Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tọlá Okogwu

Yeka, as she's known to BFF Cheyenne, is a sensitive, limelight-hating teen who relies on calming Fibonacci-number chants to keep her emotions at bay. Her discomfort in her own skin stems from insecurities about her mass of unmanageable Afro hair, perpetuated by regular gibes from unkind peers and adults. 

But one day Onyeka's life dramatically changes for good when a heart-stopping incident, in the superb second chapter, unleashes a late-onset inherited psychokinetic power or Ike that she'd unknowingly suppressed. 

This mind-blowing discovery takes Onyeka and mum Tọpé on a thrilling journey to her birthplace Nigeria, to gain answers from her long-lost scientist father and subsequently find her true place battling evil alongside her fellow superhuman mutants: the Solari.

Set to be the most hotly anticipated superhero adventure of the summer, bolstered by news of a Netflix film adaptation, Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun is the debut middle-grade, the first in a duology, from British-Nigerian author Tọlá Okogwu. 

Okogwu delivers the Black-British supergirl we've been patiently waiting for, brought to life confidently in a chatty, accessible first-person narrative with all the nuance that comes from Onyeka's complex triple identity. Okogwu writes with a deep understanding of what it means to be a Black south-east London teenager raised by a strict and, in this case, strangely secretive single mum, Tọpé. (The embarrassing nightmare episode with the swimming cap and the authentic descriptions of Black haircare rituals were particular highlights that had me nodding knowingly with delight.)

Set predominantly within the X-Men-style Academy of the Sun, a special school for Solari teaming with cool futuristic gadgets and challenging virtual-reality tournaments, Okogwu's imaginative worldbuilding is vivid and epic in quality. In addition, facts about Nigerian socio-economics, landscape, language, food, music and environmental issues are cleverly interwoven with the story. For example, the real-life erosion of the northern farmlands is attributed to the fictional trarium metal's contamination of groundwater — the cause of genetic mutations in the Solari. Okogwu's rich knowledge and descriptions of Nigeria will help to broaden children's perceptions of contemporary West Africa. Her thoughtful inclusion of a Pidgin English glossary will also support comprehension of authentic dialogue spoken mainly by Solari member Hassan. 

Themes of acceptance, belonging, family and friendship run throughout the exciting story, and with pacy high-stakes action, deceptive villains and a sequel-demanding ending, it's sure to be a satisfying read for Amari and the Night Brothers fans in upper KS2. And although I felt towards the end that, inadvertently, the Solari superpowers' side-effects slightly undercut the positive messaging around supercharged Afro hair, this didn't hamper my overall enjoyment of what will undoubtedly be a hugely important series for UK children's fiction.

For every time we've felt ashamed and straightened our Afro hair to hide its kinks, every time our hair's been scrutinised against ingrained Western ideals of beauty, we now have an unforgettable story that counteracts these negative associations.

This engaging, empowering novel reframes Black hair as a glorious gift to be revered not ridiculed. And through the much-needed, force-of-nature superhero, Onyeka Uduike, young Black and brown readers everywhere can learn to embrace their natural hair, reconnecting with their whole selves and powerful potential. 

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tọlá Okogwu is available to pre-order via Afrori Books. Out 9 June 2022. Cover art by Brittany Jackson.

Thank you Simon and Schuster for sending me a copy of the uncorrected proof.

Check out my Black Children's Books directory for suggested suitability of all the books I review.