If you count the seconds as Tomi Adeyemi opens her gold package — one (pause), two (pause), three (pause) — you’ll notice that it takes her a full 30 seconds before she’s able to speak.
As she rips at the sparkling paper, digging for the prize inside, Adeyemi whimpers and laughs and cries, but it takes a full half minute before she’s able to muster words.
When she’s finally able to talk, Adeyemi’s speech comes out as a stunned gasp.
“It’s really beautiful,” she says, sniffling. “And it’s real.”
In her hands, for the first time ever, is a book, HER book, Children of Blood and Bone. And it feels like magic.
It’s hard to think of a book more buzzed about in the literature world for 2018 than Children of Blood and Bone. The book, Adeyemi’s debut novel, first caught widespread attention because of its impressive seven-figure book deal. Then it made the usual rounds in the lit community, with reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus. But Adeyemi’s novel also splashed out of the book circuit, with spotlights on Good Morning America, Shondaland, and more.
The book is a YA fantasy adventure set in the West Africa-inspired world of Orïsha. The novel follows Zélie Adebola, a young girl who works with her father to sell fish. Zéile is a diviner, a being with magic inclinations who’s waiting for her powers to take form and to become a maji. However, fearful of a power struggle with the maji, the king of Orïsha orders all them killed and their magic extinguished. But when Zéile runs into the princess of Orïsha, who is in possession of one of the last maji scrolls, she is pulled into a quest to bring back magic … if she can avoid the king’s hunt first.
“‘Children of Blood and Bone’ is basically ‘Black Panther’ with magic.”
If that’s too complicated a plot, Adeyemi has a shorter pitch: “Children of Blood and Bone is basically Black Panther with magic.”
But despite its fantastical premise and magical plot, Adeyemi says Children of Blood and Bone is really a commentary on violence and brutality against black people.
“It’s an allegory for the modern black experience,” says Adeyemi. “So even though we are in a fantasy world and they have a very specific fantastical goal, you’re going to see references to police brutality, and racism and colorism and general oppression.”
It’s a commentary that Adeyemi feels fantasy as a genre was uniquely positioned to deliver.
“The power of fantasy is that you can make people understand the deeper realities of our world in a way that they wouldn’t normally be able to because of all the things in our world that closes them off.”
To that end, a lot of the violence directed toward the book’s protagonist is directly pulled from real world news stories. For instance, in the first chapter of the book, Zéile is slammed to the ground when she stands up to the king’s guards who come demanding a diviner’s tax, a scam to keep diviners poor. That violence is directly pulled from a news story about a girl who was slammed to the ground by a police officer at a pool party.
“I put that same violence, that same brutality [from the pool party], in the chapter. But something else that’s also in the chapter is me bringing you into my world, and introducing you to my protagonists, and getting you to root for her, and getting in the mythology of the world that you’re in.”
The result is that Children of Blood and Bone feels incredibly real, grounded, and urgent, even as it embarks on an epic quest of magic.
We caught up with Tomi Adeyemi to talk all things fantasy, YA, and Children of Blood and Bone.
Image: Henry Holt and CO
Interview with Tomi Adeyemi
What inspired this novel?
Adeyemi: Before the idea crystalized for this book — I had pieces of it in me beforehand, I just hadn’t figured out the story angle yet — I read Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older.
He had this one part where the character is talking about the self-esteem issues you face when you’re growing up as a woman of color in American society. And it was so raw and authentic, I felt like I was reading a diary entry. And my mind was blown, because I was like, this is the power of fantasy. It wasn’t the focus of the story but I understood myself in a way that I never felt before. I had language to describe what I was feeling … And I also had the realization that even people who hadn’t gone through this understood it now. At least they understood it enough to have a real conversation.
So for me, I was like, Wow, that was amazing, I have to do this. I have to find a way to do THIS. And then I read an Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir in which she started a conversation but with a different objective. She wanted to show the plight of people in the Middle East. Those were my two inspirations for what fantasy could do. You know when you see something that is so excellent and you feel called to be better and do better. That’s how they made me.
You mentioned reading Daniel’s book and relating to it, and you said, “This is the power of fantasy.” Can you clarify what that is? What is the power of fantasy?
I think the power of fantasy is to make people understand the deep realities of our real world, that you can’t make them understand in our real world because everyone approaches our real world with their own experiences, with the prejudices, often times with stereotypes and with racism. It’s the reason why when people said “Black Lives Matter,” and pretty clearly meant “Please stop killing us,” other people were like “Actually all lives matter And blue lives matter, etc.” And it’s like, how the f*ck did you get there? But you got there because you were living in your world, and you have been seeing things the way you’ve been taught to see them.
“The power of fantasy is to make people understand the deep realities of our real world.”
So in fantasy, that can be stripped away and you can see things the way they actually are, as opposed to reacting to something like, “No, that’s not true.” [With the book] it’s like: This is my world. These are my rules, I tell you what to think about and what not to think about. So that’s what I think is the power of fantasy. You can make people understand the deeper realities of our world in a way they wouldn’t be able to understand in our world because of all the things that close them off to that.
I know a lot of times, books by black authors or books with black characters get the question “Oh, were you inspired by this real world event?” or people start making connections that may or may not be there. But it sounds like, in this case, the real world connection was pretty explicit in Children of Blood and Bone?
Yeah, and even in the final version of the book, there’s an author’s note at the end, so that like: Hey, I know you just went on this epic magical adventure, but let’s take a step back, because every single thing that happens to a character in this book is happening to real black people today or happened to real black people as recently as 30 years ago. And it’s funny, when it was interview day, every interview was like, “The book is so violent.” And I’m like, You know all of this is real, right? It’s not even as violent as reality. There are some things that are so bad that I can’t even put them in the story because I wouldn’t understand the character if they did that. That character would be so violent and so evil that I think it would make the character two-dimensional to do that. So I can’t put it in my book.
There is a conversation about how this book is groundbreaking. It’s a fantasy novel starring a black girl written by a black women, which, for the fantasy genre, is very radical. How do you feel about that?
I feel awesome. I keep joking that all the Lord of the Rings fans are going to come for me because by now there are more than one or two quotes that are like, “I couldn’t get into it.” I tried to like Lord of the Rings. I watched multiple movies. I always fell asleep. The only person that I thought was kinda funny was Gollum.
But there is a pattern with all of these fantasy stories: They’re very white, and they’re very male, and there’s nothing for me to connect to in the very least.
So I think [my book] is changing the narrative. It’s adding some much needed, literally, color.
Part of the reason everyone is freaking out over Black Panther is because we’ve never seen it. We have two thousand years of stories and we’ve never seen it. As humans, we love stories. And we love fresh, original stories. And so when you have entire settings, entire cultures — beautiful settings, beautiful cultures — that have not been seen or explored at all … take away the significance of everything, just going to the very basic fact that we love stories, people are going to lose their mind. The colors of the Wakanda waterfall scene, you’re like “This is amazing!” because it’s colorful. And it’s different. Taking away what everything means, it’s like, as consumers, we want this. We don’t want to keep seeing whitewashed versions of all of these stories because we’ve seen them so many times.
There’s this weird conundrum, right, where it’s not fair that you have to bear the brunt of all of this representation. But it’s kinda cool that you get to be the person that does this. But you’re also under this incredible scrutiny. But it’s also crazy that this hasn’t been done before.
I love that you brought that up because people bring this up in different ways. But you talked about this the way that a lot of times I’ll talk about this with black creatives. Where it’s like, there needs to be room for black mediocrity. Because there’s lots of white mediocrity. We need room to be mediocre.
But I knew Black Panther was going to be great because Ryan Coogler didn’t have a choice. And the cast members didn’t have a choice. Because, it’s like, you work twice as hard to get half as much. That’s part of the reason you have so many incredible black actors and actresses. Because for Lupita Nyong’o to be in Star Wars, she has to be at the top of the level. What’s demanded from us black creatives is both a blessing and a curse, because it pushes you to be your absolute best. You cannot be anything less.
“The author’s job, no matter what you want to get across in your book, is to deliver a great story.”
Someone asked me, “Are you nervous for the book?” And I was like “No, because I killed myself for 18 months.” There are 12 hours of conversations between me and my editor for something that maybe amounts to three sentences in the book. And not even three sentences together. Three sentences as strategically placed marks for another worldly commentary. It’s like 12 hours of conversations behind three sentences is basically how this entire book has been written and analyzed.
That is how I had to look at everything. Because I know there is someone out there with their Lord of the Rings pitchfork, ready to be like, “Let’s tank this.”
Even now, there’s a conversation where my book is being pitted against another black fantasy book, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, for reasons that make no sense. And it’s also funny because we’re friends. Nobody pitted Harry Potter against Lord of the Rings.
Just because both of our books happen to feature black girls doing magic, people are trying to throw us into an arena that doesn’t exist and make us fight. And it’s funny because Dhonielle is one of the reasons Children of Blood and Bone is so good. It’s because she was one of my sensitivity readers. She was one of the most important people in helping me shape this book into being exactly what I wanted.
Is there any last thing you want people to know about Children of Blood and Bone?
I want people to know that first and foremost, this is a great story. And I had to come out of thinking you can’t call your own story great. It IS great, so let’s just be Kanye West for a second.
There is a lot of conversation about what the book means and what its significance is, but to me, the author’s job, no matter what you want to get across in your book, is to deliver a great story. That is what this is.