How Tomi Adeyemi Became A Literary Rockstar Before Her First Book Even Came Out

In the future, when people think of the book characters that shaped their childhood, they will mention Harry Potter, the boy who lived, Katniss Everdeen, the girl who volunteered as tribute, and Zelie Adebola, the maji destined to return magic to her people. You haven’t heard of that final name yet, but you will.
Zelie is the white-haired, dark-skinned, turbaned protagonist of Children of Blood and Bone, the first book in 24-year-old debut novelist Tomi Adeyemi’s projected fantasy trilogy. Hailing from the fictional African nation of Orisha and riding atop a gigantic lionaire, she is brave, but not impervious to fear; she is intelligent, but prone to impulsiveness; and she is unlike any YA heroine we’ve encountered before.
Eleven years earlier, Zelie's mother was killed during the massacre of maji carried out by King Saran. On the day the maji were killed, magic disappeared from Orisha. Zelie comes of age in a world that hates and unfairly punishes people like her – those whose white hair gives away their magic blood. Only Zelie has the chance to restore magic, and end the cycle of oppression.
There is tremendous power in a book like Children of Blood and Bone, especially for children seeing this book on library displays and summer reading lists, and that’s precisely the point. “Imagine if Harry Potter had been a Black boy,” Adeyemi told Refinery29. “The world might actually be a different place because the boy who everybody was obsessed with would be this Black boy with an afro.”
Essentially, as Adeyemi chuckled to Refinery29 over the phone, “The Next Big Thing is all about incredible Black people.” This holds true for superhero movies — Black Panther has blown away all expectations – and for the YA literary world.
That Children of Blood and Bone would be the Next Big Thing in YA literature is something Tiffany Liao, the book’s editor, recognized immediately after the 400-page manuscript arrived in her inbox at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. “I read it in one mesmerized sitting. Covered in chills. Often through a blur of tears. It felt completely unlike anything I, or anyone at Macmillan had ever read before,” she told Refinery29. “We all knew immediately this is something special. This is something groundbreaking. We have to have it.”
Henry Holt Books for Young Readers wasn’t the only imprint hungry for Adeyemi’s book – Liao compares the bidding war to battle. “It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” she said. Typically, book auctions take place over the course of two to three weeks. But nothing about this book is typical. A week after receiving the manuscript, Holt faced down other publishers clamoring for the book, and offered one of the largest publishing deals for a YA debut novel ever. “We paid an incredible advance for an incredible book.”
It has taken decades for the publishing industry to arrive to this landmark point: A blockbuster fantasy novel with a three-book and three-movie deal, fan art before it’s even out – and an all-Black cast of characters.
“What we’re experiencing now is the result of a movement built on the hard work, the dedication, the passion of many, many librarians, teachers, gatekeepers, editors, publishing professionals, in and outside the industry,” Liao said.
Adeyemi credits the YA authors of color who published before her, like Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, and Marie Liu, for the possibility of a book like Children of Blood and Bone. Her novel is also preceded by other fantasies set in Africa, like Tochi Onyebuchi’s recent Beasts Made of Night, and the many books of Hugo Award-winning Nnedi Okorafor. They’ve paved the way for Adeyemi not needing to compromise any part of her vision. “As recent as five or six years ago, you could have a book and have an agent or an editor say, ‘This is great, but could you make the protagonist white?’ And that’s not something I had to deal with because they took all that bullshit. Now we’re at the point when someone doesn’t say, ‘Could you give Zelie blonde hair instead?’”
The number of diverse YA and children’s books published each year has been steadily climbing, from 10% in 1997 when Harry Potter came out, to 28% in 2016 — though it’s still a far cry from equitable. Should Children of Blood and Bone be as explosive as it’s projected to be, this could be the catalyst of a new movement. Twilight was followed by a slew of vampire novels. Imagine what might come after Children of Blood and Bone.
An early review of the novel in Kirkus called the book “exceptional,” but the real fervor is found in the book’s Goodreads page, where readers lucky enough to get advance reader copies write things like, “BELIEVE. THE. HYPE,” and, “This book is beautiful, powerful, and totally badass. You need it in your life.” There’s some major FOMO on the page, too: One commenter pleaded, “Will trade life and/or limb for an ARC [advance review copy] of this to read and review. I am absolutely desperate!”

I read it in one mesmerized sitting. Covered in chills.

Tiffany Liao
Essentially, the enthusiasm Liao experienced in the Holt office is mirrored with the enthusiasm of fans. Clearly, there’s a hunger for stories like these — and hopefully, publishing is stepping up to deliver.
Emma Carbone, a YA librarian at Brooklyn Public Library, senses the change acutely. Now, when high-schoolers come in looking for book recommendations, she can point them toward books with an array of characters. “Kids are just looking to see themselves. We haven’t had a moment like this, when the assumed default isn’t just a white kid on the cover. It’s a big change, to be able to say that we can find books that will mirror your experiences,” Carbone says. “With fantasy, we have all these different characters and different perspectives."
The idea for the novel which would, eventually, be sold in a seven-figure book and movie deal, came to Adeyemi in April of 2016. She had graduated from Harvard with a degree in English the year prior, and was working as a data analyst in Los Angeles. One morning before work, she spotted an illustration of a Black girl with bright green hair on Pinterest, and couldn’t get the image out of her head. “It was so epic,” she told me, still speaking fondly of the image that incited her on her own epic two-year journey, and counting. Adeyemi walked around showing the photo to coworkers, and was dismayed they didn’t see the magic she did.
“They were like okay, let’s get back to work. But I was like, how can any of us work? I’ve gotten ideas from pictures before, but this was the first time I was so captivated. I was like, who is this girl. What is her story? What is a day in her life like? I couldn't get it out my head,” she said. Adeyemi would have to answer these questions herself.
That evening, after bouncing ideas around on the phone with her boyfriend, Adeyemi established the skeleton of the book. The girl would be a fisherman’s daughter, who would meet a rogue princess in a marketplace, and be dragged into an adventure. The rest, she said, proceeded in a “series of explosions.” When her coworkers left the office at the end of the day, Adeyemi would stick around for another four, five, or six hours, writing the story.
Adeyemi had attempted a novel before — she had been working on her first novel for four years, and eventually realized, after a string of rejections, it wouldn’t be published. This attempt was different, and it was partly thanks to a fellowship she had in Salvador, Brazil, where she encountered the religious elements that would eventually form the spine of The Children of Blood and Bone.
When she encountered that green-haired girl on Pinterest, Adeyemi finally found a place for the Orisha, West African deities that rule over different jurisdictions of the natural world (in a nod to the deities, Adeyemi named the triology’s fictional country Orisha). In Adyemi’s Orisha Legacy, of which Children of Blood and Bone is the first installment, some humans are born with latent magical powers, which are awakened around puberty. These people, called maji, are distinguished from non-maji by their stark white coils, and their very dark skin.
“I discovered [the Orisha] on complete accident, but as soon as I saw them I knew I had to do some story with them. I just didn’t know what the story was. Just seeing these beautiful and sacred Black gods and goddesses, I thought, this is so magical. This looks like an African version of The Last Airbender,” she said, laughing. Here’s another thing to know about Adeyemi — she’s still a fan girl, at heart, of Airbender, YA literature, and even her own book.
Adeyemi infused the Orishan landscape with her own history — she consulted her mother, a Nigerian immigrant, for Yoruba phrases for spells, and named mountain ranges after family members. “It took this thing from being a story I love to something that was truly, truly personal,” she said.
There are 10 maji clans in Orisha, each imbued with different abilities. Zelie’s mother was a Reaper, a maji of Life and Death who gained her powers from the goddess Oya. There are maji who conjure light, and those who control animals, and those who can govern the tides. (If you’re thinking this is a new version of the sorting hat, you’re right — Adeyemi was in the process of writing the official maji sorting quiz at the time of the interview).
Years earlier, magic had been wiped from Orisha by a despot named King Saran, who massacred every adult maji. Young people like Zelie, whose powers had not yet bloomed, were spared. They are treated like second-class citizens, and are forbidden from having children with kosidàn, Adeyemi’s term for non-maji citizens. The maji are beaten and killed. Children are struck down by guards. Essentially, people like Zelie grow up with the psychological scars of being treated with violence.
Though the book takes place in a fictional West African nation, Adeyemi has soaked Orisha in the problematic racial dynamics that are omnipresent in our world. The fights between guards and maji? The way society is stacked up make mobility nearly impossible for magic? That all is pointed statement.
“Every obstacle in this book is based off something in the real world, because that’s the other thing about fantasy. This is something that Black people are dealing with today, or as recently as 30 years ago. It’s this big fantasy, but it’s meant to be this glaring mirror,” Adeyemi said.
The fantasy genre, in particular, gave Adeyemi freedom to abandon the histories and problems of America, and create a world in which racial dynamics are more concretely right and wrong, black and white. Essentially, there can be no excuses made for egregious and unnecessary displays of force from law enforcement. “No one can look at Zelie being attacked in the very first chapter, and say, ‘Okay, but…’ You can’t argue that. It is undeniably wrong,” Adeyemi said. By reading Children of Blood and Bone, then, she hopes readers will be more receptive to applying the sentiments to interactions they hear about on their Twitter feed and on the news. “So when you say hey, do you want to see the video of the Black girl being thrown to the ground by the policeman in a bathing suit that inspired this? And now do you want to tell me that there are more sides to this story?”
Give or take some magic battles and leoponaires, Children of Blood and Bone is very much a rough translation for our world. Some readers may be situated in a way that they can identify themselves with Zelie directly. For others, it’ll be an exercise in experiencing the world through the lens of someone hyper-aware of the fact that her very makeup puts her in immediate danger.
“It’ll mean different things to different readers,” Tiffany Liao said. “There’s a world that’s teaching you to hate what makes you magical. That’s going to resonate with readers on many different levels.”
This ties back into Adeyemi’s dream for her book. She hopes Children of Blood and Bone elicits the unbridled joy seen in videos of kids finding out they’re going to see Black Panther. She wants her book to make some people feel seen — and wants to make other people, who might be less immediately intimate with Zelie’s struggles, see.
Read These Stories Next:

More from Books & Art

R29 Original Series