Over the last couple of years, I’ve observed an uptick in the availability of middle grade and young adult horror written by and directed towards Black youth. Black middle grade and YA authors are putting their foot in the genre. And I, for one, am here. For. It.
I’m not sure what is causing this renaissance of sorts in that regard, although I do have theories. In order to fully expand on those we have to go back just a little bit and discuss movies since that was my first introduction to horror overall.
Up until now, Black people got delegated to very specific, stereotypical roles in horror. It got to the point where I never got attached to any Black person in a horror movie. In fact, the first movie I personally remember seeing a Black person survive in was Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, which nowadays has cult classic status.
This has changed in recent years and I feel a lot of this had to with Jordan Peele’s debut film, Get Out. What was amazing about Peele’s debut film that, from start to finish, it was all social commentary. Was it the first Black directed horror movie like that? No, certainly not. In fact, 1995’s Tales From the Hood had just as much social commentary as the Peele’s film; but our country, as a whole, wasn’t ready to really look into that mirror. By the time his film rolled out, people were more willing to take harder looks at themselves.
With Peele rumored to be remaking The People Under the Stairs, I know we’ll be in for a treat, especially considering that Craven’s original film was also heavy on the social commentary. He will just put his own unique spin on it.
Now that I’ve given a brief background of my introduction of Black people in horror, let’s move on to how that translates into their representation into these types of books.
Middle Grade and YA Black Horror Throughout History
Now, to be fair there have also always been Black adult horror authors. Octavia Butler is the one that comes to mind since most of her books straddled multiple genres. There is also Victor LaValle, Tananarive Due, and Colson Whitehead. However, these are adult authors and, while I will never begrudge a child reading beyond their grade level, sometimes it’s nice to read about people in your own age bracket.
In the early ’90s, which were my formative reading years, there weren’t a lot of Black horror novels for children or young adults. Sure, there were outliers such as Virginia Hamilton’s The House of Dies Drear and Patricia C. McKissack’s The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural. But that is few and far between. Books written by Black authors for Black children were outnumbered by the ones by Betty Ren Wright, Richard Peck, and Mary Downing Hahn.
Now, I read those authors as a young child, but looking back it would have been nice to see more people like me in those books. That is why I’m beyond excited to see the availability of this type of fiction to the youth of today. I like to think that this is inspiring young Black children to consider writing horror novels or movies in the future and that they are more than just the token friend or body in the corner.
I’m going to focus on a handful of books that really helped to draw my attention to this most welcome change in the genre. These were to the books that made realize that Black authors were making space at the horror table, gatekeepers be damned. While this isn’t a restrictive list by any means, they are the ones that first came to mind when the idea for this article came to me.
Middle Grade and YA Black Horror in the Present
For me, this trend became apparent with India Hill Brown’s The Forgotten Girl. This story about Iris and her friend finding the abandoned grave of Avery in a forgotten Black cemetery. After her grave is discovered, Avery embarks on a mission; to find a friend and be remembered. It’s up to Iris to solve the mystery of what happened to Avery and make sure that none of her loved ones are the ones Avery chooses. I’m not ashamed to admit that the ending of the first chapter gave me a lot of pause. This is a slow subtle creep, which I love.
I feel the best type of middle grade fiction does that because it entertains as well as educates. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea that even cemeteries used to be segregated. Given the racist roots of America, that may be something that goes without saying. Still, it’s not something one really thinks about until the attention is called to it.
This book also touches about the many injustices that Black youth experience such as the feeling of invisibility. Because historically, Black contributions anywhere have been overlooked or diminished. Iris’s step team is the only extracurricular activity that gets overlooked from a local news story about her middle school. So, this is something that hits home for her. This experience, which runs parallel to Avery’s, was masterfully done.
Then there was Hide and Seeker by Daka Hermon. After going missing for a year, Zee returns, much to the joy of his mother and friends. However, Justin knows that there is something different about him, even if he’s not sure exactly what.
The neighborhood kids decide to play a game of Hide and Seek at Zee’s Welcome Home party. The game is a disaster and all the attendants are pulled into an alternative Shadow world with someone known only as the Seeker. This creature is trying to make his way into our world, one kidnapped child victim at a time.
What I appreciated about this one is that it dealt with all kinds of fears and how we face them. In some situations we have to; there isn’t a way to escape and while that in no way makes it easy it does give us strength to move on. There is definitely commentary in this about how Black or other non-white children go missing every day and they don’t get the same consideration as their white peers. In the Shadow world, there are a total of 399 taken children. Once the Seeker receives 400, then it can come into our world. That’s a lot of children to go missing and there not to be any media coverage about it.
While any type of child missing is tragic, it doesn’t go unnoticed by people in the Black community that their missing children, or adults for that matter, don’t get media recognition. Even in the book when Justin’s sister tries to call the police to help find her brother, they brush her off. They don’t care; to them, it’s just another Black kid who ran away. And while that may seem harsh, recent events have shown us that this always tends to be the case.
Another recent example is The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglas. Jake can see ghosts and has always been able to. They can also see him, too, and while most tend to ignore him, there are also a large number that don’t. So, he’s a very tense teenager. He is haunted by Sawyer, a boy who a year before went on a shooting spree at his school and now wants to take over Jake’s body.
The is what I call a slow-burn horror book. The terror slowly gets unfolds as you go. As you read, there is more revealed about Jake and Sawyer’s home lives. This includes the challenges and abuse they faced from family and peers. There were more than a few spots where a plot revelation would have me gasping out loud. This is by far the one of darkest horror books I’ve read in a long time, including at the adult level.
Jake is a very sympathetic character. He is only students of color at his prestigious private school and has to deal with a large amount of not-so-microaggressions from his peers and teachers. This is something that is an unspoken expectation of Black children in those spaces. You have to act as one of the “good” ones to stay there. If you step outside of that box in any way, then your place at that table will be revoked. It, in and of itself, is an abusive situation and one that many Black children find themselves in.
This is a hard read. One of the points of views we have is Sawyer’s, which was something I did not know going in. There are also a fair amount of triggering things in here, including racism, homophobia, and multiple variations of child abuse.
Then we have Tiffany D. Jackson’s White Smoke. This book is being advertised as a mixture of Get Out meets The Haunting of Hill House, two pillars in the horror community. Marigold moves with her new blended family from California to the midwest, because her mom’s new job is there. One small bonus is that it comes with a free house, which seems good on paper. After moving in, Marigold begins to notice things go missing and strange noises and smells. When her new stepsister starts talking to a new “friend” who wants Marigold gone, she suspects that the house is haunted.
This is the only one I haven’t read yet, so I can’t dissect as much as I did for the other books. What I can take from the synopsis is that I’m sure that Marigold and her family will be in a neighborhood where they’re one of the few, if not only, Black families. That feeling is something that isn’t new in any type of Black fiction, let alone horror.
Another thing to consider is the pattern of all of Jackson’s other novels. While they are entertaining, they’re hard-hitting and emotional punches to the feels. There is also always some sort of commentary threaded throughout. Because that’s another thing about Black horror, regardless of the age level, social commentary is always present.
The Future of Middle Grade and YA Black Horror
Now I know that some may say that all horror is social commentary. But honestly, it’s not. Yes, there is a fair amount of that out there by non-Black authors that are. But there are more that are out there simply because the author had a vivid nightmare and put pen to paper for it. In my experience, Black horror always has some kind of social commentary in it because of its place in society. It’s just something that will always go hand in hand until larger things in said society change. It just may not be as obvious with some forms of media.
Yes, Black people are more than their trauma. But the trauma is still very much part of the day to day. This is something that you notice as a child, even if you cant put your finger on it. When you become a teenager, it becomes glaringly obvious and as an adult, it’s part of your day to day. These books help to showcase this to that younger audience in a way that they can digest and understand.
Circling back to an earlier comment though, this development in middle grade and YA fiction shows young Black horror lovers that they add more to this genre than the roles that books and movies typically assign them to. They aren’t just the funny friend or angry antagonist (or sometimes both). Nor are they there to just add to the body count for the masked killer. They can be the focal point of the story or the final person. They can beat the bad guy or exorcise the demons or ghosts.
That alone is worth its weight in gold because that is something I, as a young horror lover, didn’t have growing up. So I’m glad that it’s here now because it means we’ll have more creatives who will grow up and make more books and movies starring Black people. This is a cycle that I for one am happy to have continue.
So bring on more Black horror. I’m ready for it.