This book didn’t end up getting nominated for the Cybils (unless Marvel swoops in to nominate it during the last week of the publisher/author nominating period) but it’s still worth reading about.
Black Panther: the Young Prince by Ronald L. Smith. Marvel, 2018.
In this official Marvel novel, 12-year-old T’Challa and his best friend M’Baku are sent to middle school in Chicago to avoid conflict in Wakanda. T’Challa has a Black Panther suit to be used in case of emergencies (even though he’s not yet the Black Panther) as well as a ring from his father. They’re supposed to be incognito, though rather incongruously, they aren’t set up with aliases or registered for school to start with and have to figure all of that out on their own. T’Challa goes by T. Charles, while M’Baku goes by Mike. Things the boys have a hard time adjusting to: the cold, the easy availability of junk food, the new, big middle school social hierarchy, American racial attitudes, and the lower technology levels.
T’Challa makes two friends to start with, a boy he meets on the bus who’s really into comic books, and a girl who’s a coding whiz. M’Baku, to the surprise of those unfamiliar with the original comics or the movie, makes fun of T’Challa for befriending nerds and instead takes up with bully Gemini Jones and his gang of kids who all wear skull rings. As sinister demon-catching devises start popping up around the school, T’Challa knows he has to investigate – and decide who he can trust.
I really enjoyed Smith’s first book Hoodoo, and this had some similar elements with the dark plot. This book? I wished that the superhero action part had kicked in a little sooner. And I didn’t love T’Challa here as much as I loved irrepressible Hoodoo or the Black Panther movie. But my favorite aspect of the movie was the trio of great women around T’Challa, and his new friend Sheila here was not nearly as well fleshed out. This book is really T’Challa’s story, and I’m guessing lots of superhero fans, especially boys and African-American kids, will appreciate that.
So even though this book felt ok but not great for me personally, I’m really glad that it’s out there and that Marvel is putting effort into telling Black Panther stories for young people and finding a good, #OwnVoices author to do it. Action-oriented middle grade fantasy books starring African-American or African boys are pretty thin on the ground – the only other books that pop into my head right now are Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch and Akata Warrior, where the boys are supporting characters. Please let me know if you can think of any others, as I hope I’m missing some!