A Tuesday Ten: African American Characters in Fantasy and SF
Posted by Stephanie Whelan
Since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was yesterday, this seemed like an appropriate ten. Thing is, it’s a tough ten to build. By narrowing the focus to main characters of specifically African-American background, I’ve shut the door on a lot of the speculative fiction that contains people of color, but not explicitly African-American. It’s actually startling how few books meet these requirements.
The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex (Disney-Hyperion, 2007)
Gratuity “Tip” Tucci is on the run when aliens invade the Earth and her mother vanishes. Determined to find her mother, she goes on a cross country adventure with her cat and a renegade alien Boov self-named J-Lo. Hilarity and adventure make this a delightful book from Adam Rex with a likable, down-to-earth heroine who manages to save the planet. A film based on the book is scheduled to be released in November 2014. I love the book and the cover art is fine, but I will mark that there’s no attempt to show our African-American heroine .
Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin (Razorbill, expected publication: February 2014)
If you’ve been following my blog, you already know about this one–and I’m thrilled to include it in this list. African American characters in a story inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale”. Beautifully and poignantly told, but with enough magic to qualify as a contemporary fantasy story.
The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore (Walker Children’s, 2013)
This title has an ensemble cast. One of the three main characters in the present day story is Mallory Green, a girl struggling to deal with the separation of her parents and determined to unravel the mystery surrounding the Water Castle. She’s a vivid and likable character who struggles with being one of the few African-American children in town. We even get an image of Mallory on the cover, though I can’t say I loved the art for this one.
Star Ka’at by Andre Norton (Archway, c1976)
Of course if you want to talk cheesy covers, let’s try Andre Norton’s StarKa’ats. But at least the character is shone on the cover! This 1970s series was one that I read early on and loved, but it was only in revisiting it last year that I realized one of the two human characters in the story is African American. Elly Mae is adopted by the Star Ka’ats along with the boy Jim as these aliens pick up refugees of their race from Earth. The telepathic ka’ats take the two children with them to their home world. The kids adventures continue in three more titles: Star Ka’at World (1976), Star Ka’ats and the Plant People (1979), and Star Ka’ats and the Winged Warriors (1981)
The Wizard of Washington Square by Jane Yolen (Starscape Books, c1969)
I confess, this is one of those odd obscure books that never crossed my path. Considering how much I enjoy collecting fantasy and SF set in New York City, I’m surprised I haven’t come across it before now. Leilah and David are playing in Washington Square when they encounter a wizard. Admittedly he’s only a second rate wizard, but he’s magical enough to cause a whole mess of trouble and give the kids a wild adventure to rescue David’s dog! Cartoonish cover, but does feature our main characters.
The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Knopf Books, 2004)
Here’s where I started running dry on actual speculative fiction novels, so I considered what else I could include that would still fit the list parameters. This immediately sprang to mind. This is the first story from Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (Knopf, c1985) and it has been turned into a stunning picture book. The Dillons could depict multicultural characters with such stunning elegance and beauty, and I’ve never tired of their work. The story is a folktale, that tells how once some of the people in Africa knew how to fly. When they were captured and enslaved and brought to the Americas, many of them forgot their pasts and forgot how to fly. That is, until an old man sparks the memory once more . . . it’s a stunning work of art and story, and fantastic folklore.
Precious and the Boo Hag by Patricia C. McKissack and Onawumi Jean Moss, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker (Atheneum, 2005)
This is a favorite read-aloud picture book of mine about Precious, a girl who is sick and must stay home while her family is out in the fields. Her mother has warned Precious not to open the door to “nothing and nobody” because it might be the boo-hag! Well that old trickster witch tries to trick Precious and intimidate her several times–turning into different people, and finally into a shiny penny–but Precious figures out the trick every time.
Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
I haven’t read this one yet, but how can you not love the idea of two giants whose son winds up being tiny, leaving them anxious and worried as to how he’ll cope in the giant world. Hewitt proves to his parents and his doctor that he’s more than capable, and can–in fact–help out his parents when they wind up in a pickle. Jerdine Nolen has written number of African American tall tales, so she’s definitely an author to look into for more! And Kadir Nelson’s stunning artwork is hard to miss. This book is no exception!
The Menagerie by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland (HarperCollins, 2013)
I haven’t read this one yet, but it seems that young Logan Wilde, one of the main characters of the story, is African American. When Logan discovers a young griffin under his bed, he finds himself drawn into the magical and dangerous world of The Menagarie. Zoe Kahn and her family have been guardians of the Menagerie for generations, but now she needs Logan’s help to find the griffon cubs and keep the incredible creatures a secret from the world. The second book in this series will be Dragon on Trial (Expected Publication: March 2014).
Justice and Her Brothers by Virginia Hamilton (Point, c1978)
We’ll wrap up the list with another Virginia Hamilton. This science fiction story of siblings with psychic powers hasn’t come on my radar before now, and it’s lamentable that it’s completely out of print along with the rest of the Justice Cycle: Dustland (1980), and The Gathering(1981). Justice discovers in the course of the story that she and her brother possess powerful psychic abilities–but who will prevail when siblings engage in a battle of wills and power.
I’ve got two honorable mentions to thrown in!
The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman (Candlewick, c2011)
Delia Sherman’s title has a main character Sophie who is spending the summer down South with her grandmother at the family’s ancestral home. She’s unhappy and wishes she were somewhere else having adventures like the characters in the books she’s read. She gets her wish . . . sort of. Sophie is transported back in time to the pre Civil War era, when blacks were kept as slaves on the plantation. Sophie’s summer tanned skin combined with her obvious family resemblance have the people of that time assuming she’s one half-white by-blows of the family. While the main character isn’t black, this story popped up in a lot of my searches, and I felt it was worth mentioning especially since it’s been reprinted for 2014 by Candlewick.
Bending Time by Charles and Elisheba Johnson, illustrated by Charles Johnson (Booktrope, 2013)
This was one of our independent publications that I read for the Cybils. Our boy scientist Emery Jones is constantly inventing new gadgets, but when he invents a way to travel through time and sends a bully back to the Triassic, Emery has go to figure a way to get him home again–even if he doesn’t really want to. While this book probably needs a good amount of editorial polishing, it is notable in that it has an African American inventor character in a speculative fiction plot–we do need more of these characters in fiction. This one isn’t going to be on many library shelves, but it’s good to know writers are out there creating this kind of fiction for kids.
It’s sometimes hard to tell the race of a character in a book if it isn’t explicitly spelled out or noted in the summary. So there may be other books out there that fit my list that I’m missing. If anyone has any titles for me, put them in the comments. (I’ll try and list them below my list). I do think that characters of color in speculative fiction is something that must be encouraged. It’s important for people to see themselves represented in possible futures, and to know they will be a part of creating a future.
It’s also notable that of the 6 middle grade titles I’ve included in the main list, only one of the authors is African American. Food for thought.
So please! Add to my title list if you can! Comments welcome!
About Stephanie WhelanI'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.
Posted on January 21, 2014, in General Posts, Lists and tagged Authors, Books, Children's Books, Children's Literature, fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Lists, literature, MG Books, Middle-Grade Fiction, Multicultural, Picture Books, Psychic Powers, Reading, Science Fiction, series, SF, Urban Fantasy. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.