The first time I heard the phrase “Black Girl Magic” was during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio when Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas were showing the world just how amazing they are. I have always been obsessed with the summer Olympics despite having little interest in sports otherwise, and like millions of others, I was watching. It was so special to me to see these strong Black girls being so celebrated.
But Black Girl Magic had existed before that moment. Popularized by CaShawn Thompson in 2013, it’s a concept that celebrates Black girls and women persevering and stands against the negative stereotypes, misogynoir, and racism that we deal with on a regular basis.
In the book community, it’s also taken on a more literal stance. We have books with Black girls who have magic, are the heroes of their stories, and are inspiring in their own rights.
When I was younger, the only time I saw myself in a book was as a sassy best friend or a slave. It felt like in children’s literature, there was no room for any other narrative. Black girls didn’t get to fall in love with vampires, didn’t get to storm castles, didn’t get to go to magical schools, or find long lost powers within us. If we were there at all, it was only to help out the hero. But the hero wasn’t us.
I wrote Blood Like Magic because I wanted what I didn’t have growing up. I wanted to share the story of a Black girl who was the hero. She got to be the one with magic powers. She got to be the one making the hard decisions. She got to be the one whose story mattered. And there are a lot more of those stories out there today than there were when I was a teen. I’m so excited to share a round-up of stories with literal magical Black girls to add to your TBR.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
Legendborn creates this perfect harmony of Arthurian legend and Black Girl Magic. Just before sixteen-year-old Bree is set to start a residential program for high schoolers at UNC-Chapel Hill, her mom dies in an accident, and she arrives on campus still in the depths of grief. When Bree sees something she wasn’t supposed to, her memory is supposed to be wiped, but it doesn’t work out that way. She remembers and ends up thrown into the secret society of the “Legendborn.” When she finds out they may have something to do with her mother’s death, she is determined to uncover the mystery.
This story really brings to the forefront ideas of who gets to have power and who doesn’t, while also questioning the origins of where that comes from. Magic in the story is complicated, as is its history and Bree’s relationship to it. Not to mention showing the impact of being the only magical Black girl in white spaces and trying to discover the root of where you came from when you don’t have all the tools necessary to uncover your personal history.
Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko
Tarisai is raised in isolation, in a house where no one touches her but her rarely there mother, The Lady. She’s sent to the capital of the empire of Aristar with a command: kill the boy in a portrait The Lady shows her. When it turns out that boy is the crown prince, things become very complicated.
Tarisai is a girl who has longed all her life for a family and in competing to become one of the prince’s chosen, finds herself surrounded by other children she loves, all the while knowing she has a dangerous task that she’s magically compelled to complete should the prince choose her. The found family aspect of this story is wonderful, and while Tarisai has literal magic power, it’s her ability to bring people together that shines in this novel.
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
Malik is looking to use the Solstasia festival as a chance for him and his family to start a new life, but for Crown Princess Karina, it is the beginning of a nightmare when her mother is assassinated. When Malik’s youngest sister is stolen by a vengeful spirit, he strikes a dangerous deal, agreeing to kill Karina for his sister’s freedom. Karina meanwhile has found a way to resurrect her mother, with the heart of a King, and offers her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition to find one. Guess how Malik decides to get close to his target? If you guessed that he enters the competition, you would be right.
This story not only has a magical Black girl but a magical Black boy too! This fantasy world inspired by West African folklore is rich with magical spirits, folklore, history, and Black female leaders too. Karina shines as a girl alone with a huge amount of responsibility she didn’t ask for, for whom magic becomes a means for her to regain the family that she lost.
Wings of Ebony by J. Elle
When Rue’s mother is shot on her doorstep, she’s whisked away from her younger sister by a father she never knew to a hidden island of magic wielders where she’s the only one who’s half-god half-human. Desperate to keep her sister safe as something sinister looms in her neighborhood of East Row, Rue has to find a way to embrace herself and her new powers to save the people she loves.
Rue is the sort of character who is determined to not leave anyone behind, and her new magic becomes this way for her to help those who people frequently write off. The people of her neighborhood are family, and her magic gives her power she didn’t have before. It also does a wonderful job of interrogating themes of colonization, allyship, and more.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
When magic disappeared, it left the people under the rule of a ruthless king and maji like Zélie’s mother were killed, and the remaining ones left like Zélie, forced into hiding and submission. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie goes after her one chance to bring magic back while pursued by the crown prince who wants to eradicate magic for good.
Zélie is the sort of girl who is strong and powerful even when she is powerless. Magic is something that was her birthright and then taken away, which gives the story this unique aspect of longing and loss, but also anger. Black girls and women are often expected to not be angry because you become a “stereotype,” but we didn’t make that stereotype and deserve to have our anger expressed. I think that’s such a wonderful part of the Black Girl Magic that Zélie brings to the story.
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna
In sixteen-year-old Deka’s world, girls with red blood are pure, and those who bleed gold are impure demons. When her blood runs gold she’s given a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. With little choice otherwise, Deka joins these new warriors in the emperor’s fight against dangerous creatures, all the while learning just how dangerous of a creature she can be.
There is such an amazing sense of friendship and kinship between the girls with whom Deka fights and bonds. The magic these Black girls have is considered dangerous and them, inhuman. The Gilded Ones strikes at the heart of questions of who gets to decide when someone is not worthy of rights and freedoms, and also the struggle of unlearning self-hate when you’ve been told you’re less than your entire life. Further, it pushes Deka to embrace the strength that girls in her world have been told to suppress, and to see her birthright as an advantage instead of something that marks her as a monster.
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, and Camellia wants to be more than just a Belle, she wants to be the favorite. The one chosen by the Queen to live in the royal palace and be recognized as the most talented Belle. But things turn out to not be what Camellia was raised to expect of court—it’s filled with dark secrets—and even her own powers are not what she was told they were. She’s faced with a choice to either stick to the status quo or risk her own life to change everything.
Reading the Belles was the first time I truly felt like I was witnessing Black Girl Magic in a book and made me realize that there was a place for stories like this in publishing, and that I could contribute to them. We have Camellia who is praised for the strength of her magic, and its ability to make people beautiful, who then discovers she can do much more. It’s a story that challenges its heroine to keep a life she always aspired to that’s now been exposed as deeply imperfect, or to risk herself to make a better world for more than just her. It challenges her to dig deeper and use more power. As Black girls and women, it’s so common to be expected to not be too loud, to not make a “scene”, to not take up space, but here, if Camellia wants to make change, she’ll have to do the opposite, and I love that.
In this list, I’ve included books that are already out in the world, but there’s a lot of Black Girl Magic coming to you in the future. I’m really looking forward to Witches Steeped in Gold by Ciannon Smart and Bad Witch Burning by Jessica Lewis. And of course, I hope you’ll check out my magical Black girl story, Blood Like Magic coming out June 15th, it’s a rich, dark urban fantasy debut following a teen witch who is given a horrifying task: sacrificing her first love to save her family’s magic.
Liselle Sambury is a Toronto-based Trinidadian Canadian author. Her brand of writing can be described as “messy Black girls in fantasy situations.” She works in social media and spends her free time embroiled in reality tv because when you write messy characters you tend to enjoy that sort of drama. She also shares helpful tips for upcoming writers and details of her publishing journey through a YouTube channel dedicated to helping demystify the sometimes complicated business of being an author.