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New beginnings: The freshest books of 2016

Sports, fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s lit — 59 soulful books to rock your world

There are 59 books on this list. That seems like a lot, but — it’s not. Each year, the selection of new books by, for, and about black people gets better and better, which makes whittling them down for an end-of-year list incredibly difficult. Apologies if your fave isn’t included here. This list is about books that may have flown under your radar. Many are independently published. Or were created by authors you’ve never heard of. But they’re worth your time. From little-known historical stories such as the one brought to beautiful life in Freedom in Congo Square to the therapeutic poetry of Cannibal and Bestiary — there’s just so much. Fiction about mental illness. Nonfiction about the Black Panthers. A picture book filled with tiny black ballerinas — and a photo book of a real-life black ballerina. No reviews here, just gorgeous cover art and the magical first two lines opening lines of each book. Read on. Discover something new.

Fiction

Kindred book cover

Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Octavia E. Butler and Damian Duffy, illustrated by John Jennings (Abrams ComicArts)

Octavia Butler’s haunting 1979 sci-fi novel gets the graphic novel treatment. Images drawn by John Jennings.

I lost an arm on my last trip home. The trouble began long before June 9, 1976 but June 9 is the day I remember.


Under the Udala Trees book cover

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (Mariner Books)

Set during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), this story about a young girl reckoning with her forbidden sexuality is a refreshing new addition to gay literature.

Midway between Old Oba-Nnewi Road and New Oba-Nnewi Road, in that general area bound by the village church and the primary school, and where Mmiri John Road drops off only to begin again, stood our house in Ojoto. It was a yellow-painted two-story cement construction built along the dusty brown trails just south of River John, where Papa’s mother almost drowned when she was a girl, back when people still washed their clothes on the rocky edges of the river.


The Queen of the Night book cover

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Lilliet Berne is a soprano on a quest for immortality when she’s offered a chance to carve her name on the walls of the Paris Opera. To become a diva with an original role, she has to delve into her past, the secrets of which just may destroy her.

When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfilment of a dream or a trap for the soul.


Another Brooklyn book cover

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson (Amistad)

Woodson’s first adult novel in 20 years looks back on 1970s Brooklyn, New York, girlhood friendship, and the sinister underbelly of it all.

For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet. Mine could have been a more tragic story.


The Mothers book cover

The Mothers by Brit Bennett (Riverhead Books)

A contemporary black community in Southern California is bound by not only the church, but its secrets. Nadia Turner’s secret threatens to forever alter the ties that bind.

We didn’t believe when we first heard because you know how church folk can gossip. Like the time we all thought First John, our head usher, was messing around on his wife because Betty, the pastor’s secretary, caught him cozying up at brunch with another woman.


The Loss of All Lost Things book cover

The Loss of All Lost Things by Amina Gautier (Elixir Press)

Children have never before been so cherished. Each short story in this collection takes the reader on an emotional rollercoaster of heartbreaking loss, hope and redemption.

Falling into step with the boy, Thisman draws close and whispers in a voice only for him. Says, “I wish I had a little boy just like you. I wish you were my own,” and the boy believes it, every single word.


Swing Time book cover

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (Penguin Press)

In this heavy (literally and figuratively) book by the acclaimed British writer, an unnamed narrator has ideas about dance, bodies, race, love, class, family, and friendship.

If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother’s hand. There were many other girls present but for obvious reasons we noticed each other, the similarities and the differences, as girls will.


The Mother book cover

The Mother by Yvvette Edwards (Amistad)

A mother struggles to understand her teenage son’s death as the trial of his killer challenges beliefs and assumptions she’s held near and dear.

My cup of tea is on the bedside table. It is where he has always left it; every morning of the eighteen years we have been married he has made me a cup of tea, brought it up, and left it on the side, and normally that’s all it is; a cup of tea on the side.


The Association of Small Bombs book cover

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan (Viking)

Terrorism affects perpetrators as much as victims. The story of Mansoor Ahmed, a survivor of the same small bomb that killed two of his childhood friends, weaves into the story of Ayub, an activist willing to do whatever it takes to save his country. The New York Times named it one of the 10 best books of the year.

The bombing, for which Mr. and Mrs. Khurana were not present, was a flat, percussive event that began under the bonnet of a parked white Maruti 800, though of course that detail, that detail about the car, could only be confirmed later. A good bombing begins everywhere at once.


Summer of the Cicadas book cover

Summer of the Cicadas by Cole Lavalais (Willow Publishing)

Fresh off a stint in a mental health center after a suicide attempt, Viola Moon clings to any semblance of sanity she can, including the father she can’t really remember, and can’t really forget.

“You like words?” She nodded, suddenly unable to claim any words for herself.

Sports

Misty Copeland book cover

Misty Copeland by Gregg Delman (Rizzoli)

A stunning, full-color photo book of prima ballerina Misty Copeland doing what she does best.

I have to admit that when it comes to ballet I am a bit of a neophyte. In fact, the only ballet I ever attended was The Nutcracker on a field trip back in elementary school.


Courage to Soar book cover

Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, a Life in Balance by Simone Biles (Zondervan)

Gymnast and Summer Olympics sensation Simone Biles recounts the ups and downs of her life that have brought her to this point in her career.

My eyes stayed glued to the Jumbotron high above the arena. It was Day 2 of the 2011 Visa National Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I was waiting to see if I’d made the USA Gymnastics (USAG) women’s artistic junior team.


Blood Brothers book cover

Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith (Basic Books)

Using sources from Malcolm X’s own papers, as well as FBI records, this book delves into the complex friendship between the civil rights leader and the boxing great.

Three hundred and four mostly flat, cornfield miles after it departed Chicago’s Union Station, the South Wind passenger train rolled into Louisville’s Union Station. There, on December 17, 1960, a young man stepped aboard, toting a worn suitcase and a pocketful of dreams.


Unsportsmanlike Conduct book cover

Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape by Jessica Luther (Edge of Sports)

This is a takedown of the systematic way the NCAA, colleges, coaches, and teams respond (or rather, don’t respond) when a player is accused of sexual assault.

A playbook only exists if you have a field on which to run your plays. That “field,” for this playbook, is a football culture saturated with a masculinity which can manifest in horrible ways.


Queen of Katwe book cover

Queen of Katwe: One Girl’s Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion by Tim Crothers (Scribner)

Phiona Mutesi’s improbable journey from the slums of Uganda to breaking barriers in elite-level chess.

She had no other choice. Makita Jamidah had borne four children out of wedlock, including twins who died during childbirth, and she was no longer welcome at her parents’ home in the tiny Ugandan village of Namilyango.


Touchdown Tony book cover

Touchdown Tony: Running With a Purpose by Tony Nathan (Howard Books)

Former NFL running back and coach Tony Nathan’s memoir on how he came to “run with a purpose” in a tense racial environment at the University of Alabama, and later in his professional career.

As a twelve-year-old kid in 1968, I had no notions of being a professional football player. In fact, I hadn’t played much football up until that point.


The Boy Who Runs book cover

The Boy Who Runs: The Odyssey of Julius Achon by John Brant (Ballantine Books)

The true story of a Ugandan boy who went from being a child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army to one of the world’s best middle-distance runners.

It was Saturday, which meant that Julius would be spared the shame of school. He would not be hectored by a teacher demanding tuition and thus wouldn’t have to jump out a window to escape a caning.


Catch a Star book cover

Catch a Star: Shining Through Adversity to Become a Champion by Tamika Catchings and Ken Petersen (Revell)

WNBA champion Tamika Catchings was born with hearing loss, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a WNBA star, as chronicled in this memoir.

My dad tells about that day. About Tauja and me playing basketball outside in the driveway.


Boys Among Men book cover

Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution by Jonathan Abrams (Crown Archetype)

The story of the young men — now legends — who skipped NCAA basketball completely and went straight to the NBA.

This kid is about to hyperventilate, John Hammond worried to himself. Hammond, a Detroit Pistons assistant coach, had flown to Chicago in 1995 for the NBA’s annual predraft camp.


Game Changers book cover

Game Changers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History by Molly Schiot

A comprehensive, alphabetized book of full-size black-and-white photos of pioneering female athletes, most of whom you likely don’t even know.

This book is about women’s stories. When I was a kid, I thought only men could be champions.

Nonfiction

The Black Panthers book cover

The Black Panthers: Portraits From an Unfinished Revolution edited by Bryan Shih and Yohuru Williams (Nation Books)

You’ll want to actually read this coffee table book. It’s filled with portraits of Black Panther Party members, as well as interviews with surviving members.

“There are always two people in every picture,” the celebrated photographer Ansel Adams once observed, “the photographer and the viewer.” But what of the subject of both the photographer and the viewer’s gaze?


Known and Strange Things book cover

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole (Random House)

This collection of essays on politics, travel, history, literature and photography solidifies Teju Cole’s spot among today’s most important contemporary thinkers.

When I am trying out a new pen in a shop, I write out the first words of Beowulf as translated by Seamus Heaney. Years ago, I memorized that opening page.


We Gon’ Be Alright book cover

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang (Picador)

The essays in this book linking movements such as #BlackLivesMatter to Asian Americanness and back again. A sample of essays: Is Diversity for White People?, Vanilla Cities and Their Chocolate Suburbs and The In-Betweens: On Asian Americanness.

We are living in serious times. Since 2012, the names of the fallen — Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, the list never seems to cease — have catalyzed collective outrage and grief.


Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching book cover

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education by Mychal Denzel Smith (Nation Books)

Mychal Denzel Smith recounts his personal and political upbringing as a black man in America, sharing his tips for living in a world that was designed to see him fail.

My parents sent me to college to become a credit to my race. It was never said in those exact words, but the idea was planted early on that my life would be one where I would defy all of the stereotypes associated with being a black man.


Blood in the Water book cover

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson (Pantheon)

In 1971, prisoners took over Attica Correctional Facility in New York to protest long-standing mistreatment, perhaps a harbinger of the large-scale, coordinated prison strike that is currently happening across the country.

If a man had lived his whole life in Brooklyn or the Bronx, the journey to Attica was profoundly disorienting. Within an hour of boarding one of the Department of Correctional Service’s many vans ferrying newly sentenced prisoners upstate, all he could see out of the scratched-up bulletproof window was miles and miles of cows, barns, and land.


Writings on the Wall book cover

Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Time)

The Hall of Famer and columnist is back with another one. This time he contemplates an equal America, one that levels all the playing fields.

I’ve been asked many times over the years what profession I would have chose had I not become a basketball player. My answer surprises many people: I probably would have become a history teacher.


The Fire this Time book cover

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race edited by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner)

This collection of essays from today’s best thinkers continues the conversation that James Baldwin began in The Fire Next Time on race in America.

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. / We thought / Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning / Names in heat, in elements classical / Philosophers said could change us. – Jericho Brown, The Tradition


The South Side book cover

The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation by Natalie Y. Moore (St. Martin’s Press)

In the same vein as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 The Case For Reparations, this book lays out the real story of Chicago and how it came to be what it is today. It reminds us that middle-class neighborhoods are all too often segregated as well.

I am a child of Chatham. I grew up in black segregated Chicago.


Original Gangstas book cover

Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap by Ben Westhoff (Hachette Books)

The definitive history of the birth of Death Row Records and its lasting legacy.

He was the trash-talking, gun toting hustler who brought the image of the young Compton street kid — tough, aggressive, and sick of being stepped on — to the mainstream. He rose faster and changed popular music more than almost anyone else, becoming not just a performer, known for his hypnotic rap cadence, but a behind-the-scenes mogul who upset the status quo and enriched himself in the process.


Antiracism in Cuba book cover

Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution by Devyn Spence Benson (The University of North Carolina Press)

Despite major efforts by the Cuban government, discrimination and racial tension persisted after the revolution. This book examines what happened and why.

“The black race has always been very oppressed and now is the time for them to give us equal opportunities to live,” Cristobalina Sardinas asserted only three weeks after Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement (M 26-7) forces ousted U.S.-backed Cuban president Fulgencio Batista. The new government’s young leaders were about to embark on a set of social reforms and policy changes that would make the Caribbean’s most populous nation beloved and admired by some and hated and maligned by others for decades to come.

Children’s and Young Adult Fiction

Freedom Over Me book cover

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books)

Using original slave auction and plantation estate documents, the stories of 11 slaves are reimagined and brought to life in narrative poetry — bodies can be bought and sold, but not hope and dreams.

I mourn the passing of / my husband, Cato Fairchilds / He managed our estate alone. Eleven negro slaves / They carried out the work / That made our estate prosper.


All American Boys book cover

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books)

Two boys, one black, one white, a bag of chips, a cop, mistaken identity, and a videotape that captured everything.

Zoom in. Zoom in more.


Booked book cover

Booked by Kwame Alexander (HMH Books for Young Readers)

This novel-in-verse, from Newbery Medal-winning author Kwame Alexander, captures the back and forth of emotions at a World Cup match and weaves them into trials and triumphs of 12-year-old Nick.

on the pitch, lightning fast, / dribble, fake, then make a dash / player tries to steal the ball / lift and step and make him fall


Princess Cupcake Jones book cover

Princess Cupcake Jones and the Dance Recital by Ylleya Fields, illustrated by Michael LaDuca (Belle Publishing LLC)

Cupcake is a young ballerina who knows that practice makes perfect — but is the pursuit of “perfect” too much to handle?

Cupcake loved Madame’s School of Ballet. She attended with Violet, Jane, and Soleil.


Gone Crazy in Alabama book cover

Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia (Amistad)

Delphine, Vonetta and Fern travel to Alabama to visit their grandmother Big Ma, where they learn lessons about the importance of family.

Vonetta, Fern, and I didn’t sleep well last night or the night before. There’s something about preparing for a trip that draws my sisters and me closer together than we already are.


The Boy in the Black Suit book cover

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books)

Seventeen-year-old Matt has been working at a funeral home since his mom died and left him with his alcoholic father. But then he meets a girl named Lovey.

It was the first day of school. Actually, it was the nineteenth day of school, but it was my first day, and all I could think about was how happy I was that I had already missed three weeks, and that this would be the last first day in this place I would ever have. Thank God.


X, a Novel book cover

X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon (Candlewick)

This is a fictionalized version of Malcolm X as a young man, from his fatherless childhood to the imprisonment for theft that would set the course for his life.

Friends tell me trouble’s coming. I ease out of the restaurant onto the sidewalk, gun in my pocket.


Two Naomis book cover

Two Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick (Balzer + Bray)

Two girls named Naomi, one white, one black. Their parents begin to date in this contemporary novel that aims to redefine what it means to be family.

“Third time’s the charm, right?” says Ms. Starr. She glances at the clock before she smiles at me.


Catching a Storyfish book cover

Catching a Storyfish by Janice N. Harrington (WordSong)

Keet is a tried-and-true Southern girl from Alabama who moves to a new city where things are, well, not so Southern. She’ll have to learn to find her own voice in this novel-in-verse about a girl and her grandpa.

Grandpa says / it’s the storyfish / that fills me / with stories to tell, / a storyfish / all rainbow-colored / and quick, quick, / a storyfish that’s guppy small / and sometimes as big as a whale.


Into White book cover

Into White by Randi Pink (Feiwel & Friends)

LaToya attends a mostly white high school. Longing to fit in, she wonders what life would be like if she weren’t black. Suddenly, she’s white, blond and popular.

On the way to first period, the cheap plastic strap on my book bag broke. The single pink thread that held on for the first six months of school had finally freed itself, dropping hefty textbooks onto Deanté’s spanking-new Air Jordan basketball sneakers.

Children’s and YA Nonfiction

Just a Lucky So and So book cover

Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome (Holiday House)

This picture book tribute introduces even the littlest ones to the jazz legend.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, in a part of town outside of Storyville, tucked in a corner called Back o’ Town, in a section nicknamed The Battlefield, Little Louis Armstrong was born, black and poor and lucky. On the corner of Perdido and Liberty, Little Louis lived in one room with no lights and no running water. But it was home to him and his sister, Mama Lucy, and his mama, Mayann.


This Kid Can Fly book cover

This Kid Can Fly: It’s About Ability (NOT Disability) by Aaron Philip (Balzer + Bray)

Aaron Philip is a 14-year-old boy who has cerebral palsy. In his memoir, he rightly asserts that he isn’t defined by his disability but his abilities.

So you’re probably wondering: Who is this kid writing his memoir? Aren’t only old people supposed to do this?


March Book Three book cover

March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell (Top Shelf Productions)

The conclusion of the acclaimed graphic novel series that tells the story of the civil rights movement through the eyes of a man who was there: U.S. Rep. John Lewis.


How to Build a Museum book cover

How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture by Tonya Bolden (Viking Books for Young Readers)

Vibrant illustrations track the history of the NMAAHC from conception to inauguration.

Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture was a long time coming. It was a hundred-year hope, a hundred-year dream rooted in the desire for a tribute in the United States’ capital to black patriots.


Radiant Child book cover

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

It’s never too early to introduce young readers to provocative art. Illustrated in the style of Basquiat’s signature unconventionality, this picture book takes readers to the artist’s humble beginnings.

Somewhere in Brooklyn, between hearts that thump, double Dutch, and hopscotch. In his house you can tell a serious artists dwells.


Freedom in Congo Square book cover

Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (little bee books)

This is a story, told in verse, of a little-known part of slave life in New Orleans. Apparently, for part of each Sunday, slaves were left to their own devices, free to congregate, sell wares and even make music.

Mondays, there were hogs to slop / mules to train, and logs to chop / Slavery was no ways fair / Six more days to Congo Square.


Preaching to the Chickens book cover

Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim, illustrated by E. B. Lewis (Nancy Paulsen Books)

Vibrant watercolors tell the story of young John Lewis, who of course grew up to be an iconic civil rights leader, and is now a congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia’s 5th district.

Little John Lewis loved the spring. He loved it not only because it was the time when the whole planet came alive, but also because it was the season of the chicks.


Ticktock Banneker’s Clock book cover

Ticktock Banneker’s Clock by Shana Keller, illustrated by David C. Gardner (Sleeping Bear Press)

Born free in 1731 Maryland, inventor Benjamin Banneker is no stranger to the children’s book treatment. But this one focuses on one moment in particular: when he built a striking clock using only his drawings and a pocketknife.

Chesapeake Bay birds soared high as a new day washed gently across young Benjamin Banneker’s farm.


Jazz Day book cover

Jazz Day: The Makings of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Francis Vallejo (Candlewick)

I think the Amazon blurb says it best: “What happens when you invite as many jazz musicians as you can to pose for a photo in 1950s Harlem, New York? Playful verse and glorious artwork capture an iconic moment for American jazz.” That’s A Great Day in Harlem.

nobody here yet / it’s only nine / look right / where they come from the train / look left / where they exit a taxi / where to put them all / what if only four

Poetry

Night Sky with Exit Wounds book cover

Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (Copper Canyon Press)

In the body, where everything has a price / I was a beggar, On my knees


Bestiary book cover

Bestiary by Donika Kelly (Graywolf Press)

Refuse the old means of measurement / Rely instead on the thrumming / wilderness of self.


Counting Descent book cover

Counting Descent by Clint Smith (Write Bloody Publishing)

Something You Should Know / is that as a kid, I once worked at a pet store.


Cannibal book cover

Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair (University of Nebraska Press)

Have I forgotten it / wild conch-shell dialect / black apostrophe curled / tight on my tongue?


The Bees Make Money in the Lion book cover

The Bees Make Money in the Lion by Lo Kwa Mei-in (Cleveland State University Poetry Center)

My cavalry thinks of making love but cannot mean / wild horses surviving the saddle, bit and the bald / heaven of insuring a citizen’s eye


Fuschia book cover

Fuchsia by Mahtem Shiferraw (University of Nebraska Press)

It’s a deep purple thought / Once it unraveled prematurely / and its tail broke, leaving a faint trail / of rummaging words.


Olio book cover

Olio by Tyehimba Jess (Wave Books)

O, sing … undo the world with blued song / born from newly freed throats.


Blue Hallelujahs book cover

Blue Hallelujahs by Cynthia Manick (Black Lawrence Press)

Today I am elbow deep / in some animal’s belly / pulling out the heart and stomach / for my mother’s table.


Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude book cover

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay (Pitt Poetry Series)

Tumbling through the / city in my / mind without once / looking up


Wannabe Hoochie Mama Gallery of Realities’ Red Dress Code book cover

Wannabe HoochieMama Gallery of Realities’ Red Dress Code: New and Selected Poems by Thylias Moss (Persea)

1. This Man is going to die without telling me. / It will happen while I dream of tornadoes / those frantic clouds swirling in search of mates.

Tierra R. Wilkins is an associate editor for The Undefeated. She likes to eat fries with her ketchup.