Fantasy and Diversity
As a young reader I loved fantasy. Edward Eager led to E. Nesbit, L.Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, then Lloyd Alexander, Madeline L'Engle and J.R.R. Tolkien with a stop along the way to read the Merlin books by Mary Stewart starting with The Crystal Cave. Now, looking back I realize that this rich reading journey was all white, mostly male, and more than a little British.
Since then, J.K. Rowling burst on the scene, publishing a Harry Potter book each year from 1997-2000 and every other year from 2003-2007. Fantasy became a respectable strand of young people's literature with large sections and prominent displays in book stores and libraries. But as a librarian in an urban elementary school, I struggled to find fantasy stories that also reflected my students.
This fall I dipped back into the magical realm specifically aiming to discover diverse titles and authors. Here are some wonderful works to recomend to young fantasy lovers reflecting the diversity of the world we live in. This is NOT an exhaustive list! I am not that efficient a reader! But it shows some of what is out there for young fantasy lovers.
The Jumbies (and 2 other books in this series) by Tracey Baptiste. The Trinidad born author based this series, where a spunky heroine faces frightening creatures in a lush, island setting on a Caribbean folktale, The Magic Orange Tree. Give this to 4th or 5th grade girls who want something magical and scary.
Where the Mountains Meet the Moon (and 2 other books in this series) by Grace Lin. The author (of Taiwanese heritage) intertwines Chinese folklore with the heroines heroic quest. This enchantingly beautiful illustrated book will appeal to both girls and boys who are sensitive to connections between stories. It could work as a read aloud for young students in 2nd or 3rd grade, or for young proficient readers, but its appeal extends even to middle school.
Dragons in a Bag and The Dragon Thief (more please!) by Zetta Eliot who describes herself as a Black feminist writer of poetry, plays, essays, novels, and stories for children. These short, readable adventures are set in Brooklyn and feature diverse and memorable characters. Magic can happen here! Give these to students who crave adventure. If the vocabulary makes these books too challenging, read them to your kids! (Grades 2-6)
Kingston and Magicians Lost and Found by Rucker Moses (a pseudonym for Craig S. Phillips and Herold Hayes Jr., both from Atlanta) is coming February 2021. This magical story set in "Echo City," Brooklyn mixes the world of stage magicians with alternate universes. The Black teen at the center of the story is trying to find his father who disappeared into another dimension through a magic mirror and runs afoul of creatures from the other side of the mirror who replace and sap power from those living here. Give this family oriented yet creepy story to readers in grades 5-7 who will also enjoy learning some history. However, be prepared to discover that "Echo City," Brooklyn is not be a real place.
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe (sequel: Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe) by Carlos Hernandez. One of the Best Books Ever! Alternate universes, a believable Cuban extended family, realistic drama mixed with magic and a cat. At the end of the book I was ready to start reading it again.
Sal and Gabi is published under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint from Disney Hyperion which is working to provide a beach head for fantasy writers of color. Their mission is "to publish great middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage." So far all of the books in this imprint are worth looking at, but this one is an instant classic! (5th grade and up)