Full of two of my favorite things — Black people and magic — Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron offers its reader a journey that is just as much based in finding the majesty in South Side Chicago as there is in the realm of gods. In this story, we follow 12 year-old protagonist, Maya Janine Abeola as she uncovers the secret world her father is part of and later threatens their lives.
Maya is a strong willed, staff-combat-training middle schooler who is often left to entertain herself as her mother works late shifts and her father is frequently away on work trips. Luckily for her, her father often returns with tales about his journeys wherein he encounters fantastical beings like werehyenas and is almost eaten by elokos. His stories tie into the “Oya: Warrior Goddess” comic series Maya loves and add a twist to what Maya imagines to be a boring career as a structural engineer. But as the world shifts around her, Maya notices that some of these myths may be true — and more worryingly — that some of the scariest beings she’s ever heard of may be hunting her friends and family.
Bringing her observations of strange lightning-like cracks in the sky and shadows that clutch you in the dark to her best friends, Frankie and Eli, Maya hopes for scientific and paranormal reasoning from them, as is their brand, respectively. However, all it takes is one night in the dark, shadowing Maya’s strange neighbors, for Frankie and Maya to run directly into the clutches of real werehyenas — and the manifestation of powerful abilities — for both of these rationales to be completely blown off. To make matters worse, soon after this encounter, Maya’s father goes missing and she finds that it’s up to her to retrieve him. Hashing a plan with Frankie and Eli based on some clues that Maya has gathered, they set off on a journey that leads them directly into the hands of some of the most powerful beings that they’ve hardly ever heard of who will test them in ways they’ve never considered.
A middle grade urban fantasy with twists and turns that keep you turning the page, Maya and the Rising Dark is a story that I could easily see becoming a classic to be read and reread by young and older readers alike. Maya, Frankie, and Eli are a trio whose friendship rivals some of the best friend groups I’ve ever read in fantasy, as each person is fully considerate of the others’ strengths and areas that need extra support and provide this reinforcement artfully. We get to see each character in this trio come into their own and learn more about their true identities and the ways of the universe that build up their community as well as themselves. In Maya and the Rising Dark, author Rena Barron has framed legacy as striking and engaging as it is of the moment. The treasure that lies in its pages is something you should share with young readers as early as you can — I sure did.