When I selected this book to review for the More Diverse Universe blog tour, I knew I wasn’t the target demographic because of my age (31). The book’s target demographic is children (Amazon notes ages 12 and up, and other sources note 5th-8th grade). Then again, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s demographic was children when he made-up Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on the Isis at Oxford for 10 year old Alice Liddel and her siblings–and that’s a beloved book by kids and adults alike.
Like Alice in Wonderland (and all good YA literature), Zahrah the Windseeker has as much for adults as for children.
The novel begins with Zahrah Tsami, a school-aged denizen of the Ooni Kingdom, realizing she has an ability that none of her peers has. She and her friend Dari venture to a forbidden part of a local market and learn more about Zahrah’s special ability. They sneak off again, this time to a forbidden jungle on the outskirts of town. There, they aim to discover more about this forbidden jungle, but Dari gets poisoned and they rush back home. Dari falls into a coma, and the only way to save him is to make an antidote out of the egg of a dangerous beast who lives in the heart of the forbidden jungle. The rest of the novel concerns Zahrah’s quest to save her friend by entering the jungle again, traveling deep within, finding and outsmarting the dangerous beast, and obtaining the egg.
The book is full of wonder and adventure–especially once we get to the part of the plot that brings Zahrah back to the jungle to find the egg. There are echoes, to me, of Alice in Wonderland–a young, female main character journeying from fantastical character to fantastical character, talking with mythical creatures, and trying to get home–so the reference in the lead graph of this review to Lewis Carroll’s novel is doubly appropriate. However, there’s a richness to Zahrah the Windseeker that I don’t find in Alice.
Mainly, there’s a mythos being drawn upon in this novel that I am unfamiliar with. I follow the thread of the plot, and I’m excited by the journey I’m sharing with Nnedi and Zahrah, but I’m acutely aware there are references just below the surface of the novel that I’m missing. But I’m perfectly happy to learn along the way.
Sefi Atta wrote in her blurb for Zahrah that “characters from traditional African storytelling are alive and kicking in this fantasy novel,” and I think that touches on what I’m missing out on. I’m fairly unfamiliar with traditional African storytelling. My forays into African literature–Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, and Ngũgĩ’s Weep Not, Child–did not prepare me for the folklore I encountered in this story. I felt a bit disoriented but in a good way.
But there’s more to this book than my reaction to it. There’s the fact that children in middle schools all across America, Africa, and beyond might be able to find a book like this on there shelves. A book where the girl is the agent and not a character to be acted upon. A book that questions, on its very first page, the idea that girls are ‘supposed to be soft, quiet, and pleasant.” A story that celebrates the idea that there is “nothing wrong with being different.”
The values and themes in Zahrah are those that all young people (and some of us old people too) need to be exposed to. Little girls and boys need to be exposed to the idea that little girls can save the day. And everyone needs to be exposed to the fact that being different is okay.
And for those readers who get stuck reading authors who aren’t very much different than themselves, reading something different that they’re used to, written by someone different than they’re used to, is okay too. Thanks to my participation in this More Diverse Universe blog tour, I’ve discovered a new author, one whose other books I’ll now seek out and read, and have made my nook library, and my SFF reading tastes, a little more diverse.