“The Night Before Freedom” by Glenda Armand and “Nic Blake and the Remarkables” by Angie Thomas

Summer is here! At the Joplin Public Library, that means the all-ages summer reading challenge has started. Along with that, we have a whole range of events including concerts, magic shows, art programs, STEM workshops, and much more. Our summer reading theme this year is “All Together Now” and we are celebrating kindness, unity, friendship, and community. 

One of the best books I’ve read this year on friendship and community is Angie Thomas’ middle grade debut Nic Blake and the Remarkables: The Manifestor Prophecy. I don’t typically go for fantasy or speculative fiction but Thomas’ young adult books are some of my favorites. Her first foray into books for the younger set did not disappoint. This novel follows the aforementioned Nic Blake, a newly-minted twelve year old girl living as a Remarkable (a person with powerful abilities, also known as the Gift) living undercover in an unremarkable Atlanta, Georgia. It’s always just been Nic and her dad; her mom left without a trace when she was little and they have no other family. Anytime someone discovers her family’s abilities, Nic and her dad move off to a new city. Needless to say, it’s hard to make friends. Things finally feel like they are coming together in Atlanta. Nic and her best friend, JP, are immersed in the fandom of a popular book series and her dad is finally going to teach her how to use her abilities on her birthday. But when she turns 12 and her dad stops her from going to the book signing and backs out on teaching her to use her skills, she has to take matters into her own hands. When Nic’s dad is charged with a crime she is sure he didn’t commit, she sets out to clear his name. 

Nic Blake and the Remarkables is fantasy, yes, but it’s also a story about friendship and relationships and the things we do to protect the people we care about. Thomas has created a story that’s both exciting and filled with heart. The action– from the werewolf to the devil’s daughter to the skyscraper-sized dragon– legitimately surprised me and the connections between Nic and her dad, as well as other important characters (no spoilers!) kept me emotionally invested. I think the latter is what I enjoyed most about this book, as I tend to gravitate towards books about family and friendship. I also loved the age-appropriate discussion of civil rights and Thomas’ weaving of African American mythology and fantasy into the fantastical world of the Remarkables. I highly recommend Nic Blake and can’t wait for a sequel. 

I also want to share a new title related to our newest federal holiday, Juneteenth. Gloria Armand and Corey Barksdale’s The Night Before Freedom: A Juneteenth Story is a joyous retelling of the story of Juneteenth or Emancipation Day. Modeled after The Night Before Christmas, this historical picture book instead tells of the freedom won by the last enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas. The Night Before Freedom begins with a multigenerational family gathering around their matriarch to hear her retelling of her own grandmother’s account of Emancipation Day. 

The story begins with, “‘Twas the night before freedom and all through the South long-whispered rumors had spread, word of mouth.” This is one of the few lines that directly follows the verbiage of the original holiday story, though the cadence matches it throughout. Author Glenda Armand’s story feels digestible for a preschooler or early elementary-aged student, though more could be gleaned from this book with older readers. Many historical picture books tend to be more text-heavy and more appropriate for one-on-one reading with older children. The rhythmic nature of The Night Before Freedom, however, will keep even the youngest listener’s attention. This format does simplify some of the more complex or difficult parts of the history of slavery, but the Library has many other books about Juneteenth and the emancipation of individuals who were enslaved to answer questions for older readers. This book is mostly about joy, and you can feel it in the buzzy excitement of the family gathering around to hear the story as well as the narrator’s exclamations and descriptions of dancing, hugging, and dreams of flying away. 

Illustrator Corey Barksdale’s oil pastel paintings illuminate that joy through the grins of the newly and “forever free” individuals with arms outstretched in praise, joy, and dancing, as well as in the way the family members look at each other with love and care. Barksdale’s illustrations are reminiscent of late 19th-century African American folk art, particularly through the use of bright colors and joyous movement. One of my favorite illustrations comes halfway through the book and features several Black men and women with wings on their back flying toward what appears to be a type of paradise. This page calls to mind the cover of the award-winning collection of folk tales, The People Could Fly, by Virginia Hamilton (to whom Nic Blake’s Angie Thomas dedicates her book). Armand and Barksdale’s The Night Before Freedom is a celebration of freedom, family, love, and community. Although Juneteenth has passed, this would be a worthwhile and enjoyable read year round.