To do that, Mbalia corralled some of the best in the literary business. He envisioned a book that said, “We see you when you’re at your happiest. We see you when you’re smiling at something absolutely ludicrous.” Debuting at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list after its August release, “Black Boy Joy” features 17 stories told in prose, poems and comics written by 17 male and nonbinary writers. George M. Johnson, Jerry Craft, Tochi Onyebuchi, Jason Reynolds and more came together to lend their voices during a critical time in America for people of color. These stories portray Black boys who are happy and fulfilled in their everyday lives, something not often exhibited in mass media.
Mbalia, author of the Tristan Strong series, felt that changing the narrative of Black life was especially important after the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
“I remember the labels that were being assigned to these Black people that couldn’t defend themselves,” he said. “‘He was resisting, he had a counterfeit $20 bill’ — and Trayvon and Tamir — ‘he looked scary in the dark’ — or Mike Brown — ‘he was a big angry dude.’”
Written to capture the short attention span of tweens but also to educate adults on how to support children, this middle-grade collection is filled with fun, emotional, heartfelt stories and plenty of humor. The collection explores identity (sexual and ethnic), loss and even war stratagems (though in the context of superheroes).
“There’s Going to Be a Fight in the Cafeteria on Friday and You Better Not Bring Batman,” by Lamar Giles, is one of the laugh-out-loud stories. It follows Cornell Curry — whose mother is a mystery author working on a movie adaptation of her book with “Mr. Peele” — as he tries to assemble a superhero team for a debate at his school.
Mbalia’s own “The Griot of Grover Street,” a three-part fantasy story that frames the entire collection, is about a boy named Fortitude who the author said symbolizes the Black community moving from a place of sorrow to a place of happiness. During his aunt’s funeral, Fortitude, also known as Fort, is tasked with going between worlds to replenish joy where it’s needed.
“I’m a big sci-fi and fantasy dweeb,” Mbalia said. “And so this idea of being able to move between worlds, this multiverse of Blackness, really appealed to me.”
Another writer who contributed to the collection with work that reflects his passion and mission is Reynolds, who has served as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature since 2020.
Reynolds’s story “First Day Fly” follows a child as he excitedly and meticulously prepares for the first day of school. “You asked your mother to iron them [jeans] because she’s the best ironer you’ve ever known,” Reynolds writes. “Princess Press. Iron Woman. Can turn wrinkled fabric into something like thinly sliced pieces of wood.”
The boy’s delight as he prepares for school is something Reynolds feels is both specific and mundane. It is something that brought him joy as a kid — and his own mother was a big part of that.
“We’re very close,” Reynolds said. “A lot of my stories … are coming from my childhood. Thinking about the things that she would do.”
“Reading is intimidating. All those words on the page can be intimidating for some young people who are struggling with reading,” he said. “We talk about diversity in subject matter, but we should talk about diversity in form [and] diversity when it comes to engagement.”
In that vein, Jerry Craft’s “Embracing My Black Boy Joy” is a graphic short story conveying happy visuals of a young boy with a loving family and community as he speaks freely about the beautiful moments that the outside world refuses to acknowledge. “And the people who don’t want to see our joy,” the boy says, “will make us show it even more!”
Diversity of Blackness shows up in other stories. P. Djèlí Clark’s “Percival and the Jab” follows a Caribbean-American child who thinks he was cursed by a spirit. It turns out to be a metaphor for the Trinidadian roots he has tried to let go of. Ultimately, he discovers the bliss of being American and still appreciating his heritage.
Reynolds points out that during this time of racial reckoning in America, having a diverse collection such as “Black Boy Joy,” which showcases a spectrum of Blackness and a deep range of what Black boyhood means, is poignant. He reasons that people, particularly “White folks,” are eagerly seeking material to learn more about people of color. But for Mbalia, his primary wish is for the anthology to be that spark for young readers.
“I want them to gain an appreciation for the short story and what it could be about, the emotions that they can mine from within themselves,” he says. “Here are 17 different iterations. You go out and become the 18th, the 19th, the 20th…”
Keishel Williams is a Trinidadian-American book reviewer, arts and culture writer and editor.
Black Boy Joy
17 Stories Celebrating Black Boyhood
Edited by Kwame Mbalia
Delacorte. 320 pp. $16.99