Black Panther makes his way to middle school

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Feb 8, 2018, 6:34 PM EST (Updated)

Disney is adding to the list of prose novels they’ve contracted writers to do about some of our favorite Marvel characters. In the past few years, we’ve seen the release of books about Miles Morales, Iron Man, the Black Widow—now, it’s the Black Panther’s turn. Ronald L. Smith was excited to the get the call to tell T’Challa’s story. When asked why he would say yes, “They asked!” he laughed, “And it’s a black superhero. That’s exciting!”


Photo Credit: Erik Kvalsvik

Black Panther: The Young Prince came out last month, just a little ahead of its star's theatrical future self. It’s a story of T’Challa as exactly that—a young prince in middle school. Due to threats against his home country of Wakanda, his father has sent him and his best friend M’Baku to secretly live in the south side of Chicago and attend middle school there.

In the book, Smith writes a coming-of-age story. This isn’t someone who has worn the crown of Wakanda; this is a young man who isn’t sure he deserves it. He’s striving to be a person who is worthy of leading his country. That means a lot of questioning himself, and wanting to deal with his problems without his father T’Chaka stepping in. “I wanted kids reading this to know that it’s okay to make mistakes.” Smith noted. He writes relationships between these kids that are aspirational and ones that are realistic and toxic. 

Smith is known for his spooky middle-grade stories, and in The Young Prince he ties in that talent of light horror with the action and excitement ingrained in the Marvel universe. It was a pairing that went hand-in-hand, he said. The mixture of magic and technology is a theme that is explored throughout the Black Panther’s life, and this book is no exception. Smith manages to use new characters to add to that discussion. T’Challa’s two friends, Sheila and Zeke (both of whom Smith would be thrilled to see show up in the comics) are foils for science vs magic, but thanks to their friendship, we know we really need both. Seeing the lone major female character get to be the STEM-based one was a joy. Sheila is analytical and research-oriented, and she, like too few fictional women before her, saves the butts of her two best friends with logic and information.

It’s a step in the right direction from Marvel and Disney, asking black creators to tell the stories of their black characters. The book confronts the truth of T’Challa moving from a country where everyone looks like him to one where he’s considered different, without making it the point of the story—because it’s a true thing that would happen, it’s a culture shock that would exist, but T’Challa’s focus is on saving his friend and honoring his father. In the hands of Ronald L. Smith, it works. When asked what he wanted to end with, Mr. Smith said it was about the love he has for these characters.

“I feel really good about being able to write these books, I was on a panel with Jason Reynolds and Miles Morales [at New York Comic Con], and being able to tell these stories, with diversity, is wonderful.”
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