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The parents' guide to what's in this book.
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."
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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?
- Author: Echo Brown
- Genre: Emotions
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, Brothers and Sisters, High School, Misfits and Underdogs
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Henry Holt
- Publication date: March 1, 2020
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 16 - 18
- Number of pages: 304
- Available on: Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (abridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Award: ALA Best and Notable Books
- Last updated: January 25, 2021
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