Amari and the Night Brothers

Amari

Amari and the Night Brothers chronicles a quest that literally relies on #blackgirlmagic.

Amari is one of the only Black girls at her private middle school. She’s bullied and gets in trouble for standing up for herself. Amari’s worried about her older brother Quinton who went missing after spending time away from home in a leadership program. After being visited by Quinton in a dream, she is whisked off to join the same program. Amari learns it’s actually the academy where young people train to join the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs.

Each trainee has a natural talent which gets enhanced into a special power; for example, a creative person becomes a mastermind inventor. The Bureau’s specialized departments work together to manage relationships between the known world and the unseen supernatural beings all around us. Amari is determined to become an Agent in the Department of Supernatural Investigations so she can find her brother.

Amari is unsure of her talent and is shocked to learn her power is wielding magic. Magic is illegal and magicians themselves are considered evil  due largely to the Night Brothers. These wicked magicians wreaked havoc on their world in their quest for power. They were also involved in Quinton’s disappearance. Despite having this forbidden skill, Amari is allowed to stay, but finds herself subject to the same shunning and othering she experienced in school. However, thanks to her roommate, an aura-reading weredragon, and some adults who believe in her, she grows in confidence – and supernatural ability – overcoming some big challenges in her quest.

This story deals with real problems but wraps them in whimsy. There’s a lot of silliness which succeeds in making the book fun without side stepping the harder issues. The worldbuilding is solid and plot twists abound. Illustrated chapter headings enliven the story. Amari faces difficulties but also finds friendship and support in this delightful, mystical world. The ending is satisfying but leaves the door open for more adventure. Readers of this middle grade fantasy will be eagerly awaiting the next volume – I know I am!

Find Amari and the Night Brothers (in person or online), at your local bookstore.

 

Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence

47493017Joel Christian Gill is the creator of the graphic novels Strange Fruit Volumes I & II, which tell the stories of unsung African Americans. He turns the focus on himself in his powerful graphic memoir Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence. His recounting of his young life is both brave and heartbreaking. He does not hold back in exposing the abuse and neglect he suffered and shows how it impacted the way he moved through the world. He admits how painful it was to recall these childhood memories – I can only imagine what it was like to live them, given how painful it was to read about them.

His father died when he was young, and his mother struggled to take care of him. He often had to stay with his mother’s friends or relatives, where he was sexually abused and neglected. School provided no refuge as he was also bullied by other children and mistreated by teachers. He was drowning but there was no one to throw him a life-line.  He had to swim his way out on his own. He shows how children subjected to violence in words and actions absorb it all; then, like sponges, they get filled up and start to “leak” that same behavior. Eventually he became like the children around him, a full vessel leaking abuse onto others.

He was kept afloat by the library, art and a few key friendships. Once he discovered how much he enjoyed drawing, he could lose himself in it. He struggled but made his way through middle school and high school. A decision he made at age 18 was surprising, but turned out to be life-saving.

Gill’s dramatic art, with saturated colors and expressive characterizations, brings you deep into his story and doesn’t let go. The scenes where he depicts his mistreatment manage to be simultaneously subtle, infuriating and devastating. Photographs from his early life through present day bring the story even closer. The language is as evocative as the visuals. In addition to imagining children as sponges, he uses fire to represent harm. Some people are arsonists, deliberately causing pain, while others are accidental fire starters.  There are also those who do controlled burns — looking for the best place to start the fire. Although this book is difficult, it shows how young people, living under dire circumstances, can still find their way out to a healthy life. He leaves us with hope.

I don’t know what it took to create this memoir, but I admire Joel Christian Gill for doing it. I appreciate his note saying he didn’t do this as a catharsis.  Instead, he is speaking to young people who are experiencing trauma, sending the message that they can think for themselves and can choose a different path. He is also speaking to adults who witness young people acting as he did; he hopes they can recognize the roots of this behavior and seek to learn that child’s story.

Find Fights at your local bookstore or comic book shop.

The Magic Fish

magic-fish-1Tiến is a 13 year old who lives with his Vietnamese immigrant parents in the Midwest. He and his mother Helen read fairy tales together to help bridge the gap between their primary languages. Tiến grew up speaking English and Helen Vietnamese. Tiến is gay; he is out only to a classmate. He wants to come out to his mother, but he doesn’t know the right words in Vietnamese or where to find them.  To make matters worse, adults at his parochial school suspect he might be gay, and the “counseling” they subject him to just leads to more fear and shame. The fairy tales Tiến and his mother read together are more than a way to help them communicate; the stories they share parallel their life experiences. For example, The Little Mermaid becomes an immigration story, where the price of moving to a new place for a different life comes at a big price — losing the ability to communicate.

When Helen has to go back to Vietnam because of a family emergency, her aunt tells her a story which Helen had heard before.  This time the story has a different ending.  Her aunt explained: stories change, details change, and with those changes the story becomes yours. Helen returns home and comes to understand the truth about Tiến’s sexuality in an unexpected and, for Tiến, scary way. Once again, stories provide an avenue for them to communicate what matters and, most importantly, express their love.

The art in this graphic novel is stunning. The lush line drawings are powerful and express the fantasy of the stories just as vividly as the reality of Tiến and his family’s lives. Different monochrome palettes are used to distinguish between Tiến’s current day, his mother’s memories, her time in Vietnam and the stories they tell each other.  The creator, Trung Le Nguyen, includes details on the influences for the artistic styles of the settings and characters in this lovely, heartwarming, graphic novel.

Many readers will be able to relate to this moving story. Finding the right words for a difficult conversation can be hard even if language isn’t a barrier. The beautiful artwork carried me away, and I admit there may have been a tear in my eye at the end.

The Magic Fish comes out on October 13th; find it at your local independent bookstore.

Turning Point

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Rasheeda and Monique live in the Pirates Cove Housing Projects and are best friends. They just finished 8th grade and for the first time won’t be spending the summer together.

Monique has earned a spot in a competitive, intensive ballet training program along with Jamila, another Cove resident. Monique loves ballet but is nervous about the program. Will she measure up? Will there be other Black girls there? How will she handle being away from home?

Rasheeda is staying in Pirates Cove this summer. She lives with her Aunt Deandra who took her in when she saw the squalid conditions under which Rasheeda and her mother were living. Rasheeda’s aunt keeps her on a tight leash.  She is on a mission to make sure her niece Rasheeda doesn’t go astray and stays safe.  Their entire lives are centered around church.

Though in very different worlds Rasheeda and Monique are faced with challenges of being in very structured environments. For Monique, the expectations in this traditional, predominantly white ballet program are quite different from her local ballet school. She is a talented dancer but does not have the traditional ballet body that seems to be the norm. She feels off balance in this setting, where everyone seems to know the system except her.

The structure in Rasheeda’s life comes from her Aunt. Even normal things like having a crush or wanting to join activities not connected to church are judged harshly. Rasheeda is never given the opportunity to learn how to make her own decisions. With no experience in handling herself on her own, Rasheeda finds herself in troubling situations and has no idea what to do.

Monique and Rasheeda’s situations are realistic, as are their responses. While structure can be good, it can also be suffocating. I think young readers will relate to Monique’s and Rasheeda’s feelings of confusion and isolation as they try to understand how to fit in to the world around them.  The girls believe they have to figure out everything on their own. Young people often experience the same feelings as Monique and Rasheeda, even if the settings are different. I hope readers will be inspired by seeing both Monique and Rasheeda demonstrate agency.  They find a way to manage, but not completely succumb to, the constraints they are under.

There are two other books, So Done and Dough Boys, set in Pirates Cove. Some characters will be familiar but Turning Point works fine as a stand alone.

Turning Point will be available on September 15th but you can preorder it now.

The Banks

thebanksRoxane Gay, essayist and author of Hunger, Bad Feminist, and Difficult Women, has also written comics. She started with World of Wakanda, a Black Panther spinoff, and recently returned to comic writing with The Banks. This is the story of three generations of African American women holding down the family business.  Matriarch Clara Banks and her daughter Cora are the best thieves in Chicago. Granddaughter Celia angrily rejects the family’s criminal enterprise and goes into investment banking. Celia is a spoiled diva but she’s smart. An infuriating incident at her firm makes her realize her mother and grandmother’s skills are exactly what she needs to set things right. Although Gay’s narrative has all of the best elements of a heist story – a complex plan, threats arising from an old grudge, detectives closing in on them, surprising twists and lots of tension – the family dynamics are what set it apart. The intergenerational bickering among the three hard-headed women adds humor and gives a fresh spin to a familiar plot. Artist Ming Doyle’s bold, realistic style is just right for this story. She uses an expansive palette to bring the characters to life and illuminate the many changes in time, place and mood. With equal parts competitiveness, cooperation and grudging respect, the three women come together and do what they do best.

Find The Banks at your local comic book store.

 

 

Slay

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Kiera is a teen coder and videogame player who tires of the racism and toxicity in the online gaming world. This inspires her to create her own virtual reality MMORPG* called Slay.  Slay exists as a place for Black gamers to celebrate Black excellence. Joining the game requires a passcode, which can only be obtained from a current member – and only after asking the right question. She keeps Slay secret from her parents, her sister and especially her boyfriend. His view of Blackness is very rigid and holds no room for videogames or the people who play them.

Things fall apart when a Slay gamer is killed by another participant. Suddenly this undercover game is public knowledge. Certain people claim that it’s racist because Slay’s a space only for Black players, but these critics never acknowledge the persistent racism gamers of color have to contend with in mainstream online games. The pressure on Kiera builds with the talk of lawsuits. The suits claim that excluding White people violates their civil rights.  Media depictions emerge suggesting that the game targets at-risk and poor Black youth. Things continue to escalate, forcing Kiera to make a bold decision in an attempt to save the game and have it be recognized for what it really is.

This book is no fantasy. The harassment described in the book are things gamers of color (as well as female and queer gamers) regularly experience. The narrative accurately depicts how media “experts,” who know nothing about the game or gaming, pontificate and spread inaccurate information with great confidence. This book does a powerful job of using the lens of the game to explore Black identity, respectability politics,** toxic male behavior and how anonymity can be both a weapon and a shield.

It is not necessary to be a gamer to love this book. The plotlines around Kiera’s relationships with family and friends, and the lives of the Slay players we meet are realistic and relatable. Author Brittney Morris crafts the game itself beautifully. The language describing Slay’s design and in-game action is exciting and cinematic; you can see everything play out. The game’s elements – battles, hexes and defenses – are based on Black culture. A player can attack with Twist Out, which makes the character’s natural hair grow out and immobilize the opponent. They can defend with Jimi Hendrix, which obscures their opponent’s vision in a purple haze. I’m tempted to list them all, but you should read the book yourself and learn about the power of Shea Butter, Reclaimed Time, Resilience, Innovation – and Mom’s Mac and Cheese.

You can learn more about gaming-while-Black and see some sample Slay cards in this essay by the author.

Slay makes a great gift for readers on your list – or yourself! Find it at your local bookstore.

*Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game

** Respectability politics is the problematic belief that marginalized people should conform to a certain standard of behavior and presentation so they can earn the approval of the group in power. Read a great discussion of this on “The Root”.

 

Dough Boys

Two people starting on the same path can end up in very different places.

43131603This follow up to So Done revisits the world of Pirates Cove public housing. 8th graders Roland “Rollie” Matthews and Deontae “Simp” Wright are best friends. Rollie is a talented drummer enrolled in a special program for young performing artists. He has a stable life, while Simp’s life is much more complicated. As the oldest of 5 boys living with their single mother, Simp is saddled with adult responsibilities.

Both boys play for the champion Marauders basketball team – which involves more than just basketball. When Coach Tez recruits players he’s also recruiting “dough boys” – lookouts for his drug dealing operation. Rollie got caught up in Tez’s gang only because he wanted to play basketball. For Simp it’s a clear path to respect and success. Rollie keeps it secret from his family but Simp doesn’t. His mother happily looks the other way, glad he can provide for the family. Rollie and Simp both come to a crossroads. They find themselves having to make very different but equally difficult decisions. Will they be able to handle the consequences?

This story explores how people can live in the same world but have very different experiences. Though Rollie and Simp both envision futures for themselves, even as middle schoolers they see the challenges. One sees a way out, the other finds a path that keeps him in. The chapters alternate between Rollie and Simp’s voices, giving a clear picture of their situations and struggles. The decisions they have to make are framed within the normal life of their 8th grade existence, including maintaining  loyalty to friends, having crushes, and managing the influence of peers.

One important thing about this story is that it doesn’t embrace the Black pain narrative that so many books include these days. Instead, it thoughtfully explores the realities of these young men’s lives without centering violence and suffering. This a relatable and engaging story for a wide variety of young readers.

Find Dough Boys at your local bookstore.

The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali

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17-year-old Rukhsana Ali is a queer Muslim girl of Bengali descent living in Seattle. She’s out to her friends, deeply closeted to her parents. Her conservative parents are strict followers of Bengali social traditions. They expect Rukhsana to spend more time honing her housekeeping skills (in preparation for marriage), than on her education. Rukhsana wants to study physics and astronomy; she secretly applied and was accepted to Caltech. At first her parents were upset, but they eventually decided this would make Rukhsana more attractive in the matchmaking market. When her parents discover Rukhsana with her girlfriend Ariana, they cannot and will not accept it. They take Rukhsana to Bangladesh, explaining that her beloved grandmother is very sick. Actually, they plan to keep Rukhsana there until they can marry her off to a good Bengali boy. Devastated and angry, Rukhsana plots her escape.

The beauty of this book is its refusal to be a simple good vs. bad story. It shows love for Bengali culture without excusing how it literally endangers some of its people’s lives.  The narrative is exceptionally well crafted, illustrating the conflict Rukhsana feels.  The heritage Rukhsana loves and embraces makes no room for her as a queer woman. Her parents are written with dimension; rather than simply making them villains, there is context for their sometimes cruel decisions. The story is made richer by the other people in Rukhsana’s life. Her relatives, her white girlfriend and other young Bengalis in Rukhsana’s same situation all bring different perspectives, making the story even more complex. Move this heartbreaking, hopeful book to the top of your To Be Read pile.

Find The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali at your  local independent bookstore.

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.

 

Haphaven

“If fortune plays you a bad hand, you can still win if you play the game right.”

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Alex Mills grew up learning about superstitions and how to keep herself safe. She always kept her lucky baseball bat at her side. Her father claimed that avoiding bad luck was their heritage because her great-great grandfather Zane Mills, a professional gambler, married Lady Luck. Together they watch over the Mills descendants.  Alex’s mother is more of a skeptic but doesn’t interfere with Alex and her dad bonding over these beliefs.

Alex’s father is killed in an accident when she’s still a young girl. Years later her mother asks her to let go of superstitions and not be afraid to celebrate her 13th birthday.  Alex agrees to do so and tempts fate by stepping on a crack. Suddenly her mother is paralyzed as if her back were broken. Alex is left to figure out what to do. She’s shocked by the sudden appearance of a leprechaun warrior who whisks her away to Haphaven, the land from which all superstitions draw their power. She must complete a quest to retrieve the one thing that will cure her mother.

This graphic novel is full of colorful characters, deception, hidden agendas and shout outs to familiar superstitions, elevating it from a simple fairy tale to a genuine adventure. The narrative benefits from dialog that is funny, snarky and engaging. The art conveys the creepy world of Haphaven but still shows the warmth of interactions among the characters.  Although Alex is the child of white father and black mother the story doesn’t focus on her identity. Rather, it centers her love of baseball, her relationship with her parents and her dangerous quest.

Once you’ve seen the world of Haphaven, I think you’ll join me in being more conscientious about throwing salt over your shoulder!

Click here to find Haphaven at your local independent bookstore or local comic shop.