“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.

My 2024 Black YA TBR

My 2024 Black YA TBR

Welcome to yet another year at my Black young adult book column, The Afro YA!

I’m excited to read newer and older young adult books by Black authors in various genres. From SFF to contemporary to novels in verse, here are some of the books on my 2024 Black young adult book TBR.

 

A Phoenix Must First Burn coverA Phoenix Must First Burn, edited by Patrice Caldwell

Inspired by the legendary sci-fi author Octavia Butler, this 2020 anthology consists of sixteen stories that explore the Black experience through sci-fi and fantasy and women and gender nonconforming protagonists. 

I’ve had this book on my Kindle for a hot minute and I’ve finally started to read it. As of right now, I’ve read two stories, one about a Black girl confronting aliens in space and the other about a Black metal-bending witch slave.  Expect a full review in March, but I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far. 

 

 

Escaping Mr Rochester coverEscaping Mr. Rochester by L. L. McKinney

A 2024 YA reimagining of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel that asks: what if the real villain of Jane Eyre was actually Mr. Rochester? In this queer romance, Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason—Mr. Rochester’s wife, whom he’s imprisoned within the house for years—must save each other from the horrifying machinations of Mr. Rochester.

Jane Eyre was a comfort read during my teen years. As I grew older, the problematic aspect of Mr. Rochester locking up his first wife, the mentally ill Creole woman Bertha Mason, tainted my fondness for this book. I’m hoping that L.L. Mckinney’s retelling will give Bertha and Jane a better story.

 

Forever Is Now coverForever Is Now by Mariama J. Lockington 

This novel in verse tells the story of Sadie, who develops agoraphobia after witnessing an incident of police brutality. Retreating inside her home, she gradually embarks on a path of healing as her friend Evan keeps her up to date on the protests in their city. In order to find the strength to use her voice, Sadie must learn to rebuild a safe place inside herself.

If you’re a longtime reader of this column, then you know that I love novels in verse and that Black young adult books about mental health are dear to me. Not only is this book’s cover gorgeous, but the subject matter is timely. I’m looking forward to seeing how they are explored through poetry.

 

 

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

Published in 2021, this is a thriller about two Nigerian-American students at an elite school dealing with an anonymous bully. When they are both selected to be senior class prefects, someone who goes by “Aces” uses anonymous text messages to reveal secrets about the two of them that could ruin their futures. As the stakes become higher and more dangerous, the two must do everything they can to stop Aces for good.

This book is a little outside of my comfort zone, because I don’t think I’ve ever read a YA thriller before. However, after reading a sample, I was intrigued to see how things would turn out for both characters. 

 

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett

Full Disclosure is the author’s debut YA novel about a girl born HIV+, and how her previous attitude of acceptance toward her status shifts when she becomes sexually interested in someone for the first time.

It’s not often that I come across a sex-positive YA novel about an HIV+ Black girl. It’s also not often that I come across a Black YA novel written by someone who was a teen at the time of writing. I’m looking forward to seeing how the author’s voice shines and how this book tackles subjects considered taboo to discuss. 

 

 

Pet by Akwaeke EmeziPet by Akwaeke Emezi

There are no monsters anymore—or so the children in the city of Lucille are taught. Jam and her best friend, Redemption, have grown up with this lesson all their life. But when Jam meets Pet, a creature made of horns and colors and claws, who emerges from one of her mother’s paintings and a drop of Jam’s blood, she must reconsider what she’s been told. Jam must fight not only to protect her best friend but also to uncover the truth and find the answer to the question, How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist?

I bought this 2019 book on sale some time ago because I was touched by Emezi’s surreal, fantastical, and dark adult book Freshwater. This book piqued my interest for its Black trans girl protagonist and for the author’s dazzling and haunting imagination. 

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

The 2023 Black YA Holiday Gift Guide

The 2023 Black YA Holiday Gift Guide

It’s officially the holiday season, and books are some of the most fun gifts to give. If you’ve got a reluctant or big reader in your life, here are my recommendations for Black YA books to gift.

 

Miles Morales Suspended by Jason Reynolds

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. This book is unique in that it combines prose, poetry, and illustrations to tell a powerful story about superheroes and book censorship.

(full review)

 

Cool. Awkward. Black. edited by Karen Strong

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.

(full review)

 

 

If It Makes You Happy by Claire Kann

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.

(full review)

 

The Nightmare-Verse Trilogy by L. L. McKinney

This urban fantasy series is a modern retelling of Alice In Wonderland set in Atlanta, GA. Its Black bi heroine, Alice Kingston, is a complex and relatable protagonist that you will root for and the supporting cast is fun as well. There is also rich lore and worldbuidling that bridges reality and fantasy in a compelling way.

(full reviews of book 1, book 2, and book 3)

 

 

We Are All So Good at Smiling by Amber McBride

Tackling clinical depression through poetry, myth, and folklore, this novel in verse is a powerful and lyrical read. 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.

(full review)

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by EKATERINA BOLOVTSOVA via Pexels

 

“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.

Essential Summer Vacation Reads by Black Authors

Essential Summer Vacation Reads by Black Authors

Summer vacation equals plenty of reading time, and there are quite a few young adult books that capture the fun and chill vibes of summer.

Whether planning for a comic book convention, attending a music festival, or even saving the world, there are plenty of young adult books by Black authors that feature Black protagonists enjoying summer. If you or someone else in your life needs a new summertime read, then consider the following books.

 

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.

my review

 

 

Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

Olivia is an expert at falling in love and at being dumped. After the fallout from her last breakup has left her an outcast at school and at home, she’s determined to turn over a new leaf. A crush-free weekend at Farmland Music and Arts Festival with her best friend is just what she needs to get her mind off the senior year that awaits her.

Toni is one week away from starting college. Unsure about who she wants to become and still reeling in the wake of the loss of her musician-turned-roadie father, she’s heading back to the music festival that changed his life. When the two arrive at Farmland Music and Arts Festival, the last thing they expect is to realize that they’ll need to join forces in order to get what they’re searching for out of the weekend.

 

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender 

Set just before Pride, protagonist Felix Love is an artistic trans boy who wants to experience romantic love. When his pre-transition photos are leaked for the world to see, he must figure out the culprit while examining his own sense of self and what kind of love he deserves. Through his experiences with others, Felix Love must look at who and what should determine his self-worth.

my review

 

 

 

Right Where I Left You by Julian Winters

Isaac Martin is an Afro-Mexican gay comic book geek who has been looking forward to spending one last summer with his best friend, Diego Santoyo. The two of them were supposed to be attending Legends Con, the biggest pop culture convention in Georgia.

When Isaac misses his chance to buy passes, he ends up gradually getting closer to his crush, Davi, and getting to know Diego’s gamer friends instead. However, as the day of the biggest teen Pride event approaches, Isaac finds himself drifting farther apart from his best friend.

my review

 

If It Makes You Happy by Claire Kann

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.

my review

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.