Last week somthing unusual happened. A children's book (a children's book that could be categorized as science fiction, no less), "Zahrah the Windseeker" by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, a pan-African prize sometimes viewed as Africa’s Nobel prize. (Okorafor-Mbachu was born in the United States to Nigerian parents.)
Today in the Guardian, blogger Sam Jordison lamented the fact that children's books so rarely take top book prizes.
"My initial reaction to the news of its victory was that no such thing could happen over here," Jordison writes. "No YA fantasy, to use the SF jargon, would win a big award in the UK. "
Maybe not – or maybe it just hasn't happened yet.
In the US, reviews of "Zahrah" have been mixed. Kirkus Reviews encapsulates the book's plot as follows: "A girl ventures into a forbidden jungle to save her friend in this botanically creative fantasy. Thirteen-year-old Zahrah lives on a planet where all technology from lights to computer networks is comprised of live plants. But only Zahrah has plants growing in her hair; they've been there since birth and show that she's dada (magical).... Completion of her quest requires learning to fly, a dada ability that she's been slowly mastering. "
Kirkus's summary judgment of the book: "Okorafor-Mbachu leans on exclamation points for emphasis and clichés for morality; however, bursts of humor, exotic flora and fauna and the unusual combination of Nigerian-based culture with children's fantasy make this worth the read. "
Booklist praises the book's "wild invention," although cautions that "some readers may be disappointed by the more predictable rhythms of Zahrah's linear, episodic quest adventure."
It's hard, however, to disagree, with Booklist's conclusion: "This is a welcome addition to a genre sorely in need of more heroes and heroines of color."
Add to that the fact that "Zahrah" is almost unique in being a fantasy novel for young adults that incorporates the myths and folklore and culture of West Africa.
Let's hope the Wole Soyinka prize helps this unusual book find the readers it deserves throughout the Western world – and perhaps it will give ideas to award judges everywhere.