Here are two more books from my Cybils TBR Read Down pile. As the partner of someone who was usually one of just a few people of color at the local sci-fi conventions, I was so happy to see two books for young nerds of color like his younger self!
My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi. Read by the author. Dutton/ Listening Library, 2019. ISBN 978-0399187353 ASIN B07W4X7LDY. Listened on Libby.
It’s 1984, and 12-year-old Ebony-Grace is flying alone from Huntsville, Alabama, where her grandfather works as one of the Negro engineers for NASA, to stay with her father in Harlem. Ebony-Grace works hard to overcome her airsickness so that she can play out her role as Cadette E. Grace Starfleet of the Starship Uhura, from the ongoing story shared with her grandfather. Ebony-Grace has her eyes on the stars and dreams of going to Space Camp and being the first kid in space. So when she gets to Harlem, with its loud noises, graffiti, and kids doing what looks like a “breaking bones dance”, she’s certain she’s landed on the foreign planet of No Joke City. Her former friend Bianca is dancing with a crew called the Nine Flavas, who call Ebony-Grace an ice cream sandwich because of her open nerdiness and lack of “flava.”
It’s painful to watch Ebony-Grace as she tries to use Bracelets of Submission and fire lasers at the curious kids who ask more questions than she can handle as she first arrives at her father’s. Her parents both just tell her to be normal and forget her stories, and neither will tell her why she’s not allowed to talk to her grandfather. Her father tells her to go out and make friends while her mother tells her to stay away from the street urchins, neither messages that actually help her make friends. It’s hard, slow work to figure out a way to keep her “imagination location” open and appreciate the world of Harlem around her. I had so much sympathy for her, but I really wanted the adults around her to give her some actual social skills and acknowledge the validity of her love of space.
For another look at Harlem in the same time period, try Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia.
SLAY by Brittney Morris. Simon Pulse, 2019. 978-1534445420. Read on Libby.
17-year-old Kiera has two lives: the public one, where she’s a top student and at a mostly-white private school, with a white best friend, Harper, and a gorgeous Black boyfriend, Malcolm, who like her is in pursuit of Black excellence, even if her younger sister Steph doesn’t like him.
In between math tutoring and dates, Kiera has a secret life, where she’s the creator of an all-Black MMORPG called SLAY, a safe haven where players can celebrate the many aspects of the culture of the African diaspora, safe both from trolls and the casual racism of games that don’t even offer the option of well-made dark-skinned characters. In SLAY, all the players are kings and queens, and we meet several of them from their own points of view in short chapters throughout the book. It’s a card game in VR, where players are dealt six random cards with powers based on Black culture that they can then use to duel in the arena.
But when a boy is murdered over the game, the secret is out. Suddenly, people are accusing the game of being racist. There’s a horrible troll threatening to sue for discrimination, and white people on TV treating it like it’s a game. Everything that she built is falling down around her, and she doesn’t know who to trust besides her co-developer, Cicada, on another continent.
I heard so much buzz about this book before it came out and was worried that it wouldn’t live up to the hype, but it did! There is so much going on here, from the issues I’ve already discussed that caused Kiera to make the game in the first place to the look at the conflicts inside Black culture and Kiera’s exhaustion at continually being asked to represent all Black people at school. Things kept developing so rapidly that my family kept asking me questions multiple times because I was so absorbed I didn’t hear them. And though I’ve been talking about Kiera, Cicada and her younger sister Steph were also very well-developed characters that I would love to see more from. Come for the video game fun and stay for the characters and the smart cultural commentary. I only wish SLAY were real!
Marie Lu’s Warcross is the obvious companion for being action and video game combination, though it’s lower on the reality and higher on the action and drama.