Middle-grade sci-fi/fantasy for Black History Month

Read S. R. Toliver’s 2019 Horn Book article on why representation matters in sci-fi/fantasy, then dip into the following fantastical middle-grade novels by Black authors and starring Black protagonists. See also our Black History Month 2021 coverage.

Amari and the Night Brothers
by B. B. Alston
Intermediate, Middle School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    416 pp.    g
1/21    978-0-06-297516-4    $17.99

Quinton Peters has been missing for six months — no matter what anybody says, his sister Amari knows he’s still alive — and his top-secret job is the reason he’s been away. Sure enough, Amari discovers that Quinton has arranged an interview for her to join the same line of work, which turns out to be the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. Plunged into a parallel magical world, Amari must do her best to learn and succeed in this new reality. Her journey becomes more complicated when her aptitude test reveals her to be a Magician, possessing a level of magic deemed dangerous — and illegal. Some of the scrutiny Amari faces mirrors her non-magic life (“It’s kind of like how being a Black kid from the projects makes Mr. Jensen feel the need to watch me extra close every time I come in his store. Or how surprised my scholarship interviewers were that I could speak so well”). Amari has to fight to save her brother and their world — with help from her roommate Elsie (an empathic were-dragon who will probably not eat her), an unlikely ally, and by summoning her own courage, which may be all the magic she needs. The story introduces a world of enchantment, danger, excitement, and humor. While many parallels can be drawn between the protagonist and a certain boy wizard, readers will root for Amari’s own unique determination and wit. EBONI NJOKU

Maya and the Rising Dark
by Rena Barron
Intermediate, Middle School    Houghton    304 pp.    g
9/20    978-1-328-63518-1    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-10622-7    $9.99

Twelve-year-old Maya is seeing things, or so she thinks, as weird creatures start appearing in her Chicago neighborhood. Add to that her dreams about a scary shadow-man, and Maya has cause for concern. That concern turns to outright fear when her father, who guards the veil between dimensions, is kidnapped by the Lord of the Shadows, the scary man in her dreams. Maya and her friends, Frankie and Eli, set off on a quest to find Maya’s missing dad, face their fears, and contend with powers and worlds they never knew existed. This story features well-executed world-building; complex characters in a diverse cast (Frankie has two mothers, the school principal uses inclusive pronouns); loving, supportive families; and a tight-knit community within a large city. Maya’s adventure is steeped in West African mythology, as she learns that she is part orisha and must quickly learn the ropes of the mystical world. Readers, too, are introduced to the world of West African culture, folklore, and spirituality, with nuance about the binaries of good and evil. A welcome addition to middle-grade fantasy centering Black characters, the story is a page-turning ride that will leave readers eager for more. MONIQUE HARRIS

Tristan Strong Destroys the World
by Kwame Mbalia
Intermediate, Middle School    Riordan/Disney-Hyperion    320 pp.    g
10/20    978-1-368-04238-3    $17.99
Library ed.  978-1-4328-8471-0    $21.99
e-book ed.   978-1-368-06802-4    $10.99

In the sequel to CSK honoree Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky (rev. 7/20), Tristan once again finds himself responsible for saving Alke from destruction. This time, however, the stakes are even higher, as the fate of Alke is intricately intertwined with the fate of the real world. A month after Tristan’s return to his family’s farm in Alabama, a mysterious monster called the Shamble Man abducts Tristan’s grandmother and takes her back to Alke. Tristan is determined to save her, so he embarks on an adventure that will again challenge his hero identity and force him to consider a difficult truth: although he did previously save Alke, he was also the one who created the danger. Fans of the first novel will enjoy this sequel, as familiar characters, such as Gum Baby and Ayanna, populate the story and new African and African American gods, such as Keelboat Annie and Mami Wata, are introduced. Mbalia’s stunning landscapes, suspenseful action sequences, and well-paced story line — including questions of how our stories can create but also destroy — will keep readers enthralled to the very end. S. R. TOLIVER

by Nnedi Okorafor
Intermediate, Middle School    Viking    229 pp.    g
8/20    978-0-593-11352-3    $16.99

His father, the police chief, is dead, and eleven-year-old Nnamdi knows who murdered him — the Chief of Chiefs, an infamous criminal in their Nigerian province. Vowing to bring justice, Nnamdi is unsure how to proceed until a supernatural encounter on the day of his father’s memorial celebration leaves him in possession of an artifact known as an Ikenga, a “place of strength.” With the Ikenga, Nnamdi gains the ability to shapeshift into a seven-foot-tall shadowy being who carries a strength — and a rage — similar to his favorite comic-book character, the Incredible Hulk. Simply nicknamed “The Man” by the local newspaper, Nnamdi becomes a crime-fighting vigilante. But as The Man’s anger threatens to consume him (including a violent confrontation with his best friend), Nnamdi is also running out of time to fulfill his promise of bringing his father’s murderer to justice. The story puts its readers on a roller coaster of action as Nnamdi battles to harness his newfound power as a tool for good. Peppering her work with Igbo phrases, folklore, and local pop references, Okorafor (Akata Witch, rev. 5/11; Akata Warrior, rev. 9/17) succeeds in imbuing West African culture throughout the origin story of a memorable new superhero. EBONI NJOKU

Root Magic
by Eden Royce
Intermediate, Middle School    Walden/HarperCollins    352 pp.    g
1/21    978-0-06-289957-6    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-289960-6    $8.99

Eleven-year-old Jezebel’s family has done “rootwork” for generations. In 1963, many of the people on their South Carolina island frequent her grandmother and uncle’s cabin for the healing potions they make, while others, including “other Negroes,” ridicule them as old-fashioned and ignorant. Deputy Collins, a white police officer, has made it his mission to harass and terrorize the root workers. When Gran dies, Jezebel and her twin brother, Jay, begin lessons in rootwork with Uncle Doc. As Jezebel begins to learn “root magic,” she also begins to notice more about her own powers. After hearing a voice in the marsh, Jezebel discovers that her spirit can fly free from her body and begins to take nightly trips around the island. But those trips come at a cost. Over time, Jezebel learns how to use her powers to protect those she loves. Royce sets her novel during a time of social change (the integration of South Carolina schools, the assassination of JFK) while introducing readers to centuries-old Gullah traditions. For fans of Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies, this book, with its rich language and evocative setting, is a great addition to the literature based on folklore that has sustained many people of color in their island communities. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

From the February 2021 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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