Fantasy Award Contenders Layer Identity and Imagination | Pondering Printz

This year’s top YA titles—from Bethany C. Morrow, Daniel Nayeri, and others—explore the magical and the mundane.

Pondering Printz logoWhat happens when an author creates a supernatural story, superimposed upon the systems of rules that exist for women, for gender-nonconforming people, for Black and brown people, for immigrants, and for other marginalized people in the real world? The result might be a mesh of ever-tightening restrictions. Or layers of traditions might overlap and, alternately, reveal one another, with insights both ancient and contemporary. Some of the year’s best YA fiction lives (and breathes, and fights, and cries) at the intersection of identity and imagination.

Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water follows Tavia and her best friend Effie as they try to navigate high school, deal with crushes, and resolve the conflicts inherent to their identities. Tavia is a siren, possessed of a Jedi mind trick of a voice. But unlike the charismatic elokos at her school, sirens—who are all Black women—are illegal. Potent metaphor abounds—the girls are two of the only Black girls at their school in Portland, Oregon, and the microaggressions and suspicion that they experience in this supposedly progressive town are mirrored by the misinformation and bigotry that surrounds sirens, constantly chipping away at Tavia’s sense of self-worth…until it does the opposite.

In Romina Garber’s Lobizona, Manu is an undocumented Argentine American teen living in Miami when ICE agents strike. Fleeing to the Everglades, she finds herself at a secret academy for non-human Septimus teens. All of a sudden her mother’s secrecy and her own bright gold eyes make sense. But Manu doesn’t fit in here, either—Septimus girls are brujas, harnessing elemental powers to nurture and heal, while boys are lobizones (werewolves), trained to protect and hunt. Manu’s abilities don’t conform to her gender, and in the clannish Septimus hierarchy her mixed heritage puts her life in danger. Realistic teen banter that switches between English and Argentine Spanish, as well as sharply drawn characters and color-drenched descriptions of Septimus magic further distinguish this book.

Cemetery Boys coverRigid gender roles also frustrate Yadriel, the trans boy whose struggle to be accepted as a brujo helps drive the mystery and peril of Aiden Thomas’s Cemetery Boys. In the weeks leading up to Día de Muertos, Yadriel’s diverse Latinx community is busy—while his abuela bakes trays of sweet pan de muerto, the men pull out boxes of candles and armloads of cempasuchitl (marigolds) to decorate the altars that will welcome the espiritus of departed loved ones. Yet Yadriel is left out—his father, while supportive, does not have enough faith in Yadriel’s identity to let him attempt the brujo initiation ceremony, and when a murder is committed, Yads is invited to sit home with the women. The friendships, budding romance, and found-family loyalty in Cemetery Boys glow, beating back the gloom of real-life struggles.

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Bisou, the hero of 2019 Printz honoree Elana K. Arnold’s Red Hood, grapples with a different facet of gender inequality. Although the entitlement that accompanies masculinity is nothing new, only in recent years have we acknowledged all the ways that toxic masculinity can trap women. After an attempted assault on homecoming night, Bisou is plunged into fear and fury. Drenched in blood and haunted by generations of wronged women, Red Hood is a blistering revenge fantasy written with precision and wit.

Samantha Mabry’s Tigers, Not Daughters takes its title from King Lear, but instead of seeking their whining father’s approval, the Torres sisters have been trying to escape his sucking vortex of need ever since their mother died—the oldest, Ana, dying in the attempt. Now they are haunted by Anna, but even more bedeviled by the useless men who claw at them for attention, their struggle made even more difficult by the economic restrictions and cultural expectations of their San Antonio neighborhood. And that’s before Ana’s ghost starts writing on the walls. Beautiful language brings humid nights and scratchy sunshine to life as Jessica, Iridian, and Rosa chafe against their world and each other.

In Everything Sad is Untrue, Daniel Nayeri evokes the spirit of Scheherazade, weaving family stories and the legends of Persia’s magical past into this semi-autobiographical story of a fifth grade Iranian refugee. The conversational, storytelling cadence imbues this story with a timeless quality. References to American pop culture and junk food coexist comfortably alongside descriptions of cardamom-scented pastries baked a century ago half a world away. Nayeri describes his wealthy early life in Iran, full of family and food, and then contrasts it with the poverty, humiliation, and loneliness of life in Oklahoma, allowing the reader to see each through the lens of the other. Spellbinding.

Elatsoe coverThe title character of Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe also lives with the stories of her ancestors close at hand. In many ways, Ellie is your average slightly nerdy ace teen Lipan Apache girl, but her talent for raising the ghosts of animals and occasional ability to speak with the dead make her the perfect person to investigate when her cousin turns up dead on a deserted road. Together with her white best friend and her beloved ghost dog Kirby, she Nancy Drews herself into peril at the hands of villains wielding European magic. America’s history of colonialism and exploitation of Native people provides extra bite to a story whose roots stretch deep into the past.

Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer is set in a fantasy pan-African royal court roiling with magic and intrigue. Teenage Tarisai, raised in isolation by a mysterious Lady, is a handpicked member of the Crown Prince’s 11-person council, linked by psychic bonds and as affectionate as siblings. But she is also a time bomb, engineered by the Lady to assassinate the prince. Ifueko creates a lush fairy-tale setting to rival any European court, full of glowing wax-dyed fabric and fragrant oiled braids—but this book really stretches its legs when Tarisai and her friend Sanjeet head out across the empire on the run from palace guards and her destiny. Oppression, misogyny, and exploitation are revealed as Tarisai and Sanjeet travel through the realms on their way to a satisfying final confrontation.

BIPOC fantasy is breathing new life into teen literature. Sometimes a feast for the senses, sometimes an enraging call to arms—often both—and always a world that unfolds to reveal higher stakes and more meaning.

Paula Willey is a librarian and critic in Baltimore. A member of the 2019 Printz Award Committee, she reads picture books, graphic novels, prose novels, nonfiction, or her yogurt container if none of the above is available.

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