"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.