Is This 24-Year-Old the Next Big Thing in YA Literature?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s about time that all-Black character-driven stories got their time in the sun.
By Poornima Apte
Tomi Adeyemi will tell you: “If you’re a kid of color, one day you find out that things are going to be different for you.” For Adeyemi, 24, that day came when she was a high school freshman. Her class was studying trigonometry, and she asked the teacher which careers would incorporate its principles. “No careers that you will be doing,” he responded. Confused, she pressed the issue and asked if he was calling her stupid. “Not really,” he replied, “but you do need to be very smart to work the frying pan at McDonald’s.” While Adeyemi’s mother made sure the teacher was reprimanded, the incident brought the issue of racial justice squarely into Adeyemi’s worldview.
And it is justice that was a strong driver for her publishing debut, Children of Blood and Bone (2018), the first volume in an anticipated trilogy that is expected to catapult Adeyemi to superstardom in young adult literature. Appalled by the racist backlash against the casting of Black actors to play Rue, Thresh and Cinna in The Hunger Games, she decided to write a compelling story which would feature not just a few but all Black characters. “I was like, ‘Oh, you hate Rue? Well, guess what?’” Adeyemi tells OZY. “‘I’m going to give you the next Game of Thrones, and they’re all going to look like Rue. Take that, world!’” It’s the day after she turned in final edits on her manuscript, and she admits to being drained, although “animated” is the word that comes to mind. Her trilogy of novels, which landed a seven-figure book and movie deal, is an action-packed fantasy that borrows heavily from West African mythology. Fox 2000/Temple Hill Productions (Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars) snapped up the film rights.
The story of a 17-year-old Black girl leading the charge against an oppressive monarchy is the author’s counterpunch against society’s systemic bias.
Unlike Zélie Adebola, the protagonist in Children whose mother is killed by a sadistic king, Adeyemi remembers a fairly idyllic childhood growing up in Chicago. A middle child of Nigerian parents, she found her outlet in books and writing. Her first story, penned when she was young, was fan fiction melding three of her favorite stories: The Parent Trap (a family comedy from 1998), Bollywood movie Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and a short story about horse farms.
Later, after earning a BA with honors in English literature from Harvard, Adeyemi won a fellowship to study in Brazil, where she chanced upon the Orisha, Yoruba gods and goddesses from Nigeria and the mythological anchors of her novel. She had traveled from Rio to Salvador to conduct research on the Brazilian slave trade at the Afro-Brazilian museum, only to discover it was closed for renovation. It started to rain, so she took cover in a nearby gift shop, where she saw a poster about the Orisha for the first time. Her fascination with elements of that mythology, married with her passion for writing an all-Black character-driven story, brought her to Children of Blood and Bone.
Empathy is one of Adeyemi’s many winning qualities, says Tiffany Liao, Adeyemi’s editor who is “squarely on the Tomi Train.” A child of immigrants herself, Liao spent many a late night chatting with Adeyemi about the larger thematic elements of the story: police brutality and systemic oppression. “We literally hit the jackpot with Tomi in terms of sheer dedication … and she’s so humble,” Liao says, adding that she was struck by how much the young writer was focused on creating a balance between poetry and clarity.
Another of her aims with Children, Adeyemi says, is to move one step closer to erasing bias. The story of a 17-year-old Black girl leading the charge against an oppressive monarchy is the author’s counterpunch against society’s systemic bias, the implicit message that Black people can’t be in charge or complex human beings.
But can one YA trilogy really make a difference? Yes, Adeyemi says unequivocally. Take a look at the Harry Potter generation, she points out. When Trump came along, Voldemort memes started popping up on social media. “When somebody stomps around and says, ‘Immigrants, get out,’ that sounds a lot like Voldemort.” Adeyemi believes that literature does have the capacity to deliver strong cultural shifts.
A cultural shift is also needed in publishing, argues Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress. Warner worries that Adeyemi’s high-profile book deal is not the right vehicle to effect a radical change in the industry. Publishing Adeyemi — a twentysomething with a Harvard pedigree — lets the industry off the hook too easily, she continues. “Never before has there been so much pressure on creative people to have star quality,” she says. Not true, rebuts Adeyemi. While she sees a point in Warner’s argument — “When Obama was elected, they were like, ‘Racism is over,’ and yet years later, you have Nazis marching in the streets” — Adeyemi says that publishers are seeing the value in representing diverse voices. “It’s called capitalism. Amazon tells us people are buying these books because all people want it, not just people of color. We all like new stories.”
And that’s what Adeyemi is banking on. “It’s not just that there can be an awesome story about Black people, it’s not just that Black people can be the hero,” she says. “It’s that Black people are human and complicated, which you wouldn’t think you need to say, but clearly society has taught us the opposite for so long so it needs to be said really aggressively and directly.” Which is exactly what Adeyemi does in Children of Blood and Bone — and at just 24 with more to come in her epic fantasy series, the Tomi Train is just starting to pick up speed.
- Poornima Apte, OZY AuthorContact Poornima Apte