Angie Thomas’s Middle Grade Debut Celebrates Black Girl Magic

THE MANIFESTOR PROPHECY (Nic Blake and the Remarkables, Book 1), by Angie Thomas

Nic Blake, the heroine of Angie Thomas’s debut middle grade novel, and her dad (who has “a dimpled smile, dark brown skin, black locs” and is referred to as “the cute father”) are Manifestors: highly revered master wizards in a secret league of gifted people called the Remarkables.

The first book in a trilogy, “The Manifestor Prophecy” begins on Nic’s 12th birthday, the year her father has promised to teach her how to use “the Gift.” She receives a hellhound pup instead.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that even Nic’s protective dad can’t keep her from her Gift. When he’s accused of a crime she refuses to believe he committed, Nic and her best friend, JP (deemed an Unremarkable for his lack of magical powers), set off to clear his name, and along the way discover hidden truths about themselves.

Thomas, beloved for such novels as “The Hate U Give” and “Concrete Rose,” has many Gifts (with a capital G) herself, as a fiction writer. Her characters are richly drawn and always engaging. She has a delicious sense of humor and a strong ear for dialogue. “My momma says I’m sneakier than a snake in slippers,” JP remarks at one point.

“The Manifestor Prophecy” is set in Jackson, Miss., and Thomas makes the city come alive. Nic and her dad live in Fondren, an artsy neighborhood known for its monthly street festivals. By creating a magical world invisible to most Unremarkables, Thomas reminds kids to appreciate their own surroundings. Adventure, and augury, can be found anywhere.

Fans of Marvel’s “Black Panther” series will love that Nic and her father are descendants of the Wallinzi tribe in Africa, which brings to mind the wizardry of Wakanda. Thomas also folds African mythology into the story. We meet Miss Sadie, who has “brown skin, glittery wings and pointed ears” — but “Don’t call her a Fairy or she’ll tell you that Fairies are from Europe … and Azizas are stronger than Fairies.” The novel is filled, too, with haints, vampires and Rougarous (wolflike creatures from Cajun mythology).

One of the things that makes “The Manifestor Prophecy” such a joyful read is the way legends of American history come to life in its speculative world. Thomas gives supernaturally strong characters like John Henry and Annie Christmas magical back stories.

The tensions in the novel between who has the Gift and who is just plain ordinary go to the heart of questions kids ask about themselves: Am I special? Do I matter? Is it OK to feel fear? How do I keep going when I’m so afraid?

Thomas dedicates “The Manifestor Prophecy” to Virginia Hamilton, the pioneering children’s author whose “The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales” is a modern classic. Hamilton fought for the wording in the subtitle. She wanted readers to know that these stories are for all children, that they are American first and Black second. Thomas portrays the historical figures and places in Nic Blake’s world this way, too, and beautifully weaves the theme of Hamilton’s titular story, which retells the tale of a rare group of enslaved people who possess the magic to physically fly away to freedom, into Nic’s adventures.

In “The Manifestor Prophecy,” Nic’s origin story, Thomas uses her narrative mojo to connect with adolescents. As the trilogy progresses, it’s sure to light the way toward the multifaceted worlds of adult speculative fiction — from Octavia Butler to Neil Gaiman to N.K. Jemisin — that await this next generation of fantasy readers.

THE MANIFESTOR PROPHECY (Nic Blake and the Remarkables, Book 1) | By Angie Thomas | 368 pp. | Balzer + Bray | $19.99 | Ages 8 to 12

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