Young adult fiction has come a ways since the blonde-haired, blue-eyed yesterdays of Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High and the prolific Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine thriller mills of paranormal and “whodunit?” teen mysteries. Today’s YA literature—like National Book Award Finalist Walter Dean Myer’s Monster, Coretta Scott King Book Award Winner Angela Johnson’s First Part Last and LA Times Book Winner Coe Booth’s Tyrell—is highly celebrated, dog-eared work that is likely to be set in harsh urban environments with foul-mouthed, golden-hearted minority protagonists facing homelessness, legal woes, unintended pregnancy, drug-addicted parents, and other social pathologies that are the meat ‘n’ potatoes of the 10 o’clock news. Editor Victoria Brownworth’s collection of established and emerging Black writers largely follows these trends, but is at its freshest when it eschews the familiar and instead settles into various previously un-mined youth of color worlds, past and present.
From Where We Sit…(Tiny Satchel Press) is written from the seats of adult writers reaching back to voices from their youth, both straight and gay. While the youth these—largely MFA—writers craft are often precocious and sometimes overly self-aware, as with the bullied 10 year-old in Craig Laurence Sidney’s “Bereft,” most of the stories in this collection successfully convey this time of wonderment, confusion, depthless despair and fresh cunning with perfect pitch.
While not ordered with any obviousness, the book could largely be sectioned off by topical themes. Getting ample play are the archetype absent and chemically dependent fathers and their problematic relationships with their kids, done with the shrewdest aplomb in Lisa R. Nelson’s exceptional title story. Similarly, stories of innocence lost to gunfire and drug-plagued streets are also on parade, with Nelson again taking the prize on culling original material out of familiar scenes with the unexpected middle class slumming tale of “Thirteen.” These dark, if overly familiar, story elements are sure to resonate with some of the book’s target demo eager for reflection or voyeurism. Nonetheless, with rushed noir vignettes like newcomer Misty Sol’s “Unintended Victim” the collection occasionally veers away from tales excavating truth from shallow wells and more toward the well-travel terrain of contemporary ghetto lit.
Far more successfully are literary noir elements weaved together with deliberately exquisite suspense in one girl’s uneasy ride with strangers in Fiona Lewis’s “Flight.” Sibling lost and misplaced blame gets a repeat visit, with Sol’s more compact “Sweet Potato Pie” faring well, but again its Nelson’s panoramic domestic drama that leaves readers hungry for more of her characters’ haunting story of familial loss long after the final page. Again, death proves intrusive and revealing in a different take on the absentee father trope, in Guillame Stewart’s fine, if plodding “Our Fathers.”
Stories about racial displacement and alienation frequently are presented with varying clarity and intention. Lowell Boston’s deftly executed, coolly detached “I, The Real Rodney Ash” has the crisp, matter-of-fact delivery of a New Yorker story with just enough detail to bestow it a ring of truth. In his more emotionally present narrative about a defiant, lone black boy in an all-white school, Boston moves closer to his subject in the satisfying “Ten to One.” In contrast, the visually arresting scene work and authentic dialogue by poet kahlil almustafa is nearly undone by the bewilderingly hurried closing of his self-explanatory, “Discovering Pac,” a novel opener rushed into costume as a short story. A talented Quincy Scott Jones’ creative wordplay proves an angry exercise in prose experimentation—against one clueless professor and Jones’s fish-out-of-water circumstance—that is more defiant catharsis than story.
Tales that defy easy characterization are those that fare best among Brownworth’s selected stories. Craig Laurence Gidney’s new diva worship classic, “Circus Boy Without A Safety Net,” humorously delivers some much needed levity to gay coming-of-age topic that is inherently heavy. There is also a timeless quality to the many young women’s stories here, whether the protagonists are lesbian or not, including: Becky Birtha’s “Johnnieruth,” Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s lyrical “Adale” and aptly titled “A Magic of Bags,” and most especially Anne Shade’s historical western romance between girls, “Restless Hearts.” Not to be outdone, the iconic Jewell Gomez conjures her usual Gilda Stories alchemy with not one but two tales set in eras past. Though at times it has the feel of episodic television, Ifalade Ta’ Shia Asanti’s less magical “Fruit Don’t Fall Too Far From the Tree” does tell a unique story of Black upper class characters that would have once more familiarly fit into the wealthier enclaves of Sweet Valley, but is now our own. At its best, Brownworth’s collection uncovers a diversity of black voices rarely heard in contexts once considered the exclusive dominion of others. Throughout these inspiring characters are not always sitting pretty, but they’re always sitting strong.