This week, a mysterious figure appeared on a 42-foot high billboard on the side of the Madame Tussauds wax museum, down the street from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Only the top part of her face was visible — fierce gray eyes, dark-brown skin, bone-white hair rising into the air like smoke. She seemed to be levitating above Hollywood Boulevard, above the chain stores and the traffic and the celebrity footprints, as though she possessed some magical power, which she does. Unless you’re a devoted fan of young-adult literature, you will not have heard of Zélie Adebola, but soon, she will summit the peaks of popular culture like Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen before her. Zélie is not the first black heroine of a young-adult fantasy series, but she is on track to become by far the most famous.
The book, Children of Blood and Bone, due to come out March 6, has been called “a brutal, beautiful tale of revolution, faith, and star-crossed love” (Publisher’s Weekly), and “a timely study on race, colorism, and power and injustice” (Kirkus). To conjure the fantastical realm in which it is set, a land of spirits and giant snow leopards, its Nigerian-American author, Tomi Adeyemi, drew on West African mythology, which she researched during a recent fellowship in Brazil. She wrote the first draft in one feverish month. Less than a year later, at the age of 23, she sold the manuscript in a seven-figure deal rumored to be among the biggest in YA history. (“We paid a spectacular advance for a spectacular novel unlike anything we’ve read,” Tiffany Liao, her editor at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, told me in an email.) A film deal quickly followed, and since then, Children of Blood and Bone has appeared on dozens of lists of the most-anticipated books of 2018. At New York Comic Con last summer, fans waited in lines for hours for a chance to meet Adeyemi, though none had yet read the book. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, who focuses on race in children’s and young-adult literature, understood the impulse. “A book like this would have been beyond my imagination as a kid,” said Thomas, who is 40. She sees the publishing industry’s rapturous embrace of Children of Blood and Bone as the result of decades of activism aimed at making the industry more diverse. “What I love most about the idea of Children of Blood and Bone is that it moves black protagonists to the center of the fantastic — we are no longer in the margins of the mainstream imagination. Many black YA writers my age have lumps in their throats because when we were 24, those doors were glued shut.”
The book takes place in a country called Orïsha 11 years after magic has vanished from the land. The King has slaughtered all the Magi — magicians who could draw on the power of gods and goddesses to summon fire, darkness, spirits of the dead. Zélie sets out on quest to restore magic, and to defeat the king, who has murdered her own mother. This week, I caught up with Adeyemi to talk about the inspiration for her work, why she’s bored by Lord of the Rings, and what a book like Children of Blood and Bone would have meant to her as a kid. Plus, check out the book trailer below, released exclusively to Vulture.
I’ve read that your first attempt at writing a novel was inspired by seeing the backlash that the Hunger Games movie got from some viewers who were apparently upset to discover that Rue was black. How did that motivate you to start writing?
It’s actually hilarious, because it seems like we’ve come completely full circle. Now, everybody is losing their minds over Black Panther and its opening weekend totally eclipsed the Hunger Games, and A Wrinkle of Time is coming out next month, and it all feels really good. But in that moment it was really — I know this might sound dramatic, but there’s no other word — it was actually just soul-crushing. Especially during that time in my life.
What was going on in your life then?
It was my freshman year at Harvard. I grew up in a predominantly white community, Hinsdale, Illinois, and given that, I feel blessed because I could still count my experiences with blatant racism on two hands. I thought racism was the substitute teacher picking on you because she assumes that you’re a delinquent and she doesn’t know you have the highest score in the class. But then I got to college, and that’s when the shooting of Trayvon Martin happened, and that was terrifying. I knew racism could emotionally hurt, but up until then, I thought we were past the time when racism could actually kill me. And then we went through the trial, and I saw oh, also, it’s not only that you can be killed, it’s that your killer is going to walk free.
So college was this big awakening. Then came The Hunger Games — those stories were supposed to be my safe spot. Those characters were just supposed to be characters. I thought it wasn’t really about the color of their skin. But then I found out that people were bringing their real-world hatred into that fictional world. They said, “Oh, yeah, it’s not sad when a 10-year-old girl gets speared to death because she’s black.” And they’re saying it in public, too, on the internet. They were so bold and so unashamed. It was both terrifying and heart breaking. If they don’t feel anything seeing a fictional black girl die, then our world is in a much worse spot than I thought. I am a lot less safe than I thought.
But after the terror comes the, “Oh I’m going to get you.” [Laughs.] At least for me. I’m going to get you, because I’m going to make something as good as The Hunger Games, and everyone is going to be black, and you’re going to have to enjoy this thing with all black people and that’s going to suck for you! That’s how I go through things. Something hurts me, I feel that hurt deeply, I shed my tears, and then it’s like, okay, but now I’m going to get you. Not necessarily this month, not necessarily this year, but give it time. I will clap back. And you will eat your words.
It’s amazing what a difference six years can make, especially in a genre like fantasy, which has been dominated for so long by white people.
We’ve been told the same story for so long. We’ve seen literally 1,000 Lord of the Rings movies. I keep thinking about what it would have been like if I had seen this growing up — if I’d seen someone even darker than me, someone who doesn’t have straight fantasy hair, but a curly magical afro. I know what it would have done that for me, because I know what it did for me when I did see these things for the first time. Like with Kerry Washington on Scandal. I remember being like — that’s me, I’m the main character! I’m badass! I’m emotionally complex! I’m making out with the president! Cool cool cool! You don’t realize what’s missing until you see it. And then once you do, you’re like, why do I feel like I could lift a car right now? So this is why white men feel so great all the time.
This is the explanation.
Yeah, because they’re always seeing themselves doing amazing things. Right now, I feel like we’re in this black-girl-magic renaissance. Last week, Dhonielle Clayton’s book The Belles came out, and in April, Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation is coming out, and seeing our three books next to each other — I’ve never seen books like this in my entire life. It’s actually incredible.
I’m this excited as an adult consumer, so I can’t even imagine what this specific year is going to do for so many children, especially so many black girls. They are being flooded with, you are amazing, you are beautiful, you are powerful, you can kill zombies, you can do magic, your hair looks amazing. Even though the world is a very scary place, if I just look at that part, I feel like: okay, I could have a daughter right now. She’s not going to have to go through this period of hating her hair and hating her skin. Not to say that these books are going to completely eradicate that, but it’s going to make a huge difference, because you hate yourself when you think you’re different, when you think no one is like you.
How old were you when you wrote your first story?
My very first story, I was around 5, and I really just wrote myself. When I was 5, I loved myself so much I gave myself a twin named Tomi. Everything started out fine. But then I didn’t write another black character until I was 18. I look at that gap, and just the thought of me sitting alone in my room reinforcing the lies the world told us pisses me off.
What kind of characters were you writing in those years?
The protagonists were either white or biracial, because I thought those were the only people who were allowed to be in stories. It wasn’t a conscious decision, which to me is why it’s scarier. Somewhere in there, I’d internalized this idea. I’m writing stories alone in my room, and I don’t write black characters because I don’t think that’s allowed. And my senior year, I finally realized how messed up that was. So even before the Hunger Games, I realized I needed to write black characters with really big hair. That was one way I could start teaching myself to love and accept myself and not wish I looked different, or that my skin was lighter, or that my eyes were hazel. It was so easy for me to describe those features in the books I was writing as desirable, but it wasn’t easy to write “she had really dark skin” — I didn’t have the language for it. So that was the start of my journey.
I spent 12 years of my life writing stories without black people. That’s insane to me. It’s insane that I could have believed in magical portals and dragons and all that stuff, but to believe a black person could be experiencing those things was unimaginable.
So when you started working on Children of Blood and Bone, were you drawing any inspiration from the classics of the fantasy genre — the 1,000 different versions of Lord of the Rings, as you say?
Here’s where I’m going to be crucified: I haven’t actually read Lord of the Rings. I haven’t watched Game of Thrones. [Whispering.] I’m whispering because I know they’re going to be like “burn her!” I’m not saying they’re not great, it just wasn’t doing it for me. So I couldn’t be influenced by LOTR because I literally couldn’t get through it. There are just all these short men running around.
I’m more influenced by anime. That was my first love. When I think about my childhood, it’s Harry Potter, but really it was Naruto, it was Bleach, it was Death Note. Those are epic, vicious tales. Right now my inspiration is Attack on Titan. I know I need to make something as effed up and as incredible and as bleak as Attack on Titan. Right now on my bookshelf, I have my only hardcover finished copy of Children of Blood and Bone, and then to the left of it, I have Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older and to the right of it, there’s An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, and above it is Avatar: The Last Airbender — Children of Blood and Bone is the baby of those three.
The idea that magic is a thing that has gone away and needs to be recovered is a common theme in fantasy books and older fairy tales, too. I’m curious why that theme resonated for you. In the real world, what’s the thing that you think has been lost that needs to be recovered?
For me, this theme hits home. I think everyone from a marginalized background can relate. You’re young, and the world is full of color and hopes and dreams. And then one day you have an experience that teaches you the world isn’t what you thought it was.
It teaches you that because of the color of your skin, people will treat you differently. Strangers will hate you. People in power will use their power to further disenfranchise you. People you pay to protect you will use their weapons to systematically hunt you down and kill you.
Living through that, it’s like watching a world full of color fade to hues of gray. To me, there’s no more powerful metaphor for that than watching a world that used to be full of magic get that magic violently ripped away.
People are talking about this as one of the biggest books of the year, and on top of that, the book carries this political weight — one of the first YA epic fantasies written by a black woman, featuring a black woman of color. Let’s talk about how you’re handling these expectations.
At this specific moment in time, I don’t feel the pressure of that because the book is done. For the eight months we spent intensely revising the book, absolutely. I knew the importance of this book and its potential impact on readers from all backgrounds, which meant every single word, every plot point, every character action, every element of the world — literally everything — has been through the ringer.
Up until a few days before we had to turn in the final text, we were still editing, still discussing, still analyzing. I put an insane amount of pressure on myself to get this book right. I know that no matter how hard you work you won’t be able to stop people from coming at something or trying to pick it apart, but I don’t have to feel pressure or worry now because I know that I did everything humanly possible (and then some) to put out the best book possible.
I think for me the biggest challenge is to maintain sanity and maintain time for everything. I really destroyed myself for this book.
Tell me more.
It was mostly all nighters. So many all nighters. Usually when a book is getting published, they make the book deal and then the book will be published a year and a half to two years later. We tried to do this in 11 months. Also the book that Macmillan bought was 400 pages, the advanced copy is 600 pages, it would be one thing if we just added 200 pages, because that’s not actually that bad. But we freaking ripped up the pipes. The book is so much better for it, but it was grueling.
I want to hear about the your research into the African mythology that inspired the magic in Children of Blood and Bone.
So I was in Brazil to research something completely different: how their history of slavery compared to ours and how the formation of an Afro-Brazilian identity compared to African-American identity. But the museum that had been my focal point — the whole reason I was able to justify going to Brazil — was closed for renovation. So when I realized this, it was raining, and I wandered into a gift shop to stop my hair from getting wet, and the gift-shop owner was kicking people out who were clearly there to not get wet. So I was like, “I’ve gotta look interested!” I started looking around and I picked up this poster of nine different Orisha. I had no idea what it was. I’d never seen anything like it. This ties back to what we were talking about earlier — You don’t realize that you’ve been surrounded by white Jesus and Zeus until you see black gods and goddesses and you’re like, “Holy wow!” I knew instantly I was going to do something with it, I just didn’t know what the story was yet. I was way more moved by just seeing that gift-shop photo than by any of the other slave-trade research I was doing. So I pivoted. And I started looking into the deep history of stories about these gods and goddesses — I call them that, because they’re similar to saints or angels. And a few months later, I started to think about what it would be like to do a story with a world based off those gods. I knew then that I had something worth writing that we hadn’t seen before.
Are there any updates on the movie that you can share? What’s that process been like? How involved are you?
The process has been wonderful! Everyone working on this movie is so passionate and excited about this project, and I couldn’t have asked for a better team to be behind Children of Blood and Bone. At this moment in time, I’ve had a few conversations with the screenwriter [whose identity is still a closely guarded secret], and it’s been incredible collaborating with him. I’ve also met with the team at Fox 2000 and Temple Hill Productions, and we’re continuing to meet as we get closer to putting all the people and pieces in place to start production. I can’t give any concrete dates away, but I will say that having watched Black Panther twice in two days, I am so excited for Children of Blood and Bone to make its way onto the screen!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Fantastic Book Trailers and the Reasons They’re So Good
There tends to exist a general skepticism toward book trailers. While some of it is a reaction to their novelty—and the question of whether they can actually generate higher book sales—another part is rooted in more of an ethical uncertainty. A trailer, in a way, violates a book’s very construction. We are taught from a young age that reading, unlike pretty much everything else, forces you to use your imagination. A trailer inherently removes an element of the imaginative process and potentially cheapens the medium by suggesting a sort of inadequacy.
While there may be truth behind these ideas, we also live in a world where information has to be conveyed in an increasingly succinct and stimulating manner. People are inundated with media, and they no longer spend leisurely afternoons in bookstores or reading extensive book reviews. At least, most people don’t.
The purpose of a book trailer, ultimately, is to bring attention and readers to a book and its author. So if it succeeds in doing so, one could argue it’s keeping the medium alive, not destroying it. Traditional media always flounders when it doesn’t evolve to meet changing preferences. If people need moving images to get excited or curious about something, then why not?
As book trailers are still relatively new, the bulk of them have been made at a glaringly low production quality: cheap graphics, still frames, simple fonts, cheesy music. If trailers continue to be used as a marketing tool by publishers and authors, more attention should be given to their construction. Here are nine that do a better job than most and set the bar for book trailers to come in the future.
Blackbirds and Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot Books)
This trailer, by filmmaker Alan Stewart, reproduces the magical experience of opening a book and immediately feeling connected to an author’s voice. There’s no synopsis, no story, no defined sense of the protagonist. Just two and a half minutes of text from Wendig’s two-part series (Mockingbird is the sequel to Blackbirds), recited by a raspy-voiced man in his fifties or sixties. The words appear at creative angles and arrangements to accentuate the writing’s cadence (while also captivating an audience who would otherwise bore of text on screen). The aesthetic is done in a style of “Modern Western” that calls to mind a film like the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, and as such, there is a mystery and intrigue that leaves you wanting more. This might be the ideal book trailer because it’s “what you see is what you get.” If you like what you saw (or rather, read), then you know you’ll enjoy the books and probably go to the effort of reading them.
Blood’s A Rover by James Ellroy (Knopf)
It feels fitting that this trailer for Ellroy’s third installment in the USA Underworld trilogy is done in a standard movie-trailer format, as several of his novels (L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia) have been adapted into screen hits. This book, similarly, is a fictional crime story partially set in Los Angeles in the years 1968-1972. The trailer elicits the neo-noir feeling of prior adaptations (a rotary phone being wiretapped, a Los Angeles cityscape, blood pouring down over a newspaper headline). In doing so, it brings to life the aesthetic in Ellroy’s writing and helps to cultivate interest among those who are less familiar with Ellroy than they are with his titles. Released back in 2009, the trailer has a production quality that was far ahead of its time. Unfortunately, for that reason, it also went largely unseen. Had it been released today, it might have had a different response.
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus (Vintage)
This bizarre trailer feels like an experimental cartoon from MTV in the 1990s. Marcus’s dystopian novel, The Flame Alphabet, is about a world in which the speech of children is lethal to adults. We only come to understand this after about two minutes of comic book-style cartoon and voiceover showing men in hazmat suits and what appears to be a burnt cake with a glowing bulb of garlic on top of it (that’s obviously not what it is). This trailer could benefit from some clarity, especially given that the storyline is unusual and needs some additional context to pique interest, but it’s so creatively done that it still deserves praise.
You Had Me at Woof by Julie Klam (Riverhead Books)
Author Julie Klam stars in her own book trailer, which is a staged conversation between she and her publicist about hiring Timothy Hutton to star in her book trailer. Hutton shows up to the meeting while on a phone call, behaving like an actor diva, and the meeting ends in failure. The trailer is witty, engaging, and probably funnier than your average comedy video. Though it gives no sense of the book’s actual subject matter (a memoir about how dogs helped her understand love and human relationships), it succeeds in endearing Klam to the viewer, which, for a memoir, is maybe all you need.
Theory of Remainders by Scott Dominic Carpenter (Winter Goose Publishing)
From Red 14 Films, this one feels almost like the trailer for an Oscar-winning movie. An operatic choir plays over the scene of a man pacing around a room in a state of unease. Despite the simplicity of this scene, a dramatic tension is maintained—we know something is deeply wrong with this man’s life. Interspersed throughout are fades to black with quotes of reviews for the book. There’s a production quality that stands out among other book trailers and feels like it should have an actual film to accompany it. But it’s the inclusion of numerous raving reviews that vouches for the book more than anything else—a stylistic choice that should be used more often in book trailers (where it applies).
The 4-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss (Harmony Books)
The title, The 4-Hour Body, as well as the book’s unfortunate cover design, immediately call to mind a typical book on fad diets and exercise schemes that never end up working. But this trailer, done by San Francisco-based director Adam Patch, is more Darren Aronofsky than it is Dr. Atkins. It portrays the book as a highly researched document that charts unknown scientific territory, not as another prescription to avoid carbs. It starts with a mock “motion-picture rating,” which elevates the book above its mass-consumed brethren. Then, in a Requiem-for-a-Dream-meets-crime-series-intro-credits style, we see a man sitting behind a desk in an atrium filled with plants, performing a science experiment. This trailer has a lot more style than you’d expect from the title, and consequently it stirs up a lot more interest.
The Women by T.C. Boyle (Viking)
The director of this trailer, Jamieson Fry, is quickly making a name for himself in the realm of book trailers. He has filmed trailers for authors including Dan Chaon, Mary Roach, and Bruce Machart, and his work stands out among other trailers because of its high production quality and dreamy, imaginative visuals, which feel particularly fitting for the medium. Fry has worked on four different trailers for T.C. Boyle; this one is for The Women, which chronicles the romantic relationships Frank Lloyd Wright had over the course of his life. While beautifully shot with a heart-wrenching song by an artist who sounds oddly similar to Florence and the Machine, the trailer loses a bit of steam because it’s not until two minutes into it that we discover this is about Wright. If this reveal (done through a newspaper headline) came a little sooner, the trailer could stand more on its own. It does, however, do an excellent job of painting the allure, glamour, and drama of Wright’s era.
Skagboys by Irvine Welsh (W.W. Norton & Company)
All anyone needs to get excited about Irvine Welsh’s Skagboys is to know that (1) Welsh is the author of Trainspotting, and (2) Skagboys is the prequel to Trainspotting. This thirty-second trailer touches on these points, listing the familiar characters via subtitle (Renton, Sick Boy, etc.), but it could do more to emphasize them. The trailer shows a mini-skeleton strung up like a marionette—a metaphor, perhaps, for the human decay and subordination of drug addiction—while overlaying critical reviews. It works well in that it’s short and sweet, with a unique style of art direction.
The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin (Simon & Schuster)
The opening voiceover of this YA book trailer, taken from Hodkin’s novel, is an immediate hook: “My name is not Mara Dyer, but my lawyer told me I had to choose something.” We see the narrator is an attractive teenage girl in high school, which further sparks curiosity. The trailer is well executed in a stylized black and white that is interrupted only by grainy colored shots of TV news (with obscured headlines: “Three Teenagers Murdered…”). The music also builds suspense through monotonous instrumentals that pick up in speed and intensity. It’s the combination of narration from the novel and stimulating visuals that make this a powerful book trailer. Having the author’s voice expressed in some manner is probably the most concrete way to “sell” a book (assuming the viewer enjoys what they hear), and that will certainly be accomplished for this book’s target demographic.
Shirin Najafi is a writer living in Los Angeles. She graduated from Columbia University with a degree in economics and worked in investment banking before deciding to quit and become a writer. She performs the voice of a cat in some videos (www.magicalstew.com) and is currently working on her first novel. More from this author →