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.

National Poetry Month Spotlight: An Introduction to Novels in Verse

National Poetry Month Spotlight

An Introduction to Novels in Verse

It’s once again National Poetry Month, and novels in verse are some of the most thought-provoking ways to experience poetry.

However, some people may not know what novels in verse are and what books to check out. If you want to know more, then I’ve got you covered.

What Are Novels in Verse?

Novels in verse are stories told through the format of poetry. Instead of being told in chunks of paragraphs, the story is presented in the form of poems. Each chapter is a new poem that represents a character, their inner thoughts and feelings, and their interactions with other characters in different settings.

Why Read Novels in Verse?

Novels in verse enhance a story and its characters using imagery and different poetry formats. This allows the reader to immerse themselves in a story, because every word is meant to be felt rather than just read. 

Of course, novels in verse are also a good way to introduce readers of all ages to poetry. Depending on the book, it can also combine poetry with different subgenres such as non-fiction, contemporary fiction, and fantasy fiction.

 

Middle Grade and YA Novels in Verse by Black Authors

 

Moonwalking by Zetta Elliot and Lyn Miller Lachmann

Set in 1980s Brooklyn, this book tells the story of a punk rock–loving white boy with autism and an artistic Afro-Latinx kid who end up befriending each other.

Augusta Savage by Marilyn Nelson

This is a biographical book about the Black sculptor Augusta Savage, a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. A starred review at Publishers Weekly states, “Moving poems convey Savage’s artistic ‘hunger/ to pull something out of yourself.’ ”

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This autobiographical book tells the story of the author’s childhood in the 1960s and 70s at a time where the U.S. was changing from the Jim Crow era to the Civil Rights Movements. The book also reminiscences on the author’s literary roots, from her struggles with learning to read to finding her voice by writing stories.

We Are All So Good At Smiling by Amber McBride

Using myths and folklore from around the globe, this book tells a powerful story about clinical depression and recovery. Whimsy, a Black hoodoo conjurer, loves fairy tales but fears a dark forest where her brother Cole went missing years ago. When she meets Faerry, a winged Black boy with struggles similar to hers, both of them must enter the forest once more to put their pasts to rest. I reviewed this book recently and loved it.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

Heavily influenced by UK LGBTQ+ culture, this book is about Michael “Michalis” Angeli, a gay British young man with Greek Jamaican heritage. Growing up, his multifaceted identity makes him feel out of place. After deciding to attend a university in Brighton, Michael joins a drag club and slowly discovers how to combine his identities and his lived experiences to make himself feel whole. Check out my full review.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Xiomara is an Afro-Latina teen who learns to express her budding sexuality and burgeoning emotions in this emotionally palpable book. Amid a strict mother and religious upbringing, Xiomara finds solace in her school’s poetry club. Read my 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.

National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

Happy National Poetry Month! For poets and poetry lovers—and perhaps for those who love poets—this is a special time. At Brain Mill Press, we like to celebrate all month long by sharing featured poets, and with our fee-free contest. This year, we’re thinking about poetry cycles, poems that speak to each other, forms that build on each other (like crowns), and the ways a poem can be a scaffold or foundation for other poems. Our words are often in response to other poems, and our own body of work is often an ongoing conversation. We speak to each other, with ourselves, and sometimes into the void—hoping someone will answer back.

“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.

Most Anticipated 2023 Reads

Most Anticipated 2023 Reads

2023 promises some fantastic YA reads by Black authors.

One of my most anticipated favorites comes from promising author Amber McBride, while another book has been on my TBR for ages.

With life being what it is, I can’t promise that I will get to all of these books. Nonetheless, I will do my best to write about 2023 Black YA reads, as well as some older books that I have been meaning to get to. Without further ado, here are my most anticipated Black YA reads for 2023. 

We Are All So Good at Smiling by Amber McBride

This is a book I heard about through the Twitter grapevine last year. The premise alone had me sold—a novel in verse telling the story of a Black hoodoo-practicing, fairy-tale-loving girl named Whimsy as she navigates clinical depression and a mysterious garden from her past. However, my anticipation for this book increased once I read the author’s previous book, Me, Moth (briefly reviewed here), which featured clinical depression from a different perspective.

 

 

 

Cool. Awkward. Black., edited by Karen Strong

This YA short story anthology is dedicated to Black nerds and features all sorts of subgenres, such as fantasy, sci-fi, and slice-of-life. I found out about this anthology on Twitter the same day We Are All So Good at Smiling was released. Having been a Black teen nerd turned Black nerdy adult, this anthology is totally up my alley.

 

 

 

 

As You Walk on By by Julian Winters 

Y’all know that I have been a Julian Winters fan from the moment he debuted with the book How To Be Remy Cameron (reviewed here). Imagine my surprise when I found out on Twitter that he has a new book coming out this year. Described as “The Breakfast Club meets Can’t Hardly Wait,” the book tells the story of seventeen-year-old Theo Wright as he seeks refuge in an empty bedroom during a house party following a promposal gone wrong. While there, he meets other teens who are also avoiding the party and learns he is not as alone in his troubles as he thinks.

 

 

Nothing Burns as Bright as You by Ashley Woodfolk

I will read almost any author if they do a novel-in-verse, and Ashley Woodfolk is no exception. Of course, it helps that I enjoyed one of her previous books, The Beauty That Remains (review here). This particular book came out last year, but I still want to try and get it if the publisher ever decides to support the worker’s union. Described as “an impassioned standalone tale of queer love, grief, and the complexity of female friendship,” the book tells the story of two girls troubled by a tumultuous history. 

 

 

 

Fate of Flames by Sarah Raughley

This book has been on my TBR for so long. I bought it after I saw a Twitter post describing it as “Pacific Rim meets Sailor Moon.” Part of the official synopsis is as follows:

Phantoms, massive beasts of nightmare, began terrorizing the world. At the same time, four girls—the Effigies—appeared, each with a unique power to control a classical element. Since then, they have protected the world from the Phantoms. At the death of one Effigy, another is chosen, pulled from her normal life into the never-ending battle.

When Maia unexpectedly becomes the next Fire Effigy, she resists her new calling. A quiet girl with few friends and almost no family, she was much happier to admire the Effigies from afar. Never did she imagine having to master her ability to control fire, to protect innocent citizens from the Phantoms, or to try bringing together the other three Effigies.

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.