While many of us might wish to erase 2020 from memory, the chaotic year brought a large amount of compelling new books from Black voices — including popular releases like Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half,” Kiley Reid’s “Such a Fun Age” and “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson. If you’re looking to read something new for Black History Month, here are six recent books you may have missed, with titles for all age groups.
“SLAY” by Brittney Morris (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, $11.99). Coined “Ready Player One” meets “The Hate U Give,” this debut novel from Morris follows Kiera Johnson, a 17-year-old honor roll student with a dazzling secret: She is the creator and main game developer behind the multiplayer online role-playing card game, SLAY, where gamers across the African diaspora can duel using cards based on Black culture references, like the “Twist-Out.” After a teen is murdered over a dispute in the game, debates spark around the world — not because of the teen’s death, but because SLAY is a space specifically for Black gamers. The discussion becomes, “Is this game racist?” “SLAY” is a book I wish I had when I was younger; not only does this young adult novel tackle big conversations in an approachable way, it features a strong, self-assured, intelligent young Black woman as the main character.
“The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw (West Virginia Press, $18.99). Pittsburgh’s Philyaw quickly gained national literary attention last year when this debut collection of short stories was named a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction and The Story Prize. Described as “tender, fierce, proudly Black and beautiful” in a starred Kirkus review that continues, “these stories will sneak inside you and take root,” Philyaw shows the unseen side of churchgoing Black women — as the real, flawed humans they are. While the collection of stories follows a slew of different religious women and girls, what draws the collection together is the characters’ deeply relatable struggles and yearning to express their individuality as they try to find themselves in the discipline of their beliefs.
“Luster” by Raven Leilani (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26). Flowing like a poem and written in a stream-of-consciousness style, “Luster” is easy to get lost in. At one point Leilani is making you laugh with sparking humor, and the next you’re overly uncomfortable. In “Luster,” 20-something Edie, a struggling young Black woman in New York City, finds herself participating in an open marriage, then suddenly living in the couple’s suburban New Jersey home after becoming unemployed. Oh, and Edie may be the only other Black woman the couple’s adopted Black adolescent daughter knows.
“The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories” by Danielle Evans (Riverhead Books, $27). Through six short stories and a novella, Evans explores topics such as racism, gender and grief in eloquent and heartbreaking ways. Author Roxane Gay noted in a Goodreads review that “her language is nimble, her sentences immensely pleasurable to read, and in every single story there is a breathtaking surprise, an unexpected turn, a moment that will leave you speechless, and wanting more.” Don’t miss this one.
“All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17.99). Have you ever felt like you’ve seen an author naked after reading their book because it exposed so much about the person? “All Boys Aren’t Blue” is that book. Dubbed a memoir-manifesto — which is spot-on — journalist and LGBTQ+ activist Johnson shares their memories, from childhood through college as a queer Black boy who realizes they’re different, yet has nothing in society to compare themselves to. (Johnson uses they/them pronouns; LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum.) “All Boys Aren’t Blue” is extremely powerful and discusses both Black and queer identities through a lens of young adulthood that Johnson wishes they had access to when they were younger, following perfectly in line with Toni Morrison’s quote: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” It’s meant for ages 14-18, but readers of all ages will benefit from reading this collection of personal essays.
“Saving Ruby King” by Catherine Adel West (Park Row, $27.99). Another stunning debut released last year, West, who born and raised in Chicago, drew on her own experiences to write this powerful novel. Ruby King’s mother, Alice, is murdered in Chicago’s South Side. Police brush it off, classifying it as simply another violent act in a Black neighborhood. King is mentally broken by this tragedy and her best friend, Layla, attempts to save King from depression. This, however, sends Layla down a dark path of secrets found between their families covering three generations. “What is perhaps most compelling about this novel is the way it combines the stories of the unique characters and their perspectives with insightful passages about social issues impacting the local Black community,” a reviewer wrote for The Nerd Daily.