More Diverse Universe blog fest, a week of bloggers highlighting speculative fiction books by and about people of color.
I've chosen to fill in a gap in my own reading, by taking a look at Justice and Her Brothers, by Virginia Hamilton (Greenwillow Books, 1978).
Rush and Oliver Melendy would be lovely brothers, Justice is not that lucky--her older twin brothers have, um, issues.
So in short, you would never know from the first few chapters, or from the hardback cover, that one of Justice's twin brothers is a deeply disturbed, bullying megalomaniac psychic who has been systematically oppressing his twin and who is about to start work on Justice. It takes quite a while to realize, buried as it is in the hot summer of bike riding and snake hunting, that Justice has psychic powers too! Really powerful ones. Justice, it turns out, is not having an ordinary summer...instead, she is one of two kids being trained in to use their mental powers by a teacher who erases her memories of each session.
It makes for slightly odd reading. There one is, with skinned knees and mosquito bites, having an ordinary few pages of deep immersion into the ordinary life of a little sister, and then, like a spouting whale, comes a psychic bit and they come faster and faster until, in the last ten pages, there's a confrontation between Justice and her brother, but then the three siblings plus Justice's classmate in phsycic home school form a unit of phsycic power bonding destined to do great things in the future because they are the first of a new class of mutant humans (or something) and they kind of travel through time and space to see a future that they are going to have to save. Her bad brother isn't all that sorry, or willing to cooperate, but he has some magical phsycic healing thing happen, and it's implied that at least he's not going to be a total psychopath anymore. And so it ends, just as they are all gathered together and ready to adventure. (I had some issues with the pacing of this book).
And that concludes the summary portion of this post.
It was, as my summary suggests, a mix I found a tad diconcerting. So though I found it a fascinating, and gripping, read, it wasn't a book that entirely worked for me as a reader. Justice and her Brothers reads very much as a prologue to future adventures, which, in fact, it is. In the subsequent books of the series, Dustland (1980), and The Gathering (1981), the science fiction is front and center, and I'm hoping I'll find those more completely satisfying.
Justice and her Brothers is a groundbreaking book. It is the first English language speculative fiction novel, as far as I know, that was written for children with a black girl as its protagonist. It's clear from the hardback cover that Justice
and her brothers are black kids. However, Hamilton never makes a point
of underlining it; she just drops in small descriptors here and there
that do not compare skin color to
any sort of food or beverage (as is so often the case in today's books). Justice's family is an ordinary family, with
caring parents, without poverty, racism, the legacy of slavery etc.
any part of the story. Instead, what you get is sci fi mixed with
realistic fiction, starring a girl who is black.
I wish it had been followed by a slew of other multiculural science ficiton and fantasy books for kids, but the ground that Hamilton broke here was left pretty much unplanted. Here's an article that Yolanda Hood wrote that addresses this--"Rac(e)ing into the Future: Looking at Race in Recent Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels for Young Adults by Black Authors" (The Alan Review, 36(3), 2009). (Thanks, Ebony of the Child_Lit List, for the link!)
Secondly, I have a feeling (that doesn't have enough research and thought behind it to count as a real argument) that this is also ground breaking in its combination of a very real, very richly described setting with fantastic elements. Just as Alan Garner did with Elidor in 1965 (a fantasy in which the grit and rubble of the real world keep the fantasy from becoming an escapist journey to a magical realm), Justice's story in this first book is firmly anchored in her place in real life. It, too, does not offer a fanciful other world into which young readers can escape. But again, I don't think that writers of the 1980s, or even the 1990s, took this approach to speculative fiction for kids and ran with it. It's not until recently that books books like Ingrid Law's Savvy (2008) start turning up that do something similar. (Please let me know if you think I'm wrong about this!)
Finally, here are more covers for Justice and Her Brothers, some that emphasize the sci fi, and some that don't. (And they are all in an aesthetically unpleasing line on the left and in different sizes cause the new blogger stinks and I don't have a decent photo editing program here at home. It hurts).
My own favorite is the Leo and Diane Dillon cover--the one with the
tree. That version of the book is clearly being marketed as speculative
fiction (it has the imprint "Flare Fantasy" on the cover). The snake
cover is both icky, deceptive, and disturbing. The desert cover is
wrong (they don't go to a desert in this first book). And the Column of
Light cover is too far tilted toward science fiction.