9 Fantasy Must-Reads Featuring Black Main Characters

From mermaids to Marvel tie-ins and more, the following middle grade and YA fantasy novels will fly off shelves.

From mermaids to Marvel tie-ins and more, the following middle grade and YA fantasy novels each star Black characters as their main protagonists, and all are excellent reads. Ronald L. Smith's Black Panther is guaranteed to become an instant hit, especially once the movie arrives in theaters on February 16. For YA readers, Dhonielle Clayton's The Belles has received some much-deserved love on social media and Tochi Onyebuchi's world-building in his debut Beasts Made of Night is not to be missed.

This post has been updated to include the starred review of Justina Ireland's Dread Nation, an alternative history meets zombies YA novel.

Middle Grade

redstarBAPTISTE, Tracey. Rise of the Jumbies. 272p. Algonquin. Sept. 2017. Tr $16,95. ISBN 9781616206659.

Gr 4-6 –This sequel to The Jumbies, a dark fairy tale woven from elements of traditional Caribbean folklore, does not disappoint. Shunned by most of the town on her small island for her recently revealed part-jumbie heritage, Corinne is lonely and yet still wants to help when several children are lost after a tidal wave. After discovering that these are not the first kids to go missing near water, Corinne bravely consults the queen of water for help, Mama D’Leau. Mama D’Leau does not give advice for free, however, so Corinne and her three steadfast friends must retrieve a priceless jewel in payment. They are magically led through the seas by Mama D’Leau’s mermaid daughters to Ghana, where many years ago the daughters were kidnapped by slavers and drowned when the ship went down. Mama D’Leau does not always keep her promises, and Corinne must use all her ingenuity and some of her own jumbie magic to help the missing children. The novelty of the fantasy elements, the complex characters, and the superb world-building combine in a tale well worth reading, both as a sequel and a stand-alone. VERDICT A stellar recommendation for fans of edgy fantasy such as Aaron Starmer’s “The Riverman Trilogy” or Adam Gidwitz’s “A Tale Dark and Grimm” series, and, of course, fans of the first book.–Gretchen Crowley, formerly at Alexandria City Public Libraries, VA

This review was published in the School Library Journal August 2017 issue.

Smith, Ronald L. Black Panther: The Young Prince. 272p. Marvel. Jan. 2018. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781484787649. POP

Gr 4-6 –Twelve-year-old T’Challa, Prince of the warrior nation Wakanda, is content to spend his days running races, playing games, and getting into mischief with his best friend M’Baku. But he is also quite aware of his destiny. Wakanda is a technologically advanced African land, once struck by a meteor that brought with it a material so strong it had no equal. The material, called Vibranium, is now a much-desired resource and there are many who would fight to possess its power. T’Challa’s father, also known as the Black Panther, is King of Wakanda and the descendant of the great warrior Bashenga who protected the isolated nation from evil spirits when the meteor struck. Prompted by rumors of an invasion, his father summons T’Challa and tells him he will be sent away to Chicago along with his friend M’Baku. There, he will be safe until the uprising is settled. But the south side of Chicago is a far cry from Wakanda, and South Side Middle School has its own demons. Faced with making new friends while hiding his true identity, T’Challa must also deal with a bully, Gemini Jones, who has a few secrets of his own, one of which may challenge T’Challa to choose between his best friend and his destiny. Energetic, fast-paced, and adventurous, this volume will keep readers riveted. VERDICT Fans of the Marvel Universe will be thrilled to read about this superhero at the very beginning of his calling. A must-purchase for all collections.–Carol Connor, Cincinnati Public Schools

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

WRIGHT, Michelle. Audrey’s Magic Nine. illus. by Courtney Huddleston Tracy Bailey. 144p. Penny Farthing. Dec. 2017. Tr $14.95. ISBN 9780984214358. Gr 3-6–This webcomic–turned–graphic novel follows Audrey, a young black orphan who is rescued from a neglectful and abusive foster home. Audrey is soon adopted by a suburban white couple who want to give her an “excellent life.” Her schedule fills up with piano, gymnastics, and French lessons, leaving little time for Audrey’s one true passion: drawing. But when her toy puppet, Asa, comes to life and tells Audrey about how he and eight other beings (the titular “magic nine”) were banished to Earth from their world by an evil witch, Audrey sketches out a plan to help. The narrative seamlessly moves between omniscient visual narration (rendered in full color) and Audrey’s personal sketches (rendered in black-and-white). Audrey’s visions of her life are more whimsical, often including magical creatures or breaking the limitations of the panels. These fanciful touches, with the added humor of the larger-than-life characters and fantastical plot, allow readers multiple ways to connect to the text. Additionally, the gentle mockery of the white savior narrative gives this a refreshing take on the magical orphan tale. The ending is a bit abrupt, but the book includes four additional short bonus comics to provide some characters’ backstory and build upon the text’s vibrant settings. VERDICT A promising series opener that will fit nicely alongside Ben Hatke’s Mighty Jack and TenNapel’s Cardboard.–Alec Chunn, Eugene Public Library, OR

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

YA

Clayton, Dhonielle. The Belles. 512p. Freeform. Feb. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781484728499. POP

Gr 8 Up –When the Goddess paid more attention to her children, the humans, the God of the Sky became jealous and cursed them to have skin of colorless sky. Never one to abandon her children, Beauty created The Belles to bring beauty back to the damned. Camillia Beauregard and her sisters are Belles, vessels of beauty, and their time has come to save Orleans from a life of unbearable sameness, but they must first be placed in houses. The coveted position is The Favorite, and to serve the royal family. Camillia desires to be chosen Favorite like her mother and when her time comes to shine, she is unforgettable. Sophia the Queen Regent does not forget her. As Camillia begins her life of royal servitude, she starts to see the underbelly of her world—mysterious cries within the walls, veiled Belles of a time passed, and people who risk their lives to be beautiful. The grandest realization is the volatile temperament of Sophia. Camillia must make a choice—be the vessel of beauty and follow every command or use her powers to save her world from Sophia. Clayton has created a world full of lush colors, beautiful people, and delicious desserts. Strong themes are interwoven in this fantasy, including choice and envy. This work challenges readers to reflect on their notions of beauty. Through the actions of the characters, teens will understand what a beauty-obsessed world really looks like and that possessing conviction and selflessness is just as beautiful as outward appearances. VERDICT A must-have addition to libraries with fans of The Selection by Kiera Cass.–Dawn Abron, Zion-Benton Public Library, IL

This review was published in the School Library Journal January 2018 issue.

redstarIRELAND, Justina. Dread Nation. 464p. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Apr. 2018. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062570604.

Gr 9 Up –Slavery comes to a halt when the dead on Civil War battlefields begin to rise and eat their compatriots. The north and south put aside their philosophical differences and join forces against the undead. They are aided in their efforts by the passage of the Native and Negro Reeducation Act which forces African American boys and girls into combat schools. Graduates from these schools are a buffer between the living and the undead. Jane McKeen is a biracial girl sent to Ms. Preston’s school of combat to obtain an attendant certificate. Jane is about to graduate when her friend, Red Jack, asks for help locating his sister Lily. Jane’s attempts to discover Lily’s whereabouts land her in a survivalist colony. Survivalists advocate a disordered view of natural selection that places Jane firmly under the thumb of a vicious sheriff and his psychopathic family. Jane is tasked with finding a way out of Summerland not only for herself, but also for those she loves. She must make some unlikely alliances of her own if she is to survive long enough to find her own path to freedom. This is a fictional exploration of the chattel slavery and American Indian boarding school systems. Ireland skillfully works in the different forms of enslavement, mental and physical, into a complex and engaging story. VERDICT A perfect blend of horrors real and imagined, perfect for public and school libraries and fans of The Walking Dead.–Desiree Thomas, Worthington Library, OH

This review was published in the School Library Journal February 2018 issue. OKORAFOR, Nnedi. Akata Warrior. 496p. Viking. Oct. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780670785612.

Gr 7 Up –Fans of Akata Witch will fall again for the wondrously intriguing fantasy world in modern-day Nigeria in this imaginative sequel. Ekwensu, the evil spirit that Sunny, now 13, and her leopard society friends defeated in the previous book has returned. He severs Sunny’s connection to her spirit face Anyanwu, and without it, Sunny feels lost and unsure of herself. The fact that the severing did not kill her means that the vision that she saw a year ago of a fiery apocalypse may come true. The prevalence of oil spills caused by companies in the Niger Delta makes the threat of a massive fire all too real. To restore Sunny’s spirit face, she and the others must find the giant spider spirit Udide, ask it to spin a flying grasscutter (a van-sized rodentlike creature) for them, then fly it to the city of Osisi in Lagos to prevent the world’s end. The magic in Sunny’s world is not always kind or gentle, and the punishment for breaking the rules can be brutal. This, alongside the novel’s portrayal of contemporary Nigeria with its cuisine, multiethnic groups speaking many languages, economic inequality between social classes, and threats against albinos, will make readers believe that this magical world could really exist. The story has playful elements too, like Grashcoatah the grasscutter and Sunny’s wasp artist. VERDICT Don’t miss this beautifully written fantasy that seamlessly weaves inventive juju with contemporary Nigerian culture and history.–Sharon Rawlins, New Jersey State Library, Trenton

This review was published in the School Library Journal September 2017 issue. ONYEBUCHI, Tochi. Beasts Made of Night. 304p. Penguin/Razorbill. Oct. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780448493909. Gr 7 Up–In the walled city of Kos, the royal family makes the laws, but the Mages are the enforcers. Mages often call upon the “aki” to purify the royals by eating their sins. Taj is the best aki in Kos, and when he is called to eat the king’s sin, he becomes involved in a covert operation to take over the city. Told from the perspective of Taj, this debut novel is set in a mythical world where sins take the form of shadow beasts and become tattoos on the skin of the sin-eaters. Onyebuchi’s world-building is strong, and the details leap off the page; readers will witness the poverty, smell the delicious food, and feel the physical pain of being a sin-eater. However, the author spells out the motives of the antagonists and the reasons for characters’ behaviors, rather than letting teens infer them from the text. The romance between Taj and the princess is charming but too quick. Although this work is full of desperate people in dire situations, the narrative lacks intensity and reads more like a prequel than a series opener. Still, this title has strong female characters and a beautiful and well-crafted setting and absolutely fills the void of diversity in YA fantasy fiction. VERDICT A good choice for most fantasy collections.–Dawn Abron, Zion-Benton Public Library, IL This review was published in the School Library Journal July 2017 issue.

redstarOLDER, Daniel José. Shadowhouse Fall. 368p. (Shadowshaper Cypher: Bk. 2). Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. Sept. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780545952828. POP

Gr 7 Up–Sierra and her crew of shadowshapers are back for another adventure in this sequel to Shadowshaper. A mysterious card deck appears and, with it, a conflict between Shadow House and The House of Light arises. Sierra must act quickly to figure out whom she can trust while learning what it means to be a leader. She also begins a relationship with a new love interest. There is a satisfying conclusion, leaving threads of an open-ended mystery involving the Deck of Worlds. It will be exciting to see where this increasingly political urban fantasy will go next. Older has upped the ante with this second installment. This entry adds a layer of social activism that is refreshing and timely. The crew challenges their white AP history teacher about how she is approaching the topic of slavery. Many of the protagonists experience conflicts with the police and are able to resist. For a change of pace, those who enjoyed Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give may want to check out this fantasy title. In addition, it is good to see a sequel include a very realistic changing romantic landscape for the protagonist. VERDICT A worthy follow-up to Shadowshaper that fans will devour.–Kristin Anderson, Columbus Metropolitan Library System, OH

This review was published in the School Library Journal September 2017 issue.

REYNOLDS, Jason. Miles Morales: Spider-Man. 272p. Disney/Marvel. Aug. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781484787489. POP

Gr 9 Up–Miles Morales is the new Spider-Man in the novelization of the Marvel comic. As an Afro–Puerto Rican teen attending an elite boarding school in Brooklyn, Miles is not only fighting crime but also navigating a complicated adolescent world. He must work hard in his classes while trying to make a move on his beautiful activist classmate. His Korean American best friend wants Miles to use his superpowers to hustle on the streets. There’s also a racist teacher minimizing slavery in his history class. At home, Miles is coming to terms with the discovery of his recently dead uncle’s long-lost son who is writing him letters from juvenile hall. Miles is shouldered with an intense amount of responsibility; it’s no wonder his spidey-sense is on the fritz and his sleep is plagued by mysterious dreams. But when his dreamworld and reality begin to blend, the teen realizes that all parts of his life are connected and the mystery begins to unravel. He must not only fight the dark forces threatening his world and loved ones, but also the darkness within himself. This is not your typical superhero tie-in book. Reynolds has crafted a rich, developed portrait of complex teen life while addressing issues of racism in the modern world with his characteristic warmth and humorous touches. Give this to teens looking to make the leap from comics to novels, or any other readers interested in superhero action set in an urban landscape. VERDICT Recommended for all collections.–Emily Valente, Brooklyn Friends School

This review was published in School Library Journal‘s August 2017 issue.

Looking for more? Read our first post post in this series celebrating Black History Month.

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