Zahrah Tsami was born dada, with vines that grow amongst her hair. She doesn’t spend time with anyone other than her family and her best friend Dari, a charismatic boy newly obsessed with the Forbidden Greeny Jungle that borders their town. For much of her life she’s kept to herself and quietly tried her best to fit in, but puberty brings many changes. Can Zahrah complete a dangerous quest that only she is suited for? Could she ever accept her own unique self?
Every so often I come to this blog to look up a review and realize I never actually wrote one, as with this excellent Afrocentric fantasy novel for young readers which really should have been on my first diverse middle grade fantasy booklist, but will have to wait for the next one instead.
Classifying works by genre is something I probably spend too much time considering. It interests me personally and professionally, especially when there isn’t a clear answer. Zahrah the Windseeker definitely fits into a category – science fantasy. But that category doesn’t fall neatly on either side of the science fiction | fantasy divide!
Most “science fantasy” novels lean towards one direction or the other. From her books I’ve read, Okorafor has two, and interestingly this one leans toward fantasy, the other science fiction. Zarah’s planet Ginen is dominated by plant life. Humans have carved out a tiny space known as the Ooni Kingdom, where everything – technology, buildings, even light – is grown from specialized plants. Earth is mentioned as a myth that fascinates Dari, and the story uses some science fictional tropes. Ultimately the Windseeker abilities, life in the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, and other elements too spoilerly to mention pushed this towards fantasy for me.
Genre isn’t the only challenging consideration for this book – so is age level. I have seen this variously reviewed or listed as YA, adult, or elementary! Zahrah is thirteen for much of the book, and it is technically a coming of age story, so I can understand why many consider this young adult, although it felt more middle grade to me. Technically also a quest fantasy adventure, and I am so pleased to have one with a visibly Black girl main character on the cover.
Romance is hinted at, but never stated outright. Peril and life-threatening situations occur, but for me never crossed the line into YA. Zahrah hears talk of potions and curses at the Dark Market, sees some women who are presumably being sold, and knows about some plant drugs that are common in her world, but she reacts to all of these with appropriate horror and none are major parts of the plot.
I have not hesitated to hand this one to my upper elementary kids as well as teens and tweens, and there’s a reason it took so very long to get back to me! I suspect it would also make for a great read-aloud especially for a a family with several older children, although the chapters are not consistent lengths. Personally I would classify this book as either MG or YA, with appeal for both younger and older audiences as well.
Besides the events mentioned above, Zahrah does get her first period within the book. This was handled appropriately for young audiences. Her menses don’t just go away either. When she’s traveling, it’s a situation that she has to consider and work around. Although at various points she faces a variety of life-threatening events, we know from the prologue that she will survive and go on to write this book. Other characters or creatures might not be so lucky and provide the necessary suspense.
The friendship between Zahrah and Dari, the relationship she has with her parents and community, the little worldbuilding details, even the slowly building plot were all excellent. The library Zahrah visits was wonderful. I adored all the human moments like a girl with the power to fly who is afraid of heights. What a thing to have happen and yet how common that fear is!
Although Okorafor is frequently considered an African writer, some of her works speak strongly to the African-American experience. She explicitly thanks Virginia Hamilton in the dedication, something I hadn’t noticed on previous reads, even when drawing connections between some of Okorafor’s choices and stories in The People Could Fly.
Virginia Hamilton didn’t write many children’s fantasy stories, but there is at least one of those I also want to check out. Rereading this after some of Okorafor’s other work already helped deepen my perception of Zahrah.
This book is an absolute treasure. I highly recommend it and am glad that Okorafor’s popular adult novels and recent MG release mean this backlist title might be getting some more attention. In particular, I’d like to mention this review from A.M. Blair. Although it’s taken me a few years to review, it’s been enjoyed at our house ever since her daughters recommended it. After 15 years my hopes for a series of Zahrah books are low, but not totally quenched.