Slay by Brittney Morris is a groundbreaking novel in many ways. Morris has found a way to merge difficult racial conversations with the world of online video games. These two topics are always ones that immediately engage my high school students. In this blog post, I’ll explain why Slay by Brittney Morris should be the newest YA novel in your classroom library.
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What Slay is All About
Slay follows the story of Kiera Johnson, a seventeen-year-old black girl who is a bright student by day. But after school, Keira becomes a virtual video game programmer, worldbuilder, and gaming queen.
Keira’s developed her own online video game as a safe space for black gamers: Slay. She spends her free time (and money) working out bugs, running in-game events, and developing new features.
While Slay started as a little project, it has grown to become its own online world. Slay is a refuge to players who are sick of hearing racial slurs on other gaming platforms. Its pan-African aesthetics allows players to celebrate their own culture, heritage, and people.
After a user is murdered for in-game resources, however, Keira’s fun side-project becomes a source of extreme conflict. She feels guilty for the player’s death, she’s being dragged through the media for creating a “racist” game, and there are rumors floating about an impending lawsuit.
Woven throughout the storyline are deep conversations on safe spaces, racial identity, and white privilege. Morris expertly, kindly, and compassionately tackles all of these difficult conversations through the lens of a subject our students truly understand–video games.
As a reader, I was stressed out reading about Kiera’s difficulties juggling her school life, relationships, and the needs of her online community! There was always some kind of tension to keep you wondering how events were going to turn out.
How Slay Can Facilitate Difficult Racial Conversations in Your Classroom
There are characters–black and white–in Slay that dive deeply into difficult conversations.
Kiera’s sister, an activist and high-achiever, shares her opinions openly about the way people of color are treated in American society. Her white friends do their best to be supportive allies, but they misstep along the way. Her boyfriend seems to be incredibly “woke”, but sometimes he also comes across as a little militant to Kiera.
Morris expertly juggles the differences in these characters’ approaches to the same conversations. Every reader will be able to identify with at least one character’s thoughts. Through that conversation, they can be guided along through a broader racial conversation that extends beyond the pages of a novel.
These scenes are highly nuanced. I found myself having to set the book down numerous times so I could just stop, think, and catch my breath. There is nothing accusatory about Morris’s writing, but there is certainly nothing apologetic, either.
There is something, I think, about this story and these relevant conversations happening against the background of a virtual world that makes these themes more accessible to teen readers.
Discussing politics, movements, and voting can be a lot for young readers to grapple with, but who hasn’t been sworn at or insulted while playing an online video game? Who hasn’t ever wanted to just be left alone to enjoy a game? Who doesn’t know the thrill of winning a difficult virtual battle?
How Slay Breaks Away from Typical Tropes
Not only does the backdrop of the Slay video game provide an excellent context for conversations around safe spaces, but the concept itself provides a safe space for nerdy black kids–a group often marginalized, accused of acting “white”, or just left feeling “not black enough”–in the pages of Slay.
I’ve read plenty of books with characters of color in the past few years who seem to embody “typical” black teenagers. While these books are necessary, I think we’re entering a new beginning of black voices in young adult publishing. And it’s one for which I’m thoroughly excited.
I think we’ll begin to see more YA novels who do what Slay has done successfully: create three-dimensional black characters.
A black girl who doesn’t live in “the hood” and loves gaming? I love that more readers of all colors and personality types are being represented in young adult literature.
How to Match the Slay Novel To the Right Reader
Like all books, Slay will not necessarily be for everyone.
I think it’s always easiest to “sell” books to people who are similar to the protagonists. Because of that, definitely put this book in front of your black, high-achieving, female students. But, don’t believe that the appeal will end there.
There are many teen readers who do love video games. I think the idea of Slay and a teenaged video game programmer will pull in a lot of readers of both sexes.
I find it more difficult to persuade my male students to try books with female protagonists than the other way around. But I think if you use the video game aspect as a carrot, you’d be able to get a fair amount of male readers to give this book a shot.
The storyline does technically revolve around gaming and there is some boy-girl teenage strife. However, much of the story revolves around racial issues. The right reader will have to be open to that, and not everyone always is.
If you have students who are not open to these conversations, it’s probably best to move on to a different book recommendation.
Slay is another fantastic novel to add to your classroom library. It serves up video gaming to hook students’ interests, but then engages them in a larger and incredibly important conversation.
The themes presented in this novel are complicated, and Morris doesn’t aim to simplify them for her young adult readers. Instead, her complex characters teach readers that the conversation doesn’t have an end–that they must continue to always dig in to their own beliefs around race, identity, privilege, and biases.
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