Here's how the book begins:
"When I was born, my mother took one look at me and laughed.
"She's dada," said the doctor, looking surprised.
"I can see that," my mother replied with a smile. She took me in her arms and gently touched one of the thick clumps of hair growing from my little head. I had dadalocks and woven inside each one of those clumps was a skinny, light green vine. Contrary to what a lot of people think, these vines didn't sprout directly from my head. Instead, they were more like plants that had attached themselves to my hair as I grew inside my mother's womb. Imagine that! To be born with vines growing in your hair! But that's the nature of dada people, like myself.
"Look, she's smiling," my father said. "As if she already knows she's dada."
To many, to be dada meant you were born with strange powers. That you could walk into a room and a mysterious wind would knock things over or clocks would automatically stop; that your mere presence would cause flowers to grow underneath the soil instead of above. That you caused things to rebel or that you would grow up to be rebellious yourself! And what made things even worse was that I was a girl, and only boys and men were supposed to be rebellious. Girls were supposed to be soft, quiet, and pleasant."
Zahrah's dada hair has always set her apart from the other children...that, and her her quiet, contemplative nature. But when she is thirteen, her difference manifests itself in a new form--she discovers that she can fly. Unfortunately, she’s afraid of heights, unsure how to control her new found ability, and afraid of being thought even stranger…so she only levitates just a bit, in her room, where no-one can see her.
The one person she tells is her best friend Dari, a boy who’s always accepted her for who she is. Dari is fascinated by the forbidden jungle that surrounds their town, and when he decides to begin exploring it, Zahrah reluctantly goes with him. And when their exploration goes horrible wrong, and Dari lies at death’s door, Zahrah goes back alone, to find the one thing that will save him.
Inside the forbidden jungle, each day brings Zahrah new challenges and terrors. Gradually, thanks in large part to a stay in the utopia of a sentient gorillas community, Zahrah learns to trust her gifts and herself, and is able to save her friend….and truly fly.
By far the most compelling part of the book is Zahrah’s world. It is a magical jungle planet, with mysterious ties to earth-- a fascinatingly West African inspired place. There are many tantalizing hints that the author knows much more backstory than she tells, giving depth to her world building…I wanted more! And, especially in the beginning, there was something of an info-dump approach to world building, that I found a bit disappointing.
At times, Okorafor-Mbachu’s descriptions of people and places enchanted me—her Dark Market, for instance, is a wonderfully rich place. The plant-based technology of her planet, however, never quite convinced me (it never felt essential to the story, but more like an added bonus feature), and Zahrah’s jungle journey was a straightforward series of encounters with strange creatures, whose strangeness never quite became magical for me. (I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief enough to allow for the gorilla utopia. I found that part of the book very odd, but that might be just me).
Zahrah’s story is a fine example of “the girl becoming a hero” genre. Her character arc, from somewhat diffident outsider to intrepid confronter of the worst the jungle has to offer, was easy for me to accept – she is brave and likable, without being exaggerated. Unfortunately for me, however, I never connected with Zahrah’s first person narrative voice. The author uses exclamation marks which great frequency, and this gave Zahrah a breathless, over-excited tone in my mind that I didn’t much care for. It’s possible that this choice is meant to evoke oral story telling traditions, and to make Zahrah come alive as a narrator—but it didn’t work for me.
Obviously, I have mixed feelings about this one. I wanted to like it lots more than I did. It’s not at all a bad choice for any middle grade reader looking for fantasy about brave girls, and certainly a fine book to give the reader looking for a brave girl of color. But it was not quite a book for me.