Long Division book on the beach

10 Books That Celebrate Black Love, Joy, and Life

June 18 2021
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Every year on June 19, we celebrate Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. On this day, it’s important to acknowledge the painful legacy and impact of slavery, while also celebrating the progress and achievement of Black life now. So today, we’re recommending books across all genres that offer dynamic, varied celebrations and portrayals of Black life in America. We hope these stories of Black love, joy, power, pride, and everything else, provides ample opportunities to reflect and rejoice this weekend—and all year long! 

For more, check out Simon & Schuster’s Juneteenth book recommendations!

Long Division
by Kiese Laymon

The linguistic dynamism present in Kiese Laymon’s memoir HEAVY and essays HOW TO SLOWLY KILL YOURSELF AND OTHERS IN AMERICA is on full display in his debut novel LONG DIVISION, in which he discusses topics such as race and the power of language woven into a compelling story. The book starts in 2013, with fourteen-year-old protagonist Citoyen “City” Coldson becoming an overnight YouTube celebrity after having a meltdown onstage during a nationally televised quiz contest. In the aftermath, he is sent to stay with his grandmother in a small Mississippi coastal community. Before he leaves, he is given a book without an author’s name entitled Long Division, which stars him and his love interest back in 1985, attempting to time travel into the past to save a fellow time traveler’s family in 1964.

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Long Division
Kiese Laymon

From Kiese Laymon, author of the critically acclaimed memoir Heavy, comes a “funny, astute, searching” (The Wall Street Journal) debut novel about Black teenagers that is a satirical exploration of celebrity, authorship, violence, religion, and coming of age in post-Katrina Mississippi.

Written in a voice that’s alternately humorous, lacerating, and wise, Long Division features two interwoven stories. In the first, it’s 2013: after an on-stage meltdown during a nationally televised quiz contest, fourteen-year-old Citoyen “City” Coldson becomes an overnight YouTube celebrity. The next day, he’s sent to stay with his grandmother in the small coastal community of Melahatchie, where a young girl named Baize Shephard has recently disappeared.

Before leaving, City is given a strange book without an author called Long Division. He learns that one of the book’s main characters is also named City Coldson—but Long Division is set in 1985. This 1985-version of City, along with his friend and love interest, Shalaya Crump, discovers a way to travel into the future, and steals a laptop and cellphone from an orphaned teenage rapper called...Baize Shephard. They ultimately take these items with them all the way back to 1964, to help another time-traveler they meet to protect his family from the Ku Klux Klan.

City’s two stories ultimately converge in the work shed behind his grandmother’s house, where he discovers the key to Baize’s disappearance. Brilliantly “skewering the disingenuous masquerade of institutional racism” (Publishers Weekly), this dreamlike “smart, funny, and sharp” (Jesmyn Ward), novel shows the work that young Black Americans must do, while living under the shadow of a history “that they only gropingly understand and must try to fill in for themselves” (The Wall Street Journal).

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Revival Season
by Monica West

Fifteen-year-old Miriam Horton is wholly immersed in her evangelical Black Southern community—especially since her own father is a domineering preacher whose words and patriarchal healing powers are close to divine. But when Miriam develops healing powers of her own, her curiosity sends her on a spiritual awakening filled with life-altering revelations. A propulsive coming-of-age story, REVIVAL SEASON explores the themes of disillusionment in authority and faith through a compassionate three-dimensional lens.

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Revival Season
Monica West

The daughter of one of the South’s most famous Baptist preachers discovers a shocking secret about her father that puts her at odds with both her faith and her family in this “tender and wise” (Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth) debut novel.

Every summer, fifteen-year-old Miriam Horton and her family pack themselves tight in their old minivan and travel through small southern towns for revival season: the time when Miriam’s father—one of the South’s most famous preachers—holds massive healing services for people desperate to be cured of ailments and disease.This summer, the revival season doesn’t go as planned, and after one service in which Reverend Horton’s healing powers are tested like never before, Miriam witnesses a shocking act of violence that shakes her belief in her father—and in her faith.

When the Hortons return home, Miriam’s confusion only grows as she discovers she might have the power to heal—even though her father and the church have always made it clear that such power is denied to women. Over the course of the next year, Miriam must decide between her faith, her family, and her newfound power that might be able to save others, but, if discovered by her father, could destroy Miriam.

Celebrating both feminism and faith, Revival Season is a story of spiritual awakening and disillusionment in a Southern, black, Evangelical community. Monica West’s transporting coming-of-age novel explores complicated family and what it means to live among the community of the faithful.

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Instructions for Dancing
by Nicola Yoon

Nicola Yoon’s INSTRUCTIONS FOR DANCING opens with the line “Despite how it might seem, this is not a love story.” And it upholds that promise. The narrative revolves around high school senior Evie Thomas, who suddenly acquires the ability to envision entire love stories of couples around her—from beginning to end. She’s still struggling to understand why that is happening when she joins a dance studio and partners up with Xavier, nicknamed X. As Evie learns to tango and foxtrot with X, he upends all her wildest imaginings of what true love and heartbreak could be.

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Instructions for Dancing
Nicola Yoon

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Devil in a Blue Dress (30th Anniversary Edition)
by Walter Mosley

Not only is Black detective Easy Rawlins one of the most popular characters in crime fiction, his first outing, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, has been recognized as one of the top 100 mystery novels of all time. Author Walter Mosley’s debut novel immediately draws you into the life of Easy, a Black war vet who’s just trying to get by in 1948’s Los Angeles. Working as a P.I. is the furthest thing from his mind until he’s offered a much-needed paycheck to find a missing woman named Daphne Monet. Of course, the rest is history, and you shouldn’t miss a minute of it.

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Devil in a Blue Dress (30th Anniversary Edition)
Walter Mosley

The first novel by “master of mystery” (The New York Times) Walter Mosley, featuring Easy Rawlins, the most iconic African American detective in all of fiction. Named one of the “best 100 mystery novels of all time” by the Mystery Writers of America, this special thirtieth anniversary edition features an all new introduction from the author.

The year is 1948, the town is Los Angeles.

Easy Rawlins, a black war veteran, has just been fired from his job at a defense factory plant. Drinking in his friend’s bar, he’s wondering how he’ll manage to make ends meet, when a white man in a linen suit approaches him and offers him good money if Easy will simply locate Miss Daphne Money, a missing blonde beauty known to frequent black jazz clubs.

Easy has no idea that by taking this job, his life is about to change forever.

“More than simply a detective novel…[Mosley is] a talented author with something vital to say about the distance between the black and white worlds, and with a dramatic way to say it” (The New York Times).

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While Justice Sleeps
by Stacey Abrams

WHILE JUSTICE SLEEPS is Stacey Abrams’s first foray into political thrillers, and this gripping, twisty story proves that she is as masterful in her fiction writing as she is in the political sphere. The book follows law clerk Avery Keene as she balances her career with her troubled family life. When her boss, the venerable Justice Howard Wynn, slips into a coma, Avery is tasked with serving as his legal guardian and power of attorney, along with deciphering the research of Justice Wynn on a controversial case presented before the Supreme Court.

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While Justice Sleeps
Stacey Abrams

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An Extraordinary Union
by Alyssa Cole

For years leading up to Juneteenth, brave Black Americans persevered through immense hardships and fought for freedom in the Civil War. Reading about it in history books is one thing, but experiencing it through fiction is a whole other. Alyssa Cole brings this period alive in her novel AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION, which tells the story of Elle Burns, a former slave turned Union spy. Elle is an unforgettable heroine and patriot who risks her life every day to help turn the tide of the war, defeat the Confederacy, and finally bring an end to slavery in the U.S. But she’s also a young woman who finds herself falling in love with a fellow undercover agent at the worst possible time—well, that’s life for you. AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION is a multifaceted tale with a perfect mix of history, action-adventure, and romance.

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An Extraordinary Union
Alyssa Cole

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Black Nerd Problems
by William Evans and Omar Holmon

With its poignant and hilarious cultural critiques on popular culture, BLACK NERD PROBLEMS is a must-read essay collection. It explores Black nerd culture with a lighthearted perspective; however, the material isn’t all funny—at times it’s also sad, serious, exhilarating, and so much more. This essay collection explores key popular culture icons from X-Men to Simba, while also tackling heavier subjects such as the intersection of social justice and popular culture, BIPOC representation in the media, and other current events. It doesn’t come out until September so preorder it now and peruse their website while you wait!

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Black Nerd Problems
William Evans and Omar Holmon

The creators of the popular website Black Nerd Problems bring their witty and unflinching insight to this engaging collection of pop culture essays on everything from Mario Kart and The Wire to issues of representation and police brutality across media.

When William Evans and Omar Holmon founded Black Nerd Problems, they had no idea whether anyone beyond their small circle of friends would be interested in their little corner of the internet. But soon after launching, they were surprised to find out that there was a wide community of people who hungered for fresh perspectives on all things nerdy, from the perspective of owned voices.

In the years since, Evans and Holmon have built a large, dedicated fanbase eager for their brand of cultural critique, whether in the form of a laugh-out-loud, raucous Game of Thrones episode recap or an eloquent essay on dealing with grief through stand-up comedy. Now, they are ready to take the next step with this vibrant and hilarious essay collection, which covers everything from X-Men to Breonna Taylor with insight and intelligence.

A much needed and fresh pop culture critique from the perspective of people of color, Black Nerd Problems is the ultimate celebration for anyone who loves a blend of nerd and social commentary, and unafraid to admit that they love all things nerdy.

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SLAY
by Brittney Morris

Seventeen-year-old Kiera is an honors student and math tutor by day, but at home, she is the developer behind the multiplayer online role-playing card game SLAY, where thousands of Black gamers duel worldwide as Nubian personas. When a teenager is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world and a troll infiltrates the game threatening to sue Kiera for “anti-white discrimination,” our protagonist must attempt to save SLAY while protecting her secret identity as the game’s developer.

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SLAY
Brittney Morris

A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2019!
“Gripping and timely.” —People
“The YA debut we’re most excited for this year.” —Entertainment Weekly
“A book that knocks you off your feet while dropping the kind of knowledge that’ll keep you down for the count. Prepare to BE slain.” —Nic Stone, New York Times bestselling author of Dear Martin and Odd One Out

Ready Player One meets The Hate U Give in this dynamite debut novel that follows a fierce teen game developer as she battles a real-life troll intent on ruining the Black Panther–inspired video game she created and the safe community it represents for Black gamers.

By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student, a math tutor, and one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy. But at home, she joins hundreds of thousands of Black gamers who duel worldwide as Nubian personas in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game, SLAY. No one knows Kiera is the game developer, not her friends, her family, not even her boyfriend, Malcolm, who believes video games are partially responsible for the “downfall of the Black man.”

But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, news of the game reaches mainstream media, and SLAY is labeled a racist, exclusionist, violent hub for thugs and criminals. Even worse, an anonymous troll infiltrates the game, threatening to sue Kiera for “anti-white discrimination.”

Driven to save the only world in which she can be herself, Kiera must preserve her secret identity and harness what it means to be unapologetically Black in a world intimidated by Blackness. But can she protect her game without losing herself in the process?

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Watermelon and Red Birds
by Nicole A. Taylor

In this first ever Juneteenth cookbook, WATERMELON AND RED BIRDS author and food critic Nicole A. Taylor blends her delicious recipes—which include dishes like Peach Jam and Molasses Glazed Chicken Thighs, Southern-ish Potato Salad, and a Roasted Nectarine Sundae dessert—with her own stories that provide a personal lens into larger movements and moments of Black history. Featuring traditional dishes with new twists, this soulful cookbook also offers readers additional resources for how to celebrate Juneteenth in style, from where to get the best hot sauces to stories that’ll provide party inspiration.

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Watermelon and Red Birds
Nicole A. Taylor

The very first cookbook to celebrate Juneteenth, from food writer and cookbook author Nicole A. Taylor—who draws on her decade of experiences observing the holiday.

On June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued General Order Number 3, informing the people of Texas that all enslaved people were now free. A year later, in 1866, Black Texans congregated with music, dance, and BBQs—Juneteenth celebrations.

All-day cook-outs with artful salads, bounteous dessert spreads, and raised glasses of “red drink” are essential to Juneteenth gatherings. In Watermelon and Red Birds, Nicole puts jubilation on the main stage. As a master storyteller and cook, she bridges the traditional African-American table and 21st-century flavors in stories and recipes. Nicole synthesizes all the places we’ve been, all the people we have come from, all the people we have become, and all the culinary ideas we have embraced.

Watermelon and Red Birds contains over 75 recipes, including drinks like Afro Egg Cream and Marigold Gin Sour, dishes like Beef Ribs with Fermented Harissa Sauce, Peach Jam and Molasses Glazed Chicken Thighs, Southern-ish Potato Salad and Cantaloupe and Feta Salad, and desserts like Roasted Nectarine Sundae, and Radish and Ginger Pound Cake. Taylor also provides a resource to guide readers to BIPOC-owned hot sauces, jams, spice, and waffle mixes companies and lists fun gadgets to make your Juneteenth special. These recipes and essays will inspire parties to salute one of the most important American holidays, and moments to savor joy all year round.

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Yonder
by Jabari Asim

YONDER, which takes place in the American South in the mid-19th century, tells the stories of several enslaved Black people, who call themselves the Stolen, and how they learn to form a community and persevere despite enduring horrific treatment by their enslavers, the Thieves. As the powerful novel unfolds, we learn that the Stolen’s elders gave each of them a unique identity in seven words before they were named. These seven words come to define each of the characters as they strive to keep love and hope alive, even in the direst of circumstances.

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Yonder
Jabari Asim

The Water Dancer meets The Prophets in this spare, gripping, and beautifully rendered novel exploring love and friendship among a group of enslaved Black strivers in the mid-19th century.

They call themselves the Stolen. Their owners call them captives. They are taught their captors’ tongues and their beliefs but they have a language and rituals all their own.

In a world that would be allegorical if it weren’t saturated in harsh truths, Cato and William meet at Placid Hall, a plantation in an unspecified part of the American South. Subject to the whims of their tyrannical and eccentric captor, Cannonball Greene, they never know what harm may befall them: inhumane physical toil in the plantation’s quarry by day, a beating by night, or the sale of a loved one at any moment. It’s that cruel practice—the wanton destruction of love, the belief that Black people aren’t even capable of loving—that hurts the most.

It hurts the reserved and stubborn William, who finds himself falling for Margaret, a small but mighty woman with self-possession beyond her years. And it hurts Cato, whose first love, Iris, was sold off with no forewarning. He now finds solace in his hearty band of friends, including William, who is like a brother; Margaret; Little Zander; and Milton, a gifted artist. There is also Pandora, with thick braids and long limbs, whose beauty calls to him.

Their relationships begin to fray when a visiting minister with a mysterious past starts to fill their heads with ideas about independence. He tells them that with freedom comes the right to choose the small things—when to dine, when to begin and end work—as well as the big things, such as whom and how to love. Do they follow the preacher and pursue the unknown? Confined in a landscape marked by deceit and uncertainty, who can they trust?

In an elegant work of monumental imagination that will reorient how we think of the legacy of America’s shameful past, Jabari Asim presents a beautiful, powerful, and elegiac novel that examines intimacy and longing in the quarters while asking a vital question: What would happen if an enslaved person risked everything for love?

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Photo credit: Scribner Books

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