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Sugar Town Queens

Author Malla Nunn
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From Los Angeles Times Book Prize Award winner and Edgar Award nominee Malla Nunn comes a stunning portrait of a family divided and a powerful story of how friendship saves and heals.

When Amandla wakes up on her fifteenth birthday, she knows it's going to be one of her mother's difficult days. Her mother has had another vision. This one involves Amandla wearing a bedsheet loosely stitched as a dress. An outfit, her mother says, is certain to bring Amandla's father back home, as if he were the prince and this was the fairytale ending their family was destined for. But in truth, Amandla's father has long been gone--since before Amandla was born--and even her mother's memory of him is hazy. In fact, many of her mother's memories from before Amandla was born are hazy. It's just one of the many reasons people in Sugar Town give them strange looks--that and the fact her mother is white and Amandla is Black.

When Amandla finds a mysterious address in the bottom of her mother's handbag along with a large amount of cash, she decides it's finally time to get answers about her mother's life. What she discovers will change the shape and size of her family forever. But with her best friends at her side, Amandla is ready to take on family secrets and the devil himself. These Sugar Town queens are ready to take over the world to expose the hard truths of their lives.
Malla Nunn was born and raised in Swaziland. Her adult crime books have earned her two Edgar nominations and a RUSA Award for Best Mystery Novel. Her first young adult novel, When the Ground is Hard, won the L.A. Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature and the Josette Frank Award for Children's Literature.

After earning a master's degree in Theatre Studies, she dabbled in acting in New York City, worked as a cocktail waitress, a nanny, a bookseller, and on film sets, but never at the same time. She also made short films and an award-winning documentary, Servant of the Ancestors, before surrendering to her passion: writing books.

She married in a traditional Swazi ceremony. Her bride price was eighteen cows. View titles by Malla Nunn

White stars dance across my field of vision. The blindfold is tied too tight and I want to rip it off. Instead, I sit and try to rub the goose bumps off my arms. It’s cold inside our one-room house, the cracks in the corrugated-iron walls wide enough to let the air in from outside. It’s winter, so we have stuffed rags into the spaces we can reach. I shiver and wait patiently for the two surprises that my mother has planned.

The thing is: not all surprises are good.

“Happy fifteenth birthday, Amandla.” My mother, Annalisa, who refuses to be called Mother in any of South Africa’s eleven official languages, unties the blindfold and hands me a bowl of lumpy porridge decorated with multicolored sprinkles, icing sugar, and whatever canned fruit was in the cupboard. This year’s fruit is pears in syrup, a step up from last year’s ancient mandarins. Loaded porridge is the closest I will ever get to a birthday cake: a blessing. Annalisa is a terrible cook and a worse baker.

“Thank you.” I take the bowl (surprise number one) and our fingers touch, hers pale, mine brown, both with long fingers, elegant, waiting for jewelry, or a piano. In another life, maybe. Our room is too small for a piano, and there is no money for jewels.

“Today is extra special for two reasons. It’s your birthday, plus . . .” She takes a deep breath and cups my cheek with a shaky hand. “Last night, I had a vision. It was wonderful, but we have to do our part to make it come true.”

The lumpy porridge sticks in my throat and stops me from cursing. Annalisa’s visions have taken us into the cane fields to sing to the stars at midnight. They have told us to eat eggs, and only eggs, for four days in a row. They have led us into the heart of a storm to wait for the lightning to send us instructions. The instructions never came.

My mother is out of her mind.

The lightning was eight months ago. Every night since, I have prayed for the spirits to leave Annalisa alone and go whisper directions to someone else.

“Tell me what we have to do.” I use a fake calm voice to mask the anxious feeling gathering inside my chest. I have to stay cool and make my next move carefully. “But hurry. I have to get to school.”

“Hands over your eyes,” she says. “Here comes the second surprise.”

I cover my eyes and peek through the space between my fingers as Annalisa walks across the cracked linoleum floor in black tailored trousers, a white silk shirt, and a cropped leather jacket with silver buckles. This is her best outfit. This morning, she will disappear into the city of Durban and come home with bags of the basics: socks, underwear, soap, and a special something for my birthday.

“Open your eyes now.” She pulls a piece of blue material from her wardrobe and holds it up with a flourish. “Look. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“It” is a folded bedsheet with two holes cut in the fabric for the arms and another larger hole, for the head. The material is stained and held together by stitches that zigzag in different directions. She drapes the sheet dress across the foot of my cot as if it is made of raw silk and sewn together by cartoon birds with golden needles.

“If you wear this . . .” Her pale skin glows like there’s a fire burning out of control inside her. “All our dreams will come true.”

No. All my nightmares will come true.

“Which dreams are you talking about, exactly?” Annalisa’s dreams can be anything. A brick house with ocean views. A holiday under swaying palms. Cold lobster rolls chilling in a fridge for when the temperature rises . . . if only we had a fridge instead of a cooler.

“Wear this dress,” she says. “And your father will come back to us. Blue was his favorite color. You see?”

No, I do not see.

My father is not an actual person. He is a collage of blurred images thrown together by Annalisa in the half hour before we go to bed. Less now than when I was little. She would whisper that father was tall as a lala palm and black as a moonless night. He wore a sharp gray suit with a blue tie, iridescent like peacock feathers. He loved to dance, and he stole her breath away when he kissed her.

No matter how pretty a picture she paints of him, there is only one thing that I know for sure about my father.

He is doing fine without me.

“Is he here in Sugar Town?” He isn’t, but I ask just in case. I have to be sure, even though I hate that there is still a tiny shred of hope left in me that he is out there somewhere.

Annalisa smiles wide, and her lips stretch tight across her teeth. “He’s not here yet, but he’ll come when he sees your blue dress.” She grabs my hands and squeezes tight. “The wind will carry the message to him quicker than a text. Get dressed now. It’s time to leave.”

Today is Friday, a school day. On school days, I wear a uniform. Blue skirt or pants, white shirt, black shoes, and white socks. A black sweater or a black blazer for now in winter. Nothing fancy, but Miss Gabela, the principal, is clear about the rules: No uniform, no school. Annalisa’s magic sheet will get me suspended, and it will frighten away the few friends I have. This is the last day of second term, but the scandal of the blue sheet will survive the holidays and live on to haunt me for the rest of the year.

No thanks. I’ll pass.

“Hurry.” Annalisa tugs at my nightgown. “Lift up your arms and put on your new dress. There’s a good girl.”

“It is not a dress.” I pull away. “It is a sheet with holes in it, and I won’t wear it. Ever.”

“You have to wear the dress.” Annalisa’s smile disappears, and her expression turns dark. “It’s the only way to get him back.”

We stand face-to-face, breathing hard. Mother is a few inches taller than me, with fine blond hair and pale blue eyes that remind me of the sunlit ocean. She is delicate, with slender limbs and narrow hips, while I am all bumps and curves. What did the nurses think when I slipped into the world with different skin, different hair, different everything from Annalisa? They must have wondered how the two of us fit together. Sometimes, I look in the mirror and I wonder the same thing. Who am I, and where do I fit in?

“Put the dress on,” Annalisa says. “Do it for me. For us.”

Annalisa angry is scary. Annalisa with a bottomless darkness welling up inside her is terrifying. I see that darkness well up now. More resistance from me and she’ll tumble into it. She will curl up and sleep for days. She won’t talk or eat. I have been to the bottom of the well with her once. I will never go there again—if I can help it.

“Here. Give it.” I take the sheet from her with jerky movements and point to the mirror hanging to the right of the sink. “Don’t forget your lipstick.”

“Of course.” Annalisa digs through her faux-leather hobo bag that acts as a portal to another dimension. At different times, she has pulled out an orchid bulb with dangling roots, an owl feather, five mother-of-pearl buttons, a vintage Coca-Cola yo-yo, and a porcupine quill. I’m surprised my father isn’t in there, too.

She takes out a tube of Moroccan Sunset, her favorite color, and leans close to the mirror to put it on. The moment her back is turned, I grab my school uniform out of the bedside drawer and push it deep into my backpack. I slip the sheet dress over my head and bend low to tie the laces of my school shoes, working up a plan to switch the dress for my uniform somewhere. Somehow.

Got it.

“Lil Bit and me are meeting early to finish up an assignment in the school computer lab.” The “lab” is a room the size of a cleaning closet. One door, one window, and the faint smell of bleach coming up from the concrete floor. Come to think of it, the room might, in fact, have been an actual cleaning closet before the donated computers arrived from a Christian school in Denmark. “Got to run.”

“Lil Bit and I,” Annalisa automatically corrects. “And we’re not finished yet. Sit, and I’ll do your hair. It has to look the same as in my vision.”

Shit.

“Fine.” I take a seat and work through next steps. I have a plan. For the plan to work, I’ll have to leave home five minutes before Annalisa, and then I’ll have to run. Not my preferred activity. But run I will. Today, I will be the great sprinter Caster Semenya—strong, fast, and focused.

Annalisa wraps a curl around her finger, remembering. “You got your father’s hair, that’s for sure. Don’t ever straighten it.”

“I won’t.” No lie. I will keep my kinked-up curls, not because they tie me to an invisible man who haunts our lives, but because straightened hair is an imitation of white hair, and I am not white. I am brown with a snub nose sprinkled with freckles. I have hazel eyes flecked with green. I’m a genetic mutt. And I am happy to let my hair be.

“Today, your hair will be a halo,” Annalisa says. “That way, your father will see the angel that we made together.”

On a normal day, she plaits my hair into a single French braid that dangles between my shoulder blades, but today is not normal. Today she pulls the metal teeth of an Afro pick through my springy curls to make a bumping 'fro that casts a shadow onto the kitchen table. It is huge. An alien spacecraft could crash-land on the surface of it and sustain no damage. Beyoncé rocking a Foxxy Cleopatra wig has nothing on me. The style is loud and proud, and damn, I gotta admit that it is impressive.

“Last and best of all.” Annalisa dips her hand into her bag and pulls out a tiara. An honest-to-goodness rhinestone tiara with Birthday Princess spelled out in fake pink diamonds. Hideous.

“You bought this?”

“Of course not.” She anchors the tiara to my head. “I found it lying on the side of the road. It’s ugly, but it’s perfect for today. The stones will catch the light, and the light will fly over the hills to wherever your father is.”

I can barely breathe I am so angry. The 'fro I can deal with, but the sheet dress and the tiara are too much! Instead of screaming, It’s my birthday! Be normal. Just this once, I make a list in my head. Lists soothe me. Lists are anchors to rational thought. Lists are how I survive.

This morning, I will:

1.   Keep calm.

2.   Run fast.

3.   Get help.

“Catch you this afternoon . . .” I grab my backpack and rush to the door that leads to the lane. Annalisa blows me a goodbye kiss and tucks a strand of blond hair behind her ear. I am stunned to see her so cool and elegant. She belongs in a magazine, and I wonder, for the millionth time, how she ended up in this tiny house on a dirt strip that runs between Tugela Way and Sisulu Street. The lane doesn’t have a real name. “The lane between Tugela and Sisulu” is description enough for the bill collectors to find us. When I used to ask Annalisa where she came from, she’d say, Next door and a million miles away.

I don’t ask anymore.

Praise for Sugar Town Queens:
A 2022 Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year
A 2022 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Pick

A 2022 NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books Pick
An Amazon Best Book – August 2021


★ “Amandla uncovers the painful secrets of her mother’s past with the help of supportive, intergenerational friends and family. She also gains the courage to confront violent ­misogyny and racism in a post-apartheid South Africa, coming to accept herself as a biracial, intelligent individual. This descriptive, fast-paced ­narrative is a compelling read that is difficult to put down and will likely fly off library shelves.” —School Library Journal, starred review

★ “Nunn grounds her tale in Amandla’s convictions and embrace of her life and neighbors in Sugar Town. Complexities of race and racism in Mandela’s freed South Africa are handled with realism and strength . . . but it is the resilient community that is front and center in Nunn's unique and detailed setting. Readers will cheer Amandla as she discovers who she is and where she came from in this captivating book.” —Booklist, starred review

★ “Nunn’s evocative storytelling will make you ache for Amandla. She is a complex creation whose circumstances are sensational but whose journey is relatable. Nunn surrounds Amandla with a diverse cast of characters who are similarly interesting and strongly developed. The novel’s hard truths about race and class are more than balanced by the love of all types that Amandla experiences. These supportive relationships are the most rewarding part of Sugar Town Queens, the glue that holds it all together.” —BookPage, starred review

★ “Part coming-of-age story, part mystery, infused with dysfunctional family dynamics . . . Amandla learns who really loves her, how many friends she has in Sugar Town, the vile and pervasive nature of racism in South Africa, and her own strength. Excellent narration by Bahni Turpin, especially in the subtle variation between Amandla and her mother’s voices, enhances this audiobook . . . An excellent story for teens who appreciate strong female protagonists and a story that reflects life in another country and culture.” —School Library Journal, starred review of the audiobook

“Nunn (When the Ground is Hard) illuminates the struggles of a cast of strong-willed South African women who build each other up while meeting the intersections of misogyny, racism, and classism head-on.” —Publishers Weekly

"The amazing community of their township, Sugar Town...is one of the strongest aspects of the story…a narrative that shows a young woman reckoning with possible paths lying ahead and harsh judgments of women’s behavior…This origin-story mystery…[is] engrossing to the end." —Kirkus Reviews

“Amandla’s story is a rewarding blend of high melodrama and gutsy realism, and…is compelling….In a novel whose subtextual message is the power of women, readers unfamiliar with South Africa may also be struck by the view into a society still highly stratified following the end of apartheid, while rooting for Amandla and her compatriots to upend the old order.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“The excitement of the mystery; the memorable cast of characters, particularly the female characters; and the many twists and turns of the plot keep the pages turning until the very end.” —The Horn Book

“The persistent racism and stark economic inequalities of post-Mandela South Africa offer a colorful and illuminating political backdrop to this intriguing, beautifully written novel by Malla Nunn.” —The Buffalo News

An intimate portrait of a family divided and the bonds that knit our communities . . . A story of race, class, the family you’re related to and the family you choose, Sugar Town Queens is . . . surprising and original.” —Culturess

“A spectacular and heartbreaking account of three generations of women fighting against prejudice, violence and injustice. . . a perfect balance between being character and plot-driven . . . Nunn gorgeously depicts the power of friendship. . . The complex and lovable characters make Sugar Town Queens an enticing read.” —ArtsHub

"Beautiful writing, great characterisation. A complex examination of race, class, family and patriarchy in modern South Africa. Anyone who thinks YA is a lesser genre needs to read this." —Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race and When We Say Black Lives Matter

"Sugar Town Queens is the story of a place and a family divided. It is the story of friendship and first love. Most of all, it is a powerful tale of three generations of women who join forces to fight against prejudice and violence." —Erin Gough, Flywheel and Amelia Westlake Was Here

"Gives voice to the new generation who push back for change in the world. A story of fierce girls, lost-and-found family, and friendship—I loved it." —Vikki Wakefield, This is How We Change the Ending

"Strikes the perfect balance between character and plot-driven story...Nunn does a phenomenal job at incorporating Zulu culture, tradition and language into the novel...and makes a point to talk about South Africa post-Mandela and the difficulties of bringing together a nation so divided by race and wealth. Like recent similarly politically charged YA novels The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and I Am Change by Suzy Zail, context is given for these topics so they're easy to understand but never feel separate to the main story. In Sugar Town Queens Amandla's South Africa is both beautiful and deeply flawed, much like those she loves." —Tracy-Kate Simambo, Books + Publishing

Praise for When the Ground Is Hard:
Winner of the L.A. Times Book Festival Prize for Young Adult Literature - 2019
A Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Book of the Year – 2019
Josette Frank Award Winner - 2020
A YALSA Best Fiction Pick - 2020
A Westchester Fiction Award Winner – 2020

★ "Excellent writing and an evocative setting make this novel a standout." —Booklist, starred review

★ “Turpin reads with a musical African accent. She makes fine distinctions among the characters’ voices and embodies Adele’s swiftly shifting emotions. American missionaries have clipped accents, and male characters sound credible. The richly evoked setting may be strange to American readers, and the vivid racism may be shocking, but teens will be drawn into the girls’ growing friendship and search for self.” —Booklist, starred review on audiobook

About

From Los Angeles Times Book Prize Award winner and Edgar Award nominee Malla Nunn comes a stunning portrait of a family divided and a powerful story of how friendship saves and heals.

When Amandla wakes up on her fifteenth birthday, she knows it's going to be one of her mother's difficult days. Her mother has had another vision. This one involves Amandla wearing a bedsheet loosely stitched as a dress. An outfit, her mother says, is certain to bring Amandla's father back home, as if he were the prince and this was the fairytale ending their family was destined for. But in truth, Amandla's father has long been gone--since before Amandla was born--and even her mother's memory of him is hazy. In fact, many of her mother's memories from before Amandla was born are hazy. It's just one of the many reasons people in Sugar Town give them strange looks--that and the fact her mother is white and Amandla is Black.

When Amandla finds a mysterious address in the bottom of her mother's handbag along with a large amount of cash, she decides it's finally time to get answers about her mother's life. What she discovers will change the shape and size of her family forever. But with her best friends at her side, Amandla is ready to take on family secrets and the devil himself. These Sugar Town queens are ready to take over the world to expose the hard truths of their lives.

Author

Malla Nunn was born and raised in Swaziland. Her adult crime books have earned her two Edgar nominations and a RUSA Award for Best Mystery Novel. Her first young adult novel, When the Ground is Hard, won the L.A. Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature and the Josette Frank Award for Children's Literature.

After earning a master's degree in Theatre Studies, she dabbled in acting in New York City, worked as a cocktail waitress, a nanny, a bookseller, and on film sets, but never at the same time. She also made short films and an award-winning documentary, Servant of the Ancestors, before surrendering to her passion: writing books.

She married in a traditional Swazi ceremony. Her bride price was eighteen cows. View titles by Malla Nunn

Excerpt

White stars dance across my field of vision. The blindfold is tied too tight and I want to rip it off. Instead, I sit and try to rub the goose bumps off my arms. It’s cold inside our one-room house, the cracks in the corrugated-iron walls wide enough to let the air in from outside. It’s winter, so we have stuffed rags into the spaces we can reach. I shiver and wait patiently for the two surprises that my mother has planned.

The thing is: not all surprises are good.

“Happy fifteenth birthday, Amandla.” My mother, Annalisa, who refuses to be called Mother in any of South Africa’s eleven official languages, unties the blindfold and hands me a bowl of lumpy porridge decorated with multicolored sprinkles, icing sugar, and whatever canned fruit was in the cupboard. This year’s fruit is pears in syrup, a step up from last year’s ancient mandarins. Loaded porridge is the closest I will ever get to a birthday cake: a blessing. Annalisa is a terrible cook and a worse baker.

“Thank you.” I take the bowl (surprise number one) and our fingers touch, hers pale, mine brown, both with long fingers, elegant, waiting for jewelry, or a piano. In another life, maybe. Our room is too small for a piano, and there is no money for jewels.

“Today is extra special for two reasons. It’s your birthday, plus . . .” She takes a deep breath and cups my cheek with a shaky hand. “Last night, I had a vision. It was wonderful, but we have to do our part to make it come true.”

The lumpy porridge sticks in my throat and stops me from cursing. Annalisa’s visions have taken us into the cane fields to sing to the stars at midnight. They have told us to eat eggs, and only eggs, for four days in a row. They have led us into the heart of a storm to wait for the lightning to send us instructions. The instructions never came.

My mother is out of her mind.

The lightning was eight months ago. Every night since, I have prayed for the spirits to leave Annalisa alone and go whisper directions to someone else.

“Tell me what we have to do.” I use a fake calm voice to mask the anxious feeling gathering inside my chest. I have to stay cool and make my next move carefully. “But hurry. I have to get to school.”

“Hands over your eyes,” she says. “Here comes the second surprise.”

I cover my eyes and peek through the space between my fingers as Annalisa walks across the cracked linoleum floor in black tailored trousers, a white silk shirt, and a cropped leather jacket with silver buckles. This is her best outfit. This morning, she will disappear into the city of Durban and come home with bags of the basics: socks, underwear, soap, and a special something for my birthday.

“Open your eyes now.” She pulls a piece of blue material from her wardrobe and holds it up with a flourish. “Look. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“It” is a folded bedsheet with two holes cut in the fabric for the arms and another larger hole, for the head. The material is stained and held together by stitches that zigzag in different directions. She drapes the sheet dress across the foot of my cot as if it is made of raw silk and sewn together by cartoon birds with golden needles.

“If you wear this . . .” Her pale skin glows like there’s a fire burning out of control inside her. “All our dreams will come true.”

No. All my nightmares will come true.

“Which dreams are you talking about, exactly?” Annalisa’s dreams can be anything. A brick house with ocean views. A holiday under swaying palms. Cold lobster rolls chilling in a fridge for when the temperature rises . . . if only we had a fridge instead of a cooler.

“Wear this dress,” she says. “And your father will come back to us. Blue was his favorite color. You see?”

No, I do not see.

My father is not an actual person. He is a collage of blurred images thrown together by Annalisa in the half hour before we go to bed. Less now than when I was little. She would whisper that father was tall as a lala palm and black as a moonless night. He wore a sharp gray suit with a blue tie, iridescent like peacock feathers. He loved to dance, and he stole her breath away when he kissed her.

No matter how pretty a picture she paints of him, there is only one thing that I know for sure about my father.

He is doing fine without me.

“Is he here in Sugar Town?” He isn’t, but I ask just in case. I have to be sure, even though I hate that there is still a tiny shred of hope left in me that he is out there somewhere.

Annalisa smiles wide, and her lips stretch tight across her teeth. “He’s not here yet, but he’ll come when he sees your blue dress.” She grabs my hands and squeezes tight. “The wind will carry the message to him quicker than a text. Get dressed now. It’s time to leave.”

Today is Friday, a school day. On school days, I wear a uniform. Blue skirt or pants, white shirt, black shoes, and white socks. A black sweater or a black blazer for now in winter. Nothing fancy, but Miss Gabela, the principal, is clear about the rules: No uniform, no school. Annalisa’s magic sheet will get me suspended, and it will frighten away the few friends I have. This is the last day of second term, but the scandal of the blue sheet will survive the holidays and live on to haunt me for the rest of the year.

No thanks. I’ll pass.

“Hurry.” Annalisa tugs at my nightgown. “Lift up your arms and put on your new dress. There’s a good girl.”

“It is not a dress.” I pull away. “It is a sheet with holes in it, and I won’t wear it. Ever.”

“You have to wear the dress.” Annalisa’s smile disappears, and her expression turns dark. “It’s the only way to get him back.”

We stand face-to-face, breathing hard. Mother is a few inches taller than me, with fine blond hair and pale blue eyes that remind me of the sunlit ocean. She is delicate, with slender limbs and narrow hips, while I am all bumps and curves. What did the nurses think when I slipped into the world with different skin, different hair, different everything from Annalisa? They must have wondered how the two of us fit together. Sometimes, I look in the mirror and I wonder the same thing. Who am I, and where do I fit in?

“Put the dress on,” Annalisa says. “Do it for me. For us.”

Annalisa angry is scary. Annalisa with a bottomless darkness welling up inside her is terrifying. I see that darkness well up now. More resistance from me and she’ll tumble into it. She will curl up and sleep for days. She won’t talk or eat. I have been to the bottom of the well with her once. I will never go there again—if I can help it.

“Here. Give it.” I take the sheet from her with jerky movements and point to the mirror hanging to the right of the sink. “Don’t forget your lipstick.”

“Of course.” Annalisa digs through her faux-leather hobo bag that acts as a portal to another dimension. At different times, she has pulled out an orchid bulb with dangling roots, an owl feather, five mother-of-pearl buttons, a vintage Coca-Cola yo-yo, and a porcupine quill. I’m surprised my father isn’t in there, too.

She takes out a tube of Moroccan Sunset, her favorite color, and leans close to the mirror to put it on. The moment her back is turned, I grab my school uniform out of the bedside drawer and push it deep into my backpack. I slip the sheet dress over my head and bend low to tie the laces of my school shoes, working up a plan to switch the dress for my uniform somewhere. Somehow.

Got it.

“Lil Bit and me are meeting early to finish up an assignment in the school computer lab.” The “lab” is a room the size of a cleaning closet. One door, one window, and the faint smell of bleach coming up from the concrete floor. Come to think of it, the room might, in fact, have been an actual cleaning closet before the donated computers arrived from a Christian school in Denmark. “Got to run.”

“Lil Bit and I,” Annalisa automatically corrects. “And we’re not finished yet. Sit, and I’ll do your hair. It has to look the same as in my vision.”

Shit.

“Fine.” I take a seat and work through next steps. I have a plan. For the plan to work, I’ll have to leave home five minutes before Annalisa, and then I’ll have to run. Not my preferred activity. But run I will. Today, I will be the great sprinter Caster Semenya—strong, fast, and focused.

Annalisa wraps a curl around her finger, remembering. “You got your father’s hair, that’s for sure. Don’t ever straighten it.”

“I won’t.” No lie. I will keep my kinked-up curls, not because they tie me to an invisible man who haunts our lives, but because straightened hair is an imitation of white hair, and I am not white. I am brown with a snub nose sprinkled with freckles. I have hazel eyes flecked with green. I’m a genetic mutt. And I am happy to let my hair be.

“Today, your hair will be a halo,” Annalisa says. “That way, your father will see the angel that we made together.”

On a normal day, she plaits my hair into a single French braid that dangles between my shoulder blades, but today is not normal. Today she pulls the metal teeth of an Afro pick through my springy curls to make a bumping 'fro that casts a shadow onto the kitchen table. It is huge. An alien spacecraft could crash-land on the surface of it and sustain no damage. Beyoncé rocking a Foxxy Cleopatra wig has nothing on me. The style is loud and proud, and damn, I gotta admit that it is impressive.

“Last and best of all.” Annalisa dips her hand into her bag and pulls out a tiara. An honest-to-goodness rhinestone tiara with Birthday Princess spelled out in fake pink diamonds. Hideous.

“You bought this?”

“Of course not.” She anchors the tiara to my head. “I found it lying on the side of the road. It’s ugly, but it’s perfect for today. The stones will catch the light, and the light will fly over the hills to wherever your father is.”

I can barely breathe I am so angry. The 'fro I can deal with, but the sheet dress and the tiara are too much! Instead of screaming, It’s my birthday! Be normal. Just this once, I make a list in my head. Lists soothe me. Lists are anchors to rational thought. Lists are how I survive.

This morning, I will:

1.   Keep calm.

2.   Run fast.

3.   Get help.

“Catch you this afternoon . . .” I grab my backpack and rush to the door that leads to the lane. Annalisa blows me a goodbye kiss and tucks a strand of blond hair behind her ear. I am stunned to see her so cool and elegant. She belongs in a magazine, and I wonder, for the millionth time, how she ended up in this tiny house on a dirt strip that runs between Tugela Way and Sisulu Street. The lane doesn’t have a real name. “The lane between Tugela and Sisulu” is description enough for the bill collectors to find us. When I used to ask Annalisa where she came from, she’d say, Next door and a million miles away.

I don’t ask anymore.

Praise

Praise for Sugar Town Queens:
A 2022 Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year
A 2022 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Pick

A 2022 NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books Pick
An Amazon Best Book – August 2021


★ “Amandla uncovers the painful secrets of her mother’s past with the help of supportive, intergenerational friends and family. She also gains the courage to confront violent ­misogyny and racism in a post-apartheid South Africa, coming to accept herself as a biracial, intelligent individual. This descriptive, fast-paced ­narrative is a compelling read that is difficult to put down and will likely fly off library shelves.” —School Library Journal, starred review

★ “Nunn grounds her tale in Amandla’s convictions and embrace of her life and neighbors in Sugar Town. Complexities of race and racism in Mandela’s freed South Africa are handled with realism and strength . . . but it is the resilient community that is front and center in Nunn's unique and detailed setting. Readers will cheer Amandla as she discovers who she is and where she came from in this captivating book.” —Booklist, starred review

★ “Nunn’s evocative storytelling will make you ache for Amandla. She is a complex creation whose circumstances are sensational but whose journey is relatable. Nunn surrounds Amandla with a diverse cast of characters who are similarly interesting and strongly developed. The novel’s hard truths about race and class are more than balanced by the love of all types that Amandla experiences. These supportive relationships are the most rewarding part of Sugar Town Queens, the glue that holds it all together.” —BookPage, starred review

★ “Part coming-of-age story, part mystery, infused with dysfunctional family dynamics . . . Amandla learns who really loves her, how many friends she has in Sugar Town, the vile and pervasive nature of racism in South Africa, and her own strength. Excellent narration by Bahni Turpin, especially in the subtle variation between Amandla and her mother’s voices, enhances this audiobook . . . An excellent story for teens who appreciate strong female protagonists and a story that reflects life in another country and culture.” —School Library Journal, starred review of the audiobook

“Nunn (When the Ground is Hard) illuminates the struggles of a cast of strong-willed South African women who build each other up while meeting the intersections of misogyny, racism, and classism head-on.” —Publishers Weekly

"The amazing community of their township, Sugar Town...is one of the strongest aspects of the story…a narrative that shows a young woman reckoning with possible paths lying ahead and harsh judgments of women’s behavior…This origin-story mystery…[is] engrossing to the end." —Kirkus Reviews

“Amandla’s story is a rewarding blend of high melodrama and gutsy realism, and…is compelling….In a novel whose subtextual message is the power of women, readers unfamiliar with South Africa may also be struck by the view into a society still highly stratified following the end of apartheid, while rooting for Amandla and her compatriots to upend the old order.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“The excitement of the mystery; the memorable cast of characters, particularly the female characters; and the many twists and turns of the plot keep the pages turning until the very end.” —The Horn Book

“The persistent racism and stark economic inequalities of post-Mandela South Africa offer a colorful and illuminating political backdrop to this intriguing, beautifully written novel by Malla Nunn.” —The Buffalo News

An intimate portrait of a family divided and the bonds that knit our communities . . . A story of race, class, the family you’re related to and the family you choose, Sugar Town Queens is . . . surprising and original.” —Culturess

“A spectacular and heartbreaking account of three generations of women fighting against prejudice, violence and injustice. . . a perfect balance between being character and plot-driven . . . Nunn gorgeously depicts the power of friendship. . . The complex and lovable characters make Sugar Town Queens an enticing read.” —ArtsHub

"Beautiful writing, great characterisation. A complex examination of race, class, family and patriarchy in modern South Africa. Anyone who thinks YA is a lesser genre needs to read this." —Maxine Beneba Clarke, The Hate Race and When We Say Black Lives Matter

"Sugar Town Queens is the story of a place and a family divided. It is the story of friendship and first love. Most of all, it is a powerful tale of three generations of women who join forces to fight against prejudice and violence." —Erin Gough, Flywheel and Amelia Westlake Was Here

"Gives voice to the new generation who push back for change in the world. A story of fierce girls, lost-and-found family, and friendship—I loved it." —Vikki Wakefield, This is How We Change the Ending

"Strikes the perfect balance between character and plot-driven story...Nunn does a phenomenal job at incorporating Zulu culture, tradition and language into the novel...and makes a point to talk about South Africa post-Mandela and the difficulties of bringing together a nation so divided by race and wealth. Like recent similarly politically charged YA novels The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and I Am Change by Suzy Zail, context is given for these topics so they're easy to understand but never feel separate to the main story. In Sugar Town Queens Amandla's South Africa is both beautiful and deeply flawed, much like those she loves." —Tracy-Kate Simambo, Books + Publishing

Praise for When the Ground Is Hard:
Winner of the L.A. Times Book Festival Prize for Young Adult Literature - 2019
A Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Book of the Year – 2019
Josette Frank Award Winner - 2020
A YALSA Best Fiction Pick - 2020
A Westchester Fiction Award Winner – 2020

★ "Excellent writing and an evocative setting make this novel a standout." —Booklist, starred review

★ “Turpin reads with a musical African accent. She makes fine distinctions among the characters’ voices and embodies Adele’s swiftly shifting emotions. American missionaries have clipped accents, and male characters sound credible. The richly evoked setting may be strange to American readers, and the vivid racism may be shocking, but teens will be drawn into the girls’ growing friendship and search for self.” —Booklist, starred review on audiobook

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