Davina writes speculative and fantastical stories and her new series, Yomi and the Fury of Ninki Nanka, features Gambian mythology. Davina Tijani grew up in London and Surrey and went on to study at the University of East Anglia and University College London, before pursuing writing. She grew up on Star Wars and other science fiction, fantasy and horror films and stories. She is a huge lover of mythology and enjoys incorporating it into her writing.
Yomi and the Fury of Ninki Nanka (Little Tiger Press)
Packed with adventure and thrilling legendary characters, Davina Tijani's epic Yomi and the Fury of Ninki Nanka takes us to an alternate world in The Gambia, where dragons still roam and powerful spirits rule the rivers and earth. We asked author Davina Tijani what inspired her new series, why she set it in The Gambia, and the importance of exploring myths and legends from other cultures. Illustrator Adam Douglas-Bagley also tells ReadingZone about researching these mythical beings and the challenges in illustrating these stories.
Review: Yomi and the Fury of Ninki Nanka is a fast-paced, fun and lively blend of modern mystery with traditional African mythology.
"I wanted to celebrate African mythology and see young black characters having fantastical adventures in a world full of beasts and magic. I think this is essential in widening representation in children's literature but also to increase the number of diverse stories available for all children." Davina Tijani
Q&A with Davina Tijani
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself, and why you wanted to become an author? Do you do other work, too?
I was born in London and have lived here for most of my life. I am a speculative writer with a huge love of film, anime, and manga. All of which have inspired my work as an author. I wanted to become an author because of my love of storytelling and the different ways stories can be presented to the reader. I enjoy stories in their rich variety of forms including novels, graphic novels, short stories, plays, films and video games. Besides writing, I have a full-time job working in Academia, supporting medical researchers.
2. What happens in your fabulous debut, Yomi and the Fury of Ninki Nanka? What do you think of the finished book, with the illustrations by Adam Douglas-Bagley - any favourites?
Yomi and the Fury of Ninki Nanka, opens up with Yomi and her younger brother Kayode on a holiday with their Uncle Olu in The Gambia. In this world, everyone knows beasts exist but they are not seen very often. The holiday has been mostly uneventful, no thanks to their uncle being busy with work. This takes a definitive turn when Yomi witnesses the kidnapping of Ninki Nanka, the Dragon King of The Gambia. She sets out to rescue him which takes her and her brother in tow on an adventure across the country.
Writing this book and seeing it go from the keyboards of my laptop to a physical book into the hands of my prospective readers has been a dream. One of my favourite illustrations by Adam includes Yomi and Kayode meeting Nyanya, the spirit hippo of the River Gambia.
3. What inspired this story about hunted mythical creatures?
Hunting and poaching has always been a great existential threat to animals, especially rare and endangered ones. These practices made me feel in such a world where mythical beasts like dragons exist, they too might face a similar fate.
Illustrations @ Adam Douglas-Bagley
"Mythology is at the heart of my stories. From their iconic characters, epic, interwoven plots and fascinating beasts, I love showcasing all of these through a modern lens."
4. Can you tell us about how you have used mythology and folk tales to create your own story? Are all the creatures, like the water dragon Ninki Nanka, drawn from The Gambian myths and legends?
Mythology is at the heart of my stories. From their iconic characters, epic, interwoven plots and fascinating beasts, I love showcasing all of these through a modern lens. In Yomi's world, all of these creatures are called Nkara and they are split into two groups: Sacred and Grand. Sacred Nkara are creatures like Ninki Nanka, which are beasts which directly come from African mythology. Meanwhile, creatures like Nyanya are Grand Nkara which do not come from mythology and are instead creatures of my own creation.
5. How did your own childhood experiences - perhaps stories you heard or places you visited - contribute to this adventure and its setting? Why did you want to focus it on The Gambia?
As I was growing up, I was told numerous stories of my family and extended family's lives and experiences in Nigeria, including family history, their own childhoods, schooling, the things they would get up to and the journeys they made across the world. I visited Nigeria myself at very similar ages to Yomi and Kayode when they are on their holiday in The Gambia. All of these childhood memories in some way influences the background of Yomi and the Fury of Ninki Nanka.
I chose to focus in on The Gambia because it is home of the myth of Ninki Nanka and, as a country, it provided great locations for the book such as the capital city of Banjul and the River Gambia. The country is rich with culture, language, food, and music which provided a fantastic setting for the book
As part of developing the book, I wanted to make sure I captured The Gambia as accurately as possible. I did a lot of research into The Gambia and its cultural fabric along with studying its natural ecology especially across its river wildlife. African mythology is at the heart of the novel and the wider series in general. More specifically at its heart are these mythical beasts and creatures and their stories which make these legends so wondrous and enthralling.
"African mythology much like most Non-Western mythologies are not showcased or celebrated as much as their western counterparts."
6. Was this story also important for you, personally, to broaden cultural representation in children's books?
It was incredibly important to me because African mythology much like most Non-Western mythologies are not showcased or celebrated as much as their western counterparts. I wanted to create a work which truly centred these stories. I wanted to celebrate African mythology and see young black characters having fantastical adventures in a world full of beasts and magic. I think this is essential in widening representation in children's literature but also to increase the number of diverse stories available for all children.
7. Do you have any favourite places in The Gambia that you'd visit in a heartbeat? Do they appear in the book?
I would love to visit Cape Point Beach which is a lovely beach in The Gambia. Yomi, Kayode and their Uncle Olu were due to visit this place during the earlier part of the book, however they are unable to visit when a mysterious phone call changes everything
8. How did your siblings Yomi and Kayode develop? Are they based on anyone you know, or perhaps drawn from your own childhood? How would you characterise their relationship?
Yomi and Kayode work together despite their different approaches and personalities to solve the mystery of Ninki Nanka. Yomi is a lot bolder in her choices while Kayode is the more reserved of the siblings (ie doesn't want to get eaten!). I have a younger sister I am incredibly close with, though I wouldn't say we are like Yomi and Kayode, but our closeness, our unity and the sibling love we share definitely inspires Yomi and Kayode's relationship.
9. If you could see any of these legendary creatures, as Yomi and Kayode do, which one would you want it to be?
I would actually like to see Ninki Nanka but from a relatively safe distance, which it totally unlike what Yomi would want to do!
10. What else do you have planned for Yomi and Kayode? Where is your favourite place to write these books?
Yomi and Kayode's adventures will continue in book 2, 3 and 4 of the series. Yomi and Kayode will continue their trip across Africa and visit more countries, meet more interesting people and of course encounter loads more Nkara. I'm currently also working on novels for adult readers and my favourite place to write is my bedroom, which is where I do a lot of my writing.
Q&A with Adam Douglas-Bagley
1. How did you become an illustrator for children's books? What are your key influences as an illustrator? What other kinds of work do you do?
I've always wanted to be an illustrator, I have been drawing all my life. But my official career started when my amazing agent Davinia saw my entry to the FAB prize. I didn't expect my entry to lead to being a published illustrator!
My main influences are graphic novels. I am always looking for new methods of visual storytelling in illustration. In the past I have dabbled in Graphic Design but currently I also work in an art supply shop - it's like a sweet shop for artists.
2. What appealed to you in this project, illustrating Yomi and the Fury of Ninki Nanka?
I love all things mythical and when I first heard about the project, I was instantly drawn to the magical world Davina had created. Discovering new myths and legends from around the world is fascinating to me and learning of the scope of the Nkara Chronicles had me hooked.
3. Have you illustrated other stories like this? How did you decide on the style for the illustrations in this story?
For as long as I can remember I have been illustrating magical creatures. Many of my own stories feature all kinds of fantastical species.
I wanted to use a style that reflected the vibrant nature of the story, full of fun and wonder.
4. There are lots of local scenes and images of The Gambian mythical creatures, how did you go about researching these?
I read up as much as I could find on the creatures and the exquisite-corpse-style descriptions of most of these creatures left a lot to the imagination. How would they have really looked if the witnesses knew what they were looking at? I researched the biology of extinct animals to see how they have been reconstructed, which lead me to the creatures you see in the book.
5. Which were your favourite mythical characters to draw?
It has to be the one and only Ninki Nanka - three horns, four wings and rainbow scales, what's not to love?
6. What were the biggest challenges in illustrating Yomi and the Fury of Ninki Nanka? Which spreads or characters are you happiest with?
My biggest challenge was capturing the beauty of authentic African attire. The fabrics are so detail rich, I really wanted to do them justice.
My favourite spreads have to be from the characters' journey down river. The action shots were so fun to illustrate.
7. What other projects are you working on currently?
Currently I am working on the second book of the Nkara Chronicles and I cannot wait to show off what Yomi and Kay get up to.
Also, I am working on a number of my own projects that I hope I can share with the world very soon.
8. What tips would you give to any children who love art and who feel they might like to become an illustrator?
Find a story, whether it is your own or someone else's, and draw with the story in mind. Building a world is a rewarding feeling and it only gets better the more you create.