While the Nigerian-American novelist's first book may call on the magic of African mythology, the themes are reflective of real-life oppressive systems today's youth are slowly but surely undoing.
"Young people are going to save us," Tomi Adeyemi utters at the closing of a BBC video, remarking on the pivotal role the youth plays in repairing the globe. A role that is immensely heavy to carry, but necessary; for every generation that passes, the youth are the vehicle for which change spurs forward.
Adeyemi is only 25 years old. She is as much the subject of her statement as she is the observer. Yet, she understands the responsibility young people hold to undo generational oppression, and she's an active participant in leading that charge. Last year, she released her debut and now bestselling novel, Children of Blood and Bone, and sold the movie rights before its publication. The first of a spellbinding trilogy, Children has captivated readers with its enchanting tale of West African polytheism, the pulchritude and peril of living in a Black body, and the impending rapture of empowered people of the diaspora. Its existence in the literary canon is historic and its fanbase has spanned age groups; the young adult (YA) novel easily made its way into the hands of millennials who weren't afforded the magic of a Harry Potter (or something comparable) that spoke to their heritage.
But Children's magic is more than spells and folklore. It's historic in the way that it provides representation for a once-starving group of readers.
"I think [Children of Blood and Bone] has impacted young people because they are getting to see themselves represented for the first time and hearing their stories be told," Adeyemi tells OkayAfrica.
That representation starts with the novel's protagonist Zélie Adebola, a warrior in training who lost her mother to the Raid, a harrowing moment of near genocide that occured in Orïsha over a decade ago. The Raid wiped out most of the Orïshans who had magical powers—called majis, or diviners—excluding the children, who were not yet able to harness their magic. Cut to Amari, the princess of Orïsha, whose societal view is finally challenged when she witnesses her best friend and servant (another diviner) killed at her father's hands for exhibiting magical abilities. Before fleeing the palace, she grabs the magical scroll that awakens majis, and journeys to Lagos, where she meets Zélie. Together, with Zélie's brother Tzain and their stellar pet lionaire Nailah, they embark on a mission to restore magic, awaken all remaining majis, and create a more inclusive future for Orïsha.
Adeyemi excels at using this narrative to relish in the natural and supernatural wonders found in the Black community, while revealing the areas where we still have work to do. While inherent magical powers are unlocked—holding the answers to healing—colorism, sexism, and anti-Blackness are still prominent in Adeyemi's surreal storytelling. It is not unlike the duality youth culture deals with today, as they navigate a world that is simultaneously more inclusive, but riddled with ideas and systems of hate. It is through the graceful, relentless spirit of young Black communities that these discrepancies can be reformed.
At the opposing end of Zélie's mission is Inan, Amari's brother, who is devoted to upholding their father's vision of a magic-free Orïsha. He maniacally hunts down the trio, feeling betrayal, anguish, and determination during pursuit. But it is himself that he fights most, for he endures an internal battle that brings meaning to the nature of identity and self-care: how can one claim space and love self if you are what you were raised to hate? With the introduction of themes like patriarchy, misogyny, and even colorism, Adeyemi tackles the structures of oppression that young people of the diaspora are still navigating present-day.
Amidst the glorious descriptions of West African culture, such as carnations of Black girl magic, illustrations of Yoruba gods and goddesses and callbacks to delectable dishes (jollof, shuku shuku), Adeyemi was also deliberate in making sure she didn't eliminate a major cultural discrepancy within the African community: sexism and agency.
Although Zélie notices that her brother Tzain and Princess Amari are attracted to each other, she only grimaces, but never interferes. She is aware that although Amari is a descendant of the very patriarchy and hate they are plotting against, people can't control what and where they come from. However, when Zélie develops a romance with someone who seems to threaten their mission (but has since reformed), Tzain isn't so supportive. He becomes grossly possessive and misogynistic towards Zélie, even calling her obscene slurs during an argument. When confronted, Tzain blames his anger on the duties of being a big brother. But Adeyemi never lets the reader buy into this. She allows us to indulge in Zélie's relationship, even if it seems unsafe, to show our protagonist making her own decisions about her life. And above all, she shows the hypocrisy men display in terms of sexuality, and empowers Zélie to write her own sexual agency.
Children allows young women to identify with independent female characters who make clear that their decisions, bodies, and sexuality are their own. As we embark on our own cultural shift on the ideas around sexuality, consent, and romance, it's imperative that YA literature describes relationships and experiences that involve complicated characters with real emotions and desires.
At the heart of Children is another natural phenomenon that embraces a number of us throughout our lifetime: a gnawing, uncomfortable emotion that can either challenge us to grow or lead to unwanted stagnation. Fear. Zélie's own personal fears include genocide, history repeating itself, and most compelling, herself.
At the start of the novel, Zélie is determined to become a formidable fighter, capable of taking out anyone in her path to protect her family. But as Zélie discovers that she may actually have magical strength, she begins to doubt her purpose and abilities. And when it proves to be a fatal weapon, she begins to question if magic is worth salvaging if it can kill people.
Zélie's fear of her powers coupled with her self-doubt mirrors the anxiety many Black people, women and non-binary, may experience when faced with a grand opportunity: Imposter Syndrome. Imposter Syndrome is the belief that we don't deserve to be in a certain place and that we will soon be discovered for our inadequacies. Because we haven't seen enough people like us in that environment, or haven't been afforded the opportunity before, it's easy for us to feel we don't belong. But this form of self-doubt is yet another outcome of white supremacy, stemming from the belief that Black people aren't capable of greatness.
Zélie's mental and emotional transformation regarding fear is not uncommon to that of many of Children's young readers. But in the context of her world—and ours—it speaks to the complexity of inhabiting a body that is capable of miracles, while existing in a society that considers that same body a menace. This fear is valid and disheartening. We live in a society that has historically, and presently, dismisses our talents and intelligence due to our skin tone. It is challenging to let go of these traumas and submit to the belief that we are genuinely deserving. But what Children does is gives a young adult audience the power to believe in themselves. To believe they can take a seat at the table.
Adeyemi writes Zélie and Amari so fluidly that we feel hope even amongst the flashes of the lionaire's fangs, the sear of soldiers' spears, the crossfire of explosions and clinking of majacite chains. We feel hope because these young women valiantly strive to take down a system that has been centuries in the making. We feel hope because we can see their power in ourselves and our generation.
They remind us that the greatest superpower of young people is their intolerance for complacency and conformity. It is through their idealism and tenacious spirit that we remember a better life is worth fighting for. Indeed, the young people will save us.
Alisha Acquaye is a writer, community organizer and artist currently using words to inspire inclusive and intersectional thought, emotion and change. Focusing on pop culture, art and identity, Alisha is compelled by the ways people of color rewrite our present and futures by reclaiming the past.