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Building Worlds & Solving Puzzles: Teen Genre Fiction for Black History Month

by Deborah Taylor

*This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of RA News.*

Traditionally, novels highlighted during Black History Month focus attention on historical fiction that explores the past and contemporary fiction that examines current culture and society. However many creative writers opt for a different direction. Some of these writers examine black history through the lens of speculative fiction, mystery, and suspense. By using the tropes of genre fiction, the issues of racial history and societal norms take on additional layers and nuance. According to writer Stafford L. Battle, "Black people are not strangers to speculative fiction".  Indeed, writers such as Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler have made indelible marks on the science fiction genre.  In addition, the centrality of solving puzzles and ferreting out hidden facts has often had a strong appeal in Black storytelling as popular mysteries created by writers such as Walter Moseley have proven.

As prevalent as the genres of science fiction/fantasy and mystery/ suspense are in young adult fiction, books from those genres that feature Black protagonists are not as plentiful. The role of speculative fiction, especially, as an avenue for teens to explore identity issues has been often acknowledged, yet Black teens are seldom portrayed as protagonists in the available narratives. The depiction of a young person with the agency to confront and solve problems can have a special resonance for Black teens. The ten novels highlighted here demonstrate the power of black history and culture when combined with elements of science fiction/fantasy and mystery suspense to provide compelling and provocative teen narratives.


Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson
ISBN: 9781442459267
Sixteen-year-old Scotch struggles to find her identity. Her mixed-race heritage adds to her confusion and creates tensions in her family. The mysterious disappearance of her brother pushes all of these concerns away, however and it's not too long before The Chaos that took him envelops first her city and then the entire world.  Acclaimed adult fantasy writer Hopkinson draws upon elements of myth, folklore and magical realism to create a unique narrative experience with complex world-building and language rich with imagery.
The Clone Codes by Patricia McKissack, Frederick L. McKissack and John McKissack
ISBN: 97804399298440
The Black Codes -- laws instituted after the American Civil War to restrict the freedom of Black Americans -- are the basis for the futuristic society depicted in this trilogy. In The Clone Codes, thirteen-year-old Leanna, a good student and the daughter of a child psychologist believes all the negatives she has heard about the clones in their society: their inability to learn and their suitability for only menial labor. When the authoritative government takes her mother into custody because of her research, Leanna follows her mother's directions to do all she can to avoid capture. While on the run, Leanna learns the truth about her own background, which causes her to question everything she believed about herself and her future. (Clone Codes Trilogy, 1)
Naughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
ISBN: 9781416900160
Alternate history is a rare subgenre in books for young adults and Malorie Blackman, Children's Laureate of Great Britain, tackles it in an explosive series that begins with this volume. In this England, it is whites, Naughts, who are on the lowest rungs of society, being ruled by Black Crosses who have all of the money and power. At the center of this tale of racial struggle is the Romeo and Juliet story of Sephy, from the Crosses and her childhood best friend, now love, Callum from the subjugated Naughts. His involvement in the resistance movement adds further complication to their forbidden relationship.  (Naughts and Crosses, 1)
Pemba's Song: A Ghost Story by Tonya Hegamin and Marilyn Nelson 
ISBN: 978-0545020763
The normal teen reluctance about having to move away from friends is complicated when Pemba finds she is sharing her new home with a ghost. After her parents' divorce, Pemba moves with her mom to an old house in Connecticut. Soon she begins to experience a connection to the ghost of a girl who had lived in the house in the 18th century. When she meets an elderly Black man she learns some of the history of the house but not nearly as much as she experiences through her visions of the enslaved girl, Phyllis. Told in prose, poetry and journal entries, the connection between past and present African-American life is skillfully told.
Tankborn by Karen Sandler
ISBN: 978-1600606625
This science fiction novel imagines a future where a rigid caste system determines the future for all. Genetically Engineered Non-humans or GENS are at the lowest rung of society and are assigned as servants to others once they reach age fifteen. Kayla and Mishalla are best friends but separated once they receive their work details; Kayla to attend to an elderly high ranking "trueborn", Mishalla to care for "lowborn" children. When some of the children begin to disappear, she suspects the reason is sinister.  The two friends manage to reunite and set out to rescue the missing.  (Tankborn Novels, 1)
A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott
ISBN: 978-0982555057
Fifteen year-old Genna lives with her mother and siblings in a small apartment in Brooklyn. Despite the family's tough economic circumstances, Genna works hard in school and fights hard not to be captured by the racial bitterness that seems to consume her mother. One source of solace is the time she spends in the Botanical gardens and it is while there that she finds herself transported to Civil War era Brooklyn. Here, Genna draws on her abilities to navigate a time so different from her own. This is a successful genre-blend of history, fantasy, and contemporary teen life.


Mystery and Suspense

Door of No Return by Sarah Mussi
ISBN: 9781416968252
Like many teens, Zac Baxter listened half-heartedly to the family stories his grandfather told about treasure hidden in his ancestral home in West Africa. But when his grandfather is murdered and he is threatened by several forces (even agents of the British government!), Zac realizes he will not be able to answer his questions without fulfilling the quest his grandfather described.  Full of thrilling action and twists and turns, the historical connections to the African slave trade, adds another layer to this novel of suspense and adventure.
Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson
ISBN: 9780545417815
Emily Bird is the daughter of affluent African American scientists and the student at an elite prep school in Washington, D.C. She moves easily in a world where teens discuss their futures at Ivy League colleges and high government officials are sources for contacts, internships and status. But as a deadly strain of flu throws the city into quarantine, it also becomes a place of secrets and hidden agendas. Johnson, who received critical acclaim for her stunning fantasy, The Summer Prince, delivers this dazzling bio-thriller, set in the seldom explored upper echelons of Black society with a protagonist coming to grips with her own difficult family relationships and expectations as she attempts to learn the truth behind the threatening crisis.
My Own Worst Frenemy by Kimberly Reid
ISBN: 9780758267405
Chanti Evans finds that a sense of humor comes in handy when your mom is an undercover vice-cop. Unfortunately there is no way to laugh off her mother's plan to take Chanti from North High where she is happy with her friends to the tonier, and safer, her mother believes, Langdon Prep. Chanti quickly realizes she and the other two scholarship students, Marco and Bethanie, are not welcome as they almost immediately become suspects when an expensive piece of jewelry goes missing. Chanti has learned a few things from observing her mother, however, and turns sleuth to solve the mystery.  (Langdon Prep Novels, 1)
Panic by Sharon Draper
ISBN: 9781442408975
In this suspense novel, Diamond – an ambitious teen dancer -- is kidnapped from a local mall by a man promising her a role in a movie being filmed nearby. Diamond is a smart girl who should have known better but she makes a bad decision and finds herself in the horrific world of sex exploitation. Multiple narratives allow readers to move between Diamond's ordeal and her friends' and community's attempts to deal with her disappearance. This is a highly readable cautionary tale that will engage teen readers.

Want to find more science fiction featuring African American characters? Try this search in NoveList:



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Deborah Taylor is the Coordinator for School and Student Services at the Enoch Pratt Public Library.