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.

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.

 

 

 

New Kid

New kid, new lifestyle?

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In this graphic novel we meet Jordan Banks, a 12-year-old living in New York City, who has just started attending Riverdale Academy Day School. In addition to having to make new friends and navigate the culture of this very fancy private school, he must deal with the challenges of being one of a very few kids of color there. His parents reflect the mixed feelings Jordan brings to the experience. While his mother is excited that he has the opportunity to go to a school that’s well-resourced and will allow him to make connections, his father is concerned about the lack of diversity.

A bigger issue for Jordan is that he’d rather go to art school. Jordan is a cartoonist; his creations, which are interspersed throughout the book, show how he uses his art and sly sense of humor to work out his frustrations. Many of them center around how Jordan and 2 other African-American boys at the school are treated. Jordan lives in a 2-parent middle-class household, Drew lives with his grandmother, and Maury, who has been at Riverdale since kindergarten, is the son of a Fortune 500 CEO. Despite coming from different backgrounds each of them is subject to the same assumptions. This is really brought home at the school’s book fair. The only books featuring African-Americans involve slavery, gang life and poverty. Making matters worse, the event organizers hand each boy  “The Mean Streets of South Uptown.”  The adults assume this street lit reflects the lives of the African-American boys and they expect the boys to love it.

This moment really struck me because, sadly, I personally have seen librarians do this. It is infuriating that anyone would look at Black youth and imagine that they would only be able to relate to books where someone gets shot, is forced to deal drugs or has incarcerated or drug-addicted parents. The belief that this represents all the boys’ experiences is insulting; even worse is the assumption that students who could relate to this book would have no interest in reading anything else. There are other instances of macroaggressions, some of which are experienced by staff of color, others by students who feel like they’re outsiders for other reasons.

However, these issues are all raised organically with irony, sarcasm and humor, so the story is refreshing, not didactic. The art brings Jordan’s journey to life beautifully. The fresh, colorful palette is engaging and clearly expresses everything the characters are experiencing. Switching to black and white for Jordan’s cartoons helps focus attention on his real feelings.

New Kid is a wonderful graphic novel which will resonate with a variety of readers – no matter how far removed you are from middle school.  Find it at your local bookstore.

 

 

Bitter Root

Sometimes the monsters are right next door.

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Set during the Harlem Renaissance, Bitter Root tells the story of a New York City beset by monsters known as Jinoo, and the African American Sangerye family, the only people with the skills and knowledge to fight them off. It seemed the monsters had been put to rest but recently they have been rising again. This time it’s more difficult for the Sangeryes; the family is divided over methods, as well as who can fight the Jinoo. Even worse, a new creature, more powerful than they’d ever seen, has emerged. The Jinoo themselves used to be human. Their souls were corrupted by racism and violence, turning them into monsters; once turned they infect others. As we get deeper into the story, the battles facing the Sangeryes get more frightening. On the face, this is a good horror story. Looking deeper, the powerful narrative shows how people can allow themselves to be poisoned with hatred to the point where they lose their humanity. The art, in style, tone, and use of a deep, moody color palette, evokes a feeling of ever present danger.

Like the film Get Out, or much of Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction, the events in this reimagined reality provide a different way to examine real world issues. Three issues of this knockout comic series have been released as of this writing. Normally I would wait until the whole series, or possibly the trade version (one volume containing all the issues), had been published, but this comic is so good I couldn’t wait to talk about it.

Head out to your local comic book shop and pick it up! Not sure where your local comic book shop is located? Find it here!

 

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!

 

These Undead Give Me Life

Dread Nation is the book I really can’t shut up about. 30223025

The Civil War is interrupted when, instead of fighting each other, soldiers find themselves having to fight the dead rising up from the battlefield. Given the times, African/African-American slaves and Native Americans are forced to become the zombie killers. Young female slaves are sent to special schools to become Attendants, trained in defending young white women from the undead – and the untoward intentions of young men. The premise is exciting and very well executed. This book stands above others because the issues surrounding the premise – racism, colorism, sexism, classism – bring the plot to life completely organically.  The zombie battles and other supernatural elements play out in creepy detail. A particularly pleasing element is the cover – unlike covers which whitewash or have little to no connection to the story, this one is a beautiful rendition of the young zombie killer in all her brown-skinned, scythe wielding glory. This one belongs on the top of your “to be read” pile.

Dread Nation, Justina Ireland, Balzer + Bray