Riot Baby

Tor. Jan. 2020. 176p. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9781250214751; ebk. ISBN 9781250214768.
Gr 9 Up–Ella’s Thing allows her to conjure orbs of light, whip up a stiff breeze, and even blow up rats crawling in the apartment she shares with her younger brother Kev—the book’s narrator—and their mother. But before it’s fully developed, the Thing is provoked by anger and leaves Ella frail and exhausted. She’s a loving and protective older sister to the very smart Kev, and is often angered by injustices in her neighborhood. After Ella is particularly affected by the murder of a young Black man on the news, she vanishes to the desert where she hones her powers. Much of the book’s setting alternates between the desert and Rikers Island jail, where Kev ends up for his questionable involvement in an attempted armed robbery. Ella is a powerful, omniscient protagonist who embodies Black Girl Magic and superhero strength. Yet she is weighed down by her experience of being a Black woman in America. She relives family members’ traumas, including her mother’s stillborn delivery by a disinterested doctor and her brother’s time in Rikers. Elements of science fiction are blended with discomforting near-reality (for example, Kev is microchipped when he’s released, through which he is monitored and medicated). Similarly, actual events propel the narrative: The LA Riots, the Charleston AME Church shooting, and confederate flag disputes are just a few examples. Strong language and drug use is present, but should not dissuade one from adding this short novel to their collection.
VERDICT That Kev is a young adult through the bulk of the novel helps make this a compelling choice for those serving older teens.

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