism with heightened levels of rawness and complexity.
And I’m happy to be one of those young writers ready to pick up the torch (albeit with unworthy hands). I came to it late, but I’m so glad I did, and at the time that I did. And I’m excited to watch the world grow, too—is the uterine replicator really that much of an outlandish notion for our own (near) future?
These books opened a whole new window into writing and reading science fiction for me. Bujold still does it best, in my opinion (and she has the Hugos to prove it). In speculative fiction, in sci-fi fiction, we can press the limits of biology and evolution. And that’s where we can get those little pearls of wisdom, at those extreme ends of our conceptions, about what the human condition looks like.
I was halfway through Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking when I decided that I didn’t particularly want to re-read it anymore.
Pippi, first published in Swedish in 1945, is the story of an irrepressible redheaded girl. She lives in a house by herself with a pet horse, a monkey named Mr. Nilsson, and a suitcase full of gold coins. She’s also very, very strong, able to lift her horse with one hand and thwart robbers with the other. She doesn’t go to school, she drinks coffee, and she sleeps with her feet on her pillow. Her father is a former pirate and is the king of a South Pacific island—described as a cannibal island.
Pippi lives a child’s dream of disorder. The adults in the village she lives in despair of her. The one time she goes to school, she riles up the children, shows she can’t do math, and tells wild tales about her time abroad. In another chapter, the centerpiece is a tall tale she recounts about a man named Hai Shang from Shanghai. “His ears were so big he could use them for a cape. When it rained, he just crawled under his ears and was as warm and snug as you please.”
The story is so clearly unrealistic that the little girl and Pippi’s friends doubt its veracity. Pippi continues to elaborate and weave her tale. And just when the children start being convinced, Pippi says of her story, “You must know that’s a lie. You mustn’t let people fool you so easily.”
Pippi is a fabulist within her own unrealistic story. The grown-ups in the novel are the ones who are confused and stick to seemingly useless rules. It’s supposed to be fun and absurd, and yet I find that I can’t like it. Because even topsy-turvy worlds have rules, and within the universe of Pippi, some of the tall tales about the cultures Pippi has supposedly encountered turn out to be true—Pippi’s father is the white king of an island of darker-skinned people, for instance. There’s a whole sequel about it called Pippi in the South Seas. The people whom Pippi has encountered on her travels end up as merely props to the chaos she insists on. Within the gleeful disorder of Pippi Longstocking lurks a very familiar order.
In a way, Pippi was the book that enforced my decision to not shove the stories I’d read in childhood at my own kid.
Many of my friends are passionate about books and understandably want to share with their children the joy of reading by giving them these classics.
I am happy to pass that love and joy onto my child. It’s the rest that gives me pause.
For the record, my daughter has read Pippi Longstocking. (Pippi in the South Seas is difficult to spot on library or bookstore shelves these days.) But I’ve talked with her about realism and tall tales, and how Pippi’s descriptions of the cultures and people she has supposedly encountered are inaccurate—and the fact that some of the cultures described are part of hers and my background.
And yes, I understand the book was written long ago. I understand that it was written by a mother who started out just telling her kids stories to entertain them, and that she was reflecting the concerns of her time and age and viewpoint. She clearly never imagined that someone who looked like me—or my kid—would be reading them. That’s fine.
But I am also a parent of a time and an age and a particular viewpoint—and I have other choices now. So does my child.
In March, shortly after its release, I bought my daughter a copy of Susan Tan’s contemporary middle-grade novel, Cilla Lee-Jenkins, Future Author Extraordinaire.
Like Pippi, Cilla Lee-Jenkins is a story about a girl who makes up stories and is disenchanted with the grown-up world.
Unlike Pippi, Cilla Lee-Jenkins is set in a realistic, recognizable universe. The protagonist is a plucky mixed Asian and white second-grader living in Boston with her parents and near her two sets of grandparents. Cilla—short for Priscilla—is getting a new baby sister. This has her alarmed, and as a result, she decides to become a famous writer so that she won’t be forgotten after the baby is born.
Cilla sometimes annoys and shocks the adults in her life. To her parents’ dismay, she calls her unwanted soon-to-be-sibling “the Blob.” In one episode, she pours glue over her head. But in Cilla is a recognition that the world is more complicated than simple binaries of order and chaos, adulthood and childhood. At one point, Cilla notes:
No one minds if you slurp your soup in Chinatown (which I can’t do at home) and no one cares if your elbows are on the table (my Grandma Jenkins is VERY concerned about this).
Cilla knows that manners—one of the things that Pippi lacks, to the horror of the adults—can be different in different contexts. The “other” culture with different etiquette is treated matter-of-factly—and it is Cilla’s culture, too. So-called disorder and reversal of adult norms—let’s face it, Western adult norms—is not the business of the day. Rather, in this book there is an acknowledgment that the world contains many kinds of order, many ways to be.
It’s not really a fair comparison: two books from different times that are trying to do different things.
One is an enduring classic. One of brand new—it’s too early to tell what it will be. But readers’—people’s—lives and perspectives are never exactly equal. And the work that these stories do, especially in the lives of the children who read them, are not necessarily measured in endurance or popularity or cultural reception. Sometimes books and characters do the best work by simply being put in the right hands at the right time.
Cilla Lee-Jenkins was written by someone—Tan herself is mixed—who can acknowledge someone with my heritage, my kid’s, as a reader. And it is one book that shows that my child the possibility that she can be the story—she can shape it—rather than exist an oddity in another person’s narrative. This and novels like this one are the ones I’m urgent to share.
I’m going to write my first-ever book right here in this journal, and I’m going to become a famous bestselling author (with an EXCELLENT new name) before the baby is born. Then no one can forget about me.
Cilla Lee-Jenkins, Future Author Extraordinaire is about a kid growing up and wanting to make sure that she’s seen and heard. And by encountering this character, maybe one kid out there will also know that she hasn’t been forgotten.