Here are two books from my #CybilsReadDown pile, both exciting contemporary fantasy in which modern-day kids find that their culture’s traditional Gods are, let’s say, highly relevant to their present lives.
Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. Read by Kinsale Hueston. Rick Riordan Presents/Listening Library, 2020. ISBN 978-1368024662; ASIN B07ZDKSQ2P.
This book from the Rick Riordan Presents line is controversial – on the one hand, Native fantasy for kids is nearly non-existent, so it definitely fills a need. On the other hand, the author is writing about Navajo traditions, but is not Navajo herself, and Navajo people are upset that this fantasy book contains secret elements of their real religion, presented as caricatures. Debbie Reese has many concerns about it, including fearing that children might read these stories and take them as myth, not real religion, though my own daughter’s experience with reading other Rick Riordan books points to just the opposite. I wish that Roanhorse would write about her own culture (I am now not able to find the name of her nation, though she is also Native) rather than her husband’s, but as the white parents in a mixed-race marriage, I’m very sympathetic to her wanting to write for her daughter, as she said in the afterward she was doing. I debated reading it for myself for a long time before actually doing so, and my daughter was just too busy reading her own thing to give it a try while we had it checked out, though she is a fan of the Rick Riordan Presents books in general.
I ultimately decided to read it because I feel that every child deserves to see themselves in books of every genre, not just realistic fiction. (I’ve been reading at least the first book in all the Rick Riordan Presents lI also believe that fantasy gives us a valuable lens for looking at reality in ways that can get to the heart of the truth more deeply than realism always can. And I did enjoy it, and feel that fans of the modern-day kid interacting with the supernatural will also enjoy it. It’s definitely timely, with Diné kids facing off against a villain who wants to expand fracking. I’ve spent so much time talking about the problematic aspects that I’m not going to devote much to the plot. I can’t speak to the story’s giving away religious secrets.
I listened to it on audio, and had mixed feelings about the narrator. On the one hand, she didn’t have distinct voices for the different kid characters, though she did give the villains distinct voices. But, she is expressive, sounds age appropriate, and pronounces Navajo words with no hesitation – I would have had no idea how to pronounce Łizhin, for example (I’d describe it as something between a “k” and a Welsh “ll”, though my linguist father would probably want more information.) I would recommend this book wholeheartedly, except for the concerns about it. Given those, my best advice is to be thoughtful and cautious.
Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron. HMH Kids, 2020. 978-1328635181. Read from ARC. Libby ebook option (but not yet purchased by my library.)
Twelve-year-old Maya lives on Chicago’s South Side, where her mother is an RN and her father travels frequently for his work as a structural engineer. He’s always telling her fantastical stories of interacting with creatures from African legend on his travels, which she’s never really believed. They are both fans of the orisha Oya, a traditional spirit/goddess who stars in a comic book series that Maya loves. It’s only after she’s had the world around her freeze and turn black and white, and a creepy guy wreathed in moving dark ribbons and calling himself the Lord of the Shadows talk to her in dreams that she finds out that her father is more than she thought…
He’s actually the creator and guardian of the veil between the normal world and the world of the Darkbringers, a barrier that the Lord of Shadows is doing his best to destroy. Maya learns that many of the familiar faces around her neighborhood are also orisha! When Maya’s father goes missing, she and her best friends, ghosthunter Eli and scientist Frankie, set out to rescue him and stop the Darkbringer invasion.
This book has been getting lots of buzz! I hadn’t heard any of it yet when I found the ARC in the school little free library and pulled it out for my daughter – I’d mistaken the staff she’s holding on the cover for a bow, and my daughter loves archery. I felt so luck to have found it! Rena Barron was also part of a discussion I watched on Middle Grade Magic.
This is full of humor and adventure, with action that is on the dark side for middle grade, as you might suspect given the title and cover. The supportive local community is an element that I’ve seen more often in African-American YA books and is much less common but very much appreciated in a middle grade fantasy like this, where too often main characters are on their own except for a sidekick or two. My daughter’s decided to wait until she can get it on audio, but we recommend it for fans of Rick Riordan books or the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series.
What have you been reading? And have you found any non-appropriative Native fantasy books for kids?