The Phoenix on Barkley Street, by Zetta Elliott with (pathetically short) list of early chapter book fantasies with kids of color

Quick--think of a fantasy book written for early elementary aged kids of 8 or so, where the fantasy stars a group of minority kids and takes place in an urban neighborhood where gangs and abandoned properties are big problems, just like they are in many places in real life, and where the fantasy part itself is something truly beautiful and magical and hopeful....

I can think of one, because I just read it-- The Phoenix on Barkley Street, by Zetta Elliott (self published, August 2014, ages 7-9), and tomorrow I will take it to a Little Free Library that is in just such a neighborhood, and hope that it falls into the hands of young readers who haven't yet been told that magic can happen to kids just like them.

The city block where Carlos and Tariq live used to be a happy, fun place.  But people moved away, and gangs moved in, and the swings in the park broke and were never fixed.  Then one day the boys find a loose board in the fenced backyard of an abandoned house. They decide to clean up the garden, and make it their own safe place, but before they can even get started, Tariq's little sister and her friend find their way in, and once they are there, there's no point in evicting them because they know how to get back (me--my sympathies are with the boys on this one, but it's nice to have girls in the story too...)

And there in the garden there is a phoenix, a real, genuine magical phoenix-- beautiful, strange, and lovely.  The kids don't know it's a phoenix at first, but happily there's a library nearby (me--yay for kids using the library!), and it seems like the garden, with its magical resident, will be even more wonderful a place than they had imagined.   The cleaning up goes well (me--I love a nice garden clean up story!)...but then disaster strikes.

Older boys who are gang members find their way in and wreck everything (me--noooooo!) and menace the littler kids and are just plain mean and hateful.

Thanks to the phoenix, it works out well in the end (me--except I'd rather have a secret garden than a public park, even though I know that's selfish!).

So it's a good story, and the writing is just right for a third or fourth grade reader getting their reading legs under them, as it were, and yay! for diversity and urban fantasy targeted at this age group.  And yay! for kids of color in fantasy books for elementary school readers--I think it's awfully important to have lots of these, so that every kid can be given a place at the table of the imagination, and there really aren't many at all.  Once you know that you can be in a fantasy story, you can allow yourself to dream whatever you want.....

This is Book One of Zetta Elliott's "City Kids" series--I'll look forward to the rest!

(me--still sad for the ruined garden.  would have liked maybe a hundred more pages of time in the garden fixing it up before it got ruined.  sigh.)

note: this is a self-published book, but the quality and design are such that this is not evident, and it would blend in beautifully with all the other early chapter books on a classroom shelf...

disclaimer: review copy received from the author at Kidlitcon.


Here is my working list of first chapter books/young elementary school books that are fantasies with kids of color:

The Magic Mirror, by Zetta Elliott (2014)

Mouldylocks and the Three Beards, and Little Red Quaking Hood (Princess Pink series), by Noah Z. Jones (2014)

You can also add Captain Underpants, although that's more graphic novel than chapter book.

It sure would be great to have a longer list....


  1. Thanks for another great review, Charlotte! I suspect you're also a huge, life-long fan of The Secret Garden...

  2. This one sounds like a winner.
    I'd even love a novel about this for young adults -- I have loved all of the "taking over the vacant lot" guerrilla gardening stuff I've seen in cities - but that's a lot of work, and people usually get mad. ☺ (Definitely a YA book waiting to be written...)

  3. Everything about this book makes me want it now! And there is an e-version. I love instant gratification!

  4. This does sound like a great addition to the books available to kids to enlarge the table of imagination.
    You could add to your list "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" as a younger than MG fantasy chapter book with kids from non-European ancestry. Not urban, of course, and not at all the same sort of diverse background as this one, but still...

    1. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is indeed a lovely one--but it's length and complexity pushes it up past the level of the early chapter book to what I'd call "Elementary/Middle Grade."

      Phoenix was nominated for the Cybils in Elementary/Middle Grade Spec Fic, but I moved it over to early chapter books where I think it will be more at home :)


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