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‘What If Harry Potter Had Been Black?’ Tomi Adeyemi on Representation and Fostering Empathy Through Her Epic Fantasy Series

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Tomi Adeyemi wants to wrap her readers in a “dangerous but warm” blanket. Her young adult novels—the hit epic Children of Blood and Bone and its highly anticipated new sequel, Children of Virtue and Vengeance—combine escapist fantasy with clear-eyed confrontations of race and power. “I was thinking: you’re creating a Snuggie,” the Nigerian-American author tells TIME. “It’s a violent Snuggie, but create the Snuggie.”

Adeyemi’s first book, which came out in 2018 and has spent 90 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, transports readers to the kingdom of Orïsha, where teenager Zélie Adebola is determined to bring magic back to her oppressed people. In the novel inspired by West Africa, Adeyemi’s protagonist teams up with a rogue princess to help fight the monarchy, which mercilessly wiped out magic years before in order to gain more power. In the sequel, Zélie discovers that the progress that she made in the first book has complicated ramifications, leading the kingdom toward a brutal civil war. Both novels are bruising accounts of unthinkable violence and persecution, evocative of bigger, real-world conversations about suffering and survival.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance is the second book in Adeyemi’s fantasy trilogy, which was part of a reported seven-figure deal that the Harvard graduate signed in 2017. The film rights for Children of Blood and Bone were acquired by Fox 2000 before the book’s release and over the summer This is Us writer Kay Oyegun signed on to write the script. Adeyemi spoke to TIME about how the past three years have changed her life, her dream cast for the movie and what she hopes her young readers come to understand about the world through her books.

TIME: In your author’s note at the end of Children of Blood and Bone, you explicitly explain how the plot connects to police brutality in America. What do you hope your readers learn about racism and power from your writing?

The whole thing started out as me wanting to explore the emotional PTSD of feeling like maybe I’m not Trayvon Martin, maybe I’m not Sandra Bland, but there’s nothing that separates me from being Sandra Bland. I felt like that wasn’t being talked about, even within black communities. So, I had to write about it as self-therapy. Because I was having anxiety attacks every time I was getting into my car and that’s every day. It was sort of making people realize that this stuff—constantly being exposed to people like me being shot, being assaulted, being harassed, being put at gunpoint—is trauma.

So, that’s book one. I wanted people to empathize. Many of these issues come from dehumanization and a lot of dehumanization is a direct result of no-to-poor representation. If your only exposure to a person of color is as the villain in this or that, then psychologically that is activated when you are doing something with a person of color. I had a friend say, “What if Harry Potter had been black?” If the Boy Who Lived was black, then does Trayvon Martin get shot? Because that’s someone you empathize with. Fought for. Cried for. Someone you feel like you’ve gone into battle with. And that extends to the person you see and say, “Oh, that guy looks like Harry.” Humans are that simple.

For book two, I created my dominoes and I’ve just got to throw them and see where they land. It was more organic to the story, but what I was exploring, again, are things that real people have gone through—that they are going through today, that they will go through all the time. My books are about pain, but hopefully foster empathy.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance begins with an unexpected twist. Though Zélie has restored magic to the oppressed people of Orïsha, the monarchy and military now have magical powers, too. Why was it important to you to show people who abuse their power gaining even more?

It’s in two parts: one is a life lesson and one is a lesson about society. The life lesson is we always have goals—which are important because they add a purpose to our lives—but when you achieve a goal, it’s never quite what you expect. It’s also a commentary on the nature of power in general. The older I get, the more I learn about the world and its institutions. There are entire systems built on oppression and class. There are things you will probably never get enough wealth and power to topple. But what I believe you can do is move the needle. If you look in the book, you can get magic back—but the problem wasn’t really magic. It was the institution. Because even when you had magic, you were oppressed. Now, you have magic again and guess what? You’re still oppressed. It’s about learning that these are institutions that are very hard to completely overthrow—but that doesn’t mean you can’t make great change.

How do you find that fantasy and magic can help us understand our reality?

I wrote stories without magic as a kid, and then I read my first Harry Potter book and I never went back. If you could do anything in a book—and this is not a knock on contemporary writers, it’s just for me, personally—I don’t want to write about that awkward first kiss. Let’s go! Am I shooting lightning out of my forehead when I blink? You can do anything. I just always loved magic, fantasy and adventure. Growing up, I appreciated the psychological power of fantasy, but I didn’t go into it as this powerful tool to effect change and make people think. I’m like, “I like big lions!” Sometimes, it’s deep. Sometimes, it’s “lions are cool.”

Why do you write for young people?

I don’t change my writing style or plot. The only part of my work that I change because I am labeled as a young adult author is making sure that everything in my book is a clear example of something good or something bad. Let me eliminate the gray area. Writing for younger audiences doesn’t mean it has to be all good or all clean. It does a huge disservice to pretend that childhood means that you get a pass on trauma. A lot of trauma, I think, happens in childhood and then gets carried into adulthood. Then, that trauma creates trauma. So, you’ve got to both address it and heal it—early.

But I have to be really clear about what’s good and what’s bad. For a scene where things get romantic, I take alcohol out of the equation because I’m not trying to give an example of a gray zone of consent. This is supposed to be a positive example of two consenting people making a choice. Those are the kinds of decisions that I’ll change because it’s YA, but my readers are 8 to 80. So much YA crosses over; they are really exciting stories on the surface, and then underneath the best ones have such incredible things to say about the world. YA readers are also the most passionate readers. Look, I’ve talked about Harry Potter 18 times today. If you love something when you are young, that’s a part of you forever. Those stories are always in that warm, fuzzy part of your heart that the world tries to freeze over. To get to be that for so many young readers, to get to see their passion and enthusiasm and creativity, it’s the best.

Do you know how the trilogy will end?

I knew the ending before I even hit book one. I’ve been excited to write book three.

Are you in the process of writing it?

Hell no. It’s been three years, back to back. Even before I got my book deal, I wrote the first draft of Children of Blood and Bone in a month, then I wrote the second draft in a month and I did it that fast because I wanted to get into a writing competition. I kept thinking there was going to be a break in the process, but it only accelerated from that impossible speed to publication and book two went even further. So, I’m healing right now. I’m learning to sleep. I’m learning to wake up.

How have the last three years changed you?

I was a baby adult when I got into this. Now, I feel like a 60-year-old woman. I’m less self-conscious. I’m like, this what I need and I’m not asking your permission, I’m just letting you know. It’s a different energy. It’s a different swagger. But I like this version of myself. She wasn’t always there—she was forged through incredible pain and suffering, but she’s here. And she’s ready to go.

In 2017, it was announced that Children of Blood and Bone will be adapted for film. What has that process been like for you?

It’s been really cool because it’s with Disney/Fox and Lucas Films. It’s been three years and even though the team has shifted and grown, just to have so many people at the top of their game so passionate and excited and enthusiastic about bringing my world [to the screen], it’s ridiculous. I made that world up in my head, in my room, super sweaty, my hair looked like crazy, I was in my pajamas. I’m like, this is going to be that? It’s really wild.

Do you have a dream cast in mind?

I used to have a dream cast and then Black Panther came out. I was so in love with Letitia Wright and Winston Duke. How cool is it going to be to put more incredible black actors and actresses on the scene? To make roles this epic, this powerful—like Jennifer Lawrence, obviously she had Winter’s Bone, but we got her from The Hunger Games. It’s very cool that I mic-dropped this as my calling card and now this is going to be so many other people’s calling cards. The only person—and I’m comfortable doing this because he was on my Pinterest Board from the jump and I’ve mentioned this enough that at this point if it doesn’t happen, you do what you can—for King Saran in Book One, I had pictures of Idris Elba. And every time I was writing a scene with him, I pictured Idris Elba to really get my head into how scary it was to be near him.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Write to Annabel Gutterman at annabel.gutterman@time.com