Last Saturday, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) lit up after hours. People wandered around and mingled, sipping on cocktails and exploring the exhibits. It was a rare treat to see the museum so empty, and the industrial brick walls and hanging lights seemed even cozier in this newly intimate setting.
The guest of honor was Tomi Adeyemi, whose debut young adult fantasy novel, “Children of Blood and Bone,” recently catapulted to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. The book was hugely anticipated, gaining wide exposure thanks to its historic seven-figure advance and movie deal.
Yet for all of the hype and fame, Adeyemi herself is astonishingly grounded. She loves food. She kickboxes. At the museum on Saturday, she read from a passage in the book and explained some of its ties to her own life, citing racial tension and police violence as some of its major galvanizers — and, accordingly, the inspiration behind many of the novel’s main conflicts. Then she sat for close to an hour to sign books, take pictures and meet with fans. Each new person who walked up to the table was met with a wide, genuine smile and a real interest in meeting them and hearing about their life.
The Shady Ladies Literary Society went all out for the event, featuring signed, first-edition copies of “Children of Blood and Bone” and custom “Mama Agba’s Tea” cocktails, inspired by a character from the book. There was also a dinner party featuring cooking from Chef Ederique Goudia, a local chef specializing in Creole and Southern food. The society organizes events like this regularly, in which they bring emerging female-identifying authors to Detroit to give readings and talk about their books over dinner.
This particular emerging author and her book deserve all of the hype they’re getting and more. “Children of Blood and Bone” tells the story of Zélie Adebola, a girl who must fight to restore magic to the land of Orïsha. Along the way, she teams up with her brother, Tzain, and the princess of Orïsha, Amari. Zélie’s story is one of oppression, resistance and the fight for equality within a world steeped in prejudice. It’s everything that you look for when you pick up a young adult novel at the bookstore: Fast-paced and exciting, but also timely, thoughtful and carefully rendered.
One of Adeyemi’s major achievements in this book is finding such a skillful balance between these things. The book is by all accounts a page-turner, but the practically nonstop action never feels like it’s compromising or crowding out the characters’ real emotional conflicts. Each major character and relationship is given careful attention at every turn, and each point of inner turmoil is given careful, believable and consistent development. The chapters rotate perspectives between three characters — Zélie, Amari and Amari’s brother, the prince Inan — and each person’s voice feels somewhat different and distinct to what they’re going through. The story is structurally magnificent, with clear stakes, surprise twists and important developments at every step of the way. But perhaps more importantly, it is a triumph for fantasy: Both completely immersive within the vivid world of Orïsha and deeply reflective of many of the real issues we face in our world today.
The event at MOCAD offered a terrific opportunity to meet Adeyemi and to hear some of her thoughts about the book, while also enjoying cocktails and exploring the contemporary exhibits after hours. Hopefully Adeyemi will be back in Mich. sometime soon, because the book, for one thing, certainly isn’t going anywhere.