Tomi Adeyemi on Children of Blood and Bone

Tomi Adeyemi has created a new world through her young adult fantasy novel, Children of Blood and Bone. Six months on from its publication, she pauses to take stock and talk more about her story

Feature by Heather McDaid | 03 Sep 2018
  • Tomi Adeyemi

Tomi Adeyemi crafts magic. Her debut is an international bestseller, the movie adaptation is in development and it was the first book picked for The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon's Summer Reads – that’s just the beginning. Buy Children of Blood and Bone and the back cover is sparse; few words go a long way:

"They killed my mother. They took our magic. They tried to bury us. Now we rise."

In Children of Blood and Bone, Zélie remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Under the rule of a ruthless king, those with powers were targeted and killed – her people were left without hope. She has the chance, alongside a rogue princess and her brother, to bring power back to her people, strike against the tyrannical monarchy and save magic before it’s eradicated for good.

Six months since its release, it feels the perfect time to hit pause and reflect on the literary revelation.

“It’s been a whirlwind for sure,” says Adeyemi. “I’m definitely still wrapping my head around it, but I’ve loved getting to meet the readers and see how they’ve embraced this story! The most rewarding part is getting to meet readers and see how much they love this story, especially when readers tell me how it’s changed their lives. The messages they send and the art they create is unreal.“

The incredible array of art Tomi receives is particularly fitting. It was a collection of beautiful illustrations of the Orïsha she stumbled across in a gift shop in Brazil, where she studied West African mythology and culture, that initially brought her magic to life. The four striking images she’s shared online – featuring Yansã, Oxum, Oxalá Oxalufan and Oxóssi, wrapped in bold and bright colours – capture the moment the world vividly crafted itself in her mind; it was later via a discovery on Pinterest that the story took shape.

“I had never seen black people depicted in such a magical and sacred way so I knew it would be in a story I wrote one day,” she recalls. “Several months later I saw a picture of a magical black girl with bright green hair and it lit my imagination on fire. As I daydreamed about what that girl’s world was like, the pieces of Children of Blood and Bone started falling in place. Seeing someone like me in a setting I’d never gotten to experience really got my creative juices flowing.

“The book’s magic system is based off of the ten Orïsha I featured in the novel. While Orïsha are often called gods and goddesses in Western settings, they’re actually more similar to angels or saints. Each one represents a collection of things, so building a magic system off of one of the things they represented felt natural to me.

“There are types of magic readers will be used to seeing, like the ability to generate and control fire inspired by Sàngó, the Orïsha of fire, lightning and thunder. But there are several types of magic readers won’t be used to, like the magic over life and death inspired by Oya, the Orïsha of cemeteries, transition and wind.”

What brings the magic of Children of Blood and Bone to leap so vibrantly off the page is that it is grounded in reality. Adeyemi created her world order and inserted it into what she knew. “My Nigerian heritage influenced my worldbuilding by becoming the world of the story,” she says. “The kingdom the story takes place in is named after the Orïsha, the West African spirits from the Yoruba religion. Seas and mountain ranges are named after my late grandparents. The characters wear dashikis, geles and headdresses as they eat jollof rice and fried plantain.

“My heritage was the foundation [from] which the world of this story was built, and that was really gratifying for me because I got to make magic out of the wonderful culture I was born into.”

Within this world, Adeyemi works with larger themes – it’s an epic adventure, but there’s another layer reflecting what’s happening today; Adeyemi has noted it’s an allegory for the modern black experience. There’s the suppression of a whole swathe of society, state brutality – she’s spoken widely about how she wanted to write about Black Lives Matter. She also explores the complexity of the villain – King Saran is a tyrant, but when readers see his motives of protecting his people, they sound almost noble when removed from his actions. She steps beyond the archetypal bad guy to consider bigger questions: mainly, why?

“Typically, there isn’t absolute good or evil in the world. There are multiple sides, multiple beliefs, and multiple paths people are willing to take to get what they want. I find the antagonists and conflicts I love most as a consumer reflect that. Those characters aren’t bad to be bad – they believe they’re doing the right thing, and if the creator has done a really good job, we agree with the villains in the story as much as we agree with the hero.

“I wanted that reflected in the book. No one is simply wrong or right – they’re all trying to do what’s best for their people and their kingdom, but they’re letting negative emotions like fear, anger and revenge guide them, and that's where they go wrong.”

There’s a number of complexities in the book that speaks to the world today and the impact can already be seen. On Twitter, and at her Edinburgh International Book Festival event, Adeyemi beamed about a young girl called Ava-Rae. After an event on her book tour, she stomped up to the front of the line and began telling her about all the stories she was working on. Adeyemi said this was her favourite thing that had happened to her.

“I often talk about how I’m writing for the little Tomi, the younger me who spent ten years writing fantasies alone in my room that didn’t feature any black characters,” she says. “I internalised that black people didn’t get to be in stories and didn’t get to have these big adventures at a young age, and so my protagonists were always white or biracial.

“It took me a long time to overcome that serious self-esteem damage, so I’m committed to stopping as many kids (especially black kids and especially black girls) from experiencing that. So to meet a young black writer so full of confidence and purpose was a dream come true.”

The impact of Tomi’s Children of Blood and Bone has only begun. In six months, it’s taken over the book world and the rest of the series is on its way. It’s easy in moments like this to focus on the success alone, but her debut wasn’t actually her first book – in the vein of inspiring readers in all forms, what did she learn of persistence and resilience from the often-forgot novel that never was? “Lots of people don’t talk about my first book,” she notes. “I spent four years on it and it didn’t even get me a literary agent, but it taught me everything I needed to know about myself, my writing and publishing. It gave me the confidence to really go for my dream.

“I actually laid out a ten-year plan to achieve my publishing goals and I had planned to write five books to help me get there. Children of Blood and Bone was just my first attempt, but it would not have been successful at all had I not had the valuable experience from my first book.”

It’s lucky then that this initial hurdle gave Tomi Adeyemi the confidence to really go for her dream. Children of Blood and Bone is a triumph and with the second book in the series due in 2019, there’s still plenty of time to join the journey at its first stop.

Children of Blood and Bone is out now via Pan MacMillan