Caldwell, Patrice. A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen stories of black girl magic, resistance, and hope. Viking Children’s Book, 2020. 354p. ISBN: 9781984835659. $18.99. MS, HS, OT *****
This book is exactly what the subtitle says it is: a collection of stories of hope and black girl magic. It is a wonderfully diverse collection of stories that center protagonists who are black girls, women, or non-binary people. Other than that, the stories have almost nothing in common. There are all sorts of genres represented here: fantasy, sci-fi, historical, mythology, and romance. The characters in these stories represent much of the gender and LGBTQ+ spectrum. There are some big name authors (Ibi Zoboi, Justina Ireland, Elizabeth Acevedo), but also some authors I had not heard of before, all writing uplifting own voices stories.
Diversity in ability is represented in a narrator who has an audible lisp. At first listen, I wondered whether that lisp would be distracting. But no, it took my ears about half a story to adjust to their voice and then I settled in just fine. Though it did make me wonder: how hard is it for this talented narrator to get work? And why? I am going to go look for anything else they have read because I really appreciated what it meant for me as a reader to so easily become accustomed to a diverse speaking voice representing diverse authorial voices. It was an apt metaphor for me about taking a little time to adjust to something new and let it open new worlds. Which is exactly what these stories did: opened new worlds!
As for the stories themselves, these would be suitable for middle school readers and up, without swearing or sex or particular violence. These are stories of black experience which means that sometimes the context they are set in is hard. But in other stories the context is black joy and in all cases the stories take a hopeful perspective and are not bleak or harsh. With mermaids and scientists, triumphing protagonists and smoldering romances there’s something for just about everyone in here. Highly recommended for inventive, engaging stories taken individually and for the way the stories come together in one big celebration of black girl magic.
-Andrea Mullarkey, Berkeley Public Library – Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch
Tags: Coming of age, Diverse, People of color, own voices, short stories