Continuing my adventures through Nnedi Okorafor’s catalogue, Zahrah the Windseeker is Okorafor’s other, earlier kids’ book, and I thought it was really great. It has a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland vibe to it, but without the drugs, if that’s possible. It’s set in a fantasy world where all technology is based on plants, and the titular Zahrah has to journey into the Forbidden Greeny Forest to save her best friend.
Unlike Okorafor’s other kiddie book which had weird botched commentary and bodysnarking, this is everything I thought a children’s book should be. It was whimsical and innovative while still making important points about friendship, conservation, and social norms. This book was relatively early in her career while the Akata duology is quite recent, which is odd. I wonder if after she got big she thought, “Now that I have a real audience, I should Make Points,” and that’s how things got bungled, while this was more natural? That would kind of explain Book of Phoenix vs Who Fears Death, too.
The other interesting thing is that the whole idea of a plant city is super similar to stuff we see in NK Jemisin’s Stone Sky, right down to some of the descriptions, which makes me feel like there was a seed work here. My inclination with Okorafor is to say Nigerian folklore, but as far as I’m aware Jemisin isn’t Nigerian, so if pressed I’d guess it’s some English-language work of sci-fi I’ve never heard of.
Anyway, I read this a while ago now, so this will be brief, but the gist of it is that in Zahrah’s society sometimes children are born with vines growing in their hair. Called Dada, these children are surrounded by superstition and distrust. Although she has the companionship of her best friend Dari, she still is very aware that she’s Different, and that otherness drives her to start asking questions about the norms of her insular society. Dari is all about that shit, and one day he and Zarah steal away into the forbidden jungle, where he’s bitten by a poisonous animal. The only way to save him is to get the egg of a jungle monster, and feeling responsible, Zahrah embarks on a perilous journey into the forest to save him.
The obvious thing to note is the inversion of the usual boy-saves-sick-girl plot. There is also, thank fucking god, no stupid romance subplot; Zarah and Dari are allowed to just be friends who care about each other as actual people. Everyone was also really likeable and easy to root for.
One interesting thing is that the really neat 2005 cover above was replaced by a Generic Girl Face cover in 2008, so slightly earlier than the Tamora Pierce cover replacement but still in line with the post-Twilight theory.
What the weird quarter of a butterfly has to do with anything I don’t know, but it’s also really freaking obvious they wanted to just paletteswap a white girl. The drawn cover has obviously African features, while we don’t get to see more than this poor girl’s T-zone because she might have black hair or big lips, but she has a nose we associate with white people so that’s okay. Presumably if she has a more African-looking nose it’d just be a closeup of a heavily made-up eyeball. Never mind that Zahrah’s defining feature is her dreadlocks. Then again these are the people that were so baffled by a black person in Pierce’s work that they just took a picture of a white girl and upped the contrast until she looked like Frida Kahlo with no nose. “This is how you made black people, right?” Ugh.
Anyway, this was a great book and you can still get the old cover used for cheap, so buy pre-owned, one for you and one for a child in your life.