Young Love Shines In The Dark In This New Story Collection
During the 2020 pandemic, six best-selling African American young adult novelists put their time to good use by combining their enormous talents for this collection of stories about young Black teens in love. Set in one of America's most romantic cities (IMHO) — New York City — these tales of Black love celebrate family as much as they showcase the many ways teenage love can claim a heart.
The stories in Blackout — by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon – are set during a present-day New York City blackout. This means no electricity, no operating subways, trains of any kind, traffic lights, elevators, air conditioning — you name it, if it needs electrical juice, forget about it.
And since the protagonists in each of these stories are traveling to (or maybe not directly to) Twig's block party in Brooklyn, they are all on the move with the threat of darkness closing in.
That darkness is what connects and elevates these stories. Under cover of night, these teens in love have a chance to face their true desires, fears, and significant others with honesty — easier to talk in dim light than bright sunshine. The blackout also conjures expectations of isolation, hiding in small dark spaces — characters who can't see, can't do, can't move. But in Blackout, it's summer in New York City, so when the electricity fails, there are still a few hours of daylight remaining. Just enough time for these kids to fix what's wrong in their lives before darkness falls.
Under cover of night, these teens in love have a chance to face their true desires, fears, and significant others with honesty — easier to talk in dim light than bright sunshine.
You see, young love can't sit still when the lights threaten to go out — both metaphorically and literally — but thankfully, these teens also have the benefit of young legs.
In "The Long Walk" by Tiffany D. Jackson (the story with the longest central arc), Tammi and Kareem are exes who run into each other at a job interview. When the electricity goes bye-bye, they begin the trek from Manhattan to Brooklyn and, for the first time since their breakup, have a chance to talk and discover the real reason their love story went wrong.
Nic Stone's "Mask Off" is about a basketball superstar who has more on his mind than playing college ball. A young man he cares about is a passenger on the same subway car, stuck in the dark between stops — and getting "unstuck" is what Jacorey "JJ" Harding, Jr. seeks. In Ashley Woodfolk's "Made to Fit," Nella regularly visits Althea House, where her Grandpop resides. During a search for a missing photo, Nella, with the help of a new acquaintance, a girl named Joss (and her dog Ziggy), learns more than she bargained for about self-confidence.
The idea of being stuck — like JJ on the subway, unable to acknowledge his true self — pops up throughout the book. In "All the Great Love Stories ... and Dust," by Dhonielle Clayton, Lana and Tristán are stuck in the New York Public Library, which does put a hitch in her plans, but somehow, Lana will find the courage to say what she must to Tristán, no matter how difficult it is. Meanwhile, a group of students from Jackson, Mississippi, are onboard a double-decker bus for a class trip in "No Sleep 'Til Brooklyn" by Angie Thomas, and among them is Kayla, who must choose between two loves — or is it three?
Eventually all of Blackout's characters take off the blinders, and from JJ to Tammi, Nella, Lana, and more, these thoughtful, respectful, kind and endearing Black teens are also boldly courageous.
"Seymour and Grace," by Nicola Yoon, provides a cautionary tale about judging a book by its cover — or a rideshare driver by his favorite podcast, as Grace does when she turns up her nose at Seymour's job and his choice of listening entertainment. They both arrive safely at Twix's block party – but by that point, going their separate ways turns out to be more complicated than expected.
The end of this collection came fast, and frankly, I could have used a few more scenes at the block party, if only to kick back and have some more time with these characters, and their big hearts, wise decisions, and joy.
These stories are not only uplifting tales of young Black love; they also celebrate family and city. Grandparents and parents are as much a part of this collection as each story's protagonists and their goals. The multigenerational inclusion makes a strong and positive statement about Black families, while creating mirror narratives reaching back to past blackouts in 2003 and 1977 — for example, Tammi and Kareem's long walk mirrors another couple's stroll decades earlier, during that 1977 blackout; it marks one of the collection's many heartfelt moments when the stories intersect on one or more levels.
The end of this collection came fast, and frankly, I could have used a few more scenes at the block party, if only to kick back and have some more time with these characters, and their big hearts, wise decisions, and joy. I wanted to party with these new friends, listen to some music, and enjoy Brooklyn.
In Blackout, young Black love with all its insecurities, mistakes, emotion, honesty, and humanity makes for a lush read. Even amidst their fears, these characters are wonderfully respectful of each other's choices. You will root for them all to find their own right love at their own right time. And though it was written for young adults, Blackout is a must-read for all generations.
Denny S. Bryce is the author of the historical novel Wild Women and the Blues.
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