A Book of Speculative Fiction by a BIPOC Author: Staff Picks for the TPL Reading Challenge 2021

August 16, 2021 | Ames

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Back in February 2021, we had a fantastic online discussion for "a book of speculative fiction by a BIPOC author" along with "a book set in the future". BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour. It's an umbrella term that, while definitely not perfect, is a way to highlight work by creators that have historically been underrepresented in fantasy, science fiction, or the whole publishing industry.

At our online discussion, three of our Reading Challenge team members – Maggie, Wendy and me – gave our recommendations and chatted with our special guest, Sephora. Sephora is the Senior Department Head for the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy. Aside from some great recommendations, Sephora also gave a bit of a rundown on what we're talking about when we talk about speculative fiction. Here's some of what she had to say:

"The coining of the term “speculative fiction” is credited to Robert A. Heinlein, who first used it in an editorial piece in 1947. But he was also a writer whose work incorporated actual scientific principles, so it really left no room for fantasy. It’s no surprise that Heinlein is considered to be one of the originators of hard science fiction as a subgenre. The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy – which was originally called the Spaced Out Library – was renamed after writer and editor Judith Merril in 1970. She described speculative fiction as “a story that answers the question, ‘What if…?’” which is the way that I think we have come to accept the term from the 1970's onward. Speculative fiction is an umbrella term for a wide array of genres, that includes science fiction, fantasy and horror."

Many different books could be considered "speculative fiction", which can definitely be seen in our recommendations! There's alternate history, magical realism, classic fantasy, space opera and more.

If you missed the live event, you can check out the event replay online. There are too many recommendations to include them all here, but here are a few to get you started.

Event Recommendations


Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian-American author. It is the first in a trilogy of novellas, so when you get to the end and you are still wanting more, there is more! I also think this is a great novella to try if you think you're not a speculative fiction reader, or you're new to Afro-Futurism. It's short enough and pithy enough that it's not a big commitment to try. I think it's fabulous.

– Sephora, Senior Department Head

Parable of the sower

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

I’ve enjoyed reading Octavia Butler’s Earthseed books. The first one came out over 25 years ago. I read Parable of the Sower, and then listened to Parable of the Talents, and boy do they hit the spot when it comes to extrapolating from things you’re worried about. They touch on climate change, income inequality, racial inequality, the rise of fascism – it’s all there. Sort of a worst-case scenario for how life could be a decade from now if we don’t get it together.

– Wendy, Digital Content Lead

The Book of M

The Book of M by Peng Shepherd

It takes place in the near future where there's a pandemic that causes people to lose their shadows. Once they do, it quickly develops into a dementia-like condition which strips them of their memories and identities. I read it a couple of years ago for a past TPL Reading Challenge, and I probably think about it once a week. It's heartbreaking. And it has a really beautiful cover.

– Maggie, Librarian


Rosewater by Tade Thompson

This book is mostly set in 2066, but has flashback chapters too. In the future, a huge alien sort of crash-lands in Nigeria. With its arrival, some people who live nearby develop psychic powers. Others are miraculously healed of ailments, and less fortunate people undergo horrible mutations. The main character is one of the fortunate ones, a "sensitive" with seer-like abilities. He uses these abilities in security work for a major bank, where his role is to prevent fraud and ward off psychic attacks by competitors. His life is pretty stable and not too bad until, all of a sudden, the other sensitives like him start being killed by a mysterious illness. The mystery element of how they're getting sick, what's causing it, and if he's going to be next are all main elements of the book, so I'd recommend it to mystery fans. It may be a bit of a spoiler, but this is the first book in a trilogy!

– Ames, Librarian


Event Participant Recommendations

All of these titles – and more! – were recommended by participants in the chat, and discussed by our event hosts.


More Staff Recommendations

We reached out to our staff to pick "a book of speculative fiction by a BIPOC author", and here are their suggestions.

The unbroken

The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

A military fantasy story inspired by North African colonialism. The story starts with Touraine, a Qazāli-born conscript in the imperial army of Balladaire who was stolen from her country as a child. The second main character is Luca, the imperial heir to the empire of Balladaire who is struggling to earn her throne by quashing a rebellion in Qazāli. Clark focuses on the emotional experiences of those caught in colonial violence, and despite the fantastic setting and characters the novel can be difficult to read at times – especially when revealing Luca's entitlement and complacency.

Other categories you could use it for:

  • A book that is the first in a series
  • A debut book (she has published a lot of shorter works in anthologies and magazines)
  • A book published this year

Black sun

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

This book is an epic fantasy adventure inspired by the civilizations of the pre-colombian Americas. The world building is detailed and rich, reflecting the intricacies of the cultures that inspire it. Perspective shifts between four very different and unique characters, with equally addicting chapters. Lots of political intrigue set up for the sequel as well.

You could also use this for "a book that is the first in a series".

– Emily, Librarian

Blood like magic

Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury

Set in a near-futuristic Toronto, Sambury's YA debut follows Voya Thomas, a young Black witch, who learns that she must sacrifice her first love in order to save her family's magic – a terrible task made more difficult because Zoya's never been in love. Blood Like Magic is a rich, inclusive fantasy with an intricate magic system steeped in Afro-Caribbean history and culture.

Other categories you could use it for:

  • A book that is the first in a series
  • A book about your heritage or culture
  • A debut book
  • A book published this year

– Kim, Librarian

Gutter child

Gutter Child by Jael Richardson

This debut novel by FOLD founder Jael Richardson is set in an imagined world where some people are forced to buy their freedom by working off their debt to society. Elimina, a "gutter child", is given the opportunity to live amongst the privileged as part of a social experiment led by the government. She unexpectedly ends up back with other gutter children, and has to learn a new way of living to survive. Though this book touches on heavy topics like social class, institutional racism, and poverty, it is a fairly easy read.

Other categories you could use it for:

  • a book about someone unlike yourself
  • a debut book
  • a book published this year

– Nalini, Senior Branch Head

Klara and the sun

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book is set in a future where privileged children are genetically engineered, or "lifted," to enhance their academic abilities. Klara, our winning main character, is a solar-powered Artificial Friend (AF) who is purchased to serve and observe Josie, a lifted, lonely girl who lives far from the city. This is Ishiguro so there is more going on than meets the eye in this seemingly simple story. Moral and philosophical questions abound with no clear answers. What exactly makes someone human in a world of rapidly evolving technology? And what has love got to do with it? This is a quiet, eerie read that will stick around in your brain (and heart) for a while. Read this one in the sun.

Bonus: this book works for tons of other categories!

  • a book set in the future
  • a book where the main character is not human
  • a book about STEM
  • a book about love (not just the romantic kind)
  • a book published this year

– Jennifer, Librarian

I'm waiting for you

I'm Waiting For You: And Other Stories by Kim Bo-Young, translated from the Korean by Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu

Made up of two pairs of connected short stories, this is one of the first works translated into English by acclaimed Korean speculative fiction author Kim Bo-Young! I enjoyed “The Prophet of Corruption” and “That One Life”, which are philosophical and thought-provoking stories about godlike beings who pass judgement on humanity, but I absolutely loved the lyrical and romantic “I’m Waiting For You” and “On My Way To You” about an engaged couple who write letters back and forth as they try to coordinate their separate interstellar missions to arrive back on Earth at the same time in order to finally tie the knot. “I’m Waiting For You” even has a sweet story behind it – it was originally commissioned by a man who wanted to propose to his girlfriend by reading a romantic story written by his girlfriend’s favourite author. Fortunately she said yes!

Other categories you could use it for:

  • A book about growing older
  • A book set in the future
  • A book published this year
  • A book about love (not just the romantic kind)
  • A book by two or more people

Black water sister

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Author Zen Cho summed up her novel as “a stressed zillennial lesbian fights gods, ghosts, gangsters & grandmas in 21st century Penang.” I’ve been a fan of Cho’s since her whimsical debut about regency-era magicians, Sorcerer to the Crown. And I loved her latest, a fast-paced contemporary fantasy set in Malaysia! Jessamyn is deeply relatable as a character going through that awkward post-university, pre-career phase of her life where she lacks independence, and Jess’ journey to piece together the component parts of her identity, reconciling her devotion to her family with her need to live authentically, will resonate with many readers.

You could also use it for "a book published this year".

– Chelsea, Librarian

Frankenstein in baghdad

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmad Saʻdāwī, translated by Jonathan Wright 

A riveting novel set in American-occupied Baghdad this remix of Frankenstein is a character focused tale of monsters and murder set during one of the worse spates of bloodshed under occupation. Hadi, a resident of Baghdad's central Bataween neighbourhood has a secret: he has been scavenging body parts from the victims of the conflict and suicide bombings ravaging the city in order to build a complete body. When the just completed body goes missing and the newspapers begin attributing a string of murders to a creature known as "Whatsitsname" Hadi fears that he has unknowingly created a monster.

You could also use this as "a book by two or more people".

The theft of sunlight

The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani

I normally wouldn't recommend a second in series book, but this book is robust enough to stand on its own. Set in a compelling fantasy world, Amraeya is thrust into a world of political intrigue and peril after her friend's sister becomes a victim of child snatchers. This a follow up to her 2020 book, Thorn, but it follows the perspective of a different character. The characters and setting are delightful and the narrative very gracefully addresses its very real subject matter.

It also fits the category "a book published this year".

– Michael, Librarian

Bitter root

Bitter Root by David Walker, Chuck Brown and Sanford Greene

This graphic novel is about the monster hunting Sangerye Family during the Harlem Renaissance. These monsters/Jinoo are created out of fear, hate and racism, and the family is conflicted between curing the monsters or killing them. A new monster created through grief and trauma is threatening everyone's lives and the Sangeryes have to learn to work together, or face turning into monsters themselves, if they really want to save the world. The comics weave in real world events like Red Summer and the Tulsa Race Massacre.

You can use it for "a book by two or more people" as well.


LaGuardia: A Very Modern Story of Immigration by Nnedi Okorafor

LaGuardia is set in an alternate world where aliens have integrated with society but there is a great deal of xenophobia towards these aliens. Pregnant Nigerian-American doctor, Future, smuggles in an alien plant through LaGuardia airport, but that is not the only thing she is hiding. The story addresses immigration and refugee rights particularly in light of recent events in the United States. I really loved all the different aliens in this book, especially the plant ones!

You could also use this for "a book by two or more people". Our online graphic novel book club will be discussing this book in October. Everyone is welcome to join!


Recommendations from the Facebook Group

We have a lively TPL Reading Challenge Facebook Discussion group, and they're always keen to chime in with their picks. Here are some of the titles they recommend.

You can read the Facebook thread with all of the groups' recommendations, even if you don't have a Facebook account.



Again, if you missed the live event, you can hear the amazing discussion by watching the event replay online. We hold TPL Reading Challenge Online Discussions on a regular basis, and focus on different categories for each one. In December, we'll be having a year-end wrap up!

And if you have more recommendations for "a book of speculative fiction by a BIPOC author", please share in the comments below.