As I mentioned earlier this week, I’m always excited for a good magical school story, and I’ve been so excited to see how many of them have been coming out this year, especially starring Black girls. You can take your pick between a school set in historic manor in Louisiana and one set at a futuristic school in Nigeria.
Wildseed Witch by Marti Dumas. Abrams, 2022. ISBN 978-1419755613. Read from library copy.
New Orleans middle schooler Hassani has two main goals: to make it as a YouTuber with her channel “Makeup on the CheapCheap” to get her separated parents to reunite. So when her father takes her to meet his new partner, Sandy, after they’ve already bought a house together, Hassani is outraged. This leads to something that she only realizes is an outburst of magic after she is invited to attend Belles Demoiselles, a six-week-long magic academy/finishing school.
Of course Hassani is thrilled to go, but once there, finds the school filled with girls who’ve been practicing their magic for years and all have clothing and room decor to match their “signature flowers,” and look down on Hassani and her dollar store YouTube channel. The rules are unclear but the punishments are strict, leaving Hassani to wonder if she’s in the right place after all. But with a good deal of effort, she does learn more about her powers and her flaws, makes some friends – and perhaps most importantly to the child reader, learns to use her powers to attract adorable kittens.
I was a bit torn about this book. On the one hand, it’s grounded in Black New Orleans history with all-Black characters at the school, while Hassani’s best friend at home is Latina. I also liked that Hassani was able to recognize and address her own biases and work to fix problems she’s caused other people. On the other hand, this magic school had an emphasis on traditionally feminine etiquette that did not appeal to me at all. And the teachers didn’t seem to realize until almost the end of the book that they were punishing Hassani for not meeting expectations they’d never clarified to her, which seemed unnecessarily unkind. That being said, between the magic, the relatable friend and family dynamics, the quest for YouTube stardom, and of course, the kittens, I could see a lot of kids really enjoying this book.
Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tọlá Okogwu. Read by Nneka Okogwu. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2022. ISBN 9781665912617. Listened to audiobook on Libby.
Onyeka and her mother have always just scraped by, moving from one cheap apartment to another. She’s never met her father, and her mother has never told her anything about him or why they moved to London from Nigeria. Onyeka’s always wondered, especially because her big, wild hair seems to set people in England on edge. But when her hair saves her best friend from drowning, she finally learns the truth: she is Solari, and called to go to a state-run school in Nigeria to learn how to use her powers. In this near-future story, Nigeria leads the world in technology, and the students have lots of high-tech help in their missions. defending the school from the Rogues. Onyeka makes friends and finds community, but also learns that not all is as it seems at the school that at first feels like a dream come true.
This is a fast-paced thriller of a story, with lots of good things going for it, including Onyeka, mysteries and plot twists (though the plot twist seemed fairly obvious to me, it probably wouldn’t to a younger reader.) I really enjoyed watching (or listening to) Onyeka learn to use her powers, and the audiobook version let me hear the accents in all their glory, from London to Lagos. My biggest problem is that while I wanted it to be empowering for the unruly Black hair to have actual magic powers, using the powers made her sick as a matter of course, and that undermined a lot of the Black hair positivity for me. Still, this is a valuable addition to the magical school roster.
What are your favorite magical school books?