Root Magic by Eden Royce (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Ages 8 to 12): Though debut author Eden Royce currently lives in the United Kingdom, it’s clear she is still deeply rooted in the culture of the Gullah nation to which she belongs. Royce’s previous short stories were informed by the traditions of these descendants of enslaved people living along the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas, and her first middle grade novel is also set in this evocative milieu. Root Magic finds the South, as well as its main characters, twins Jezebel and Jay, on the verge of some big changes. Their beloved grandmother has just died, and they’re about to turn 11. Their grandmother was a practitioner of what’s known as root magic, a rich and complex set of spells and charms passed down through generations, and it’s the twins’ turn to begin learning from their uncle Doc the knowledge that has been such a source of strength for their family. Recently, however, root magic has also been a source of stress. An increasingly aggressive police officer has been cracking down on its practitioners, and the new girls at school mock Jezebel for her family’s practices. What’s more, Jezebel and Jay are in different grades for the first time, and Jezebel fears they’re starting to grow apart. And then there are the mysterious voices she hears calling her by the river… Royce’s storytelling is atmospheric and more than a little spooky, filled with haints and boo-hags, protection charms and curses. But the novel is also set during a specific historical period–the fall of 1963–and so these supernatural elements play out against an equally vivid backdrop of real historical events, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, police intimidation tactics and the integration of Charleston schools. Root Magic successfully blends mystical elements with historical ones for a novel that explores Gullah culture as well as the social upheavals of the 1960s. Readers who are easily frightened might want to read with the lights on–but if they do, they’ll discover a thoughtful story about a family taking on all obstacles, seen and unseen, together.
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Historical Fiction): Robert Jones Jr.’s remarkable first novel, The Prophets, accomplishes the exceptional literary feat of being at once an intimate, poetic love story and a sweeping, detailed and excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation. One of the most outstanding things about this novel is its artistry, both in its language and its use of multiple perspectives. Jones excels at ensemble storytelling, treating each character with compassion while also being brutally unsparing. From one point of view, certain actions seem perfectly reasonable, but another storyline may reveal their harm. In particular, two of these stories are on a collision course. The most important and sympathetic thread involves Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved boys who grow up as best friends and eventually become lovers. The other involves an older enslaved man, Amos, who decides to take on the role of preacher as a way to attain power for a worthy goal: He wants to protect his female partner from the plantation owner, Paul. Amos negotiates with Paul and offers to use his role as a religious leader to help run the plantation and keep the peace. Those sound like reasonable objectives given the constraints Amos is under, but the exercise of power is never that clean, and a multitude of betrayals, cruelties and tragedies arise from that Faustian bargain. Amos’ new responsibility means encouraging his fellow enslaved people to cooperate with Paul’s plans to force them to have children in order to increase his workforce. Samuel and Isaiah’s love violates these plans because they only want to be with each other, but that kind of love doesn’t produce offspring. Thus Amos’ religiosity and Isaiah and Samuel’s love are inherently at odds, and as religion takes hold of the plantation, it makes outcasts of two young men whom the community had long embraced. Jones grounds his story in history while making it remarkably relevant to life today. The Prophets traces the origins of a host of social ills, such as the use of religion as a tool for social control. Likewise, observations about the intersection of race and gender within this brutal system will sound familiar to contemporary readers. For example, Puah, a teenage girl who must fight every day to protect her body and soul, feels frustrated by the favor that Be Auntie, an influential older woman, extends to the boys and men in their group. Puah concludes, “Men and toubab shared far more than either would ever admit.” The men she refers to are her fellow enslaved people, and “toubab” is a Central and West African word for white people. These are observations about Black men and white patriarchy that Black women still struggle with in the 21st century. Similarly, Puah grieves for the way that Auntie and other women cast her as being “grown” before her time. That’s another modern-day problem: Black children are judged as adults, and young Black women are sexualized and blamed for their own abuse. These disparate elements of history, myth making, social observation, criticism and storytelling don’t always fit together as well as the author may have intended. However, what is most notable about The Prophets is that, like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, Jones gets to the root of some of our culture’s thorniest problems through specific, accurate storytelling, drawn with insight and great skill. Though this is his first book, Jones is already a master stylist, writing gorgeous, lyrical and readable prose about some of the ugliest things that human beings feel and do to one another. Sometimes the prose reads like scripture. At other times, it’s poetry. This is a beautifully wrought, exceptionally accomplished queer love story about two men finding extraordinary connection in the most hostile and difficult of circumstances. This debut will be savored and remembered.
Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Tessa Johnson is a writer. The words pour out of her into romance novels that star heroines with brown skin like hers–and that feature the boys of her dreams, of course. So when Tessa and her family move to Long Beach, California, and she enrolls in a highly selective art school, she’s thrilled at the opportunity to spend hours each day honing her craft. But faced with sharing her work with other artists for the first time, Tessa’s anxiety skyrockets. Her writer’s block is so intense that, for weeks, she can’t write a single word. What if she never gets her groove back? Who is she if she’s not a writer? When her best friend, Caroline, suggests that finding a boyfriend might jump-start her novel, Tessa zeros in on her classmate Nico, who’s model-handsome and a fellow writer. But as she pursues Nico, her friendships with Caroline and her goofy yet caring neighbor Sam begin to fall apart, and Tessa starts to suspect that she’s looking for validation in all the wrong places. In her charming debut novel, Happily Ever Afters, Elise Bryant nimbly blends bubbly, will-they-won’t-they teen romance with a frank look at issues ranging from impostor syndrome and identity to race and mental health. Bryant treats the tough stuff with nuance and compassion through conversations among a richly drawn cast of diverse and appealing characters. From a scene in which Tessa and her new friend Lenore bond in the restroom over surprise periods, to Sam’s easy interactions with Tessa’s brother, Miles, who has cerebral palsy and cognitive impairment, to Caroline’s ability to firmly but gently draw her own boundaries, Happily Ever Afters is filled with delightful examples of strong, healthy friendships. Crucially, these friendships ultimately guide Tessa to strengthen her most important relationship: with herself. Happily Ever Afters captures just how difficult–and rewarding–high school can be. Though the title telegraphs how her story will end, Tessa’s journey to get there is all her own.
Lore by Alexandra Bracken (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Readers who love complex, mythology-based fantasies, meet your newest obsession. For seven days every seven years, Greek gods must walk the earth as mere mortals during a period they call the Agon. Well, they don’t do so much walk as fight for their lives. After thousands of years, many of the gods haven’t survived, as they’ve been hunted down by the descendants of ancient Greek heroes. Each heroic bloodline is sworn to protect a god, but these hunters are also eager to slay other families’ gods in order to seize the deities’ divine power and immortality. Once an Agon ends, the family reaps the benefits of their deity’s powers, which they can use to build family-owned business empires. For example, a god’s healing powers can help create a pharmaceutical company, the powers of war are a boon to a weapons manufacturer, and so on. Seventeen-year-old Melora “Lore” Perseous is the descendant of Greek hero Perseus, and as the last of her bloodline, she’s gone to great pains to remove herself from the Agon’s brutality. A rival bloodline led by Wrath, a hunter who slayed Ares and inherited his powers to become a god himself, viciously murdered Lore’s family during the last Agon, and though Lore is a highly skilled fighter, she went into hiding to avoid sharing her family’s fate. But when the Agon begins again in New York City, Athena, one of the last remaining gods, comes knocking at Lore’s door. In exchange for Lore’s help to survive the Agon, Athena agrees to slay Wrath, their shared enemy, who’s set on slaughtering the other gods in order to ensure he–and no one else–inherits their powers. Bestselling author Alexandra Bracken, whose Darkest Minds series was adapted into a movie of the same name in 2018, strikes a notably darker tone here than in her previous work. Lore’s world is a violent place, and Bracken doesn’t hold back. Though keeping track of hunter family genealogies as well as the histories of gods both old and new can be cumbersome at times, readers eager for detail-oriented world building will find Lore enthralling. Bracken’s well-drawn characters drive the narrative, keeping it anchored in gritty prose and high-stakes emotions. Lore is a wildly inventive and ambitious blend of reimagined Greek mythology and contemporary urban fantasy.
One of the Good Ones by Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite (e-book available on the Axis 360 and Libby apps with your library card; YA Fiction): Footage of Black Americans being brutalized and even killed at the hands of police has been part of our media landscape for years. It may be hard to open a book and read about fictional brutality that hews so closely to reality that it feels like salt poured on a wound, but in their second novel, sisters Maika and Maritza Moulite aren’t simply picking at a scab. They are digging deep to help flush out an infection created by generations of injustice. Three timelines tell the story of Kezi, a straight-A teen activist who dies in police custody after she attends a protest. In the present, Kezi’s younger sister, Happi, must deal with the grief that has enveloped her family. Just before Kezi’s death, Shaqueria, a down-on-her-luck actor, hopes for the break that will give her a way out of her circumstances. And in the distant past, Happi and Kezi’s great-grandmother Evelyn bears witness to the horrors of an unust world. When Happi sets out on a road trip across the country to honor Kezi’s memory–a trip they’d planned to take together–the connections between the three timelines emerge. As Happi comes to terms with her loss and learns more about her family’s history, the Moulites introduce hallmarks of American history such as sundown towns and the Negro Motorist Green Book. Barreling through subtlety, the novel goes out of its way to bridge the gap between readers who may be unfamiliar with this history and readers who known it all too well. One of the Good Ones initially appears to share a premise with Angie Thomas’ influential 2017 novel, The Hate U Give. Like Thomas’ protagonist, Starr, Happi is navigating a world where she and her family are unsafe because of the color of their skin. However, once the puzzle pieces of the Moulites’ novel start coming together, it takes a sharp turn toward the unexpected. Stylistic differences as well as an incredible act of violence will shatter any comparisons to Thomas’ novel. Part history lesson and part mystery thrill ride, One of the Good Ones makes a pointed case for the power of sisterhood and the resilience of Black women.
The Awakening of Malcolm X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Tiffany D. Jackson (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; YA Fiction): Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s daughter, teams up with acclaimed YA author Tiffany D. Jackson to tell the story of the time that the American icon spent in prison for charges related to a series of burglaries. The Awakening of Malcolm X opens in a courtroom in 1946, where Malcolm and his friend Shorty are betrayed by Malcolm’s white girlfriend and sentenced to separate prisons. So begins a nightmare from which Malcolm cannot awaken. Amid the inhumane conditions and cruel treatment at the Charlestown State Prison, it isn’t long before Malcolm realizes how far he has strayed from the ideals his family raised him to hold. His family never abandons him, however, and as they visit him in dreams, through letters and in the flesh, they help him pick up the pieces of his life and lay the foundation for his future as a leader. When Malcolm is transferred to a facility that provides opportunities for rehabilitation, he joins its successful debate team and the Nation of Islam. When he is finally released, though his mind is still full of questions, he is armed with the confidence and self-awareness he will need to make a difference for his people. Shabazz and Jackson’s retelling of the experiences that transformed Malcolm at one of the lowest points in his life makes for a powerful read. As he dwells on his upbringing, readers will see significant connections between the foundation Malcolm’s parents laid for him in the Garveyism movement, which advocated for racial separation, Black economic independence and Pan-Africanism, and the self-love Malcolm eventually finds in the Nation of Islam, which is presented as a sort of homecoming. Shabazz and Jackson don’t sugarcoat the ugly side of American society in this moment in history, and mesmerizing scenes in which the personal meets the political infuse the story with the fire and passion for which Malcolm X is so well known. The Awakening of Malcolm X is a welcome invitation to consider the light that Malcolm X shone on society’s injustices and what it continues to reveal today.