Shanna Fisher for EW
David Canfield
April 13, 2018 AT 11:00 AM EDT

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Tomi Adeyemi is in yet another airport, headed to Houston for the next stop on her book tour. It’s been a few weeks since her novel Children of Blood and Bone debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times young-adult best-seller list, and she’s just spent three days back home in San Diego, a short but vital break from the media frenzy that’s engulfed her. Racing around the country from event to event, fielding plot questions and fan theories, she hasn’t had a moment to take in the life-changing energy. But now, with the spotlight temporarily dimmed, Adeyemi finds herself in reflection — on how, in the span of a year, she’s gone from aspiring writer to author of the biggest YA phenomenon in recent memory.

It’s not every day that an unknown 23-year-old sells the movie rights to an unpublished fantasy trilogy for a reported seven figures. Adeyemi unveiled Children of Blood and Bone at a manuscript contest called Pitch Wars in 2016 and instantly emerged as the hottest name on the market. “Every major agent who represents YA wanted to represent this project,” Adeyemi’s agent Alexandra Machinist, of ICM Partners, says. “And once we submitted it, every publisher in New York wanted it.” Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group acquired the book for a reported seven figures after winning an intense bidding war in 2017; on the film side, Fox 2000 purchased the book’s rights directly, bypassing the optioning phase — a rare show of faith. The film version of Children, from the producers of Twilight and The Maze Runner, is currently in active development.

Adeyemi, now 24, is remarkably young to be experiencing such success. And yet she brims with wisdom. She grew up in the Chicago suburbs, the middle child of three, with Nigerian-immigrant parents who instilled in her a “crazy work ethic.” She wrote her first story at the age of 5 and describes it fondly as “elaborate Parent Trap fan fiction on a horse farm with saris.” But Adeyemi looks back on it now for a more sobering reason. “I wrote myself into [that] first story, but every story I wrote after that, the protagonists were white or biracial because, somewhere along the line, I’d come to believe black people couldn’t be in stories. I was writing these magical adventures that I wanted to have, but I didn’t think I could have those adventures and look like myself.” Raised on Harry Potter and other fantasies with predominantly white ensembles, she came to this realization as she prepared to attend Harvard University. It was there that she developed her mission as a storyteller: “Write a story that’s so good and so black that everyone’s going to have to read it — even if they’re racist.”

Shanna Fisher for EW

Her first attempt at a novel, written during her junior year, didn’t go anywhere. It took Adeyemi a few painful years to move on — an invaluable education that rivaled her Harvard curriculum. “I feel very lucky that my first book got rejected,” she reflects. “I would be so much worse of a writer had someone said yes.” She stayed focused enough to teach herself how to write and pitch a book that would sell, surveying the new YA field and spinning whatever negative feedback she received into a road map for success. She put it into practice for Children of Blood and Bone.

A visionary fantasy that doubles as an ingenious allegory for the modern black experience, Children is an addictive adventure quest through the magical land of Orïsha, steeped in West African folklore. It’s emotionally textured by sharp commentary on racial issues ranging from police brutality to colorism. You can see the rigor of its author’s methods on every page. The world-building is meticulous, its boundaries precise. This is how Adeyemi operates — thoroughly. And it’s why her book is such an earth shaker. Her social commentary is bolstered by a mythology so fleshed out and immersive that thousands of readers are basking in Orïsha the way they used to (and still) bask in Hogwarts.

Adeyemi is living proof that greatness doesn’t come easily. She’s proud of her work ethic and how it’s manifested on the page; others are in awe of it. When Machinist and her partner Hillary Jacobson gave Adeyemi their first standard edit letter, the author responded with a 50-column, color-coded Excel spreadsheet. “My brain was exploding trying to decipher it,” Jacobson recalls. “Once I figured out how to read her document I was flabbergasted.” Adds Machinist: “So many of these YA books feel half-baked — Tomi’s feels fully realized.”

Despite Adeyemi’s success, what shines through most clearly is her gratitude. She repeatedly cites her YA heroes, like Sabaa Tahir (An Ember in the Ashes) and Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give), whom she now calls friends. She expresses amazement that her book continues to top the New York Times best-seller list. At first she — seriously — feared its placement was the result of a Russian hack. “When it was listed again [the next] week, I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t think it’s a fluke!’ ” Of course, that doesn’t take away from the sheer thrill of being a published author on the cusp of fame: Adeyemi excitedly remembers a video her younger sister recently sent her of a college party at Stanford. “They’re playing beer-pong games,” Adeyemi says. “But then [my sister] pans around the room and there’s this kid, chilling with Children of Blood and Bone — there’s literally a college party around him as he’s reading my book in the corner!” She laughs, then pauses, as if she’s taking in the scene again for the first time. “That’s pretty cool.”

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