How Black Speculative Fiction Both Helps Me Escape and Stay Grounded
By Cindi Koudelka
What I love most about this book (besides the incredible stories written by powerhouse authors) is that it was the perfect way for me to “return to reading”. The short story format allowed me to build my stamina back up while the range of stories’ themes and styles helped me think about the richness and complexities of lives different from my own. Within the tales, I found strong, powerful characters who as Patrice Caldwell describes in the introduction “rise from the ashes” to create their own worlds. It was so refreshing to read stories featuring black protagonists that focused on hope. L.L. McKinney (2020) noted, “We know that for every “issue” book, we need at least five more where we can go on adventures, fall in love, solve mysteries, be heroes, do everyday things like everyone else. Black readers need to see themselves in narratives outside of racism, slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality”. This book highlights the strength of black women rather than limiting them to stereotypical victims.
One of the units I have incorporated with my 8th graders has been a fractured fairy tale unit. We study the genres of fairy tales across cultures and the genres of parody and satire. We then create a mashup by having the students create their own fairy tale parodies and perform them for the primary grade students. It is the highlight of the year (which they sadly missed out on this year - thanks Corona!). One part of the unit is to take several print and movie versions of Cinderella and compare them across culture and time. When I discovered this book, I practically screamed with excitement about another version - a sci fi version with a Black protagonist - to add to the comparison. Literally every version we have had has centered the European roots of the story. This retelling is a fresh take that embraces female empowerment and demonstrates the truth of Audre Lorde’s quote, “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Bayron interweaves race, LGBTQ, feminism, family, and colonialism into an adventurous tale that made me reflect about how we often set girls, especially BIPOC, up as objects rather than creators of their own destinies. In this story, Cinderella has been dead for 200 years, but in Lille, everyone must live up to the legacy. Now girls are required to attend the annual ball where they are selected for marriage based on appearances. When Sophia was young, she dreamed of attending the ball, but as she got older, she started to question the “truths” she had been told her whole life. Plus, she is in love with Erin and tries to convince her to run away together. When she is forced to attend the ball, she makes a run for it and ends up in Cinderella’s mausoleum where she finds Cinderella’s last known descendent and they decide they aren’t going to run - they are going to take the whole kingdom down. I think my favorite part of the book (besides the fact that Sophia was so brave) was how nuanced the characters were. I loved the complexity of things like Sophia’s relationship with her parents. They loved her and everything they did was meant to protect her, but their protectiveness only enforced and perpetuated the oppressive situation actually endangering her.
When I was younger, I loved paranormal stuff (actually based on some of my students’ interests, I wonder if that is something every teen becomes just a little obsessed with - oh man, this sounds like it could be a research study!) This book brought me back to some of those super creepy books I loved back in the day, but the Black perspective added a much more powerful layer of criticality than just that pure escapism (or perhaps overthinking about death and afterlife). Here Iris and her friend Daniel sneak into a graveyard in the middle of winter, and it leads them on a journey of learning about their town’s history which includes the segregation that occurred right up to separate (and not equal) graveyards. Iris discovers something else too as she begins to be haunted by Avery, a girl their own age who had died in 1956. Avery’s goal is far more personal than Iris and Daniel believe, and it puts them in grave danger. This would be a great middle grade book and would be a perfect read-aloud during October for Halloween or during the snowy winter months (for those of us who have to deal with snow!). I love how the author infused the true story of segregated cemeteries into a good old-fashioned ghost story. The author’s note at the end provides the interesting background that inspired her book. This book would also be a great way to kick off an inquiry unit or inspire students to solve some unknown riddle the way that Iris and Daniel tried to learn more about Avery’s life and death.
I always enjoy stories that explore the idea of “just because we can, does it mean we should?”. I also love it when an author seamlessly blends a clever mystery into other genres. When I first looked at the cover, I thought about Marissa Meyers, Cinder, but cybernetic body parts are where the similarity ends. At the very beginning of the story, Lena was with her friends debating the growth of technology and one of her early lines struck me when she said “We’re forgetting how important it is to be human and interact with other living things. Humanity is sacred”. I thought about how that line could prompt a powerful inquiry unit in the classroom into ethics and decision-making as well as power and privilege. Lena was very anti-tech, so it was a double blow when she was fitted with a cybernetic arm at her parent’s request after a terrible accident damaged her own arm beyond repair. There are also other books, movies, and life connections for the students to supplement thinking about the themes. This book could act as an anchor text supplemented by other stories of tech use/misuse or it could be part of book clubs alongside books such as MT Anderson’s Feed, Orleans by Sherri Smith, or Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. Additionally, you could bring in movie clips, as well as nonfiction pieces that explore how technology has both improved and hurt our lives. Now, here’s the really cool thing about this book - Ellis took the idea of tech and the conflicts inherent within society and wove it into some very intriguing ideas about power and privilege as Lena’s parents owned CyberCorp, the major tech company that ruled everything affording the family certain rights and opportunities not available to everyone. The problem is that the technology and neural chip controlling Lena’s arm is so new that it makes her a pariah among her friends as she struggles to adapt. Then, just to keep you even more engrossed in the book, somebody has killed her friend and is publicly targeting the children of CyberCorp’s employees and people believe Lena may be the one behind it. Even she wonders if she could have done it during one of her strange sleepwalking episodes. From there the book weaves in ethical questions as Lena tries to find out the truth.
It seems only fitting that I close out this post with a little bit about the sequel to the book that ignited a new passion for fantasy. Technically, I read this one before the Pandemic, but much like the first book, it kept me on the edge of my seat as I rejoined Zélie’s journey as she and the other Maji faced a Civil War after she has brought magic back. I absolutely adored the various ethical dilemmas that each character faced as they navigated relationships, power, and positioning. The story made me think a lot about Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed when he discusses how the oppressed can become the oppressors when they are not involved in their own liberation. As Zélie struggles with her own guilt, desires, and pressure as the reluctant leader, she sometimes loses sight of the goal for liberation for the sake of vengeance. Adeyemi’s gift is creating this magical world to escape into while keeping you grounded in the realities of life, the injustices as well as the beauty.
McKinney, L.L. (2020, June 17). The role publishing plays in the commodification of Black pain. Tor.com. http://https://www.tor.com/2020/06/17/the-role-publishing-plays-in-the-commodification-of-black-pain/
Dr. Cindi Koudelka (firstname.lastname@example.org; @cmkoudelka) is a Curriculum Specialist with National Board Certification in Adolescent Young Adulthood/English Language Arts at Fieldcrest School District in Illinois and an Adjunct faculty member at Aurora University. Being a bibliophile and school nerd, she holds multiple certifications from PreK - 12 and is an active member in several literacy and research organizations. Her research interests reflect her passion as a youth advocate by focusing her work on critical adolescent literacies, young adult literature, positioning, and youth participatory action research.