The first time Tomi Adeyemi wrote herself into a story, she was six. Obsessed with The Parent Trap, The Saddle Club, and a Bollywood movie called Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham, she sat down at the keyboard and churned out a 30-page adventure starring horseback-riding, sari-clad twins—both of whom were named Tomi.
Somewhere along the way, however, her characters stopped resembling their creator. “I had processed that black girls couldn’t be in books,” Adeyemi observes, “and we couldn’t have adventures—especially magical adventures.”
An ugly backlash to the casting of black actors in the Hunger Games film adaptations changed Adeyemi’s perspective. “To see real hatred brought into a completely fictional setting just for the existence of black characters in a story—it’s heartbreaking,” she says. “It also made me really angry.”
Adeyemi vowed to publish a novel featuring a black protagonist, but her initial effort—a self-described love letter to Harry Potter—took years to write and failed to earn her representation. As she dug deeper into the genre, she soon realized why: “Fantasy authors have really elevated and added to the craft,” she says. “We’re in a whole new realm.”
Perhaps the best evidence of how far YA fantasy has come is Adeyemi’s own phenomenally successful debut. First in a planned trilogy, Children of Blood and Bone (Holt) chronicles 17-year-old Zélie Adebola’s battle to restore magic to the realm of the Orïsha and liberate its people from the tyrannical rule of King Saran.
Adeyemi’s first exposure to the Orïsha—deities belonging to the Yoruban people of southwest Nigeria—came courtesy of a museum gift shop in Brazil. “It was life-changing,” she recalls. “And it was so affirming to see my blackness celebrated in such a sacred and powerful way.”
Eight months later, Adeyemi became captivated by a picture of a black girl with luminescent green hair. She daydreamed about the sorts of adventures the girl might undertake—adventures set in a world inspired by the Orïsha. Adeyemi asked her boyfriend which she should tackle first: her burgeoning fantasy or something relating to the Black Lives Matter movement. He replied, “I think they might be the same story.”
Adeyemi was certain the concept would be perfect for Pitch Wars, but applications were due in 70 days. In May 2016, she traded a full-time marketing career for a part-time teaching gig and got to work. When her submission was accepted, she quit teaching, moved in with her boyfriend, and started writing full-time.
Through Pitch Wars, Adeyemi found agents Hillary Jacobson and Alexandra Machinist of ICM Partners. Though Jacobson and Machinist weren’t the only agents to express interest, they were the first to tell Adeyemi that the manuscript needed major changes, and their vision for the novel convinced Adeyemi to sign with them.
Three drafts later, Children of Blood and Bone went out to publishers. The book ultimately sold to Tiffany Liao at Henry Holt in a seven-figure preempt, but Adeyemi’s work was far from done. She and Liao toiled for 11 months, adding 200 pages to the manuscript. “Everything was different. Parts were ripped out in the middle and rewritten and rewritten again. Character arcs were changed. The world of the book was changed so many times with more research and sensitivity reads.”
The effort paid off: Children of Blood and Bone received five starred reviews and debuted at #1 on the New York Times YA hardcover bestseller list.
Adeyemi is determined to never again be absent from her own fiction. “Everywhere I turn, every single corner of this world has someone that I can see myself in,” she says. She wants readers who look like her to realize that they’re “worthy of the epic adventure, that they’re worthy of being the hero.” She adds, “I hope even looking at me behind the story lets them know that whatever they want to do, no matter how impossible it might seem, that they can do it.”