Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water is a part fantastical and part so-real-that-it-hurts YA novel weaving together ancient myths and the current-day experience of two Black teenage girls living in one of America’s whitest cities. Effie and Tavia are friends (nearly sisters) who both hold ancient powers. It is their deep connection to their ancestral roots and their ultimate refusal to suppress their own magic that drives the narrative.
While there were a few moments in the storyline where I felt pulled by an undertow of abundant plot points, the tide always shifted. I found myself breathlessly experiencing the mundane (a high school crush and a summer job as a mermaid at the Renaissance Faire) and the otherworldly (a Gargoyle keeping watch outside the girls’ bedroom window and magical visions) all within the bigger context of the fight against anti-Blackness and the finding of self. The overall impact of the book is so striking that it’s definitely worth a few overwhelming waves.
The persona of the siren in this book takes on deep current relevance as it is connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, with anti-siren violence and legal systems highlighted. Morrow centers both the power and the silencing of black women’s voices (in this case, all sirens are black women although not all black women are sirens). And the direct critique of the way Portland, Oregon, prides itself on keeping things liberally “weird” AND simultaneously conforms so closely to white supremacy culture is important and spot-on. I am especially grateful to Morrow for surfacing the real-life local tragedy of Devonte Hart’s fame and murder. Devonte and his siblings (all of whom were black children adopted by the white women who killed them) are referenced multiple times with chilling impact.
This is a book that I will be encouraging friends and fellow educators (especially of high school folx) to read and share. I am already imagining teaching this book alongside a text like Tiffany Jewell’s This Book Is Anti-Racist as part of classroom curriculum.