When I was growing up, being a sci-fi geek seemed antithetical to being an urban Black kid. Or so I thought. Thank goodness that in recent years, thousands of melanated folks with a hankering for time travel, humanoid species, dystopian visions and other “out-there” phenomena have leapt out of the closet, blowing the white wash off of the fantasy/sci-fi genre and ushering in an age of Afrofuturism where a kid can be (get this) Black and nerdy at the same time. Lucky punk…
My children will have a much more colorful cast of mythical and mystical characters with which to identify than I did growing up in the ’80s (my Black butt was stuck pretending to be blond-haired Cindel from the Ewok Adventures and hoping to meet the Brother from Another Planet).
In my mind, the late great Octavia Butler still reigns supreme as queen of the sci-fi/fantasy lit universe, but her empire expands as emerging authors, game designers, and indy film makers add to the list of media platforms accessed by Black and Brown geeks-in the-making.
Still, for a lot of newbies, young adult novels remain the entry point for the world of fantasy and science fiction. My son started with the magic of Harry Potter, ventured into the fanciful realms of Beast Quest and Animorphs, explored time travel with 39 Clues, and landed in the larger-than-life mythical realm of Percy Jackson. At this point, I was beginning to see a theme – although his mind was being opened to new worlds, those worlds were presented as decidedly White. So I started digging for some novels that would speak to his craving for futuristic, other-worldly adventures while pulling from a wider range of mythical traditions (beyond Greek and Norse mythology) and reflecting a broader, more colorful spectrum of hero/heroine characters.
Here’s a list of the books that I ultimately introduced to my son. They’ve all now officially been kid-approved, but keep in mind that my boy is 11 going on 24. This means that you should take care to run these titles through your own parental filter (checking for both appropriate content and appropriate reading level) before passing any recommended book along to your child.
- Marvelous World: The Marvelous Effect by Troy CLE:
13-year old Louis loves listening to hip-hop, racing radio-controlled cars, and hanging out with his best friend. Then a mysterious letter invites him to visit the local junkyard. There he finds a secret, underground amusement park like no other in existence. This is the best day of Louis’s life. The park even has the most amazing race course for radio-controlled cars. Louis starts racing right away. It’s a close contest; he’s about to activate his nitro boost to take the lead, when… this is the worst day of Louis’s life. Without warning or reason, Louis falls into a coma due to a virus of a mysterious, celestial origin. When he awakens three months later, the world that he once knew and loved is totally out of control. He will learn that his illness is connected to everything that is wrong, and that it’s not only his responsibility but his destiny to set things right. This story is a mega-dramatic, super action fantasy.
- Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Oorafor-Mbachu: In the Ooni Kingdom, children born dada—with vines growing in their hair—are rumored to have special powers. Zahrah Tsami doesn’t know anything about that. She feels normal. Others think she’s different—they fear her. Only Dari, her best friend, isn’t afraid of her. But then something begins to happen—something that definitely marks Zahrah as different—and the only person she can tell is Dari. He pushes her to investigate, edging them both closer and closer to danger. Until Dari’s life is on the line. Only Zahrah can save him, but to do so she’ll have to face her worst fears alone, including the very thing that makes her different.
- The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu: The author’s second novel opens in Saharan Africa in the year 2070, then takes its 14-year-old heroine on a quest to the world first introduced in Zahrah the Windseeker (see above). Years after an act of bioterrorism on earth, the opening of a border with the planet Ginen, has just materialized. An untrained “shadow speaker,“ teen Ejii is compelled by otherworldly voices to help avert a war between the newly joined worlds. Great for kids in Grades 5-8.
- Gem, the Season of Prophecy by Victoria Leeman: This tenth-century epic fantasy set during the Britannicus and African Bantu empires, tells of Protector Gods and Underworld Demons crossing the bridge of the afterlife to battle for Earth. While stranded on the Great Trek to find the divine black pearl, Bakari, a Marinda warrior, dreams of predicting the monsoon. Summoning Cagin, the Sorcerer, he is granted his wish, but it must be repaid. Gaia, the Earth Mother, discovers his secret and empowers him as a Spirit God who commands the seasons. When Gaia births her Gem daughters, Diamond, Ruby and Sapphire, Bakari swears to protect them from the Underworld, as foretold by the Prophecy of the ancient Sidhe. He knows the crystal formation of Gem is the only weapon that can challenge Hades and his quest for the Earth. The Prophecy of the Sidhe, which foretells the Underworld’s contest for Earth and the threat to the powers of Gem, sets Gaia the Earth mother to rally her protectors with the African tribes, and clear the divide of gods and men. Like their ancestors before them, Bakari and his brothers must band together as warriors, for honor, for tribe, and for Gem.
- The Enchanted Castle (Shioni of Sheba) by Marc Secchia:
When Shioni, slave to the Princess of Sheba, travels to the legendary Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, she encounters adventure beyond her wildest dreams. Little does she imagine the powerful forces lurking in this jagged volcanic wilderness; forces that could tear the Kingdom of Sheba apart. Can she overcome the wrath of a lion, outwit the treacherous Captain Dabir, and defuse General Getu’s inexplicable hatred? With the help of her friends Mama Nomuula, Princess Annakiya, and the fiuri Azurelle, Shioni must uncover the hidden secrets of the Enchanted Castle before an evil sorcery destroys all she holds dear. Includes original illustrations by the Ethiopian artist Senait. Recommended for middle grades/secondary age readers.
- The Immortals of Meluha by Amish: A once proud empire created by Lord Ram and its Suryavanshi rulers face severe perils as its primary river, the revered Saraswati, is slowly drying to extinction. They also face devastating terrorist attacks from the east, the land of the Chandravanshis. To make matters worse, the Chandravanshis appear to have allied with the Nagas, an ostracised and sinister race of deformed humans with astonishing martial skills. The only hope for the Suryavanshis is an ancient legend: When evil reaches epic proportions, when all seems lost, when it appears that your enemies have triumphed, a hero will emerge. Is the rough-hewn Tibetan immigrant Shiva, really that hero? And does he want to be that hero at all? Drawn suddenly to his destiny, by duty as well as by love, will Shiva lead the Suryavanshi vengeance and destroy evil?
- Bearwalker by Joseph Bruchac: As a member of the Mohawk Bear Clan, Baron has always been fascinated by bears—their gentle strength and untamed power. But the Bearwalker legend, passed down by his ancestors, tells of a different kind of creature—a terrible mix of human and animal that looks like a bear but is really a bloodthirsty monster. The tale never seemed to be more than a scary story. Until now.During a class camping trip deep in the Adirondacks, Baron comes face-to-face with an evil being that is all too real. Although he knows how the story ends in the legend, Baron must overcome this Bearwalker on his own terms.
- Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia by Cindy Pon: No one wanted Ai Ling. And deep down she is relieved—despite the dishonor she has brought upon her family—to be unbetrothed and free, not some stranger’s subservient bride banished to the inner quarters. But now, something is after her. Something terrifying—a force she cannot comprehend. And as pieces of the puzzle start to fit together, Ai Ling begins to understand that her journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams isn’t only a quest to find her beloved father but a venture with stakes larger than she could have imagined.
- Wolf Mark by Joseph Bruchac: Luke King knows a lot of things. Like four different ways to disarm an enemy before the attacker can take a breath. Like every detail of every book he’s ever read. And Luke knows enough just enough about what his father does as a black ops infiltrator to know which questions not to ask. Like why does his family move around so much? Luke just hopes that this time his family is settled for a while. He’ll finally be able to have a normal life. He’ll be invisible just as he wants. But when his dad goes missing, Luke realizes that life will always be different for him. Suddenly he must avoid the kidnappers looking to use him as leverage against his father, while at the same time evading the attention of the school’s mysterious elite clique of Russian hipsters, who seem much too interested in Luke’s own personal secret. Faced with multiple challenges and his emerging paranormal identity, Luke must decide who to trust as he creates his own destiny.
- 47 by Walter Mosley: Number 47, a fourteen-year-old slave boy growing up under the watchful eye of a brutal master in 1832, meets the mysterious TallJohn, who introduces him to a magical science and also teaches him the meaning of freedom. In his first young adult book, acclaimed mystery writer Mosley tells a stirring story of escape from slavery in which sci-fi and African American myth blend with the realism of plantation brutality and the courage of resistance. A boy today remembers himself as a 14-year-old slave named 47, living in Georgia in 1832. He recalls being chained, branded, and whipped until the runaway Tall John inspires him to fulfill his destiny and lead his people to freedom. Like the mythical figure High John the Conqueror, the runaway comes from “beyond Africa,” and he shows the boy the secrets of the universe through magical realism.
Have you found other youth-friendly sci-fi and fantasy books featuring POC? Please post your favs in the comments box below. HAPPY READING!