Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun, by Tolá Okogwu, (June 2022, Margaret K. McElderry Books), $17.99, ISBN: 9781665912617
Onyeka is a tween living in the UK with her mom. She’s got a thick head of hair that makes people stop, stare, and whisper, but her best friend, Cheyenne, couldn’t be bothered what other people think, which helps calm Onyeka’s anxiety. When the two head to the pool for some swimming, Cheyenne almost drowns, until Onyeka – or, is it Onyeka’s hair? – saves her. Everything moves quickly from here: Onyeka’s mother reveals that she is Solari, a secret group of people with unique powers, unique to their home in Nigeria. Her scientist father has disappeared while trying to research the Solari, and her mother brings Onyeka to Nigeria, to the Academy of the Sun, a special school – think the X-Men’s school run by Charles Xavier – for Solari, where they are trained to work with their powers. But nothing’s ever that easy; as Onyeka starts learning more about her family and the Rogues, a group of Solari working against the school, she and her new friends have to figure out where they stand.
Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun is the first in a new series, written by British-Nigerian author Tolá Okogwu and inspired by a lack of representation in children’s books. The decision to empower Onyeka by channeling her power through her hair is a deliberate move, as she notes in her author’s note: “our hair has never just been hair… the lie we’ve all been fed that Afro textured hair is somehow inferior because it doesn’t conform to the Western standards of beauty”. Onyeka’s hair is incredible: it shields her; it saves Cheyenne’s life; it curls around her to comfort her. The characters are African; the Solari are all Nigerian, and the school is organized into different areas, according to student’s Ike – the Igbo word for “power”. The story moves at a brisk pace while still bringing these characters to life, fully-fleshed out with backstories and personalities. The students will empower and inspire readers, and the family relationships are beautifully realistic, with conflict and love often sharing the same space. A glossary of words and an explanation of Nigerian Pidgin English provides even further depth and educates readers. I can’t wait for the second book.
Give this to your Rick Riordan Presents fans; your Black Panther readers (not just the comics! Remember, Shuri and Black Panther have middle grade novels, and Okoye’s got a YA novel, too!), and your Tristan Strong readers. Give this to any of your readers who love reading about different cultures, and are always up for adventure. It’s awesome.
Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun is an Indie Next pick.