Subscribe to The Horn Book

Books for Black Future Month

The Horn Book celebrates Black History Month

This February, as in previous years, we’ve been commemorating Black History Month by highlighting articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about Black authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field. New additions this year include

Today — inspired by the title of N. K. Jemisin’s new short story collection for adults, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (Orbit, 2018) — we’d also like to call your attention to works of speculative fiction for children and teens by Black creators with Black protagonists, as well as some critical thought on race in these genres.

A great place to start is Zetta Elliott’s 2010 Horn Book Magazine article “The Writer’s Page: Decolonizing the Imagination” — in which she discusses the effect of the all-white world of fantasy she encountered as a child: “Perhaps the one benefit of being so completely excluded from the literary realm was that I had to develop the capacity to dream myself into existence. My imagination went into overdrive trying to picture a girl like me living inside my beloved books.” At her website, you will find many more essays on this topic (and beyond!) and book recommendations.

In “The Book That Changed My Life: Aliens Don’t Discriminate,” Dhonielle Clayton remembers how Virginia Hamilton’s Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed showed her, for the first time, that books about Black kids didn’t have to be all “slavery, the Middle Passage, and civil rights. It could be all those important things and magic and make-believe and adventure.”

In an interview with Kim Parker and Elissa Gershowitz, Bolden/Agate/Millner publisher Denene Millner talks about the lack of fantastical picture books starring Black children, and about her imprint’s first acquisition, There’s a Dragon in My Closet: “Oh my god, it’s a little black boy, and a dragon. Hand that to me.”

We also recommend Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, a look at race in mainstream speculative media for young people, which will be published by NYU Press in May; preview it in the upcoming March/April 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. In the meantime, check out her blog Dark Fantastic for a wealth of articles, interviews, recommended books, and links.

The following titles for intermediate, middle school, and high school readers include stories of sci-fi and Afrofuturism, fantasy, magical realism, alternate history, and the supernatural. Many use fantastical elements and settings to critique our own society’s past and present systems of racial oppression; others use them to imagine socially just futures; still others are straight-up escapist fun. All were recommended by The Horn Book Magazine and The Horn Book Guide at the time of their publication; reviews are reprinted from The Horn Book Guide Online. For more, read Horn Book interviews with authors about their books recommended below: Tracey Baptiste (plus video!), Zetta Elliott, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Tomi Adeyemi, and Justina Ireland.

Intermediate/Middle School

Baptiste, Tracey  The Jumbies
234 pp.     Algonquin     2015
Trade ISBN 978-1-61620-414-3

Corinne La Mer, who has lived all her life on an unspecified Caribbean island, fights off a violent uprising of jumbies, fantastical indigenous creatures led by a female figure she discovers was actually her dead mother’s sister. Despite some heavy-handed messaging, Baptiste’s story, based on a Haitian folktale, is action-packed and original with an appealing cast of characters. Look for sequel Rise of the Jumbies.

Elliott, Zetta  Dragons in a Bag
154 pp.     Random     2018
Trade ISBN 978-1-5247-7045-7
Library binding ISBN 978-1-5247-7046-4
Ebook ISBN 978-1-5247-7047-1

Illustrated by Geneva B.  Jax meets Ma — who has just received a package containing three dragons. The dragons cannot stay in Brooklyn (“They came from one world, and they’re on their way to another”), and the pair’s quest to deliver the creatures takes several unexpected turns involving time travel, magic, and a host of vividly portrayed characters. This likable, suspenseful illustrated novel is a welcome addition to the underpopulated genre of African American middle-grade fantasy.

Giles, Lamar  The Last Last-Day-of-Summer
289 pp.    Houghton/Versify     2019
Trade ISBN 978-1-328-46083-7
Ebook ISBN 978-0-358-04721-6

Like many kids, African American cousins Otto and Sheed Alston want just one more day of summer vacation. They get their wish when they accidentally freeze time and find their town visited by denizens from the “interdimensional community.” Giles presents a page-turning magical fantasy adventure with broad appeal in which his protagonists use their considerable talents to save not only their town but also themselves.

Magoon, Kekla  Shadows of Sherwood: A Robyn Hoodlum Adventure
356 pp.     Bloomsbury     2015
Trade ISBN 978-1-61963-634-7
Ebook ISBN 978-1-61963-635-4

Governor Crown kidnaps all Parliament members — including twelve-year-old Robyn Loxley’s parents — and declares himself leader of Nott City. Robyn is determined to find her parents but finds herself (accompanied by a band of parentless outlaws) on a mission greater than she imagined. Magoon cleverly weaves elements of the Robin Hood tale into this futuristic story about social justice, friendship, and identity. The story continues in sequels Rebellion of Thieves and Reign of Outlaws.

Rhodes, Jewell Parker  Ghost Boys
214 pp.     Little     2018
Trade ISBN 978-0-316-26228-6
Ebook ISBN 978-0-316-26225-5

Like the real-life Tamir Rice, twelve-year-old African American boy Jerome is killed by a white policeman while playing with a toy gun on a playground. Jerome’s ghost is joined by that of Emmett Till, who helps him process what happened; Jerome also befriends Sarah, daughter of the policeman, who can see him. Although the book is timely and quite powerful, the upbeat, forgiveness-filled ending is somewhat facile.

Rhodes, Jewell Parker  Ninth Ward
220 pp.     Little     2010
Trade ISBN 978-0-316-04307-6

Rhodes captures the warmth and closeness of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward immediately before Katrina through the eyes of twelve-year-old Lanesha and caretaker Mama Ya-Ya. When the hurricane comes, they have nowhere to go and must ride out the storm at home. Mama Ya-Ya’s gift of “the sight” assures Lanesha that she will survive, providing a thread of comfort throughout their otherwise harrowing plight.

Smith, Ronald L.  Black Panther: The Young Prince
264 pp.     Disney/Marvel     2018
Trade ISBN 978-1-4847-8764-9
Ebook ISBN 978-1-368-01222-5

In this origin story, future Black Panther T’Challa is twelve and attending middle school in Chicago while his father the king deals with a hostile invasion of Wakanda. From this unlikely premise Smith weaves a taut and nuanced tale as T’Challa must keep his identity secret, negotiate a new culture, make friends, and uncover and foil the scheme of a dangerous dark-magic cult.

Smith, Ronald L.  Hoodoo
206 pp.     Clarion     2015
Trade ISBN 978-0-544-44525-3

Folks in the insular 1930s African American community of Sardis, Alabama, believe in God and in folk magick, or hoodoo. Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher’s father tried to cheat death by transporting part of his soul into Hoodoo. To free him, Hoodoo must destroy the evil Stranger. This creepy Southern Gothic ghost story is steeped in time and place; Hoodoo’s folksy asides relieve tension.

Middle School/Young Adult

Adeyemi, Tomi  Children of Blood and Bone
533 pp.     Holt     2018
Trade ISBN 978-1-250-17097-2

Amari, daughter of maji-persecuting King Saran, has stolen a magical scroll, which awakens divîner Zélie’s latent maji power to command the dead. Joined by Zélie’s brother Tzain and pursued by Amari’s brother Inan, the young women set out to restore magic to the kingdom of Orïsha. References to Nigerian culture and geography give this fantasy a distinct flavor; impassioned prose evokes intense emotion.

Clayton, Dhonielle  The Belles
440 pp.     Disney/Freeform     2018
Trade ISBN 978-1-4847-2849-9
Ebook ISBN 978-1-4847-3249-6

In the fantastical courtly society of Orléans, everyone is born ugly — except for the innately lovely Belles, who also have the supernatural ability to manipulate others’ appearance. Camille, the queen’s Favorite Belle, moves into the palace to provide beauty services to royals and aristocrats. Clayton vividly describes her world’s dazzling fashion and lavish galas in the midst of profound racism/colorism, indentured servitude, and distorted body image. Look for the sequel Everlasting Rose.

Elliott, Zetta  Ship of Souls
121 pp.     Amazon     2012
Paperback ISBN 978-1-61218-268-1

New foster child D rescues what he thinks is a bird in Prospect Park. It’s really a spirit who wants his help in gathering the restless dead of Manhattan’s African Burial Ground and taking them on to another realm. Elliott’s story is quick, clean, and briskly paced, and engages some interesting content.

Ireland, Justina  Dread Nation
455 pp.     HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray     2018
Trade ISBN 978-0-06-257060-4
Ebook ISBN 978-0-06-257062-8

Just days after Jane was born, the Civil War became a war between the living and the undead. Now seventeen, Jane is shipped off to a frontier outpost to be a white society lady’s Attendant, a chaperone/bodyguard warding off scandal and “shamblers” alike. A refreshingly subversive zombie action story/alternate history featuring a biracial, bisexual heroine — and an unflinching condemnation of institutionalized American racism, then and now.

Johnson, Alaya Dawn  Love Is the Drug
345 pp.     Scholastic/Levine     2014
Trade ISBN 978-0-545-41781-5
Ebook ISBN 978-0-545-66289-5

The near-future United States has been hit by a flu pandemic, thought to be an act of terrorism. When Emily Bird wakes up from a coma after attending a strange government party, she doesn’t know what secrets she has hidden from herself, or whom she can trust. Johnson combines evocative writing with the plot of a suspenseful thriller in her engaging character-driven novel.

The Summer PrinceJohnson, Alaya Dawn  The Summer Prince
295 pp.     Scholastic/Levine     2013
Trade ISBN 978-0-545-41779-2

Four hundred years after nuclear war devastated the world, the Brazilian city of Palmares Três thrives as an isolationist matriarchy. In precise prose Johnson evokes an utterly foreign setting complete with technologies that push at the limits of what it means to be human. The relationships that delineate the social landscape are intriguingly unconventional and startling in their intensity.

Medina, Tony  I Am Alfonso Jones
166 pp.     Lee/Tu     2017
Paperback ISBN 978-1-62014-263-9

Illustrated by Stacey Robinson and John Jennings. In the afterlife, African American fifteen-year-old Alfonso meets “Ancestors” who, like him, were killed by white police officers. Medina’s emotional narrative starts tightly, with the illustrators’ black-and-white visuals zoomed in closely on a single spiraling bullet; the story expands, exploring Alfonso’s life and bringing his death and those that survive him steadily into view. This emotional graphic novel avoids contrived solutions and false senses of closure.

Older, Daniel José  Shadowshaper
300 pp.     Scholastic/Levine     2015
Trade ISBN 978-0-545-59161-4

When her grandpa Lázaro — bedridden and primarily mute because of a stroke blurts out — an incomprehensible warning, artist Sierra is plunged into a completely different New York: one with the reanimated dead, spirits, and shadowshapers. Sierra’s Puerto Rican family, lively Brooklyn neighborhood, and Haitian (possible) love interest make for a vibrant and uncommon, diversely populated fantasy that speaks to the urban teen experience. The story continues in Shadowhouse Fall.

Onyebuchi, Tochi  Beasts Made of Night
298 pp.     Penguin/Razorbill     2017
Trade ISBN 978-0-448-49390-9

Taj and his fellow sin-eaters, or “aki,” fight and consume sin-beasts to absolve others’ transgressions. But the young aki are impoverished outcasts with lives shortened by the sins they shoulder. A coveted sin-eating position in the palace forces Taj to choose between living in luxury or working to improve the circumstances of all aki. Onyebuchi introduces a compellingly built, Nigerian-inspired fantastical world and a tough but compassionate protagonist. Look for sequel Crown of Thunder.

Okorafor, Nnedi  Akata Witch
353 pp.     Viking     2011
Trade ISBN 978-0-670-01196-4

Sunny, albino daughter of Nigerian parents, is used to being called a witch; even so, it’s a surprise to learn she is one. Along with her coven, she must take on Okotoko the Black Hat, a serial killer who preys on children. Sunny’s world of pepper soup and afrobeat music, the audacious personalities, and Okorafor’s lively writing make this offering stand out. The story continues in Akata Warrior.

Reeves, Dia  Slice of Cherry
506 pp.     Simon Pulse     2011
Trade ISBN 978-1-4169-8620-1

For Fancy, killing people is easy compared to growing up. When her sister Kit falls in love, Fancy feels abandoned and murderously enraged, until Ilan revives the part of her “that cares.” Reeves’s vivid story of the fantastically weird, violent world of Portero, Texas — murders, eviscerations, dismemberments, slicing and stitching — is part comic horror, part just plain horror, and part screwed-up, psychological coming-of-age.

Reynolds, Jason  Miles Morales: Spider-Man
263 pp.     Disney/Marvel     2017
Trade ISBN 978-1-4847-8748-9
Ebook ISBN 978-1-368-00137-3

Based on a 2011 Marvel comic, sixteen-year-old Black and Puerto Rican Miles Morales is Spider-Man. He discovers that the history teacher at his prestigious Brooklyn academy is part of a white supremacist organization led by a centuries-old villain. The novel has its fair share of action adventure, but it’s also an expertly spun tale of identity as Miles finds purpose and resolve.

Reynolds, Justin A.  Opposite of Always
456 pp.     HarperCollins/Tegen    2019
Trade ISBN 978-0-06-274837-9
Ebook ISBN 978-0-06-274839-3

From the opening sentence — “My face is mashed sideways against the trunk of a police cruiser when Kate dies for the third time” — we know that this time-bending contemporary-set love story will be out of the ordinary. African American teens Jack and Kate meet at a party and fall head-over-heels in love. Then Kate dies of complications from sickle cell disease, and Jack begins to travel back in time over and over trying to save her. Reynolds spins a poignant, dizzying tale of love and loss in this page-turning time-travel fantasy.

Smith, Sherri L.  Orleans
324 pp.     Putnam     2013
Trade ISBN 978-0-399-25294-5

When a category 6 hurricane hits and destroys New Orleans in 2019, what remains is a walled-off necropolis, with its population suffering from a fatal fever. Sixteen-year-old Fen becomes the caregiver for an infant, and her one hope is to transport the child, disease free, from Orleans. The bleak setting becomes a tableau for life’s basics: survival and sacrifice, compassion and greed.

For more, click on the tag Black History Month.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

Share

Comments

  1. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    Another great interview: Tomi Adeyemi at The Guardian

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*