Reviews /

Kòkú Àkànbí and the Heart of Midnight

Authored by Maria Motúnráyò Adébísí
Illustrated by Simone Douglas
Published by Hachette Children's Group

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Maria Motúnráyò Adébísí, in her comments at the back of this middle grade adventure fantasy, notes that growing up she rarely saw herself or people like her in kids lit. And although publishing is likely more diverse now than when she was a child, she has made an excellent contribution to balancing out the provision for children like her, growing up now. In this engaging and heartwarming story of finding himself, Kòkú more than handily represents children of African descent living in London and those living with life altering illnesses as well.

Kòkú is different in so many ways – he doesn’t live with blood family, he is neither at home in Africa or in London, his illness means that he cannot play the same games as kids his own age and he missed a year of school from a particularly severe episode dealing with sickle cell anaemia. The sorts of things many kids deal with every day. Being erroneously called ‘Cuckoo’ because his teachers and classmates will not correctly say his name (‘He knows my name is Koku. Like can of Coke, with an extra ‘oou’ at the end’) is ironically appropriate as he feels like he doesn’t belong in his nest. But neither does he feel like he belongs when his Uncle Tunji announces that Koku will spend the summer in his birth country – Olóri, a region of west Africa.

When he arrives in Olòri, Kòkú learns that his birth nation is living under a curse of almost perpetual daylight. With only one hour of night-time the country is reeling in drought and leaning towards starvation. Rich tribal groups have developed technology that will continue to impoverish the poor but enable the rich and powerful to become even more rich and powerful. In a wonderful rewriting of political hegemony, Motúnráyò Adébísí outlines some of the issues facing modern Nigeria, the likely model for Olòri given her research into Post-Colonial Nigerian literature. But this novel wears its politics lightly. At its heart it is a story about a boy, who doesn’t fit anywhere, building his place in the world and, with it, creating a sense of his own self-identity.

This is a wonderfully written story of friendship, adventure and magic. With a host of references and inclusions of Nigerian folklore and magical stories, this is the perfect story for children, like the author, straddling the worlds of England and Nigeria. Strongly recommended for upper Key Stage 2 and lower Key Stage 3 – I know exactly who I will be sharing my copy of this book with when I get back to school.

Longlisted for the Spark Book Awards 2024 Fiction 11+ Category