SLAY by Brittney Morris; Simon Pulse, 318 pages ($18.99) Ages 12 and up.
A safe space for black gamers like herself, a game celebrating black heroes and black culture, a virtual reality without trolls or racist slurs. That's the genius and genesis of SLAY, a multiplayer online role-playing card game created anonymously by a black teenager in this thrilling, thought-provoking debut novel from Brittney Morris.
17-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student and math tutor and one of the only black students at Jefferson Academy in Bellevue, Wash. No one, not her sister, her parents, or her boyfriend, knows she is the developer of the hugely popular game played by hundreds of thousands of black gamers across the world.
Even non-gamers can appreciate the way Morris brilliantly evokes the thrills of the game action, the creativity of the online players' personae and game cards, the vivid detail involved in crafting the geographic regions of the SLAY virtual world, the physical exertion involved as Kiera, in her bedroom, dons her headphones, and her gray VR socks, gloves and goggles to transform nightly into the Nubian goddess persona known to her fellow gamers as Emerald. (The Tundra region includes Fairbanks Arena, named for black figure skater Mabel Fairbanks: "I built the arena itself entirely of diamonds, because I could, and because a diamond arena in an icy region is hella dope.")
Kiera has dreamed of going to Spelman College, a historic black college in Atlanta, to be near her boyfriend Malcolm, who calls her his "queen," reads only the work of black male authors and disapproves of video games as "distractions promoted by white society to slowly erode the focus and ambition of Black men." When a high school student in Kansas City is killed over an argument in the game world of SLAY, Kiera is heartsick. Then the media gloms onto the story of SLAY as a racist, exclusionary game played by gangs, the clamor grows to "out" the developer, and an anonymous troll enters SLAY to try to ruin the game, threatening to sue Kiera over the game's "anti-white" bias.
In a feature with Publishers Weekly, Morris said: "I wrote Slay for Black teens who live between worlds as I did, who feel pressure to be one version of themselves at work or school, and only get to be themselves among people who share their experiences." Her brilliant novel offers both a thriller with a bombshell twist, as Kiera fights to save her game, and a thoughtful exploration of a black teen's struggle living between worlds, almost never free to truly be herself, as one of three black students at her school, as a daughter whose parents have certain expectations, as a longtime friend of a white girl who constantly misunderstands her, as a female who has to battle her boyfriend's anti-feminist ideas, as an artist who has to keep her proudest achievement a secret.
"The biggest mistake Pokko's parents ever made was giving her a drum."
Thus begins this utterly charming, original and very funny picture book from award-winning illustrator and comic book artist Matthew Forsythe, who lives in Montreal. His droll yet delicate illustrations in watercolor, gouache and colored pencil offer frogs loaded with personality against a shimmering background of shifting light in a forest of green, orange and yellow.
Pokko cuts a cheery, determined figure with the drum around her neck and drumsticks held high in both fists. After her father cautions her not to make too much noise: "We're just a little frog family that lives in a mushroom and we don't like drawing attention to ourselves," Pokko goes into the forest where it's so quiet she starts to bang away, drawing a wolf and a parade of critters with instruments, prompting her to memorably advise: "No more eating band members or you're out of the band."
And of course, her parents are proud of her despite the racket. Children will adore feisty Pokko with her declaration of independence and the depiction of the frog parents and their mistakes (the hilarious illustrations show Pokko about to be hurled by a slingshot, atop a llama with her parents squashed underneath, being carried away by a balloon).