Autumn Allen

“I wake up with my head down,” says D. He overslept because no one woke him up, and now Dad says they have to hustle. He walks to school feeling “scrunchy” as a cloud hovers above his head. “It can still be a good day,” he says. “Any day can be good if you try.” But D faces one disappointment after another: It’s gym day, and he forgot to wear his gym uniform, so he can’t play kickball. In writing class, he gets the laptop with the sticky space bar. When he calls out the correct answer in math class, the teacher criticizes him for not raising his hand instead of praising him for having the right answer. When he accidentally makes a mess that leads to a meltdown during show and tell, D must go to the principal’s office. Once there, his day takes an unexpected turn.

Keep Your Head Up is the debut picture book by journalist Aliya King Neil, with illustrations by Coretta Scott King Award winner Charly Palmer. Throughout this touching portrait of a child doing his best to manage a difficult day, D’s feelings of frustration and discouragement are palpable and create a sense of rising tension. Palmer’s illustrations feature thick, textured brushstrokes, and his impressionistic style enhances the emotional narrative. Pops of blue and pink complement D’s deep brown skin.

Parallels to Judith Viorst’s classic depiction of another boy and his “no good, very bad day” are obvious, but Neil never plays D’s troubles for laughs. Instead, she explores how the supportive adults in D’s life, including his parents and Miss King, the school principal, empower him to make positive decisions when it’s not easy to do so.

Reading Keep Your Head Up would be an excellent way to begin a conversation about how to process the highs and lows of life. It’s a simple and powerful reminder to not let bad days get us down.

Keep Your Head Up is a simple and powerful reminder not to let bad days get us down.

In You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience (6.5 hours), Tarana Burke (creator of the #MeToo movement) and Dr. Brené Brown curate a collection of personal essays by Black writers and activists in an effort to apply Brown’s work on shame, resilience and vulnerability to the Black experience in America. Burke and Brown’s conversational preface feels like an engaging podcast as they explain the process of their collaboration.

The contributors, who include Jason Reynolds, Austin Channing Brown, Kiese Laymon, Laverne Cox and Imani Perry, read their own essays, infusing the listening experience with a range of voices and styles. These performances require the listener to reckon with poignant, often painful experiences that speak to the ways in which white supremacy adds an extra barrier to the process of overcoming shame. By narrating their personal stories, the contributors, along with Brown and Burke, demonstrate what is gained by bringing one’s authentic self to the work of deconstructing oppressive power structures. At the end of each essay, the authors’ biographies are read by actors Mirron Willis, Bahni Turpin, J.D. Jackson or L. Morgan Lee.

The production of this audiobook allows the listener to feel that the political is personal.

Tarana Burke and Brené Brown demonstrate the power of bringing one’s authentic self to the work of deconstructing oppressive power structures.

Writer, poet and educator Clint Smith narrates the audio edition of How the Word Is Passed (10 hours), a timely reckoning with America’s past dependence on the cruel institution of chattel slavery. Smith brings the listener on a tour of locations with fraught ties to the transatlantic slave trade, from his hometown of New Orleans to Senegal. He reads his smooth, journalistic prose in a weighty, measured cadence. Listeners will find themselves paying closer attention and appreciating the author’s perspective even more because of how Smith’s narration lends gravity to his experiences and purpose to their telling.

Those who appreciate a good documentary will feel most at home with this audiobook. The content is heavy, at times nearly overwhelming, but Smith’s factual storytelling voice, with fitting but muted inflection throughout, models the courage and fortitude required to take it all in. This book is a generous gift to a nation struggling to define itself.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: From a Louisiana native to a D.C. high school teacher to a Harvard Ph.D. candidate to a staff writer for The Atlantic—Clint Smith shares the journey that led to his brilliant nonfiction debut.

Clint Smith’s narration of How the Word Is Passed models the courage and fortitude required to face this timely reckoning with America’s past.

In a short introduction to Black Boy Joy, anthology editor Kwame Mbalia (Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky) reveals three secrets: He doesn’t like watching the news, he cries when he is happy, and he wants readers to be happy. He describes Black Boy Joy as what happened when he combined those three secrets with the contributions of 16 fellow Black authors.

In addition to his role as editor, Mbalia also contributes the book’s framing story, “The Griot of Grover Street,” in which 11-year-old Fortitude Jones is called away from his aunt’s funeral to help a strange older man travel through the mysterious space between worlds to collect moments of joy. A mix of well-known and up-and-coming authors, including Jason Reynolds, Varian Johnson, Tochi Onyebuchi and Jerry Craft, create the moments themselves in 16 stories that highlight the sweetness of the extraordinary and the ordinary.

Fantastical tales burst with the energy of intergalactic battles and magical games, and one story written in verse includes instructions for writing your own poem. In Lamar Giles’ incomparably titled “There’s Going to Be a Fight in the Cafeteria on Friday and You Better Not Bring Batman,” a boy named Cornell gets advice on a superpowered showdown from three generations of family members. In B.B. Alston’s “The McCoy Game,” two cousins reconnect after having grown apart. The young chef in Julian Winters’ “The Legendary Lawrence Cobbler” learns that his father’s love for him isn’t changed by the revelation that he likes boys. And a tween uses their 13th birthday as the occasion to come out as nonbinary in George M. Johnson’s “The Gender Reveal.”

Every story’s protagonist is instantly endearing as they offer humor and hope and share their fears and dreams. The stories are honest and fresh, and the affection each contributor must have felt for both their characters and the reader while writing comes through clearly on every page. Black Boy Joy is a treasure to share and return to again and again.

In a short introduction to Black Boy Joy, anthology editor Kwame Mbalia (Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky) reveals three secrets.

The powerful audiobook production of Imbolo Mbue’s haunting second novel, How Beautiful We Were (14 hours), is a rare display of superior casting and direction. This story about a clash between an American oil company and a fictional African village is read by a cast of six actors: Lisa Renee Pitts, Prentice Onayemi, Janina Edwards, Dion Graham, J.D. Jackson and Allyson Johnson. Throughout flawlessly distinct sections, multiple characters tell the tale of the village’s resistance to the company’s poisoning of their children. Each actor’s voice and tone heighten the distinct styles of the narrators, which include different members of the Nangi family as well as a chorus called “the Children.”

Given Mbue’s skillful use of suspense, narrative distance, physicality and interiority, this is not an audiobook for multitasking or to provide background noise. The intense readings will lure listeners into the strangely palpable world of the novel. Exquisite.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of the print version of How Beautiful We Were.

The audiobook of Imbolo Mbue’s second novel is not for multitasking or to provide background noise. It’s palpable, intense and exquisite.

A heartfelt chorus of voices composes a well-researched community mosaic of Black American history in Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain’s Four Hundred Souls (14 hours).

The book is divided into five-year periods that span 400 years of the Black American experience, and the audiobook transitions between each section via layered, echoing voices for a haunting, emotional effect. Eighty-seven narrators comprise the full cast, including the authors of some of the essays and poems as well as other notable voices such as journalist Soledad O’Brien and actors Danai Gurira and Leslie Odom Jr. The performances are straightforward or theatrical as appropriate, but they’re always engaging, and the variety of voices and styles sustains the listener’s attention.

Offering the best of education and entertainment, this epic audiobook enhances Kendi and Blain’s transformative history project through the sense of humanity that only a person’s voice can convey. Listeners will learn and be moved, and will no doubt listen more than once. Bravo.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Go behind the scenes with the editors and producers of Four Hundred Souls, the year’s most astounding full-cast audiobook production.

This epic audiobook enhances Kendi and Blain’s transformative history project through the sense of humanity that only a person’s voice can convey.

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