6 brilliant books exploring African myths

Published on: 25 October 2023 Author: Isi Hendrix

Author and anthropologist Isi Hendrix recommends some fantastic fiction that is inspired by myths from across Africa.

A photo of Isi Hendrix and the front cover of Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans

If you ask someone what a myth is, they might define it as a made-up story. Something akin to an ancient urban legend. But in anthropology, myths are defined as well-known stories that explain a culture's primary principles, beliefs, and values outside of chronological time. And parts of that story may very well be true.

One of the most popular types of myths you see throughout cultures all across the world are creation or origin myths. A myth to explain how the world came to be. Some are dismissed as a "made-up story" while others are accepted as religious truth, but in terms of anthropology, they're all classified as a creation myth.

My own novel, Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans, is listed in the genre of fantasy and has fantastical aspects. Within the book, in the world of Zaria you'll encounter ancient deities from the stars, power-hungry demons, headless girls who can braid their own hair, and plants that can communicate with people who have the ability to listen. There's even a sentient (and temperamental) school which is a character in its own right.

But while there absolutely are fantastical elements in this book, I very deliberately never use the word "magic" in my book to describe Adia's shamanic abilities because shamanism isn't magic.

It's a very real practice that people are trained in for years for the purpose of healing. So it's a mixture of fantasy and abilities that people do actually have in real life.

I write about a group of Igbo Gods called Alusi in my book. The Alusi are guardian deities who speak directly to diviners and shamans. Unfortunately, so much knowledge about Igbo religion was lost to religious colonisation that even the names of all the Alusi have been forgotten, but there are hundreds of them. Even without detailed accounts of who they are, I've always felt like I have a group of guardian spirits who hang around me. Since I'm Igbo, I'll assume they're Alusi guardians.

So, while myths are an excellent way to teach young readers about the world and different cultures, they should be an entry point into a deeper study of a society's cultural practices and belief systems.

Here are some books by African authors, that are inspired by African customs, folklore and mythology.

Lower Middle Grade (readers aged 7 and above)

An illustration from the front cover of Yomi and the Fury of Ninki Nanka - an illustration of a child standing looking determined with her fists clenched as a huge amphibious creature rears up behind her

Pic: Adam Douglas-Bagley

Yomi and the Fury of Ninki Nanka by Davina Tijani

Yomi and her younger brother Kayode are supposed to be on the trip of a lifetime visiting The Gambia with their Uncle Olu. Instead, their uncle's work has made this the most boring holiday ever! But when Yomi witnesses the Dragon King, Ninki Nanka, being kidnapped from the sky, things get a lot more exciting. Determined to save him, Yomi and Kayode uncover secrets and meet many magnificent beasts – but will it be enough to save Ninki Nanka?

Upper Middle Grade (readers aged 9 and above)

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Born in New York but living in Aba, Nigeria, 12-year-old Sunny is understandably a little lost. She is albino and thus incredibly sensitive to the sun. All Sunny wants is to be able to play football and get through another day of school without being bullied. But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is plunged into the world of the Leopard People, where your worst defect becomes your greatest asset.

Together, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha form the youngest ever Oha Coven. Their mission is to track down Black Hat Otokoto. Will Sunny be able to overcome the killer with powers stronger than her own, or will the future she saw in the flames become reality?

An illustration of a person's face with green eyes and an insect resting on their forehead, from the front cover of Akata Witch

Pic: Greg Ruth

Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans by Isi Hendrix

12-year-old Adia doesn't quite fit in with her family in the Swamplands. Convinced she's an ogbanje – a child cursed to bring misery and misfortune wherever she goes – Adia runs away from her backwater home to find a shaman who can help her, only to discover a shocking secret that will upend her destiny... and potentially lead to her kingdom's ruin or salvation.

Young Adult (readers aged 13 and above)

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

In a world where magic has disappeared and maji have been slaughtered by a ruthless king, a girl named Zélie joins forces with the Princess Amari and embarks on a quest to restore magic and to strike back against the forces that have been oppressing the lands of Orïsha.

An illustration from the front cover of Raybearer

Pic: Charles Chaisson 

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Raybearer follows a young girl, Tarisai, who is bound by a magical wish made by her mother, who is absent and distant in Tarisai's early life. Tarisai has the ability to see the stories of other people's lives with a single touch, while her story unfolds and is yet to be seen.

Forged By Blood by Ehigbor Okosun

Ehigbor Okosun's first book is an action-packed, poignant duology inspired by Nigerian mythology, full of magic and emotion. It's set in a highly atmospheric, complex world in which a young woman fights to survive a tyrannical society, having everything stripped away from her, and seeks vengeance for her mother's murder and the spilled blood of her people.

Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans by Isis Hendrix out now.


More myths and legends

Check out our booklist to find more great reads inspired by myths and legends from across the world.

Travelling the world through stories

Author-illustrator Thiago de Moraes discusses why myths and legends are so important for children to read and listen to.

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