Girls of Color in Fantasy vs. Realistic Fiction

    Two young adult novels, published one year apart, have reached similar audiences and transformed expectations for teen fiction. One novel, Children of Blood and Bone, is set in the imagined African nation of Orisha, where a tyrannical monarchy seeks to suppress the maji, a group of individuals who possess fantastical gifts. The other, The Hate U Give, takes place in Garden Heights, a predominantly black neighborhood in the United States that becomes the center of media attention when a black teenager is shot by a police officer there. Both books, which feature communities rife with violence and prejudice, depict racism through the lens of young black girls who must overcome their fears to find justice.

     Zelie, a maji who is able to conjure ghosts, is one of the narrators in Children of Blood and Bone. Outspoken and impulsive, Zelie embarks on a quest to restore the powers of the maji, who currently cannot harness their abilities. Amari, a sheltered but fierce princess, escapes her family in order to protect an ancient relic that can revive the maji’s powers. Both narrators’ lives coincide due to their common purpose, and they form a hesitant alliance to help the oppressed maji rise up against the monarchy. This book highlights a strong bond between two girls who are initially wary of one another but grow to respect each other’s unique traits. Thus, the theme of female empowerment for women of color is prevalent throughout the novel, especially since the book denounces the assumption that women have to share a common social background in order to become friends. Rather than including one-dimensional female heroines, the book juxtaposes wise matriarchs such as Mama Agba with ruthless leaders such as Commander Kaea, a woman who kills out of blind loyalty to the king. Additionally, this fantasy novel points out discrimination within the African community. Light-skinned members of society are seen as desirable and elevated compared to the dark-skinned maji, who are forced to work as slaves and live in hiding. However, Orisha is not just a nation of moral decay; it possesses a rich history based on West African mythology and the Yoruba religion. Tomi Adeyemi, the author of the novel, weaves together different aspects of African religions and languages to create a society made of clans that are each devoted to a specific god or goddess. Although the book’s context and attention to historical detail are distinct, the plot mimics that of many adventure-based young adult novels. When the royal guards etch the word “maggot,” an epithet for the maji, into Zelie’s back with a knife, the moment seemed to echo a scene from the Harry Potter series in which Bellatrix carves the slur “Mudblood” into Hermione’s arm. Overall, the book provides an irresistible escape into a fantasy world while addressing current issues.

     In The Hate U Give, Starr Carter is a conflicted African American teenager who lives in Garden Heights but attends the largely white school Williamson Prep. Torn between both microcosms, Starr manipulates her outward appearance to match society’s expectations of herself. She wears Jordans and selects her words carefully at Williamson, but she remains on the sidelines during parties and uses teenage vernacular in Garden Heights. When she witnesses her friend’s murder at the hands of a policeman, Starr realizes that her delicate balance of everyday life has been shattered. Starr seems more relatable than the characters in Children of Blood and Bone due to her accounts of anxiety and peer pressure. One theme that this book elaborates on is the power of social media to both bring people together and pull them apart. Moreover, Starr describes both peaceful rallies and violent riots that seek to combat police brutality, highlighting the imperfect approach that many protesters take in order to facilitate change. The dual nature of Starr’s character, social media, and protests creates a consistent narrative, which explains that the killings of innocent black people is not a black-and-white issue. A narrator that injects humor and current cultural references into her story, Starr develops into a more confident and courageous person who finally recounts the events of the murder on national news. While her determined personality is similar to that of Zelie and Amari, Starr has more time to grow throughout the novel in a genuine manner, especially since her greatest enemies are her own fear  and self-doubt. Tackling issues such as the damaging influence of drugs on communities and the need for more oversight in the police force, The Hate U Give imparts the message that one life is not worth more than another.

     Both books describe unforgettable girls of color who manage to overcome obstacles and bolster their own self-confidence during the process. Although one lies in the realm of fantasy and the other is realistic fiction, the two books contain characters that are equally compelling and worlds that are just as complicated as our own.