To celebrate Juneteenth ( the June 19th holiday celebrating the commemoration of slavery’s end in the US) here are 19 (mostly fantasy) books by Black authors that Tomoko has read, loved, and recommends for your reading lists!
(aka, Tomoko’s favorite type of book)
Story collections are such an incredible way to get to know an author–the stories in What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, with their painful realities and creeping, dark, fairy-tale elements build worlds that completely submerge consciousness and stare humanity full in the face. Swirling, seething expressions of girls pulled down, straitjacketed, expected/forced to conform, obey, and sacrifice their inner fire, Arimah’s stories are a needle-sharp reminder that hope is not a right for everyone–that to even embrace, believe, or dream that things will be better is a privilege. The story that has stuck with me most is “Who Will Greet You at Home”, in which a desperate woman creates a child out of hair and magic. It’ll give you the shivers!
2. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (now in paperback) *
This book is the true definition of an epic–with larger-than-life characters, storytelling, and violence, this odyssey through African folklore with sly winks to contemporary antiheroes is challenging, fascinating, and unlike anything I’d read before. A deep dive into an unfamiliar and graphically violent world, I wasn’t sure I’d make it to the end of this 640-page epic, but the impact the final pages left assure me that I won’t forget this story for a long, long time. Plus I’m so interested in James’ conceit for the Dark Star trilogy. With plans to write the same adventure from different perspectives (as a nod to traditional African storytelling where the narrator is an unreliable trickster), I can’t wait to have my perception of Tracker completely upturned when I see him through another’s eyes.
Can I have N.K. Jemisin on this list three times? I love everything I read of Jemisin’s, from the short stories in How Long ‘Til Black Future Month, to the fantastical world of orogenes in The Fifth Season, to the contemporary eldritch-infused powerhouse that is The City We Became. Some of my particular favorite short stories in How Long Til Black Future Month are “The Ones Who Stay and Fight”, Jemisin’s response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, and a couple prominently featuring food (oh my god, Jemisin can write food!) “L’Alchimista” and “Cuisine des ’Mémoires”. And while The Fifth Season dishes out classic fantasy with a twist by exploring how a civilization reacts to those born with the power to manipulate earth, The City We Became envisions the great cities of the world–like New York City, Sao Paolo, Hong Kong, and London–as living things born into danger, and the people it chooses to defend its heart. Each is both entertaining and thought-provoking, and leaves lasting impressions–I highly recommend fans of fantasy follow Jemisin’s work!
6. She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore (now in paperback)
I have been raving about this book since it came out nearly two years ago. The story of three people with gifts/curses (invisibility, invulnerability, and immortality) related to their cultural groups and their places in the foundation of Liberia, Moore channels the skill, resilience, and power of history through her protagonists with a lyrical hand. Beyond spectacular writing, Moore explores history, humanity, good, and evil, in thought-provoking ways. She Would Be King is a can’t-miss book!
7. Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi (now in paperback)
I love stories that play on the edge of reality, and Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi is right up that alley. A story about generations and emigration, magic and love, capitalism and community, Gingerbread is a bit like Alice in Wonderland backwards, as a mother tells her daughter a history she has long kept to herself, of how she came to live in London, from the magical land of Druhástrana . It’s bizarre and wonderful, with word plays I never expect but make me smile as I search the pages for that elusive story between words.
8. Rosewater by Tade Thompson (now in paperback)
If you like science fiction with psychics, aliens, and all manner of bizarre weirdness (as I do) Rosewater is for you. Sci-fi built on hard-boiled detective inspiration, Thompson explores colonialism, toxic masculinity, the physicality of humanity, and intolerance in incredibly imaginative, visceral, and surprisingly prescient ways. At its heart, Rosewater is a murder mystery for fans of puzzle-piecing, but the world and the city that grew around an alien biodome in Nigeria, is one you won’t soon forget.
9. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
While most of what I read is fantastical in some way, The Vanishing Half is impactful and beautifully written literary fiction based on American history, spanning the four decades between the 50s and 90s under the pressure of a society that prefers assimilation to equality. Through vignettes that leap from year to year, character to character, Bennett explores the impact of history and choices on twin Black sisters and the ripples that affect their daughters and others close to them, when one twin starts her life over passing as white.
10. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi (coming August 2020, preorder now!)
Akwaeke Emezi is an outstanding writer who often deals with heavy topics; their prose is often spare and their novels slim, which makes the experience of reading The Death of Vivek Oji and spending time with the skillfully crafted characters absolutely stunning. This novel is a beautifully written exercise in secrets, death, memory and family, the effect (or lack thereof) of time on narrative and emotion, the impact (or lack thereof) of secret-keeping on our constructed realities, and I hope to see it on all the lists this year.
I love video games and it’s clear from every line in Brittney Morris’ SLAY that she does as well. About a teenager who secretly creates her own exclusive game world (a safe space) tired of the rampant racism she experiences in popular online games–and who comes under fire when a real-world death draws public attention to her game–SLAY is absolutely incredible. The game itself is a Black Panther-inspired celebration of Black culture and history and Morris’ debut novel juxtaposes the best experiences of online gaming with the worst. This is absolutely the kind of book that elicits live reactions, so be prepared to shout down the trolls and cheer for Kiera, just like I did.
12. Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Read everything Nic Stone writes (don’t miss her brand new Shuri novel!), but if you can, start with Dear Martin. Stone’s debut novel, this book came out 3 years ago and is even more unbearably relevant today. Stone examines racial profiling, the anger of white cops, and the desperate need to make sense of an unjust system as Justyce journals his experiences in letters to Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., looking to the leader’s teachings for answers. If you’re looking for a book to follow up The Hate U Give, this is absolutely the a story to check out. Plus, keep an eye out for/preorder the sequel Dear Justyce, coming September 2020!
13. A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
The classic story of contenders in a competition winning the hand of a princess gets a twist in Roseanne A. Brown’s A Song of Wraiths and Ruin. The world is rich with African folkloric inspiration, complex and unique characters, deep story history, and a fascinating pantheon-informed culture. Set in a desert city amid a once-in-50-years festival, hard choices and magic collide with privilege and politics. Look no further for your next epic fantasy YA!
14. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi *
I can’t recommend Akwaeke Emezi’s books highly enough; their stories are faceted and dimensional–I haven’t read anything else quite like them. Pet stuns, set in a near-future where society has been rid of the “monsters” and the systems that enabled them. Using fantastic devices in a familiar world, Emezi explores the fear, denial, and action associated with exposing abuse. I love the world they built–a utopic what-if setting that holds so much hope (and warning)–and I LOVE their protagonist Jam, a trans girl who prefers to speak in Sign, who finds a way to power past the fear and see the unseen.
For Younger Readers
Part of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, which focuses on giving mythologies of all different cultures a platform as written by authors familiar with those mythologies, Tristan Strong pits African American folk heroes against the gods of West Africa in a parallel world known as MidPass. Centered on a young man who has been struggling since his best friend died, Tristan must embark on a dangerous quest and find the strength within himself to save this world and heal his own emotional wounds. The world is rich and complex–some of the characters Tristan encounters are John Henry, Brer Rabbit, and Ananzi–and the first arc resolves beautifully. With stress on the importance of memory, storytelling, and strength of self, Tristan Strong is a fantastic and epic world for young and old readers alike. Plus it has one of the most beautiful covers of all time thanks to Eric Wilkerson (who you should absolutely follow on Instagram!).
16. Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou and Jean-Michel Basqiat, Edited by Sarah Jane Boyers
A picture book of Maya Angelou’s poem alongside paintings by Jean-Michel Basqiat is an incredible experience. I didn’t even know about this book until the 25th anniversary edition came out, and when I finally read it, my eyes burned with tears. One of the most impacting poems I’ve ever read, displayed powerfully alongside Basqiat’s art, this book is a must-have for any library.
17. Saturday by Oge Mora
I adore Oge Mora’s illustration style, with her rich use of texture and color, and her solo debut Thank you, Omu is a touching story of generosity and community. But if you’ve already read and loved Thank you, Omu, you need Saturday! Mother and daughter have planned the perfect weekend–the one day they have time to spend together–but when everything starts going wrong, together they make it the best day anyway. Beautifully heartfelt, about loving the people you’re with in the moments you have, this book made me cry thinking about my own moments with my mom when I was little.
18. Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison
I adore Vashti Harrison’s illustrations (you should follow her on instagram!)–any reader would be well-served to check out her Leaders, Dreamers, and Legends books, adorably sweet homages to inspiring women and men in history that everyone should learn about. Together Lupita Nyong’o and Harrison have created a masterpiece in Sulwe, a picture book about a little girl coming to love and accept the color of her skin through a folklore story. Sulwe’s story resonated deeply with me (as a child there were many things I wished desperately that I could change about myself) and I’m so happy that there are books that encourage self-love for young children.
19. The Old Truck by Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey
This lovely picture book by Texas brothers Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey revels in the quiet moments, settling comfortably in the passage of years as an old truck provides an imaginative portal for a young girl who takes over her family’s farm as she grows and restores the old truck. With a delightful illustration style, beautifully soft and textural, this story of sustainability and the power of imagination encourages imaginative play in readers.
Thanks so much for checking out this reading list y’all! You can shop these titles and more online at BookPeople today!
*readers who are sensitive to topics like graphic violence, assault, or harm to young children may want to read more about these particular titles before reading them.