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Book Review: Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tọlá Okogwu (Simon & Schuster)

Illustrations by Brittany 'Bea' Jackson

For ages 9+

Ever since meeting the totally lovely and inspirational Tọlá Okogwu last year at Tales on Moon Lane in Ramsgate, Kent whilst I was shop manager, I’ve been MEGA excited about her debut middle grade ‘Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun’ publishing with Simon & Schuster this year. Why is Tola such an inspiration? As a British-Nigerian, Afro Hair Care Specialist and Activist, and Journalist, Okogwu is not only paving the way for more black writers, plus writers of Nigerian heritage in children’s publishing, but she’s evangelical about the history, power and beauty of afro hair. Through her blogging and social media she shares methods and styles whilst she and her husband care for their cute daughters’ hair. She is providing training and raising awareness to all whether you have afro hair or not.

Last month I was delighted to get hold of a copy of Okogwu’s new re-issue of her previously self-published ‘Daddy Do My Hair’ picture book series for kids now published with Simon & Schuster. Together with a handful of notable kids books about Afro hair published in 2021, including the hugely successful non-fiction work by Kandace N. Chimbiri - ‘The Story of Afro Hair’ illustrated by Joelle Avelino (Scholastic) and Serlina Boyd’s ‘Cocoa Girl Awesome Hair’ (HarperCollins), the stage has been set and lit for Okogwu’s new kids superhero - Onyeka. Through this incredible story, already picked up by Will Smith & Co to be made into a Netflix movie by the way, you will love this new character, who I hope will be sticking around for many years to come.

About the story

If the glorious golden cover artwork by Jackson hasn’t already given the reader enough of a clue, our superhero in this story has big beautiful magical afro hair. There’s a new superhero on the kids books scene, and excitedly it's the first in a series of a Marvel/DC meets Nollywood (that’s Nigerian Hollywood FYI) fantasy thriller.

It’s 2025. British-Nigerian, Onyeka and best friend Cheyenne are London school girls, best friends, fused at the hip and when not together are texting or calling to stay in touch - such a sweet friendship. Onyeka and Cheyenne are off to the swimming pool. It’s not much fun in the changing room when Onyeka’s big afro hair is hard to fit into the swimming cap her mum told her to wear… a dilemma perhaps familiar to many. Wear it and it’s ill-fitting, a menace to get on properly and uncomfortable; don’t wear it and then it’s going to be a job to wash and condition when you get home.

Cheyenne is a trustworthy, supportive and bubbly best friend who frequently uses her good nature and humour to help Onyeka with her anxiety and frustrations throughout the story. She also knows Onyeka’s mum and how she won’t be best pleased if she goes home with wet hair. Embarrassed, worried about the stares and jeers, she manages to put on the swimming hat with some help. The worst happens, the hat pings off in the water and Cheyenne zooms after it to retrieve it, but the pool is busy, she’s struggling. Onyeka panics, she isn’t a strong swimmer. Something takes over, she has to save her best friend. When it feels like she’s drowning and can’t come up for air, her scalp feels strange, something very magical and powerful saves them both that day - Onyeka’s hair!

Freaked out and confused by this new superpower, she confides in her mum, who bizarrely isn’t taken aback. It was only a matter of time before her powers kicked in, she learns. Shrouded in mystery, her mum immediately packs their bags and they set off for Nigeria, where Onyeka was born. And it is in Nigeria that most of this story is set, which is a total delight!

Onyeka marvels as she flies over the capital city, Lagos, green lush spaces, and even vertical farms… the reality before her eyes beating anything she’s witnessed before on TV! Onyeka heads to somewhere called the Academy of the Sun (AOS) with her mum. Why ‘of the sun’? It was founded 25 years ago, and the Academy is solar-powered by Nigeria’s globally leading solar energy resources, they grow their own food, and recycle water by harvesting rainwater. Dr Dòyìnbó is the founder/‘headmaster’/protector of this training academy of about 160 young people collectively known as ‘Solari’ with a wild array of superpowers or ‘Ike’ (an Igbo east Nigerian word meaning might or power) that are neatly organised into four Ike: Enhancers, Emitters, Transformers, Psionic (Onyeka's Ike). The tech is out of this world with DAMI (think Siri for superheros), ‘Wakanda’-style aircraft like the Gyrfalcon and second sight vision glasses that connect with your thoughts and more!

Worried, mum leaves Onyeka at the AOS while she goes to look for Onyeka’s long-lost father, as it seems he may know much more about how she can get to grips with her powers. Onyeka gradually finds a group of friends to trust and hang out with, although it isn’t without its challenges.

Here’s a quick guide to Onyeka's faithful crew:

Niyì Ike = Emitter… creates different types of energy external to his body - ice!

Hassan Ike = Transformer… can change his physical form, becomes invisible

Adanna Dual Ike= Psionic... can move objects, is a technopath and a synaesthetic empath (can smell and hear people’s emotions e.g. new students smell like cherries), she also educates Onyeka about her hair care and helps her find a style she can live with using Bantu knots (see photos below)!

With all the combat training and lessons, it’s obvious that something more than learning to be responsible and help the planet is going on. The AOS gets frequent attacks from rebel ex-students for one! Having been educated in London, Onyeka’s knowledge of Nigerian history is poor. As AOS’s Professor Sàlàkó tells her, “We only had the fragile systems that the British left us with”. Okogwu takes this opportunity to teach or remind the reader of the event of Nigeria’s independence from the British in 1960. The evolution of Nigeria’s government post-independence in the book is loosely based on true history.

Okogwu echoes the immediate years after independence when the Hausa in the North, Igbo in the East and Yoruba in the West of Nigeria formed political parties as part of a coalition government (the north and the east) with an opposition party (the west). Nigeria became a Republic in 1963 with a Prime Minister appointed and a ceremonial President and then follows a complex period of turmoil and growth.

In the story, however, even by 2025, ‘Unity Councils’ made up of the North, East and West, are still the system of government and instead of oil as Nigeria's global commodity, in the story it is a metal called trarium. In real life, in 1983 the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation noticed pollution and contamination in the water supply, and Okogwu has neatly woven this narrative into her story as the cause of the DNA mutation leading to the Solari Ike - via trarium production to make solar energy cells contaminating local water supplies.

Within a few weeks Onyeka is competing in the highly competitive Ìdánwò inter-house games. Yet just as she starts enjoying and thriving in her new school community, Onyeka's mum's phone calls suddenly stop and she finds out her mum has gone missing! Perhaps Dr Dòyìnbó isn't quite all that he seems? Why is Onyeka getting increasingly sick whenever she uses her powers? What ensues is a quest to find out the truth, save the future of the Solari and her parents.

This gripping debut fantasy middle grade adventure ends on a total cliff hanger, so I can’t wait for the next instalment! I CANNOT wait-o!

Okogwu's final pages of the book include a Glossary, which basically makes my mouth water, including so many Nigerian dishes that I haven’t eaten in too long, and a Nigerian Pidgin English overview with some common words and translations.

Obviously I’m not black and don’t have afro hair. Of course I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to care for afro hair, first hand, I am a Nordic white woman. I have, however lived with Nigerian families (the ‘white sister’ - long story) and although I didn’t get involved in any chemical processes like relaxing (I’ll never forget the smell and the shrieks with scalp burns), I became a goto for a hair cut at home! I have huge respect for black women and over-stand the importance of being non-judgemental about whether someone wears their hair naturally or with a weave/extensions. Because I’d always been around and living with black girls from the age of 6, I never truly appreciated the anxiety, oppression and stigmatisation until a few years ago. Now I’m living outside a major city and away from my mainly black circle of friends, I have born witness on many occasion to a gross ignorance when it comes to the whys and wherefores of afro hair.

Afro hair not only is a unique celebration and reminder of the source of the DNA of our entire human race, but the styles and accessories tell a story of culture, history and sometimes even religion. Our hair is deeply personal, just like any other part of our bodies, don’t ever assume it’s ok to ask to touch. If it has never occurred to you before, take an interest in afro hair.

About the creator

Tọlá Okogwu (author)

Tọlá Okogwu is a British-Nigerian Children's Author and Hair Care Educator. Born in Nigeria but raised in London, she holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism. She spent some years exploring the world of blogging, haircare and freelance writing before returning to her first love... fiction.


Brittany 'Bea' Jackson (illustrator)

Brittany Jackson (Bea for short) is a New York Times bestselling illustrator who attended the College for Creative Studies and is the grand prize winner and returned alumni of L. Ron Hubbard's Illustrator of the Future Award of 2007.


Key themes

Afro hair







Grab a copy

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Publication date: 9 June 2022

Format: Paperback

Praise for Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun :

'Exhilarating and original, Onyeka is the superhero you've been waiting for.' Kiran Millwood Hargrave, author of The Girl of Ink and Stars

'Brilliant characters, action-packed plot, heartfelt themes of identity, family and friendship. A DAZZLING story about finding your power.' Sophie Anderson, author of The House with Chicken Legs

'An incredible story that reinvents the concept of a school for magical kids. So inspiring and creatively original.' L. D. Lapinski, author of The Strangeworlds Travel Agency

'Fast-paced, action-packed and empowering. Tola Okogwu's storytelling shines so bright you'll want the next instalment immediately.' A. F. Steadman, author of Skandar and the Unicorn Thief

'An inspiring, original and exciting roller coaster of a book.' Katie Tsang, co-author of Dragon Mountain

'A rich and gripping story of discovering that your greatest power can come from within. I loved it!' Lisa Thompson, author of The Goldfish Boy

'Brilliant, witty writing and spot-on characterisation.' Louie Stowell, author of Loki: A Bad God's Guide to Being Good

'A thrilling, magical page-turner. Children will fall in love with this story.' Jenny McLachlan, author of The Land of Roar

'Wildly fun and a huge breath of invigorating fresh air.' Sam Copeland, author of Charlie Changes Into a Chicken

'A thrilling, action-packed adventure full of heart. Onyeka is sure to be everyone's new favourite superhero.' Hannah Gold, author of The Last Bear

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