A Wish After Midnight – Genna Colon desperately wants to escape from a drug-infested world of poverty, and every day she wishes for a different life. One day Genna’s wish is granted and she is instantly transported back to Civil War-era Brooklyn.
The Door at the Crossroads – One summer night, Genna Colon makes a fateful wish that sends her and her boyfriend Judah spiraling through time. They land hours apart in the city of Brooklyn—and in the middle of the Civil War. Genna is taken to the free Black community of Weeksville, but Judah suffers a harsher fate and is sent to the South as a slave. Judah miraculously makes his way back to Genna, but the New York City Draft Riots tear them apart once more. When Genna unexpectedly returns to her life in contemporary Brooklyn, she vows to fulfill the mandate of sankofa: “go back and fetch it.” But how will she summon the power she needs to open the door that leads back to Judah?
We’re excited to be discussing A Wish After Midnight and its sequel The Door at the Crossroads. Zetta Elliot crafted these incredible stories and we hope these two books get into many hands. We started a discussion, but would love to have others join us either on Twitter or here on the blog in the comments. If you’ve read the books, please share your thoughts. If you haven’t read the books, be aware that you will encounter what some may perceive as spoilers throughout this discussion.
Crystal: Genna explains, “Mama always told us we were black, not Hispanic. She says in America, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what language you speak. Black is black and you might as well get used to it.” Though a majority of the book happens in the past, I definitely found the book to be a commentary on contemporary times. There are many references to how people see and are seen beyond the one mentioned above. It seems sight is the most important piece of evidence when people are being judged. Genna says sometimes it’s like there’s a tattoo on her forehead that says “ghetto.” An elderly man at a garden befriends Genna and he sees in a different way. He sees what he wishes to see. He wants to see his county as a land of opportunity, but fails to see how that is not true for everyone. Genna thinks “Maybe he can do that ‘cause he’s old and white.” And then there are those who choose not to see people at all. Genna meets a woman called Nannie by the family she works for. She’s worked for them six years and they don’t know anything about her and they don’t use her given name. Nannie is nearly invisible to them unless she does something displeasing.
Audrey: There was a lot of commentary on looks, too, especially how it could be used for/against someone in the past. Paul’s biracial status and lighter complexion get a lot of commentary from Genna, Judah, and others throughout the books, both positively and negatively. In the second book, his heritage keeps him from enlisting with the white troops (he’s not white enough) and the black troops (he’s not black enough, and they know white people will attribute any success of his if he were an officer to his whiteness). Judah also got some negative commentary for wearing his hair in locs, too
Karimah: I find it interesting that you both picked up on looks in both these novels. As a light-skinned loc wearing Black woman, comments on looks & the concept of Blackness happen for me on any day ending with a Y. For me, I didn’t see either as a commentary but as what Black people from all over the diaspora deal with. It’s how we all see the world and what authors of color mean when we tell white authors that if you’re going to write a PoC, you better do your homework. While PoC’s don’t want to think about race 24/7, our skin color, our hair does require us to look at the world differently and sometimes take note of it, as Genna does when she makes a comment about the old man.
Crystal: What I love about historical fiction is learning about the time period through the eyes of a character. It makes it seem more personal and relatable. There was so much history in this book that never made it into my history classes and texts. I appreciated learning more about the Draft Riots and Weeksville. Time travel is not usually my preferred reading, but seeing contemporary life contrasted with the past was an excellent way to see how some things have changed, stayed the same, or are just called by another name.
Jessica: I went into this book having not read much about it at all, so I wasn’t expecting the twist of time travel — which I’m pretty happy about. The parallel stories of Brooklyn then and now bring clarity to both ends of history. It was fascinating to see Genna’s modern sensibilities and experiences play out way in the past.
Audrey: It was great to see the Draft Riots and Weeksville. I remember hearing about the draft riots in my history classes, but from what I recall, it had always been framed as a rich versus poor thing. The racial aspects of it had been completely glossed over. Getting Genna’s perspective on the past was powerful because she was able to point how much and how little things had truly changed. Whenever that kind of commentary pops up in time travel fiction, I love it.
Karimah: One of my favorite books of all time is Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which Elliott’s series greatly reminds me of. I know many black folk (including myself) have often theorized how we would handle being sent back 150 years ago when our lives would be in danger, and these two books and Butler’s, do a great job of answering that question. Judah’s and Genna’s different responses to their situations shows the variety of reactions I think those of us who live now would experience if we traveled back in time. Judah believes that rising up against slave masters would be so easy and has to learn the hard way that it’s not. Genna decides to take a softer approach and try to change people from the inside, and realizes that it doesn’t work as well. She does, however, become more empathetic to Nannie and others because she learns how one must make tough choices to survive. Judah, I’m still unsure of where he is headed because he has so much anger (justifiably so) and since their story is clearly not done yet, we’ll see how he continues to grow and what he ultimately learns from his horrible experience.
Jessica: Thank goodness for sequels. And I really need to read more Octavia Butler.
Audrey: It was great to have so many female characters in these books. In my experience, history classes were almost always focused on great (white) men doing great things, and we could go several class periods between mentioning white women, let alone women of color. Wish introduced us to so many different and wonderful black women and continued their development in Door.
Jessica: Definitely agree with Audrey. Loved seeing aspects of history elucidated in the book that weren’t in, like, your average history class (sigh). As an aside, I feel like I learn much more about history through reading historical fiction/YA lit and social media. Not to knock on my fabulous high school history teachers, but many things were left out or glossed over.
Karimah: This! I feel like we got the full experience of what life was like for all women in 1863, regardless of color or economic standing. I felt like Elliot showed how much and how little power women had, and how that not just white men were “doing great things”, but women were too, just in an understated manner.
Crystal: When the first book ended, I was ready to start the next immediately. Sometimes a second book doesn’t live up to the first, but that wasn’t the case here. Genna has returned to Brooklyn just in time to experience the effects of 9/11. She is trying all kinds of things to get back to Judah. She even delves into vodou. This was interesting because she gets called on her actions of picking and choosing parts of vodou and not respecting it as a religion.
Jessica: Same! I had to get to the second book, ASAP. Situating Genna’s return within the context of 9/11 worked well with the story and added a layer of history to what was going on. Also, gotta say, I was majorly stressed about Judah the entire time. When characters are separated, I’m practically skipping pages until I see them again and can stop worrying.
Audrey: Getting called out by Peter re: vodou was a great learning moment for Genna and for the readers. It was a good reminder that you can still cause offense/harm by plowing into spaces you know little about, even if you’re from a minority group, too. Coming back to Brooklyn in the wake of 9/11 was pretty fascinating for me, especially since Genna could see the hatred brewing toward Muslims and could compare it to the draft riots she got caught up in. I really liked that she started to befriend a Muslim girl in her school and that she also pushed back against her teacher and his whitewashed version of history.
Karimah: Framing Genna’s return to Brooklyn the day before 9/11 I thought was genius because that day really sets the tone of what we are experiencing today. Many of today’s teens have no memory of that day and all the turmoil that happened after. The use of 9/11, I think, was a great device to have Genna realize that while society has made some progress, things have not changed that much and that aside from technological advances making things easier, that society’s views, it’s ugliness doesn’t really change. I feel like in the first book, she romanticized her home in her desire to return, and 9/11 was the perfect reminder for her that “home in 2001” is just as racially crazy as 1863.
Karimah: I loved that Peter called her out on the vodou. I was cringing at her cultural appropriation and her unwillingness to really see her actions for what it was, but I also like that Elliott used this moment between them to show that even PoC’s sometimes have colonists thoughts because they’ve been taught the language and ideas of the oppressors. It shows that even PoC’s make the same mistakes and often struggle with realizing that what we once believed was wrong. I feel like she will grow as she learns more and comes to respect the power that she has been given.
Audrey: I really appreciated that the second book gave us a chance to backtrack and see what had happened to Judah before he was reunited with Genna in the first book. Showing what Judah’s time as a slave was like, from the auction blocks to getting whipped to trying to escape, was absolutely brutal. While I wished sometimes that he would have more compassion for other slaves (and especially for Genna), I appreciated how relentless he was in his rejection of the “good slaveholder” narrative. The “nicest” white man he encountered still had him shipped off to be tortured into compliance when he tried to run away. Both books were filled with honest moments about how horrific slavery was, from all of Nannie’s children getting sold off to what it was like to be put on an auction block.
Karimah: I totally agree. When Judah first showed up in Weeksville in “Wish”, I was so happy yet utterly heartbroken for him because of his experience with slavery. Despite it hurting so much, I was glad that Elliott included Judah’s story in “Door.” We needed to see, feel, what he experienced and what led him to become a different person. What made him keep fighting but lose hope in humanity at the same time. My heart was breaking the entire time he was in slavery, even though I knew that he would eventually escape. In fact, that one scene where he realizes he was on the Underground Railroad made me tear up because it was just so beautifully written. I was with him in that moment to be both being in wonderment of and living history.
Jessica: Yeah, that definitely made me think of privileged people’s reactions to the marginalized when it comes to anger. Tone policing, telling people to keep quiet or forgive, and so on. As if anger, grief, and bitterness at oppression and injustice isn’t valid.
Crystal: Yes, so much of what Judah experienced was painful to even read about, and I also found that moment of realization on the Underground Railroad to be powerful.
Audrey: One of my favorite things about these books was the attention to detail. Sometimes historical fiction books gloss over the finer details in order to tell the stories of grand events (and privileged people), but I felt like I got a good look of what it may have been like to be a free black woman in 1863 New York. The book was filled with great descriptions and “throwaway” lines that really fleshed out the story.
Karimah: Again, I agree with Audrey. It’s clear that Elliott took her time and researched all she could to make her world believable. I feel like if I were to go back to Brooklyn in 1863, it would look just like Elliott described it. And even Brooklyn in 2001; I feel like she captured the tension of those days & weeks after that horrible day perfectly. The feel of CA was very different than New York, so for me, Genna’s time in 2001 really brought me back and made me understand what it was truly like to live in New York right after 9/11.
Audrey: I was disappointed that Judah punched Peter when he found out Peter was gay.
Karimah: This bothered me too and for a bit felt a little out of character for Judah, but then again I do know that within the Afro-American community that people who seem to be “woke” can also be very homophobic. When we learned how he developed his belief, I felt for him, but at the same time I felt like it would make him more sympathetic. However, all characters must have their faults and this is Judah’s. It’s not great, but it’s real and I’m glad that Elliott chose to write him this way.
Audrey: I’m still a little confused on how the time travel rules work. I hope that’s explained in a future book (please say there will be another!) because right now I’m pretty confused. I don’t understand how or why Genna is bringing/not bringing people with her, and that has been bugging me. Did any of you figure it out?
Karimah: The only person I didn’t figure out was when she initially brought Judah with her. The others, I gather it’s a proximity thing, and as she get’s stronger, her pull is stronger and if people get within a certain range, she pulls them through. At least that’s how I figured it out in my head, but I’m confident that Elliott will answer that for us in the next book, because there has to be a third book. She can’t leave it with a cliffhanger!
Jessica: I was wondering that, too. Looking forward to finding out more… in the third book! 😀
Crystal: Like Karimah, I just figured it was proximity. Time travel always boggles my mind so when it’s part of the story, I try to let my thoughts slide away a bit and blur out the details. I believe at least one more book is planned so maybe more will be explained then.
Thank you for stopping by the discussion. We’d love to know your thoughts about A Wish After Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads so please share them in the comments.
Bonus: We were able to interview Zetta Elliott earlier this week so be sure and stop by tomorrow to learn more about her books and writing journey.