A Phoenix First Must Burn, a young adult anthology centering Black women and gender nonconforming people, takes its title from an Octavia Butler quote: “In order to rise from its own ashes, a phoenix first must burn.” A phoenix’s rebirth is a fitting metaphor for the anthology, edited by Patrice Caldwell ’15, which depicts Black resilience through science fiction, fantasy, and magic. Though the anthology’s 16 stories feature unreal beings, technologies, and powers, they’re grounded in the real historical and contemporary strength of Black people, resulting in Black girl magic that is wholly believable even as it is otherworldly.
The anthology’s stories are impressively varied. Readers meet an enslaved girl who can manipulate metal, a clever sorcerer’s apprentice, a girl on an intergalactic interrogation mission, a vampire-obsessed introvert who meets a real-life vampire at the library, a girl from a lineage of women whose enticing beauty is a dangerous curse, and many others. The contributors, who include award-winning and New York Times best-selling authors, draw from folklore and history across cultures and even the ongoing Flint, Mich., water crisis. Though romantic love is a common theme, family and community loyalty often take center stage, and the stories are as political as they are magical. Ultimately, the characters draw on an inner strength, a sense of knowing who they are, that comes from persisting despite adversity.
In her introduction, Caldwell describes her childhood love of science fiction and supernatural stories and how the books she found about Black characters were too often limited to stories of suffering. She recalls searching for a future for herself. But without seeing oneself in fantastical or speculative worlds, a Black girl’s possibilities seemed limited. Caldwell’s search for a future ties the stories together—not always a future with spaceships and holograms, but a future free of chains or limitations. In Phoenix, this future exists across time and space.
Though Phoenix is Caldwell’s first published book, it is far from her first publishing venture. Now a literary agent, she began her publishing career as a children’s book editor and founded the grassroots organization People of Color in Publishing. Caldwell’s mission is clear: She wants to ensure that children of color have a wealth of worlds to explore and literature to lose themselves in. With Phoenix, Caldwell has curated a stunning, remarkably diverse collection that seamlessly fits together to tell Black girls that their possibilities are endless.
Funderburg studied English and education studies at Wellesley and now works in children’s book publishing in New York City.