Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard

Book review by
Barbara Saunders, Common Sense Media
Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard Book Poster Image
Girl survives through smarts and magic in intense novel.

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Kids say

age 16+
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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

A prominent subplot is about the Great Migration of African Americans from the South, and the generational trauma that their families experienced even after the move. The book depicts a slice of life at the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s-'90s.

Positive Messages

You are strong enough to overcome anything. Use your smarts, reach out to your communities, and cultivate compassion for yourself and for those who may have done wrong by you. Art can be redemptive.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The book depicts an African American family in serious crisis due to drug addiction and poverty. The main character, who's the narrator, models mustering the grit it takes to get out of the environment through her dedication to creative and academic achievement. Over the course of the years covered, several teachers act as guardian angels for their troubled students both by helping them to mentally cope and by directly intervening in their lives.

Violence

Fairly graphic scenes of violence, often presented as acts of survival or resilience. A woman puts a knife to her husband's throat and draws blood. A young girl stabs a woman to death. A teen blurs memories of consensual sex with memories of being sexually assaulted by a neighbor.

Sex

Detailed descriptions of consensual sexual encounters, masturbation, and sexual fantasies. A romantic kiss between two girls and a discussion between them about sexual orientation. Many references to adult sexual and romantic themes, including fidelity and cheating in marriage and a woman with a reputation for promiscuity.

Language

Frequent use of strong language including "s--t," "f--k," and "n---a."

Consumerism

The main character applies to and is accepted by several colleges mentioned by name: Harvard, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, and Ohio University. The movie Titanic and its messages figures heavily in one scene.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and use crack cocaine. There are multiple overdoses on crack cocaine, both fatal and non-fatal. The narrator sometimes describes a character as literally making magic when that character is disassociated from reality after using crack.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown is a semi-autobiographical, magical realist novel about a girl growing up in a family impacted by crack addiction, poverty, and sexual abuse. The influence of several teachers enables Echo to use her talents, including her status as a wizard, to find her way out of the negative cycles in her family, and a path forward by going off to an elite college. There are detailed descriptions of consensual sexual encounters, masturbation, and sexual fantasies. Two girls share a romantic kiss between two girls and discuss sexual orientation. There are many references to adult sexual and romantic themes, including fidelity and cheating in marriage and a woman with a reputation for promiscuity. There are fairly graphic scenes of violence, often presented as acts of survival or resilience. A woman puts a knife to her husband's throat and draws blood. A young girl stabs a woman to death. A teen blurs memories of consensual sex with memories of being sexually assaulted by a neighbor. Adults drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and use crack cocaine. There are multiple overdoses on crack cocaine, both fatal and non-fatal. The narrator sometimes describes a character as literally making magic when that character is disassociated from reality after using crack. Strong language is frequent, including "s--t," "f--k," and "n---a."

User Reviews

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Kid, 11 years old November 3, 2020

If you liked harry potter and Carry on, then you will like this.

This story follows the story of a black wizard, Although the book is a teen to ya book, it deffintly covers strong and hurtful topics. The violence in this book... Continue reading

What's the story?

In the opening scene of BLACK GIRL UNLIMITED, Echo is a 6-year-old in her home, which is on fire. Her mother is passed out in the bathroom, overdosed on crack cocaine. Echo and her brothers are rescued that day, and the rest of the book traces the developments in Echo's and her family's life as she finds a niche for herself in gifted and talented programs at school and begins a new life as a Dartmouth freshman. It's revealed that Echo, her mother, and other allies and friends along the way are wizards: They can stop time, see people's negative moods as black veils, and communicate with the dead and the in-between world. The supernatural powers help them navigate the pitfalls of poverty, cocaine addiction, racism, colorism, sexual abuse, and generational trauma.

Is it any good?

Intense, flawed, and beautiful, this book is recommended for mature readers only. Echo Brown is best known for her highly acclaimed one-woman show (Black Virgins Are Not for White Hipsters), and Black Girl Unlimited is her debut novel. That background contributes to the strengths and shortcomings in the novel. The contents of the book are very, very intense in a way that might feel safer in a theater performance, told by a performer whose physical presence serves as reassurance she survived. There are rapes, molestation, overdoses, a devastating car accident, stabbings. There are scenes of crack cocaine binges, with adults crawling on the floor to get the last of the powder. All of that is hard to read when you don't know where the story is going to go. In addition, the author uses a technique of interspersing one scene with another, jumping back and forth every few paragraphs. That is another solo performance approach that sometimes gets hard to follow on the page.

The magical realism element -- many of the women are wizards -- isn't quite convincing. It seems more like metaphor than world building. Ultimately, the book feels more like a personal essay than either a novel or a memoir: It is a chronological series of anecdotes that make a point but don't quite add up to a story with beginning, middle, and end. Yet the language is beautiful and poetic, with a strong writer's voice.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what it means to be educated. Echo gets two educations in Black Girl Unlimited: One makes her a wizard and one gets her into Dartmouth. How does each of those educations support the other?

  • What are the qualities in Echo that help her escape the temptations that ensnare her mother, father, brothers, and other people in the neighborhood? What are her character strengths

  • The author uses a style called "magical realism," mixing supernatural events with realistic ones. Did you enjoy this? How did the supernatural elements affect the way you understood the story of Echo and her family?

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