My 2018 Black Sci-Fi/Fantasy To Read List

As we head into the holidays, the publishing industry slows down and there are no new releases for this week. Instead, I’d thought I’d share some sci-fi/fantasy books by Black authors I’m looking forward to reading next year.

The Belles (The Belles #1) by Dhonielle Clayton
Disney-Hyperion

Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Balzer + Bray

A story of the undead like you’ve never read before, Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation is a fresh, stunning, and powerful meditation on race in America wrapped in an alternate-history adventure where Confederate and Union soldiers rise from the dead at the end of the Civil War.

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

At once provocative, terrifying, and darkly subversive, Dread Nation is Justina Ireland’s stunning vision of an America both foreign and familiar—a country on the brink, at the explosive crossroads where race, humanity, and survival meet.

Children of Blood & Bone
Henry Holt Books for Young Readers

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zelie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now, Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers—and her growing feelings for the enemy.

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Book Review: Disappeared

Title: Disappeared
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 326 pages
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: Four months ago: Sara Zapata’s best friend disappeared, kidnapped by the web of criminals who terrorize Juàrez.

Four weeks ago: Her brother, Emiliano, fell in love with Perla Rubi, a girl whose family is as rich as her name.

Four hours ago: Sara received a death threat…and her first clue her friend’s location.

Four minutes ago: Emiliano was offered a way into Perla Rubi’s world—if he betrays his own.

In the next four days, Sara and Emiliano will each face impossible choices, between life and justice, friends and family, truth and love. But when the criminals come after Sara, only one path remains for both the siblings: the way across the desert to the United States.

Review: Francisco Stork’s newest novel is a timely one that when put in the right hands would help folks understand how immigration, the hows and whys people come to America, is a very complex subject. Told in alternating voice between siblings Sara and Emiliano we learn the reason why the two are forced to leave everything and everyone they love behind to come to the United States. The alternate voice works especially well in telling this story as the events in Sara and Emiliano’s two stories are linked in a way that as a reader you realize is on a collision course. Of course, these normally close siblings are facing tough adult decisions, but as often when one wants to mull things over quietly, the two never share their concerns with the other. It’s a classic trope to create tension, but it worked really well in Disappeared. Each of the reasons the siblings have for not confiding in the other as they usually would, are compelling and realistic. There are consequences for both if they confide in the other and neither wants to pull their sibling into their drama. Unfortunately, both realize how their two situations are related, but at that point in the story both siblings are struggling for their lives. It is this realization, however, that pulls them closer and helps them cross the border.

I loved that the majority of the novel was set in Juarez, giving a reader a glimpse of what life is like in Mexico as a result of the cartels. In the novel, Juarez is recovering, slowly, from the damage the cartels left on the city but the corruption and influence the cartels had is still felt in some way. Sara and Emiliano have carved out a comfortable life in Juarez, but we do see a perspective of life from the poorest inhabitants to the richest. We learn about the many different ways the people of Juarez either fought back against the cartels or managed to live with them. Sara and Emiliano are examples of this complexity and this novel highlights how despite a community’s struggle, it still has home and home has meaning. Learning to love Juarez the way Sara and Emiliano do really hits home and hurts when they are forced to leave. It truly is a heartbreaking moment when they realize that they have to leave everything they hold dear because their lives are in danger. With any book, you want the main character to win, but with Disappeared you know that the happy ending both siblings wanted for their lives is over and now they have to start a new, and they are not really happy about it. This subverts the “happy immigrant” trope and really highlights how coming into the United States, specifically crossing the border, is never an easy decision for a person to make.

My only quibble with this novel is that I feel it ended to soon. I felt like Sara and Emiliano’s story was unfinished. I wanted to know if the decision they made (can’t tell because of spoilers) really paid off. I was left wanting more by that ending, but then again, the writer in me enjoyed that their story was practically unfinished because the story of immigration is not a complete story. It is forever changing and where we are in our country’s politics, at a point where compassion and understand for our fellow human beings must be reinforced. Therefore, Disappeared is not a novel about what happens when immigrants arrive in the US, but their story of how and why they come to the US. More of these stories must be told and for that reason, for the chance to live in Sara and Emiliano’s shoes for a brief moment, made this novel worth it.


Interview with Francisco X. Stork on Latinx in Kids Lit site. There is a hint about what is next for Sara and Emiliano – yes!

A Conversation with YA Author Francisco X. Stork

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Open Letter to Writers

I’ve not commented, though have retweeted profound threads, on the on-going discussion that resulted from the removal of American Heart’s starred review from Kirkus. I saw the FB post the author posted, read some of the reaction pieces, and the debates that have resulted from the concept that PoC’s speaking out for equality and inclusion is making YA toxic. I’ve always felt, as an aspiring author, that because I don’t have a published book yet, I really have no skin in the game, but after having a conversation with a former student, I remembered that I do. It is why I chose to write my MFA thesis on the need for more diversity in YA and why I’m became a contributing writer to this blog.

I am a teacher. I have spent the past 15 years, 8+ hours a day, with Black and Brown 12-14 year olds. I know what makes them tick, I know what makes them happy, sad, depressed, goofy. I know how to get them to reach for their dreams, but also know how to hold them accountable for their mistakes. I have a responsibility to help them become critical thinkers, to enjoy searching for knowledge, and become more compassionate and empathetic young adults. One of the ways I do this is through literature. As I cited in my essay post titled Combating Racism Through Literature, books engage the active centers in our brains and allow us to become empathetic to other people outside our own small bubble. As a teacher, it is my job to give my students access to other lives outside of their own, but also have them read literature that features characters who look and feel like them. It is also my responsibility to think about all of my students and not give them books that might be harmful to them.

While I understand the concept of “write what you want”, and as I writer I agree with that to a certain extent, when you write for children and teens you actually have an added responsibility. Words are powerful and if you write something that reinforces a stereotype of PoC, not only do you not help create empathy for whom the character is a window, but you also hurt a child of color. YA, MG, and children’s book writers do have a responsibility towards their readers as their readers often use novels to help them learn to navigate the world. Your books can help a student who has depression use the book to seek out help (as happened with one of my students), help a student report their sexual abuse (another student), help them navigate their sexuality (another student), realize that though they are a PoC, that they can be writers too (many students). Novels do not exist in a vacuum and often do have real life consequences. I’ve had students be so touched by a novel we read that they’ve reach out to the author to thank them for their story. I’ve had student’s minds changed due to the conversations around the subject matter of a novel. In all of these cases, and many more, the novels the students read had a powerful impact on their lives for the better. Conversely, negative portrayals can hurt their growing sense of self. If a student were to be given a book with a horrible stereotype, or even a character who is only caricature of a specific ethnicity, the student will a) not see a PoC has a complex human being, and/or b) get a reinforcement of what certain parts of society thinks about them. Both are harmful and hurt a child’s personal development. It is for these reasons that the thought “I should be able to write what I want” doesn’t actually work for YA literature. And frankly, that thought is selfish. If a writer’s complete motivation for writing YA is “to do whatever they want”, then maybe they should not think about writing for young impressionable minds.

I’m going to say it plainly…if you write YA, you do have a responsibility to your audience and the impact your words will have on said audience. It is the reason why many in the YA world are so outspoken when a book attempts to be diverse and gets it wrong. It is the reason why WeNeedDiverseBooks was started. It is the reason why Lee and Low have done so many of their publishing info graphics. It is the reason why blogs like Rich in Color exist. And it is the reason why I finally decided to speak out. All of us, writers, publishers, teachers, librarians, parents, we have a responsibility to help our children grow up to become ethical and compassionate members of society. Giving our children books written responsibly helps achieve that goal.

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New Releases

A whole slew of new releases this week. The highly anticipated Dear Martin finally hits shelves, Malinda Lo’s newest is out this week, as well as National Book Award finalist “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter”. This is not a good week for my wallet.

Dear MartinDear Martin by Nic Stone 

Crown Books for Young Readers

Justyce McAllister is a good kid. Fourth in his class and captain of the debate team at his prestigious prep-school–where he’s one of only a handful of African-American students–he’s destined for success. But none of that prevents him from being falsely accused of a crime and held in too-tight handcuffs for hours.

With eyes wide open, Justyce begins writing letters to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an effort to process his experiences, and respond through the lens of Dr. King’s teachings. But when Justyce falls victim to the exact kind of incident he’s worked so hard to avoid–an encounter with an off-duty police officer that ends in tragedy–everything Justyce believed about “The King’s Way” is called into question.

As Justyce struggles to process through his grief and the way he’s being negatively portrayed in the media, he’s faced with the biggest challenge of all: in a world full of odds that are obviously stacked against him, who is he going to be?

 

A Line in the DarkA Line in the Dark by Malinda Lo

Dutton Books for Young Readers

The line between best friend and something more is a line always crossed in the dark.

Jess Wong is Angie Redmond’s best friend. And that’s the most important thing, even if Angie can’t see how Jess truly feels. Being the girl no one quite notices is OK with Jess anyway. While nobody notices her, she’s free to watch everyone else. But when Angie begins to fall for Margot Adams, a girl from the nearby boarding school, Jess can see it coming a mile away. Suddenly her powers of observation are more curse than gift.

As Angie drags Jess further into Margot’s circle, Jess discovers more than her friend’s growing crush. Secrets and cruelty lie just beneath the carefree surface of this world of wealth and privilege, and when they come out, Jess knows Angie won’t be able to handle the consequences.

When the inevitable darkness finally descends, Angie will need her best friend.

“It doesn’t even matter that she probably doesn’t understand how much she means to me. It’s purer this way. She can take whatever she wants from me, whenever she wants it, because I’m her best friend.”

A Line in the Dark is a story of love, loyalty, and murder.

 

I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Knopf Books for Young Readers

Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family.

But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role.

Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. Instead, her mother seems to channel her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed.

But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out. Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?

 

Like Water by Rebecca Podos
Balzer + Bray

A gorgeously written and deeply felt literary young adult novel of identity, millennial anxiety, and first love, from the widely acclaimed author of The Mystery of Hollow Places

In Savannah Espinoza’s small New Mexico hometown, kids either flee after graduation or they’re trapped there forever. Vanni never planned to get stuck—but that was before her father was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, leaving her and her mother to care for him. Now, she doesn’t have much of a plan at all: living at home, working as a performing mermaid at a second-rate water park, distracting herself with one boy after another.

That changes the day she meets Leigh. Disillusioned with small-town life and looking for something greater, Leigh is not a “nice girl.” She is unlike anyone Vanni has met, and a friend when Vanni desperately needs one. Soon enough, Leigh is much more than a friend. But caring about another person stirs up the moat Vanni has carefully constructed around herself, and threatens to bring to the surface the questions she’s held under for so long.

With her signature stunning writing, Rebecca Podos, author of The Mystery of Hollow Places, has crafted a story of first love and of the complex ways in which the deepest parts of us are hidden, even from ourselves.

 

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

One teenager in a skirt.
One teenager with a lighter.
One moment that changes both of their lives forever.

If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight.

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Book Review: Buried Heart

Title: Buried Heart (Court of Fives #3)
Author: Kate Elliott
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 465 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: In this third book in the epic Court of Fives series, Jessamy is the crux of a revolution forged by the Commoner class hoping to overthrow their longtime Patron overlords. But enemies from foreign lands have attacked the kingdom, and Jes must find a way to unite the Commoners and Patrons to defend their home and all the people she loves. Will her status as a prominent champion athlete be enough to bring together those who have despised one another since long before her birth? Will she be able to keep her family out of the clutches of the evil Lord Gargaron? And will her relationship with Prince Kalliarkos remain strong when they find themselves on opposite sides of a war?

Review: I enjoyed the first two installments of Kate Elliott’s Court of Five series so I was really looking forward to seeing how Elliott would end Jessamy’s story. Buried Heart picks up moments after the end of Poisoned Blade as Jessamy, Kal, and their families are running from Saryenia after Nikonos pulls a deadly coup and takes over the city. I expected most of the book would focus on Jessamy and Kal working together to unite the Commoners and Patrons and somehow overthrow Nikonos. I have to say I was surprised by what actually happened in the novel. Working with her father, Jessamy and Kal are able to takeover the throne fairly easily at that happens only a quarter of the way into the book. After that, the novel takes on an interesting turn where Jessamy is captured by Lord Gargaron and is separated from everyone she loves. While I hated that Lord Gargaron had the upper hand over Jessamy at one point, but this allowed Jessamy to find an inner strength and leadership ability that she didn’t know she had. It fully allowed her to choose a side and when it came time to fight for Efea, Jessamy was able to use her skills from the Five Court and her new found leadership skills to truly help turn the tide of the war.

One of the many aspects I liked about Poisoned Blade was that we traveled with Jessamy and saw more of the world of Efea, and in Buried Heart we experienced more of the same, but we learned more about the people of Efea (i.e. the Commoners). We also learned more about the customs and beliefs of the Efeans before the Saroese (Patrons) invaded and took over the land. Learning more the history of Efea and it’s colonization, bring a deeper meaning to the novel. At it’s core, through the story of Jessamy, Buried Heart is the story of an oppressed people rising up, and of the privileged people learning how to recognize their role in oppression and working with the oppressed to make change.

Even though Jessamy and Kal spend a lot of time apart in this novel (again) this time it was much more satisfying to me, as in their time apart they grew into the adults they were going to be, and their relationship grew as well. At the beginning of the novel, Jessamy and Kal are so sweet together, but their relationship is much more mature based on their first separation. Kai truly accepts Jessamy for who she is, the good and the ugly, though Jessamy tries to still “protect” Kal’s more innocent nature. It’s sweet at the beginning, but devastating for Jessamy when she must watch Kal make tough choices when he becomes king, a position he never wanted. However, with this second separation, both have to make tough, adult decisions and each lose their innocence in a way. They both change because of their experiences in the war and when they are able to finally come together (if only for a brief moment) they see each other as true equals. I loved that Elliott wrote a relationship that was equally balanced where each of the lovers grew not just together but on their own. Both Jessamy and Kal look out for each other and push each other to be better, which is a very healthy relationship not often seen in many books. The tension between them came from outside sources and these two had to find a way to create their happiness and find a way to be together. To me, that is what made their love story so touching.

There is so much more I could say about Buried Heart, but I would be giving away so much of the story. So I will say this, Buried Heart is a fitting end to a wonderful trilogy that had a beautiful love story, a villain you just loved to hate, complex family drama, and a world that was so complete it felt real, but at it’s heart was an amazing heroine that us readers could root for.

Recommendation: If you have been waiting for this third book to come out you need to run to your nearest book store and buy it. If you haven’t read the Court of Five series, you also need to run to your nearest book store so you can begin the adventure and read the whole series in one sitting!

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Banned Books Week: Sex in YA

It’s Banned Books week and to celebrate I thought I’d talk about a subject that many books are banned for – sex! Yes, that three letter word that often throws many adults in a tizzy when they think about children and teenagers being exposed to the natural thoughts and feelings that we all have. There is this thought, especially in America, that if we don’t talk about sex, read about sex, teach about sex, that teenagers will not engage in sex. Unfortunately, this silly myth persists despite evidence of the contrary. And authors have consistently bucked up against this belief and included sex into their novels.

In the past YA novels have been very careful with their depictions of sex, usually alluding to it with a lovely romantic “fade out”. However, I’ve noticed a difference in the past few years as more and more novels are being more umm, specific, in the descriptions of sex. In addition to including these moments, characters have also had discussions about their feelings, whether positive or negative, towards sex and their sexual identity. I’ve also noticed an increase in a discussions of consent regarding sex as the couple in question has a healthy chat prior and often the subject of protection is addressed as well.

It has been refreshing to see this change come about in the YA world as teens are much more sophisticated since they have access to so much information. The experiences and discussions YA characters face mirror many of the feelings teenagers have. Reading about a character who shares the same thoughts, has the same confused feelings towards sex can help many teens understand that sex, and all of its complex messiness, is perfectly natural and a healthy part of becoming an adult. It can also help teens understand the concept of consent, the importance of using protection, as well as help our LGBTQ teens see themselves on the page (see LGBTQ Teens Speak Out where some of my students speak out on the need for more representation). This movement in the YA world to be more open and honest about sex is encouraging to me, not only as a writer, but as a teacher who works with an age group who is starting to question the world around them. And so, I thought I’d finish off this post with two books I loved that handled sex and sexual identity in a beautiful way.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself–or worse.

 

 Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

 

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

 

 

What books have you read recently that you think got sex right?

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