For my next pick from the #1000BlackGirl book list, I chose Amber and the Hidden City by Milton J. Davis. After reading some pretty heavy books, I wanted to get something a bit more light-hearted. I also opted for a middle-grade book so I could read it a bit faster than some of the other novels I’ve covered on here.
And I’m really glad I did! I liked the titular Amber right away, and the writing is solid and easy to get into. Perfect for a middle grade book. There’s also not a ton of waiting around for the plot to start, which I like.
Thirteen-year-old Amber is at a crossroads in her life. After summer break, she’ll be going to a new high school that none of her friends are attending. This is especially daunting because her blunt personality makes it hard for her to make new friends. To top it all off, she just used magic for the first time in her life.
Amber visits her grandma, Corliss, during her summer vacation, hoping to figure out all these changes in her life. Corliss finally tells Amber the secret she’s hidden her whole life: she is from Marai, a magical city that has been hidden from the outside world for thousands of years. The leader of Marai, the Sana, is dying, and nobles are vying for power in attempts to become the next Sana. The villainous Bagule is a strong contender for the title, but his rule would likely spell disaster for the city. He wants to open up Marai to the world, something that other nobles strongly advise against.
You’d be forgiven for making comparisons between the book and Black Panther, even though Amber and the Hidden City was published before the Marvel film. Fortunately, other than both works featuring a mysterious African city, the stories are quite different.
Corliss reveals how she and Amber can stop Bagule’s rise to power. Amber is a seer, and her powers are just beginning to wake. They must travel to Marai, whereAmber can use her gift to select the next Sana, someone who will protect the city and help it prosper. They travel from the United States to Paris to Senegal to Dakar, and finally pass through a magical veil that brings them to Marai. Along the way they are pursued (and sometimes aided) by Aisha, a deadly shape shifter. As they travel, Amber learns to use her powers as a seer to see the inner truth of the people she encounters.
One thing I am always conscious of in fiction is how women are treated as characters. Are they shrinking violets? Are they balanced characters? How much “screen time” do they have when compared to male characters? I know that many male (but not all!) authors have difficulty portraying women in ways that female readers would find authentic.
I was absolutely delighted that female characters played a central role in the story. Amber and Corliss have their moments of doubt and fear, but that’s totally normal in the situations they’ve been thrown into. They also display courage and compassion. Amber also acts like a thirteen-year-old girl actually would. For example, when she has to share her bedroom with a boy, Amber’s pretty freaked out about it. She spends too much time in the bathroom to avoid seeing him and texts her best friend, asking what she should do in this situation.
I also really liked Aisha. She’s definitely a “true neutral” character, who puts her survival ahead of everything else. While others in the book have their own goals — Amber wants to get to Marai, Bagule wants to be Sana — Aisha only wants to do what’s best for herself. Even if this means betrayal. That’s a fine villainous trait to have, but she was just so cool that I could never make myself hate her.
That’s not to leave out the male characters, though! Amber’s great-grandfather is a source of wisdom; his apprentice, Bissau, is crucial to bringing Amber and Corliss to Marai; Bagule is appropriately despicable.
There are a couple things that I didn’t love about this book. The first is that there were still several places with grammatical issues, but nothing that some editing wouldn’t be able to fix.
The second is that we’re told over and over again that opening Marai to the rest of the world is a terrible idea. This is Bagule’s plan, and this is why he cannot be made Sana. Somehow, opening the city will bring ruin to Marai and the world.
We never find out why this is, though. Towards the end of the book, Amber’s great-grandfather implies that Marai is a cage for some dark, evil force. However, no one ever mentions it again, or even says what it is that Marai’s protecting the world from. After waiting so long for an explanation, I was a bit miffed when that was all we got. I imagine it will be expanded on more if there’s a sequel.
At this point, there is one thing left to talk about. You guessed it, it’s race!
I’ve just finished a Multicultural Literature course, and one of the first things we learned in it is basic ways to classify multicultural books. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) classifies diverse books in the following ways:
- By and about – the work is by a member of a specific culture or group, and about someone in that culture or group (ex. Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi)
- By and not about – the work is by a member of a specific group or culture, but not about that specific group or culture. (ex. The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats)
- About but not by – the work is about members of a specific culture or group, but not by a member of that group (ex. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot)
Additionally, books can be classified as “culturally neutral”, “culturally specific”, and “culturally generic”.
I would classify Amber as “by and about” – the same category that I’m trying to read more from. I’d also say that it’s “culturally generic”. It features diverse characters, and the cultures of these characters affect their decisions and reactions to events. Even so, the story is not about African cultures that Amber and Corliss encounter. The story is about their journey to Marai.
One other thing worth noting is that all the characters in the book are Black, even the most minor ones. I thought that was pretty cool. Though I’ve tried to read more diverse books, I’m not sure I’ve ever noted ones that have casts entirely made up of people of color.
When I attended the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Summer Spectacular, one of the interviews I got to watch was a conversation with authors Jason Reynolds and Nic Stone. Along with sharing their writing process, they talked about interacting with kids, Black Lives Matter, and writing diverse books. When talking about doing a reading, Jason Reynolds told this story:
This young kid raised his hand and he said, ‘how come you never write White people in your books?’ …He’s not being sort of provocative, he’s like, ten. This was an earnest question. ‘How come you never write White people in your books?’ And I said, ‘You know, in my world, sometimes I believe it’s okay for Black children to live a life uninterrupted, and that’s fine, you know?’ And then I said, ‘does it bother you?’ And he said, ‘Of course it doesn’t bother me, because they’re not that different from me.’ They’re kids! It’s all the adults who are hung up.Jason Reynolds, 2020
I’d never thought about it like that, but now that I have, it makes sense. I’m glad I found a book with only Black characters, where they can have their adventure, uninterrupted.