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Last year, San Diego resident and Harvard graduate Tomi Adeyemi made headlines after she sold her young-adult fantasy trilogy Children of Blood and Bone for either just under or low seven-figures — one of the biggest deals ever for a YA debut novel. Fox 2000 optioned the series for film with Temple Hill’s Marty Bowen (The Fault in Our Stars) and Karen Rosenfelt (Twilight) attached to produce.
Children of Blood and Bone chronicles Zélie Adebola’s quest to restore magic to her homeland of Orïsha after a vicious king slaughtered many former magicians (maji) and tried to strip Orïsha of its magic. Adeyemi, who is herself Nigerian-American, drew from her time studying West African mythology for a post-graduate fellowship to pen the book.
With Children of Blood and Bone set for release this week, Adeyemi talked with The Hollywood Reporter about her shock when she sold the film rights, the influence of Black Panther and the politics of selling a West African-inspired YA fantasy novel.
Some coverage of Children of Blood and Bone has pitted your book against another YA novel, Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles, both of which are YA fantasies starring black girls. Where do you think that need to create competition comes from?
Dhonielle and I are good friends. She helped me so much with this book. Like, part of the reason the book is as good as it is right now is because she brought her brilliance to it. I didn’t even realize until she told me what was happening.
It’s not surprising to me, because this happens, and it’s actually a remnant of colonization. Because it’s a tactic. It is literally called “divide and conquer.” So if you take two people and pit them against each other, they’re not unified in working against you. It happened last year with [Angie Thomas’] The Hate U Give and [Nic Stone’s] Dear Martin, [both of which are about black teens battling police brutality]. But these are all completely different stories. No one ever takes Lord of the Rings and pits it against Harry Potter.
People see [these books], and they’re like, “Look! Melanin, melanin! These must be in relation to each other.”
I love every time I see my book come up against Dhonielle’s book. Because our covers look great together! The joke is on the people who are pitting our books against each other. We work together, we are friends, we help each other to make our own books better.
And we also know at the end of the day it’s about the little girls who look like her, it’s about the little girls who look like me, it’s about both of those girls being able to get both of these stories for the first time.
Do you think your book and Black Panther are in conversation with each other?
It’s amazing. [Black Panther director] Ryan Coogler made my job really easy. I pitch this book as “African The Last Airbender,” and YA audiences get it immediately. But for the adult crossover audience, I didn’t have my easy, neat pitch. The closest thing I landed on was “African Game of Thrones,” but it’s like, I have a lot of problems with how things are handled in Game of Thrones, especially with people of color and women. I do not want to be calling this “African Game of Thrones.” So now it’s like, thank God [I can pitch it as] “Black Panther with magic.” Whereas Black Panther is a sci-fi reimagining of Africa, Children of Blood and Bone is a fantasy reimagining. They’re brother and sister. It’s literally like T’Challa and Shuri, how I see these books. They work so beautifully together, and for the timing to be this wonderful is really exciting.
Did you feel pressured to frame the book in a certain way — like, as you mentioned, as an “African Game of Thrones” — when you were pitching it?
No. The first thing is, I am so fortunate to get published when I am. Some of my [author] friends now, when they were first trying to get their books published, people were like, “This is cool, but can you make her white?” And that wasn’t 10 years ago. That was as recent as five years ago, probably even less than five years. So I already had those people fight that battle for me.
And with [The Hate U Give author] Angie Thomas, she blew open that door with her book deal and the movie deal. I had people set the tone for, “Hey, all this BS you believe about black people and stories about black people is incorrect.” It wasn’t like, take a chance on me. Because [people like Angie Thomas] had proven them wrong multiple times. People could recognize that hey, this is great story, but they also knew that this is the right time for this story.
Was the experience of pitching the book to publishers different from pitching it for film?
It was crazy because I used to live in L.A., and I worked at a production studio, so I have a lot of friends who are still in the industry. I’ve always been very private about my writing, so a lot of people in my life didn’t even know that I wrote. So when stuff was happening with the book deal, I didn’t tell anyone.
When the movie thing happened, people were like, “Wait, you sold your book to Macmillan, and Fox just bought the rights?” And I was like, “I found that out literally an hour ago. How did you find that out?” I didn’t even know we were simultaneously going out with the movie. It was all this pleasant surprise.
But even then I didn’t go into it as, “Yay, it’s going to be a movie.” It was very important to me that, if someone wanted to make it, it was the right people. There’s nothing I hate more than a bad film adaptation. It has to be in the hands of people telling a story like that.
How did you decide who was right?
I looked at both résumés. So, the resumes of the producers and the production studio, like what had they made. And lo and behold, Fox 2000 had just put out Hidden Figures. So I’d seen their work and I knew, “Okay, you guys make the movies I actually get my butt in the movie theaters to see.”
At that time they were cutting together Love, Simon, and they were filming The Hate U Give. I was like, “You have already been telling stories with heart and character and that showcase diversity in a really needed way.”
I didn’t let myself get excited when I first heard, but after I saw we wanted all the same things, I was like, “Okay, awesome.”
Are you trying to push for a black director specifically for this movie? To go back to Black Panther, it seems as though there are certain things that only someone like Ryan Coogler could get right.
Exactly. We don’t have a director yet because we’re still doing the script right now, but I know that’s definitely something all of us would love. Because, one, it’s needed. We need more Ryan Cooglers, we need more Ava DuVernays, we need more Barry Jenkins. There needs to be more than, like, five people that you think of when you think of black directors. But also just because there so many nuances to it. No other person would have started Black Panther with kids playing basketball in Oakland. No one would have done that. And that is not just, “Oh, it’s unique and authentic,” but it’s important. Yes, you’re showing kids, “You’re as awesome as T’Challah, you’re as powerful as Killmonger, you’re as epic as M’Baku,” but in the opening and closing scenes, you are actually showing the kids who are sitting in the theater watching it. That was the moment when they were actually in the movie.
That is so important for so many reasons I can’t even really put words to. I do think [a black director] is what’s going to end up happening, but yeah. We’ve got to get a script first.
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