Victoria Foyt is making a lot of people angry. Her latest fantasy novel Save the Pearls prominently features a thinly veiled racist allegory set in a “dystopic” future where people of colour are the ruling class and white folks are oppressed. It’s a novel aimed at young adults. Young white adults. Others have gone in on what exactly is so problematic about her novel, so I won’t do so here.
Instead, I want to take this as an opportunity to showcase some of the good, Black friendly YA fantasy that’s already out there. These are the writers we should be reading instead of Foyt. All of these novels are speculative fiction of some sort. Most are young adult fantasy – everything from paranormal romance and historical fantasy to science fiction. All of these novels are written by Black authors and feature Black main characters.
1. Noughts and Crosses series by Malorie Blackman
Like Save The Pearls, the Noughts and Crosses series is a young adult fantasy series set in a racist dystopia. Yet somehow, the series itself manages not to be racist. Imagine that! Malorie Blackman writes an imagined world where skin colour matters – though you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the titles alone. The main character of the series, Persephone ‘Sephy’ Hadley, is a cross. That means she has dark skin and is a member of the ruling class in society. Her love interest, Callum, is a nought and a member of the marginalized social class. Callum is white. A series of rules and regulations (read: Jim Crow) operate to keep Crosses in control. The first novel is about the tests that Callum and Sephy’s love must endure in order to survive.
2. Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson’s Feathers straddles the divide between middle grade and YA fantasy, but is suitable for all ages. The story goes like this: a young, deaf white boy enters a class of able bodied Black children. His name is Jesus Boy. He is the only white boy in the class. Madness ensues. Frannie, a Black girl who knows sign language, attempts to get to know Jesus Boy. The plot covers a lot: bullying, religion, racism, ableism, colorism — but mostly it’s a story about hope and understanding. It takes place in an unnamed fantasyscape that sounds kind of like Brooklyn.
3. Asleep series by Wendy Raven McNair
The Asleep series by Wendy Raven McNair is a paranormal romance for young adults. People have called it the Black Twilight. The series revolves around Adisa Summers and her super powered boyfriend Micah Alexander. Only, Adisa doesn’t know Micah has powers. Eventually, she discovers this is the case and the plot takes off from there. Adisa works to reconcile her boyfriend, her family, and other teenaged concerns (read: angst). The series is set in Atlanta, McNair’s hometown.
4. A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott
A Wish After Midnight is young adult historical fantasy. Protagonist Genna Colon is a mixed race teenager (Black and Panamanian) living in Brooklyn. She shares a cramped apartment with her mother and two siblings in a crime filled neighbourhood. Genna is smart and ambitious and dreams of being a psychiatrist. She spends her free time hanging out with her boyfriend. Somehow, Genna manages to wish herself out of her situation and into Civil War era Brooklyn where she finds herself in a time of extreme racism. Elliott draws comparisons between today’s Brooklyn and the Brooklyn of the past as Genna works to get herself home.
5. Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor
Zahrah the Windseeker is a story of difference that invokes West African myth. Okorafor’s story is set in the northern Ooni Kingdom where “fear of the unknown runs deep and children born dada are rumored to have special powers.” Thirteen year old Zahrah Tsami feels like a regular kid, in spite of the tell tale signs that she is different. Only her best friend Dari isn’t afraid of her “dadalocks.” Just when strange things are beginning to happen to Zahrah, Dari is put in danger and Zahrah must face her fears alone in the Forbidden Greeny Jungle. Like Feathers, this book is young adult fantasy that is also suitable for middle grades.
6. The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor
Another of Okorafor’s books too good not to include – this one is set in Nigeria in the year 2070. The main character Ejimafor “Ejii” Ugabe is a fourteen year old Muslim girl who’s half Wodaabe and half Igbo. The daughter of a dictator, she witnesses her father’s death at the hands of the Red Queen who brought peace (by violent means) to the region. When the Queen demands Ejii be groomed as her successor, Ejii and her mother resist. But Ejii’s magic tells her she must follow the Red Queen in order to prevent a coming war, so Ejii sets out with her talking camel and a kickass caravan on the adventure of her life. Straddling the divide between science fiction and dystopic fantasy, Okorafor does an incredible job of blending traditional African elements and futuristic devices in her novel (so definitely check this out if you love Afrofuturism).
7. The Golden Hour series by Maiya Williams
Another time travel adventure series, The Golden Hour series features siblings Rowan and Nina Popplewell. After their mother dies, they travel to a fictional town in Maine where they meet twins Xanthe and Xavier Alexander. The Alexander twins guide the Popplewell siblings to an abandoned resort that turns out to be an elaborate time machine. When Nina goes missing, the rest of group goes on a quest through time to find her. The first book takes place during the French Revolution.
8. The Marvelous Effect by Troy CLE
The Marvelous Effect, the first in a planned series by Troy CLE, tells the story of 13 year old Louis Proof. He enjoys hip hop, racing, and chilling with his best friend Brandon. One day, during a race (Louis races radio controlled cars), the unthinkable happens. Louis falls into a coma when he catches a virus of “celestial origin.” When he wakes up from his coma three months later, he comes to realize the world he knew no longer exists – and he is part of the reason why. The plot follows Louis as he navigates his new world. Geared towards young males and heavily features video game references throughout. This one tends more towards the science fiction end of things.
9. Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Ninth Ward is a fantastic retelling of the story of Hurricane Katrina. Lanesha is twelve years old and lives in New Orleans with her caretaker Mama Ya-Ya in a tight knit and poor community. Lanesha has powers and she has been shunned by her family for this. Because she was born with a caul, she can see ghosts. Her Mama Ya-Ya, who is also magic, foresees the storm coming. The novel tells their story of love, magic, support, and resilience in the face of an epic storm. This book is good for middle grade as well as young adult audiences.
10. 47 by Walter Mosely
47 is the “intergalactic story of a boy slave.” 47, the title character, is referred to by his number and not a name. One day, he meets another young slave called Tall John. Tall John introduces 47 to a “magical science” and teaches 47 what is means to truly be free. This book straddles the genres of fantasy, science fiction and historical adventure – it could work for young adults or middle grades.
As I was doing the research to put together this list, I confirmed my suspicion that there isn’t a wealth of fantasy out there for young Black readers. Surprised? I didn’t think so. Meanwhile, writers like Victoria Foyt are lauded by the mainstream and presented with literary prizes. One way we can help is to support writers of colour like the ones listed above. And of course, always continue to call out racists and racism.
I’ll leave y’all with a piece from our sister blog TIWP: “White privilege is never knowing what it feels like to want to escape into a world of fantasy, only to be told through its characters that you and people of colour like you do not exist, even in the furthest stretches of the imagination.”