Stepping up

The young Black protagonists of these enjoyable and generally lighthearted middle-grade and middle-school novels step up when faced with challenges — and come into their own. See also our Black History Month and Black History Month 2022 coverage.

The Swag Is in the Socks
by Kelly J. Baptist
Intermediate, Middle School    Crown    240 pp.    g
11/21    978-0-593-38086-4    $16.99
Library ed.  978-0-593-38087-1    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-0-593-38088-8    $9.99

From the author of Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero (rev. 9/20) comes another relatable story that effectively combines the humor and pain of coming of age. Xavier Moon lives with his sister and great-aunt; his parents are both incarcerated. A quiet boy with a pronounced stutter, he prefers to take in the neighborhood action from his bedroom window. But on the day after his twelfth birthday he receives a package from his peripatetic piano-playing great-uncle, Frankie Bell. Inside are some fancy socks and a not-so-sweet letter challenging him to step out and “get your sad self together.” Day after day, more socks arrive, all with bright colors and bold patterns. Xavier is about to embark on a new school year — seventh grade — and his number one goal is to be accepted into the Scepter League, an elite afterschool club for which only the most confident, popular boys are chosen. Will Uncle Frankie Bell and his mysterious socks make the difference? Readers get a front-row seat to Xavier’s journey to find confidence and follow his dreams in this thoughtfully written book with lots of Black boy joy thrown in for good measure. MONIQUE HARRIS

Keeping It Real
by Paula Chase
Intermediate, Middle School    Greenwillow    368 pp.    g
10/21    978-0-06-296569-1    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-296571-4    $8.99

African American teen Marigold “Mari” Johnson is used to straddling two worlds. While her parents’ successful media company has afforded her a life of luxury, she constantly has to prove she’s “safe enough” for her private school classmates and “down enough” for her family in District City. Classmate and basketball star Justice understands her more than anyone; but as a “scholarship kid,” he still accuses Mari of being clueless when it comes to the stigma he faces as a student — a hardship so prevalent that Justice may transfer. When Justice reveals he’s been chosen as part of her parents’ fashion internship program, Mari decides to join, too, in an attempt to convince him to stay at their school. Her decision is met with more tension than Mari expected, especially from fellow intern Kara. When the tension culminates in an unexpected revelation, Mari is forced to rethink what privilege truly means, and how to handle it responsibly. In a departure from her books about the crew from The Cove (Turning Point, rev. 3/21, and others), Chase turns her full attention to themes of classism within the Black community. While the first-person narrative doesn’t leave much opportunity for readers to become attached to other characters, they are made intimately aware of Mari’s thought processes. EBONI NJOKU

Just Right Jillian
by Nicole D. Collier
Intermediate    Versify/HarperCollins    224 pp.    g
2/22    978-0-358-43461-0    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-43638-6    $9.99

Shy fifth grader Jillian is fully aware she’s not like her academic rival Rashida, who is popular, caught up on the latest fashions, and bold enough to speak her mind. By failing to speak up, for example, Jillian loses her opportunity to win a class math competition. But knowing that her late grandmother wanted better for her, she vows to learn how to stand up for herself by the one-year anniversary of Grammy’s death. That opportunity comes with the Mind Bender competition, an all-school academic trivia contest. Once she makes the difficult decision to enter, Jillian receives support from her community of family and friends — including her maybe-not rival Rashida. Even so, the power ultimately lies within Jillian; and when tragedy strikes her family, she must muster up “just the right amount” of courage to express herself. This first-person narrative introduces a brilliant, self-actualized preteen — Jillian knows she’s smart; she just remains concerned about how others will interpret her words — whose past trauma is both cleverly revealed and compassionately rendered. Readers will cheer for Jillian as she is finally able to break out of her shell. EBONI NJOKU

Playing the Cards You’re Dealt
by Varian Johnson
Intermediate    Scholastic    320 pp.    g
10/21    978-1-338-34853-8    $16.99

After his first attempt at winning his neighborhood’s annual spades tournament ended in disqualification, Anthony Joplin felt as small as his nickname — Ant. Born into a long line of card sharks, Ant aims to prove to his father that he has what it takes to win. But the game requires a trustworthy partner, and Ant has conflicting feelings about both his best friend (who was recently suspended from school and probably can’t play anyway) and the new kid in his fifth-grade class (a girl — not that he thinks there’s anything wrong with that). His trust is also waning in his father, who has been acting strangely lately, especially when it comes to betting and drinking. As family secrets come to light, the stakes are raised for Ant, and he makes some hard decisions that he feels will help him win the tournament — and his family back. The story and its characters are compelling, as is the omniscient narrator, who becomes increasingly involved in the tale. Themes of addiction and consent are addressed honestly and compassionately, and more than enough tips are given to spark the interest of “youngbloods” in the game of spades. EBONI NJOKU

Fast Pitch
by Nic Stone
Intermediate, Middle School    Crown    192 pp.    g
8/21    978-1-9848-9301-7    $17.99
Library ed.  978-1-9848-9302-4    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-1-9848-9303-1    $10.99

Softball is in Shenice “Lightning” Lockwood’s blood. The twelve-year-old catcher plays for the Fulton Firebirds, the first all-Black team in the league and the only team in the entire eight-state Dixie Youth Softball Association with more than three Black players on the roster. “It’s a weight no one your age should have to carry, but can’t ignore,” Shenice’s father tells her. She feels that every win is historic since she is trying to take her team to the championships and “live out the dream” of past generations of her family. This legacy goes all the way back to Great-Grampy JonJon, the family’s “baseball patriarch” who was “almost one of the first Black players recruited to the MLB. But something happened.” The mystery of why Great-Grampy JonJon didn’t make it to the majors becomes a parallel narrative to that of Shenice’s softball games. The story effectively incorporates sports action with Shenice’s sleuthing into her family’s past. Stone’s (Clean Getaway, rev. 5/20) straightforward, dialogue-driven prose is powerful, contributing multiple additional voices to Shenice’s first-person perspective as she comes to understand how racism has affected her own family through the generations. This contemporary sports story goes beyond mere genre appeal; it is a novel of substance, carrying the weight of history. DEAN SCHNEIDER

From the January 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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