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Tomi Adeyemi on writing YA about black girls: “I didn’t think black people could be in stories”

The author of Children of Blood and Bone talks about why her books matter.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi Henry Holt and Co.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Tomi Adeyemi, the young author behind the YA book of the year Children of Blood and Bone, is having a very good year.

Her book, an Afrofuturist fantasy epic steeped in West African cosmology, earned one of the biggest advances in YA history. It emerged to a rapturous reception and debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, with a movie adaptation already in development. The book’s success is not hype: It’s a genuinely good book, a compelling adventure story with a deeply satisfying romance, all centering and celebrating black characters.

It’s those characters that make Adeyemi’s success so distinctive. Adeyemi is one of a cohort of YA authors of color who have emerged over the past couple of years to write celebrated and successful novels that center on characters of color, in a welcome sea change for an industry long marked by its whiteness.

At this year’s Book Expo, I caught up with Adeyemi to talk about the beauty of tropes, what it feels like to be unable to see yourself in the books you love, and how publishing is changing. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Constance Grady

One of the things that I think makes your book so satisfying to read is the way that it works with a lot of different tropes, like the lovers in the dreamscape. Do you have a favorite trope that you really wanted to write about when you started working on it?

Tomi Adeyemi

I love enemies to lovers, I love it. But it’s so predictable that it’s like it’s not even worth it, like it’s not satisfying. So what I really like to do is put myself in a conundrum: Let me really make these people hate each other. But then sometimes it works too well, so I’m like, “I actually don’t know if there’s a way to make them reconcile! We’re gonna have to figure that out.” I think I struggled with that. I was like, “I’m really going to pull them apart,” and then I didn’t know how to turn around and put them back together again.

Constance Grady

One of the other things that was so exciting about this book is that it’s a magical system centered on black people, where you can mark power by the characters’ skin getting darker and their hair getting curlier. Is that something that you always wanted to see in books that you read as a kid?

Tomi Adeyemi

Because it was so not an option, I couldn’t even have told you that I wanted to see that. I just didn’t know to think like that. I didn’t even imagine that there could be magical black people until I saw a picture when I was 21.

So I can’t even say that I wanted that as a kid. I can tell you I needed that as a kid, but because I didn’t have that, all of the stories that I was writing when I was young — or not even when I was young. Until I was 18 and I realized that I was doing something wrong — all of them had white characters. Or sometimes the protagonist would be biracial. But there was never a black person, and it’s because I didn’t think black people could be in stories.

Writing this, there was the personal mission, what I would do if no one ever read it. And then there was the knowledge that hey, maybe many people will read it and see it. And both of those combined so that I just wanted to emphasize the beauty of blackness.

Because so many things out there, whether it be media or people or hack scientists — like, scientists literally publish books being like, “Black people aren’t attractive because of science.” Years and years of that is what we’re dealing with. So knowing I have a chance, I just want people to know, black is beautiful, black hair is beautiful, afros are beautiful.

And the thing is, all of it is beautiful, but because there are so many people out there who just want to be like, “Hey, I did research, and you’re ugly because you’re black,” you’re fighting against that. So it was important for me to not only show that, but to deepen that metaphor with magic. It’s literally Black Girl Magic. In our real world, it could be like, “oh, this makes you magical,” but in this one, I’m going to show you. You literally are magical, and your hair is 4C. That’s how it works.

Constance Grady

Do you remember what the picture was, of a magical black person?

Tomi Adeyemi

I was in a gift shop and I saw tiles of the Orisha. And I was just like, “Oh my god.” I saw the story. But I never imagined a story like that, because I had never seen that. I had never even thought about a black water goddess.

Constance Grady

Once you had the idea in your head, did you always think of it as a big epic fantasy series? Or was it at one point going to be self-contained?

Tomi Adeyemi

I knew I wanted to write an epic fantasy series, just because I love Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I enjoy rides like The Hunger Games. I knew I wanted to do that because I loved all those things growing up; I still loved them. But I didn’t have all the pieces yet. I also was working on another story at the time, so I didn’t jump into this.

But I always knew I wanted to do a trilogy, even though I didn’t know what that trilogy would be, until I got further and further into the process.

Constance Grady

What were the stories that you read as a teen that you connected with?

Tomi Adeyemi

So I would say Harry Potter and The Outsiders — that’s the first book that made me feel — and I loved the Magic Treehouse series growing up. But it’s sort of that same thing: You don’t realize you’re being erased until you realize you’ve been erased. I still have love for these stories, especially Harry Potter — we’re all Harry Potter babies — but my favorite stories, the stories I really connect with and that I’ve connected with more than anything in my life, they’re all being published today.

With Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, and Ember in the Ashes: reading both those books made me want to write Children of Blood and Bone. Leigh Bardugo, she’s just a fucking genius, she’s just so brilliant. And the reason I love her is not even that she’s brilliant, but she’s brilliant and writes diverse characters.

I feel like I can feel myself in these stories today in a way that I couldn’t. I could picture myself in Hogwarts, but I couldn’t picture myself a part of the adventure. It’s a whole new world — you can’t say a whole new world without hearing the song and getting confused by the noise in your head.

A lot of those books happening today, like The Hate U Give or Dear Martin or Belles, it’s just finally feeling a part of something I love. It’s what I felt as a kid.

Constance Grady

What do you think is behind that shift in the industry, that they’re finally showcasing these voices?

Tomi Adeyemi

It’s like hiking up a mountain. A lot of it is the efforts of other people. I saw a tweet yesterday, I think by Malinda Lo, that said that the weird thing about being in this publishing business now, when you’ve been trying to do diverse books for 10-plus years, is seeing all this love now when it was shut doors before. Even five years ago, friends of mine said publishers were saying, “This is great, but can you make the main character white?”

It’s not a new thing. People have been fighting, and inching and inching and inching, for decades. I think it’s just finally all of that combined effort with great stories like The Hate U Give and — it feels weird to say “great stories like The Hate U Give and Children of Blood and Bone” —

Constance Grady

I’ll say it.

Tomi Adeyemi

The Hate U Give opened the door for a deal like Children of Blood and Bone. And a deal like Children of Blood and Bone opens the door [for another]. I told Angie [Thomas, the author of The Hate U Give], “You’re going to have a whole generation of black female writers” — not just black females — “who are inspired to do what they’re doing because of you.” And I know the same thing is happening with this, mostly because people have told me. You see it, and suddenly you can do it.

And then there’s the dollars behind that. The Hate U Give has been No. 1 [on the New York Times best-seller list] for like 60 weeks. So it’s not just about doing the right thing. This makes commercial sense.

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