Hot Comb

For Black women, hair can be a political issue.

41940338Hot Comb contains a collection of comics centered on the ways hair choices impact how Black women are seen by themselves and by society. The comics also show how, between mothers and daughters or among friends, hair can be both a way to bond or a source of conflict. Black women’s hair is a complicated issue. In the dominant culture, natural hairstyles have been criticized, and in Black culture straightened hair can be judged. Is it wrong to want to wear your hair the way it grows out of your head? Is choosing to straighten hair problematic? Although it’s good to see these experiences represented, being reminded of the conflicts is also a bit painful. Regardless, many Black women will recognize the scenarios: spending long days in the salon, the “can I touch your hair” issue, keeping your head above water while swimming, or pondering having hair that’s natural, straight, or something else entirely.

The narrative successfully weaves hair issues into a variety of “just another day” vignettes. The black and white art is realistic, but stylized in a way that supports the stories well. It’s at its best in pages replicating ads for wigs and hair products that used to be found in Black magazines. They add depth to the stories and will no doubt bring back memories for many readers. This book is geared to adults but since hair questions for Black women begin in childhood, the stories will also resonate with teens. In the end, it’s a reminder for Black women to get through the hair journey and embrace wherever we land.

Find Hot Comb at your local independent bookstore or comic book shop.

With The Fire on High

Sometimes the heat is what draws you to the kitchen.

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17-year-old Afro-Latinx Emoni Santiago dreams of being a chef. Her creativity in the kitchen is stellar, and her instincts always lead her to new culinary places. But her dream may remain just that. Emoni got pregnant as a high school freshman and is  now raising her 3 year old daughter Emma. They live with Emoni’s grandmother. Emoni’s  mother died when she was a baby and her father felt it was more important for him to go back to Puerto Rico than stay home and care for Emoni. Emoni has a tenuous relationship with the baby’s father who is present for Emma, less so for her. Unsurprisingly her family has serious financial struggles. A new culinary arts class, which includes a trip to Spain to study under local chefs, is offered at her high school. She knows it won’t be easy but she wants this. With an aging grandmother, toddler child, and minimal financial resources, Emoni has to figure out how to make it work.

This book’s author, Elizabeth Acevedo, has won multiple awards for her first book, The Poet X, written in verse. She easily switches to prose here, creating equally compelling storytelling. The narrative doesn’t sugar coat Emoni’s struggles but presents her with full agency. Emoni’s commitment to her education, her daughter and cooking is clear. She creates opportunities and dares to imagine a future for herself. The other people in Emoni’s life are more than backdrops. By providing context for their actions, Acevedo avoids simplistic good/bad characterizations..  This honesty results in a powerful, realistically hopeful story. Warning: read this book near your kitchen – reading about Emoni’s culinary creations will either inspire you to try some of your own or just make you hungry!

With the Fire on High is available now at your local bookstore.

 

A Good Kind of Trouble

When is it time to stop avoiding trouble and instead walk right in?

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Shayla and her best friends Isabella and Julia are 7th graders at Emerson Junior High. African American Shayla, Latinx Isabella and Japanese American Julia call themselves the United Nations. Though they are each from a different background they are united in friendship. Shayla struggles as she notices things changing around her. Julia is now spending time with a group of Asian girls; Shayla is confused by her sudden jealousy of Isabella’s talent and attractiveness; as one of a few Black students in her school, she wonders if she should have more Black friends but feels awkward trying to make connections.

Shayla’s concerns go beyond the usual junior high drama, as her community is watching the trial of a police officer who shot an unarmed African American man. In Shayla’s mind the verdict should be obvious – there was a video! With guidance from her parents and older sister, Shayla starts to understand the complexity of her world. Once the verdict of the trial is announced Shayla knows she wants to do something, but is she ready for the consequences?

This book does an incredible job of exploring activism, Black Lives Matter and issues of police violence in a way that will resonate with younger readers. The cast of junior high school characters is constructed realistically in action and voice. Crushes, shifting friendships, and questions of identity are all dealt with just as young people face them. The author fits the bigger social issues squarely in this context, making the discussion both accessible and relatable for these readers.

Pick up a copy of this powerful book at your local bookstore.

 

 

 

Genesis Begins Again

Can changing the outside change the inside?

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Genesis has long been scorned by other African American girls for her very dark skin. Charcoal, Ape and Blackie are just a few of the names she allows herself to be called. She’s heard this disgust at her appearance her entire life from peers and her own family and accepts it as truth. Some girls put together a list of 100 Reasons Why We Hate Genesis – and Genesis has begun to add to the list herself. Her fair-skinned mother loves her, but her grandmother lays out chapter and verse of why light-skinned people are naturally superior to those with dark skin. Grandma indulges in colorism, the practice of stereotyping other African Americans based only on how light or dark they are. Genesis’s dark-skinned father is undependable, struggling with addictions and inability to keep a job, reinforcing the negative lessons her grandmother hands down. Her mother is doing her best to keep the family afloat, but Genesis takes it upon herself to try to solve the adults’ problems. She believes being lighter is the first step to making things better for herself and her parents. She tries rubbing lemons on herself, adding bleach to her bathwater, and scouring her skin, enduring physical pain to help heal her emotional pain.

Genesis gets a chance to start over when her father seems to have straightened up and moves the family into a new home in a nice neighborhood. She makes friends at her new school, including a very dark-skinned boy who loves himself and tries to help Genesis understand how to do the same. Support from a music teacher helps Genesis gain self-confidence, but things don’t change overnight. The damage from a lifetime of self-hate doesn’t magically disappear.

The beauty of this book is its complexity. All of the characters are given dimension, which helps us understand their actions.  The concepts of colorism and internalized racism are accessible to middle school aged readers but are not oversimplified. The narrative makes clear that these concepts harm both dark and light skinned people. Genesis deals with typical middle school issues, such as being attracted to the popular crowd, putting up with insults for the sake of friendship, and balancing fitting in with finding yourself. However, the focus remains on the effects of internalized racism and colorism. This tough story is told well, with an optimistic but realistic ending. I hope it leads all of us to think about the messages we’ve absorbed over time and to be more conscious of the harm we may be doing to ourselves and others.

Find Genesis Begins Again at your local bookstore.

Black Enough?

What does that mean? Who gets to decide?

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This collection of stories by some of the best young adult authors writing today examines what it means to be a young black person. Are you still black if you’re a Star Wars nerd? Into tech? A fan of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson? A debate champ who’s also a metalhead? Are open about mental health issues?  Love the outdoors? Wonder if you have to code switch within the black community? These are just a few of the issues teens confront here. As in real life, the young people in these stories are privileged, poor, queer, straight, artistic, insecure, confident, have families that are Afrocentric, and families where blackness is not at the forefront. Black youth coming from all types of backgrounds deal with questions of legitimacy. Although they have different experiences and expectations, they often feel judged against some vague set of standards, making it difficult to feel like they’re “doing it right.”  This raises an important question – is judging a person’s blackness actually buying into stereotypes about ourselves? Regardless, I have no doubt a wide variety of young people will find themselves in these stories. This will also resonate with a lot of adults as one of those “I wish I had this when I was a teen” books.

If you aren’t black, read this book anyway. Anyone from a culture where people feel free to call your authenticity into question will relate to the stories in this collection.

In case you’re still wondering, Ibi Zoboi, editor of this collection, answers the question. She hopes that “…Black Enough will encourage all black teens to be their free, uninhibited selves without the constraints of being black, too black or not black enough.” In other words, the answer is yes, you, in all your nerdy, swaggerific, techy, metal music loving, sneakerheaded, privileged, struggling, code switching self, are black enough.
Click here to buy Black Enough from an independent bookstore!

 

Three Friends, Shifting Feelings…

…and a lot of questions.

39848512Teenagers Courtney Cooper, Rae Chin, and Jupiter Charity-Sanchez form a relationship triangle complicated by questions of sexuality, loyalty and shared trauma. Jupiter and Coop have been best friends since elementary school. African American Coop is straight and Afro-Latinx  Jupe is queer; no one questioned their childhood sleepovers continuing once they  became teens. They have loving, emotionally intimate relationship. Whenever Coop breaks up with a girlfriend Jupe is there to play Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” for their traditional break up dance party. Chinese-Irish Rae Chin moves to town with her doctor father who works at the same hospital as Coop’s mother. Rae connects with Jupe because they’re both biracial and into community service; they become close. Rae grows close to Coop when she learns they had a shared interest as children which is connected for both of them to the traumatic loss of one of their parents. Coop and Jupe feel confident of their sexuality, but Rae is questioning. She finds herself attracted to both of them, and while her feelings are sincere it takes her time to sort them out. A declaration on Rae’s part leads Jupe to make a difficult and selfish decision, resulting in hurt, anger and for her, confusion.

This is the best book dealing with young people’s sexuality that I’ve ever read. The narrative gives a realistic view of how changing circumstances can lead to confusion even when the answers seem certain. It resists labels, pigeonholing and punishment, and shows even people who care deeply about each other can make hurtful mistakes. The honest and engaging characters avoid stereotypes. The structure of the book, 3 sections told from each teen’s perspective and in their own style, adds depth. The teens’ household configurations – Coop and Rae with single parents, Jupe with her two dads – and their connections with their wider friend groups make the story even richer. Despite the serious elements, this book is fun, and will resonate with many readers.

Odd One Out, Nic Stone, Crown Books

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Find Odd One Out at your your local independent bookstore!

When Hearts Collide…

…and fictional relationships get real.

36204669Claire Strupke is a devoted fan of Demon Heart, a television show about Smokey, a demon hunter, and Heart, his prey. They’re on opposite sides but are somehow obsessed with each other, and Claire believes the looks they give each other whenever they meet mean something. She has lots of followers on her Tumblr where she writes SmokeHeart slash fan fic* shipping** the two. When she learns the actors who play Smokey and Heart, Forest Reed and Rico Quiroz, and showrunner Jamie Davies are coming to a local comic convention she decides a) she must go, and b) she will find a way to convince Jamie to make SmokeHeart canon, meaning, make the relationship part of the story. At the Demon Heart panel Q&A, Claire asks when Smokey and Heart will realize they’re in love, and if they’ll kiss. Forest ridicules Claire much to the dismay of Rico, Jamie, the crowd of fans – and social media. In an effort to clean up the PR nightmare Forest caused, Claire is invited to join them on the rest of their convention tour. They want her to use her social media platform to make things right with the fandom, but she is more concerned with making SmokeHeart canon. That’s not the only thing Claire has on her mind. She connects with Tess, another Demon Heart fan, in line for the panel and is confused by her attraction to her. While Tess knows she is queer, Claire is not so sure. It turns out Tess is also going to be following the DemonHeart tour, so Claire has one more thing to figure out.

I proudly admit I love comics, fandoms and all geeky things. Ship It did not disappoint. The intensity of fandoms, how they help people connect, and the overwhelming fun of comic conventions are all captured here. The inclusion of weaponized social media adds reality. Claire is white and Tess is African American, but I wish the narrative did a little more to illustrate the diversity of fandoms. Incorporating Claire’s fan fic into the book gives a full picture of her vision of SmokeHeart while at the same time showing how her writing may be part of her questioning her own sexuality. I appreciated how the story stayed complicated, especially in this regard. This is a fun read and will appeal to anyone who enjoys fandoms, seeing people pursue a goal, and sometimes sweet, sometimes difficult early relationships.

* Stories based on existing works which create different plots and relationships between the characters. Slash fan fic contains gay relationships

**Wishing for a romantic relationship between 2 characters not currently together