Sonderbooks Stand-out

Sonderbooks Book Review of

A Phoenix First Must Burn

Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope

edited by Patrice Caldwell

A Phoenix First Must Burn

Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope

edited by Patrice Caldwell

Review posted February 6, 2021
Viking, 2020. 354 pages.
Review written December 7, 2020, from a library book Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#9 Teen Speculative Fiction

I don’t usually have the patience for short stories, but I took up this collection as part of my reading for the first round of the Cybils Awards, and read a story between each full-length book I read, sort of as a way to cleanse my palate. And I ended up being delighted.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – there are some powerhouse writers included in this book. The ones I’ve read before are Elizabeth Acevedo, Justina Ireland, Dhonielle Clayton, and Ibi Zoboi, and they and the rest of the authors told stories that contained magic along with a big punch.

Here’s an extended section from editor Patrice Caldwell’s Introduction:

But whenever I went to the children’s section of the library to discover more tales, the novels featuring characters who looked like me were, more often than not, rooted in pain set amid slavery, sharecropping, or segregation. Those narratives are important, yes. But because they were the only ones offered, I started to wonder. Where is my fantasy, my future? Why don’t Black people exist in speculative worlds?

Too often media focuses on our suffering. Too often we are portrayed as victims. But in reality, we advocate for and save ourselves long before anyone else does, from heroes my parents taught me of to recent ones like Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the Black women who founded Black Lives Matter.

Malcolm X said, “The most neglected person in America is the Black Woman.” I believe this is even more true for my fellow queer siblings, and especially for those identifying as trans and as gender nonconforming. We are constantly under attack.

And yet still we rise from our own ashes.

We never accept no.

With each rebirth comes a new strength.

Black women are phoenixes.

We are given lemons and make lemonade.

So are the characters featured in this collection of stories.

These sixteen stories highlight Black culture, folktales, strength, beauty, bravery, resistance, magic, and hope. They will take you from a ship carrying teens who are Earth’s final hope for salvation to the rugged wilderness of New Mexico’s frontier. They will introduce you to a revenge-seeking hair-stylist, a sorcerer’s apprentice, and a girl whose heart is turning to ash. And they will transport you to a future where all outcomes can be predicted by the newest tech, even matters of the heart.

Though some of these stories contain sorrow, they ultimately are full of hope. Sometimes you have to shed who you were to become who you are.

This collection does not disappoint. And take it from this white lady, you don’t have to be a Black girl to thoroughly enjoy these stories in their variety, their surprise, and their magic.