Root Magic is the book I wish I’d had as a little Black girl growing up in the South.
Not only did books like this not exist in the middle grade world in the ’90s, but even if they had, my school library wouldn’t have carried it. They tried to ban over 30 books and made national news for their heavy-handed censorship.
Which is why I’m so glad that Eden Royce wrote this book. Reading about a little Black girl from the South practicing the ancestral magic I grew up witnessing filled a hole in me I didn’t know existed. Finally, I got to see child-me on the page.
Root Magic is not just important for its subject matter, however. It’s also incredible for its nuanced view of racism, classism, and outright hatred against those perceived to hold power over others in a way those others don’t quite comprehend.
Royce’s protagonist, a tween girl named Jezebel, loses her grandmother at the start of this master class in middle grade horror. Her world is turned upside down by the death, and her family’s protection is lessened because the matriarch is no longer there to work the root to protect them all. Eventually, she and her twin brother, Jay, convince their mother and uncle to let them learn rootwork to help protect them from the local deputy, who has it out for all the rootworkers in his area. Jez and Jay learn about all manner of magic, from haints and boo-hags to mojo bags and astral projection. Ultimately, Jez’s knowledge of hoodoo will be tested in one final showdown between the racist cop and her family.
Royce’s debut novel does a lot of heavy lifting, especially considering its classification as a middle grade book. Readers are taken on a journey through what it was like to be Black in the South before the Civil Rights Movement. We witness first-hand the Black community’s reaction to the death of John F. Kennedy. And we watch a lonely little girl come into her own power, making the unlikeliest of friends in the process.
Root Magic is also, in many ways, a handbook on practicing conjure work. The references to using graveyard dirt and brick dust for protection brought me back to my own childhood, where my father and grandmother discussed doing the same. The horrifying stories I heard as a child about boo-hags slipping out of their skin to terrorize folks at night also held the warmth of familiarity, despite its ghastly premise. In short, Root Magic made me feel like I was home again.
But it’s important to note that this book is more than just a trip down memory lane for those of us who grew up with hoodoo. While that’s incredibly important and powerful to those kids living in families just like the Turners, Root Magic is also a lens through which readers can understand what it was like to grow up during an uncertain and horrifying time to be Black. But perhaps even more essentially, it underscores the idea that “not all skinfolk are kinfolk”; that Black people experience racism from their country and fellow citizens, but that they are also sometimes looked down upon by people experiencing those same struggles. Jez is constantly teased about her family’s involvement in rootwork by the other Black girls in her school, though many of the kids that tease her have parents that frequent her family’s shop for simple remedies for healing medical maladies, as well as spells to address imbalances of the less natural variety.
Royce does an excellent job of crafting a compelling story from start to finish. From the first line, we are drawn into the world she grew up in. Every building block of story serves a purpose to push the narrative forward, while also setting up major reveals later in the book. The children in Root Magic are believable in their actions, and openly grapple with questions other middle school kids work through at this point in their lives–the quest for friends, for finding what it is you stand for, and for becoming your own person outside of your family, while still remaining connected to them in a meaningful way.
For me, Root Magic was a joy to read. In fact, I can’t wait to read it with my own son to introduce him to some of the lore that I grew up with. This book will introduce a whole new generation to rootwork and ensure that it never dies. Because rootwork has primarily been an oral tradition passed down from parents and grandparents to children, much of it is not documented in any way. To learn it requires finding a mentor familiar with the work. But in writing this novel, Royce has opened the door for children to see their previously secretive culture out in the world, but still treated with the reverence and respect it deserves.
In many ways, this novel felt like it was a love letter to 12-year-old me–the girl who couldn’t find books with people that looked like her, much less those who believed like her. And while girls like me are definitely in the minority, even among other southern Black people, it’s incredibly important that those kids–especially those kids–have a mirror they can peer into while they are trying to figure out where they belong in this world.
Librarians across the country–both public and school–should race to acquire copies of this book. Every single place where kids check out books needs a copy of Root Magic. You never know who might need this book, and what magic it might work on their soul.
Order Root Magic now:
Apple | Bookshop | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound
And don’t miss our interview with Eden Royce here.