Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado
Introducing Isi Hendrix
Hello, WNDMG Wednesday readers … I am so excited for this month’s post. I get to introduce you to the amazing Isi Hendrix, author of the Afrofantasy MG Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans. (HarperCollins – USA and Usborne – UK, September 2023) It’s such a high-profile debut novel, it got TWO debut days: one here in the USA and one in the UK!
About Adia Kelbara
Life is tough for twelve-year-old orphan Adia. Her aunt and uncle believe she’s an ogbanje, a demon-possessed child that brings misfortune wherever they go, and Adia can’t disagree—especially when she suddenly manifests mysterious powers that she can’t control, causing an earthquake in her village.
So when Adia is offered a kitchen apprenticeship at the faraway Academy of Shamans, she flees with nothing but a pouch of change, her cat Bubbles, and the hope that someone there can figure out what’s wrong with her—and fix it. But just as she’s settling in, Adia stumbles upon a shocking secret: Unlike her, the kingdom’s emperor really is possessed—by a demon more wicked than any other. And he’s on his way to the Academy for a visit.
Joining forces with a snarky goddess, a 500-year-old warrior girl, and an annoying soldier-in-training, Adia must travel through hidden realms to exorcise the emperor and save her kingdom. But to succeed, she first must come to understand the powers inside her….
The fate of the world hangs in the balance.
Interview with Isi Hendrix
WNDMG: Welcome to the We Need Diverse MG (WNDMG) series. We’re honored to have you here!
First off, I have to say, I absolutely loved Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans. Your debut novel is the definition of propulsive reading. Adia is so easy to root for and connect with—plus, she’s wry and funny. This is a really hard mix of character traits to pull off, and I’m so impressed!
WNDMG: What influences helped you develop Adia Kelbara herself?
IH: Adia is a twelve-year-old orphan living with her aunt and uncle. She doesn’t fit in with her family or anyone in her village of the Swamplands, which is currently overrun by missionaries. The missionaries showed up years ago and told Adia’s people that everything they believed in was wrong, and that to be good, they had to follow the beliefs of the people behind the Sunless Mountains. But Adia questions what she’s told.
I’m borrowing from real life with that aspect of Adia’s personality. My family’s conservative religion (introduced to my tribe by Western missionaries) absolutely did not feel right to me and I was her age when I began to question things and where this religion had even come from because it certainly wasn’t anything that was native to the Igbo people. So, for me, Adia represents the strength of indigenous wisdom and the ancestral knowledge that’s woven into our DNA that no invader or colonizing force can ever erase.
The Guardian Deity
WNDMG: What was the inspiration for Ginikanwa?
IH: Ah, Gini. My snarky Goddess. I’ve always loved the older, powerful mentor in fantasy novels, like Gandalf. Thankfully times are changing, but for far too long that role was almost always exclusively delegated to a grey bearded white man. So, I knew that I wanted Adia’s teacher and mentor in these books to be a woman, specifically an African goddess or an Alusi—a guardian deity of the Igbo people.
Book Banning and World Building
WNDMG: Your themes are so current and relevant, this book is almost contemporary. You tackle topics like religion, colonialism and mental and emotional health with grace and passion. Was this always going to be a book about colonialism or did that piece reveal itself to you as you wrote?
IH: It revealed itself to me as I was writing it. I wrote my first draft before this book banning atrocity America is currently dealing with was in full swing, and even then I assumed I was writing something that would be banned. But once I saw what was coming out in this story, especially the commentary about religious colonization which is very personal to me, there was no turning back.
Let the Story be Born
WNDMG: As a writer, I am always curious about how authors choose genre. What was your process for deciding the best way to tell Adia’s story?
IH: I read widely, but (so far) every time I try to write a story it comes out as a fantasy story. So, I don’t fight it. I let the story that wants to be born be born. And I’m so glad it came out this way. Using a fantasy setting lets me explore these heavy themes in a way that—I hope—is accessible to children and also just a fun adventure story. I re-read books now that were my favorite as a child like A Wrinkle in Time, and I’m in awe at how L’Engle and authors like her wrote these profound books that you could write a whole doctorate thesis about, but it’s also a book I probably read fifty times before I was ten years old. So, I think speculative fiction is a great way to explore big ideas and themes with young readers. Madeline L’Engle said one of my favorite quotes on writing. “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
((If you’re enjoying this interview with MG fantasy author Isi Hendrix, you might also like this archived WNDMG Wednesday interview with fantasy author Kaela Rivera))
Changes, Challenges, and Easter Eggs
WNDMG: From the time you drafted Adia to the time you got your publishing deal, what has been the biggest change in your manuscript?
IH: Ah, that’s hard to say without giving a huge spoiler! I’ll just say that a character I’d originally given an almost forgettable role to, ended up playing a major part of the story.
WNDMG: What was the hardest part of the book to write?
IH: Character-wise, I always struggled when my mentor or agent or editors wanted me to dive deeper into a character I don’t particularly like. The way I can’t stand this character you’d never think I was the one who created him. So, in my early drafts I tended to just blow him off as an irredeemable jerk. But everyone asked for the motivation behind why he behaves the way he does so I had to tap into that, and the story is all the better for it. Yes, I would have had an easier time writing a full-on villain, verses someone who’s morally gray. But the morally grey ones make for complex characters in the end.
WNDMG: Do you have any Easter Eggs in there?
Adia’s name is Swahili for gift and very fitting. But it’s also from one of my favorite song, “Adia” by Sarah McLachlan, and the song’s chorus is also extremely fitting for this character. It keeps repeating that “We are born innocent. Believe me, Adia, we are still innocent.” So I love that her name has a lot of layers in there. Naming every other character in this book took me a minute, but I knew Adia’s name right away.
(There also may or may not be a Mean Girl’s reference somewhere in the book, because this book definitely has a mean girl in it.)
The Final Battle
WNDMG: Is there one scene you can point to that is the most important scene to you?
IH: The final battle scene. I’m not a visual writer. I don’t see everything in my head like a movie (and I wish I did). But that was the one scene that I watched play out from beginning to end. I was walking one evening and this download came out of nowhere. I froze on the sidewalk and was almost in tears. Then I ran home to write it all out. I even had to go back and rewrite a lot of the book because I understood that was how it had to end. So that final battle scene where Adia goes up against the antagonist will always be what I consider the most important.
WNDMG: This is the first book in a planned trilogy. Can you tell us anything at all about what we can expect from Adia in Book Two? (Yes, this is definitely the sign of an impatient reader asking!)
IH: You’re going to find Adia back at the Academy of Shamans, this time as a student! But as always, everything goes sideways whenever Adia is at that school. So you’re going to see her dealing with a mysterious illness that’s plaguing the students and the kingdom.
WNDMG: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share with our readers?
IH: Read widely and read banned books!
WNDMG: So many congratulations to you from all of us at WNDMG and From the Mixed-Up Files … of Middle-Grade Authors!
About Isi Hendrix:
Isi Hendrix is a Nigerian American children’s book author who has been lucky enough to live and work all over the world, from the Himalayas to the Amazon rainforest, during her past life as an anthropologist. Now she’s based in her hometown of Brooklyn, NY, where she lives with a rotating roster of foster kittens and a stubborn refusal to accept that she is highly allergic to cats.
Isi’s debut middle grade novel, Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans, released in September, 2023.