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.

“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.