From Goodreads: In the northern Ooni Kingdom, fear of the unknown runs deep, and children born dada are rumored to have special powers. Thirteen-year-old Zahrah Tsami feels like a normal girl—she grows her own floral computer, has mirrors sewn onto her clothes, and stays clear of the Forbidden Greeny Jungle. But unlike other children in the village of Kirki, Zahrah was born with the telling dadalocks. Only her best friend, Dari, isn’t afraid of her, even when something unusual begins happening—something that definitely makes Zahrah different. The two friends determine to investigate, edging closer and closer to danger. When Dari’s life is threatened, Zahrah must face her worst fears alone, including the very thing that makes her different.
The world building in this book was incredible. Okorafor is so clever in the things she weaves into new worlds. There isn’t just a layer of magic or technology laid over our own world. And it isn’t some vaguely medieval setting. In the Ooni Kingdom plants are an integral part of their world. They are used to make technology (the old ebooks are a special kind of leaf), they are used to make buildings (they are literally hollowed out or shaped as they grow to create skyscrapers and libraries), and then there is the Greenie Jungle that lurks just on the outskirts of their world.
When Zahrah’s best friend falls into a coma she has to face both who she is and the Greenie Jungle to save him. I loved that Zahrah was not necessarily brave and she is fighting a lot of her demons, but her voice was never irritating. She is afraid, but she doesn’t throw up her hands and whine about how she can’t do it. She has been picked on at school and people think she’s strange for her hair. This has hurt her, but she doesn’t throw up her hands and let other people tell her who she is. It was refreshing, first to have a girl saving a boy, but also to watch a girl who come into her own without being a “chosen one”. The story is really about Zahrah finding her inner strength. She does have a special power, but she really only draws on it in a major way at the very end, and even then not in a deus-ex-machina way.
Zahrah’s journey also includes elements of discovering the world around her and questioning everything she has been taught. She comes to realize that maybe her people have been closed minded and afraid. I think a lot of adolescents go through this kind of discovery process where their worlds open up around them, at least in an intellectual sense. Zahrah’s transformation from timid girl to confident young woman is one a lot kids will want to relate to and watch. As an introvert I appreciated that, although she gains confidence in herself and discovers how to use her new skill, she doesn’t become a different person. She is still quiet and thoughtful, she just now has an inner strength.
The reading level and length make this much more of a book for middle school age kids, which is too bad because it was awesome and I would have loved to put it in my library. I may still. Buy this if you have fantasy fans in your library. Buy it if you are in an elementary library that has really strong readers. We need more variety in our fantasy and not another book set in a thinly disguised Europe.