ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There's a new book out called "Children Of Blood And Bone." It's a big, heavy book that tackles big, heavy themes - police killings of unarmed black men, the politics of black hair, even death. It's also a young adult fantasy book with magic and gods. NPR's Mallory Yu introduces us to the author.
MALLORY YU, BYLINE: "Children Of Blood And Bone" is Tomi Adeyemi's first book.
TOMI ADEYEMI: It's actually very surreal that I just walked to my bookshelf and grabbed my book and I was like, this is my book. Like, wow. So that was actually a crazy experience.
YU: This whole experience has been crazy for the 23-year-old Harvard grad. She already has a major book deal and has been praised as the next J.K. Rowling. But the world Adeyemi has created is very different from Hogwarts. It's called Orisha, and it's based on her Nigerian roots. She weaves in African gods and goddesses, the language of the Yoruba people and lush descriptions of jungles and grand cities. Adeyemi wanted Orisha to feel real and tangible.
ADEYEMI: Because this book, while it is an epic high fantasy, is about living in a society that teaches you to hate what makes you magical.
YU: A cruel and oppressive king rules Orisha, and he hates maji, people who once had the ability to wield magic before it disappeared. So maji live as second-class citizens, often beaten or killed by the king soldiers for small offenses. Zelie, one of the main protagonists, is one of them. And at the beginning of the book when she finds an opportunity to restore magic to her people, she jumps at the chance, helped by her brother and the king's daughter. Zelie is defiant and strong, but sometimes her fear and self-doubt get the better of her. Tomi Adeyemi says to write about this fear she drew on her experience of being black in America in a time of high-profile police shootings of unarmed black men. One passage describing Zelie's panic was essentially a diary entry she wrote after the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
ADEYEMI: (Reading) I am always afraid. It's a truth I locked away years ago, a fact I fought hard to overcome. But when it hits, I'm paralyzed. I can't breathe. I can't talk. All at once, I crumple to the ground, clasping my palm over my mouth to stifle the sobs. It doesn't matter how strong I get, how much power my magic wields. They will always hate me in this world. I will always be afraid.
YU: Zelie's afraid because she's been the subject of ridicule and - much worse - because of her hair. It's snow white and a marker of her ability to wield magic. Adeyemi says that mirrors her own experience as a black woman with natural hair. It took her a long time to accept it, and she wants to show the kids who read her book that their hair is OK, too, so Zelie's hair changes throughout the book.
ADEYEMI: Her hair gets curlier and curlier and becomes this afro as she embraces her magic more and more and more because that is what it is. It's, like, literally magical.
YU: And Adeyemi was adamant that her hair be an afro for her author picture.
ADEYEMI: Because I know there's a lot of black girls who are going to pick this up and be like, whoa, that's how my hair grows, and it looks awesome. Because I never had that and you think, like, is my fro (ph) OK if you never see someone rocking a fro.
YU: But the book isn't a lecture in disguise. At its heart it's a rollicking adventure. Characters ride giant fantasy creatures, they battle, and along the way Zelie discovers her power.
ADEYEMI: Zelie has the power to breathe life back into spirits. Also, these spirits literally give her power.
YU: And Adeyemi says she wanted Zelie to have that power because death is something she herself thinks about all the time.
ADEYEMI: Death is something that I am still trying to figure out a healthy relationship with. So I feel like this story for me, too, is therapy of being like, yes, one day you are going to lose the people you love, but you are not going to lose their love. You are not going to lose the power from their love.
YU: Ultimately, Tomi Adeyemi says her book is a celebration of her culture and, most importantly, her people.
ADEYEMI: Children of color need a mirror to see themselves in. And then people who don't have that experience, they need a window. They need a really personalized way to see what people who are different from them are going through.
YU: She also says children of color need heroes, so she'll continue to write them in the books to come. Mallory Yu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.