I love Black History Month. Honestly, I love any time when I can see Blackness as celebratory and on full display in a way that we choose — thriving and vibing, rather than simply surviving. As the saying goes Black is beautiful! When we show out, we do it in the best way. And I do not ever want to erase the years of suffering that our ancestors went through, that we still go through. That trauma is there, and it is real. But being Black does not just mean being in pain. It cannot mean only that. I am tired of seeing narratives where all it shows is us being tired. More than anything what I love is to see Black joy. And so, for the start of Black History Month, I am listing below some of the books I have reviewed in the past that contain these multitudes. These books are from a few different genres, and each of them tells a different story. A lot of them do include pain, but as I said they also include moments of joy, of family, of togetherness, and of triumph, each in their own unique way. These aren’t books about Black History Month, these are books I read in 2020 and had fun with, I hope you do as well. The links included here all lead to longer reviews I have written for each book.
The world of A Song Before Water is incredibly like our own, with a few key differences. The primary one being that many of the fantastic beings of legend that are in our world relegated to myth are instead fully realized and recognized here. That recognition, however, comes at a cost. For protagonist Tavia, the cost is that she must keep her status as a siren completely secret. While at one time sirens were known across a spectrum of identities, in the present time they are exclusively known to be Black women. This extra layer of persecution is a major theme; it uses the fantastical context as a bridge to show how Black lives, and particularly the lives of Black women, are disregarded and undervalued. At the same time, it shows the strength of Black women and highlights the tight bonds formed within Black communities.
Cinderella is Dead is a Cinderella story unlike any other. For one thing, Cinderella has been dead for 200 years, and her story is being served up on a platter as reasoning for why women should be forced to go to a ball and forced into either marriage, death, or a fate worse than. This book is a tough read in some ways because the story is filled to the brim with misogyny because of the culture of Lille, the kingdom in which the story is set. And yet it is clear in the book that there is an enduring legacy of women who have fought against the patriarchal norms, and while Sophia is the first dissenting voice we hear, she is far from the first, last, or only. It is filled to the brim with a breadth of amazing female characters, some of whom have unfortunate fates, some of whom are not what they seem, and some of whom absolutely shine.
The protagonist of Legendborn, Bree, absolutely thrives in her Blackness in a way that I have not experienced in any other book I have read. If I had to pinpoint that which I love most about this book it would be the seamless way that the mundane and the magical are blended, and how that allows for a main character that I can identify with better than I ever have with another protagonist. For all that I love Legendborn, I would caution any reader that a certain amount of emotional preparedness is required before starting the book, which opens with the death of Bree’s mother. Bree’s grief and the trauma from this incident are what fuel the narrative of the novel, and Bree’s belief that her mother’s death may not have been an accident is the catalyst for her to join the Order of the Round Table, a secret society who she believes hold the key to getting the answers she needs.
Raybearer tells the story of Tarsai, a girl who has been commanded and compelled by her mother to kill the crowned prince of the Arit Empire as soon as she is anointed as part of his coveted circle of Eleven — but the catch is, she cannot be anointed until she loves him. More than anything, Raybearer pushes the boundaries of what it means to be family to one another — in terms of friendship, in terms of blood, and in terms of romance. The book also pushes forth the question of how to settle cultural differences in a blended Empire. Toward the beginning of the book seeds are planted which eventually burst forth into blooming flowers, as tensions rise between those from the different realms of the Arit Empire and conflict erupts. The leading events and the harsh Imperial response are integral to the book, and speak to more than this fictional universe alone, but to all notions of Empire and the nuances and similarities of assimilation and oppression.
The Vanishing Half is an intergenerational series of narratives woven together that spans decades and snakes across the country, starting in the fictional town of Mallard, Louisiana, a place so small it never appears on any map, to New Orleans; characters find themselves in Boston, D.C., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, and places both in between and further abroad. Centered are the lives of twins Desiree and Stella, who as youths are often described as either one person split into two or two people poured into one. They are inseparable until Stella makes what Desiree considers an unthinkable choice to ‘cross over’ and live her life as a white woman. In time the narrative begins to follow Jude, Desiree’s unquestionably Black, dark-skinned daughter, and Kennedy, Stella’s daughter, who has never known herself to be anything but white. The themes of family and community run deep in this story, and while there is deep pain that is perhaps beyond healing, there is also a hope in the story as well, which prominently features acceptance and queer identity.
Liz Lighty, the protagonist of You Should See Me in a Crown, is a delight. She is a character who makes mistakes, who learns from them, and who gets a chance to set things right. In this book you get the chance to see her live her dreams, and the chance to see her fall and get back up again. The romance in this story is awkward and fun and dramatic in the best way. Liz changes so much about her outer self and her presentation throughout this book. Its entire conceit is that she needs to change her self-image from that of an outsider to someone capable of winning prom queen, so that she can gain the prize money — something she needs to help her pay for her college of choice, since she has not received the elusive music scholarship she applied for. And yet at her core, she stays true to herself, and when it matters, she prioritizes what is most important to her inner self — her family, her friendships, her relationships, and the things that bring her true joy.