“A Phoenix First Must Burn” Has Fiery Passion and Imagination

"A Phoenix First Must Burn" Has Fiery Passion and Imagination

“In order to rise from its own ashes, a phoenix must first burn.”

This quote from Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents is what inspires the title for this young adult sci-fi fantasy short fiction anthology edited by Patrice Caldwell. In the stories of A Phoenix First Must Burn, Black authors such as L. L. McKinney and Karen Strong weave fantastical tales of Black girls and gender nonconforming folks.

One of the first things that I came to appreciate about this anthology is how varied the stories are in terms of genre and setting. One story, “Gilded” by Elizabeth Acevedo, is set in the Americas in 1522 and features an enslaved Black woman who has the ability to bend metal. According to the editor’s note at the end of the book, this story is Acevedo’s interpretation of the first major slave revolt. 

Another story, Karen Strong’s “The Witch’s Skin,” is inspired by the Gullah/Geechee myth of the Boo Hag, an evil haint that steals a victim’s life breath. The editor’s note states that the setting is influenced by the Georgia Sea Islands, specifically Sapelo Island, where nearly all are descendants of enslaved West Africans.

The stories included in this anthology also showcase a variety of subgenres and subject matter. One of my favorite stories was Danny Lore’s “Tender-Headed,” an urban fantasy story about hair-braiding and memories. I was pleasantly surprised to learn via the editor’s note that it was a spin on the Greek myth of Athena and Arachne. Another story, “Letting the Right One In” by Patrice Caldwell, features a teenage Black queer girl who loves vampires in more ways than one.

Some of these stories might be a pleasant surprise even for readers who don’t usually enjoy the genre they are written in. One example of this is Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her First Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life.” This turned out to be a Western story featuring a Black cowgirl who returns from death to enact vengeance in an unexpected way. As stated in the editor’s note, the story was inspired by the legend of Stagecoach Mary and the real-life all-Black settlement of Blackdom Township in Roswell, New Mexico.

As with all anthologies, I didn’t like every story, and chances are other readers won’t either. Even with some of the stories I liked, I wished there had been more of the stories to read. Some felt like they could have been longer, a novella or even a full-length novel. Nonetheless, all of them are still worth reading.

This anthology is filled with fiery passion and imagination. A Phoenix First Must Burn is the perfect book to introduce a teen reader to sci-fi fantasy, because most of the authors have other work to read afterward. It is also a great book for adults to appreciate Octavia Butler’s enduring legacy regardless of how much sci-fi fantasy they like.

 

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.

“A Crown So Cursed” Is a Thrilling Conclusion to the Nightmareverse Trilogy

"A Crown So Cursed" Is a Thrilling Conclusion to the Nightmareverse Trilogy

Following the gruesome defeat of Wonderland’s Bloody Lady, Alice Kingston is trying to recover and move forward.

However, when stronger Nightmare monsters appear in the real world and literally hit close to home, Alice is forced to pick up her daggers once more and return to Wonderland. This time, she must defeat the evil that has been plaguing Wonderland once and for all—or risk having both her worlds destroyed.

I have been a fan of L. L. McKinney’s Nightmareverse series since I reviewed A Blade So Black in 2018. The follow up, A Dream So Dark, was even better, and my anticipation for the third book was very high. Now, A Crown So Cursed has finally arrived, and I am happy to say that it has mostly lived up to my expectations.

One of the most notable aspects of this book is that most of the cast is in a state of recovery. Alice Kingston is not the only character who has been physically and mentally drained by the events of book two—all the characters have been impacted by Wonderland directly or indirectly. Alice’s mother, Tina, for instance, still has their house under repair after the events of book 2 and is coming to terms with things Alice told her. Addison Hatta must reconcile his past actions as the Black Knight with the person he wants to be now.

Besides Alice, her grandmother Nana Kingston is the most impressive of all the characters. The previous book hinted that Nana K is much more than she appears to be, especially when she gave Alice the heart pendant. Now, Nana K begins to play an even larger role in Alice’s life that affects Alice deeply, and I enjoyed seeing Alice come into her own through her relationship with Nana.

With most of the cast recovering from earlier conflicts, the antagonist of this book stands out in striking contrast. They are not only the “final boss” of the entire saga, but their true identity represents what happens when you can’t recover from trauma and violence. Not only do they want to destroy Wonderland and the real world alike, but they also want to destroy the people they are supposed to love.

Moreover, the antagonist gives Alice a true test as a heroine, one that Alice passes beautifully. In the previous book, Alice had discovered her Muchness, the part of herself that believes in herself most. Now, she must tap into her highest potential and harness a power she literally never knew she had. This climax reminded me strongly of the anime Sailor Moon.

Not only are the characters compelling on their own, but they also bring the worldbuilding to its peak. The dire results of Addison Hatta’s time as the Black Knight are still felt in Wonderland through certain inhabitants. The area known as The Inbetween reflects the past and future of Wonderland and plays a bigger role in this book than in the previous one. Yet the most engrossing lore is in the hidden truths behind Wonderland’s royal family and how they have affected Wonderland.

My only issue with this book is the pacing. It moves pretty fast, to the point where it seems a little rushed toward the end of the book. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, because there is a lot of action and entertaining dialogue that keeps the reader turning the pages, but there were moments when I wished the characters had been given more time to breathe, especially since some of them spend some time apart from others.

All in all, A Crown So Cursed is a thrilling conclusion to the Nightmareverse trilogy. Fantastic character development and worldbuilding bring this story to a satisfying end. I hope this won’t be the last we meet Alice Kingston and company, because I would personally love to see side stories or a spinoff from this series in the future.

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.

“Miles Morales: Suspended” Takes a Powerful Stand against Book Censorship

"Miles Morales: Suspended" Takes a Powerful Stand against Book Censorship

Set weeks after the events of Jason Reynolds’s book Miles Morales: Spider-Man, Miles Morales: Suspended features Miles Morales in a heap of trouble. Not only has he landed in-school suspension, but his Spidey-Sense keeps noticing termites acting strangely, eating pages and words that belong to Black and Brown writers. In order to save their words, he must figure out the source of the termites before it’s too late.

One of the best features of this book is its mixed media format. Writer Jason Reynolds and artist  Zeke Peña tell Miles’s latest adventure through prose, poetry, and illustrations. Not only does this enhance the storyline by exploring Miles’s point of view through multiple media, but it also serves to draw in readers of different stripes, whether they are reluctant ones or well-read. Zeke Peña’s artwork consists of intricate black-and-white drawings that provide a visual for certain thoughts that Miles has, such as the changes he’s experienced since getting his powers. Yet the poetry is a special treat, showcasing Reynolds’s skill and giving Miles deeper character development by exploring his emotions and creativity.

A notable use of poetry is when Miles uses poems to answer questions on his school work, such as a question for chemistry class that asks, “When have you ever been a green banana? A brown and bruised one?” Miles responds, in part, “No / I ain’t ever been no green banana / I was born brown / and what some call bruises be Brooklyn / beauty marks.” These lines are even more powerful when you read what comes before—a series of poems about his family and neighborhood that represent his “banana tree.” 

In fact, there are so many enjoyable poems in this book that I bookmarked quite a few as favorites as I read this on my ereader. There were also moments, moreover, that Reynolds’s prose reads like poetry. A favorite example is when he writes, “The library at Brooklyn Visions Academy was big and warm and had the leather and wood, cooper grommets and rivets, and all the sophisticated craftsmanship of an old building. As if the woodworkers were trying to make a monument out of cursive writing. The banisters all curled. Pillars like t’s crossed with intricately decorated beams.”

In addition to Miles himself, the book revolves around a new and returning cast of characters such as Miles’s crush, Alicia; Miles’s best friend, Ganke; and his fellow in-school suspension classmate Tobin E. Rogers. Although Miles only has a handful of interactions with Alicia, they are wholesome in that “I got butterflies for you but not sure if it’s mutual” way that teenage crushes have. 

One minor issue I had with the characterization is the lack of explanation for who the antagonist was revealed to be. Although he is a solid allegorical representation of racism and book banning and is implied to be connected to the antagonist from the previous book, I didn’t quite understand how he got involved in the first place. 

A minor detail I enjoyed is how you didn’t necessarily need to know or remember what happened in the first book in order to enjoy this one. Since the events of the previous book are summarized in a simple manner, readers can jump right in without any confusion. 

All in all, Miles Morales: Suspended takes a powerful stand against book censorship by showing why words and books matter. With prose, poetry, and artwork, Jason Reynolds and Zeke Peña show that while the books and words of marginalized writers may get devalued, they are still worth writing down and reading.

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.

“If It Makes You Happy” Is a Down-to-Earth Coming-of-Age Summer Vacation

"If It Makes You Happy" Is a Down-to-Earth Coming-of-Age Summer Vacation

The summer before her fall semester at college, Winnie is happily spending her time at Misty Haven, working at her grandmother’s restaurant, Goldeen’s, and spending time with her ungirlfriend, Kara. When she is unexpectedly crowned Summer Queen at Misty Haven’s traditional matchmaking event, she is forced out of her comfort zone by the spotlight, obligations, and the heart-on-your-sleeves honesty of the Summer King. Now, Winnie must confront her fears in order to become the best version of herself.

One of the best things about this book is its Black, fat, dark-skinned, and queer female protagonist, Winnie. A character like this is rare in young adult fiction; as far as I’m aware, the only other character who comes close is Alice, the protagonist of Claire Kann’s first book, Let’s Talk About Love. A key difference between Alice and Winnie is that Alice doesn’t experience fatmisia like Winnie does. While the fatmisia displayed by doctors and some family members in this novel may be triggering for some, it also demonstrates the unfortunate reality that Black dark-skinned fat girls live in. However, Winnie isn’t solely defined by her race or her weight; she’s funny, loving, and stubborn, too. In fact, the latter two traits result in an emotionally satisfying character arc.

In addition to Winnie, the rest of the cast of characters is also memorable. Winnie’s young brother, Winston, shows promising potential as a chef and is snarky and caring. Winne’s cousin Sam is well-meaning and loving but also lacks self-awareness at times. Winne’s grandmother makes the strongest impression of all the characters due to her complexity as an overly controlling family member who is also a resourceful businesswoman. In addition to standing well on their own, each of the characters helps Winnie grow as a person.

Rounding out the cast is Winnie’s flawed but thoughtful queerplatonic partner, Kara, and the sweet love interest, Dallas. A queer platonic relationship is a relationship that doesn’t fit the norms of romance or friendship and is rare in novels. As a result, to see it depicted in such a down-to-earth and educational way is wonderful. The way Kara and Dallas are handled in terms of their relationships to Winnie and how each of them figures out what they want from the others is well done.

In addition to the main protagonist and the other characters, the setting for this book is absolutely enchanting. The cozy atmosphere and quirky characters reminded me of the town from the TV show Gilmore Girls, except with more diversity. Goldeen’s is a restaurant I would like to visit for the characters and the food, while Kara’s baked goods are also enticing since they are described in such a mouthwatering way. Winnie’s custom-designed outfits are so creative and enhance the magic that she already possesses. 

Another quirk of this book that was fun is the myriad pop culture references littered throughout—something that carries over from Let’s Talk About Love. One particularly notable moment occurs when Winston, Dallas, and Winnie watch a Lord of the Rings film and have a discussion about Black characters in fantasy. It’s a nice touch that allows Winston and Dallas to warm up to each other after meeting for the first time.

If there is any flaw in this book, it is that the pacing may be slow for some. The book takes its time to tell Winnie’s story and develop her relationships to the other characters, but this allows the reader to gain a deep appreciation for the characters. Another minor flaw is that there is a question brought up that doesn’t seem to get an answer. However, the lack of clarity doesn’t ruin the enjoyment of the book.

All in all, Claire Kann’s If It Makes You Happy is a down-to-earth summer story filled with personal growth and complex relationships. It shows that sometimes, doing what’s best for you and the ones you love means getting out of your comfort zone and creating the space you need to grow. It is emotionally affecting and poignant—a new summer classic for a new generation.

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.

“Cool, Awkward, Black” Showcases Passion, Joy, and Resilience for Every “Blerd”

"Cool. Awkward. Black." Showcases Passion, Joy, and Resilience for Every "Blerd"

Edited by Karen Strong, Cool. Awkward. Black. is an anthology of short stories mostly written by Black young adult authors such as Julian Winters, Tracy Deonn, and Ibi Zoboi, to name a few.

Through stories starring Black characters, the anthology aims to celebrate various facets of Blackness and nerdiness so that a new generation of “Blerds” (that is, Black nerds) can take pride in themselves.

One surprising aspect of this anthology is that the stories are different genres. Going into this book, I expected most of the stories to be contemporary, even though I knew that some of the authors didn’t write contemporary YA. While some stories like Elise Bryant’s “Betty’s Best Craft” are contemporary, others, like Tochi Onyebuchi’s “The Hero’s Journey,” have a fantasy element. 

One of the most impressive contributions is Terry J. Benton-Walker’s “Requiem of Souls,” a thrilling horror story about a Black boy with a tense home life who finds a flute composition haunted by ghosts. This story kept me turning the page as I wondered whether the protagonist would handle the ghosts or if the ghosts would handle him. The climactic ending was immensely satisfying, and it made me consider checking out more of the author’s work.

Another story, the aforementioned “The Hero’s Journey,” is a creative take on being a writer trying to develop fully realized characters. Not only does it switch between subgenres, from cowboy Westerns to fantasy, it also shows how trying too hard to emulate someone else’s style can hinder your creativity.

Notably, each story features a different experience or interest that reflects the complexity of Blackness and nerdiness. Shari B. Pennant’s “The Book Club” and “Spirit Filled” by Jordan Ifueko have Black girls who love books, but both stories are unique in their own way. The former almost feels like a book club version of the movie The Craft, while the latter is a humorous take on being a church girl.

One of my personal favorite stories is Amanda Joy’s “The Panel Shows the Girl,” which features a Black girl with ADHD whose drawings wreak havoc on her school. There is a strong Japanese anime influence in this story that makes it really fun to read. It also does a nice job of showing how toxic some friendships can be, giving the story a down-to-earth aspect that balances out the more fantastical elements. The author’s choice to feature a toxic friendship also subverts the “power of friendship” trope of Japanese anime.

In addition, Ibi Zoboi’s “Earth Is Ghetto” and “Cole’s Cruise Blues” by Issac Fitzsimmons are notable. The former features a Haitian Black girl trying to convince aliens to take her away from Earth. The story demonstrates the mistrust, pessimism, and sense of Otherness that comes from being a Black immigrant to a country that has colonized yours. Aliens are used metaphorically to demonstrate this sense of Otherness, but also as a contrast to the imperfection of humanity. Meanwhile, Isaac Fitzsimmons’s “Cole’s Cruise Blues” is a delightful story about a Black transgender boy who enjoys magic tricks and is trying to have a good time on a cruise. There are two obstacles to this: his kid sister, Hailey, and an unexpected crush named Evan. The interactions with these characters serve to develop the story’s protagonist well as he learns to balance his personal desire to start being his ideal self with being a good brother.

In any short story anthology, there are bound to be some stories that don’t quite hit with the reader. This isn’t a flaw by any means, but rather a reflection of the reader’s own personal tastes. In fact, the stories in this anthology are so varied in terms of the characters, genre, and interests that there should be something for almost anyone.

All in all, Cool. Awkward. Black. is a really fun anthology that revels in Blackness and nerdiness. Whether or not you consider yourself a Blerd, you will enjoy the passion, joy, and resilience found in these stories.

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.

“We Are All So Good at Smiling” Shows That Depression Doesn’t Have To Kill Your Magic

"We Are All So Good at Smiling" Shows That Depression Doesn't Have To Kill Your Magic

Following her 2021 debut novel in verse, Me (Moth), Amber McBride returns with her 2023 sequel novel, We Are All So Good at Smiling.

It stars Whimsy, a Black hoodoo conjurer girl with clinical depression who also loves fairy tales. Many years ago, she was touched by Sorrow when her brother Cole disappeared in a magic forest, and she vowed never to enter it again. 

One day, Whimsy meets Faerry, a Black fae boy who shares struggles and fears similar to Whimsy’s. As the two of them get to know each other, they discover that the forest and Sorrow that haunt them both must be faced head-on.

As a novel in verse, one of the things that this book does well is address the sensitive topics of depression, self-harm, and suicide in a lyrical and authentic way. This is partly due to the book’s having been inspired by the author’s own experiences with clinical depression, but it also builds on the theme of recovery first featured in Me (Moth)

One of the best lines from this book reads, “We need to remember that a mind is still a mind / floating like a newborn cloud / or bird wings drowning in hardened chocolate… / People always forget / that a rough day, a bad year / doesn’t equal a bad life.” There are similar lines from the book that evoke not only the rawness of depression but also the tentative hope of healing.

Another notable feature of this book is how depression is metaphorically represented through a wide variety of fairy tales and folklore, ranging from Hansel and Gretel to Anansi. A personal favorite use of folklore is Mami Wata, the West African water spirit associated with fertility and life. I’ve seen one or two different interpretations of Mami Wata in a modern lens through literature and art, but McBride’s take on her is particularly poignant and empowering. 

Not only is the use of folklore and fairy tales skillfully done, but it takes the reader on a harrowing and epic adventure that makes Whimsy and Faerry the heroes of their own fairy tales. Both Whimsy and Faerry are wonderfully magical and flawed characters who show how depression varies depending on the person. For instance, Faerry puts up a happy-go-lucky front, whereas Whimsy is blunt and sullen. 

Both Whimsy and Faerry occasionally put on a mask of fake smiles to appease their families, who are dismissive and unaware of how much they are hurting. This is where the book’s title comes from, and it serves to highlight how stigmatized mental health is among the Black community. One line of dialogue said by Faerry’s dad also demonstrates this: “You have pills, you have therapy, get it together. Black boys don’t get to be sad and feel their feelings.”

Given how much is going on in this book, the story moves at a brisk pace, which isn’t a bad thing. It doesn’t waste time focusing too much on school life or romance, allowing the characters and story to shine in a satisfying manner.

Every fairy tale or folktale usually has a moral, and We Are All So Good at Smiling is no exception. For those with depression who have always wanted to be magical, this book shows that depression doesn’t have to stop you. You can rewrite your story and own your power, because you are so much more than your trauma. This is the book that I needed when I was younger, and now a new generation can experience this tale of mental health, magic, and recovery.

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.