Scholastic is celebrating Black History Month in 2023 with Share Black Stories, a campaign showcasing books that center around Black lives and Black joy that will resonate far beyond a single month of the year.We interviewed Jasmine Richards, who leads the team of writers known as Remi Blackwood, about the Future Hero series. The books follow Jarell, a boy who has never quite known where he belongs, until he's transported to a magical world that's unlike anything he's seen before – and where everyone believes Jarell is the hero they've been waiting for.
What inspired the Future Hero series?
The seed for this idea was laid down more than 20 years ago. I used to take my younger brother to the barbershop and I was always struck by what a magical place it was. A place where young boys would go in and be transformed. A place of laughter and nurture. I wanted to find a way to celebrate that.
Afrofuturism was the perfect lens for that celebration. Our hero Jarell finds a magical mirror and an exiled God working as a barber in his cousin’s barbershop. Jarell soon discovers that he is the hero that those in a distant land called Ulfrika have been waiting for. This is the land of his ancestors.
The ancient-future kingdom of Ulfrika was inspired by the rich and varied landscapes, histories, and myths of the continent of Africa, as well as the mythologies that belong to the African diaspora in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Brazil.
Of course, Ulfrika has its very own fantastical twist. Talking beasts like Were-hyenas and Painted Wolves roam the kingdom, and there are warriors like Kimisi, Jarell’s loyal friend, who assist and protect Ancients – gods and goddesses of the realm. There are ultra-high-tech gadgets everywhere, like a gauntlet that can whip up mini thunderstorms, or equipment which allows its wearer to cloudport across stretches of sand to their desired destination.
What is it like to tell this story collaboratively as a team of writers?
Each writer brings a different set of skills to Future Hero, which means one writer might pluck things out of the narrative that the rest of us haven’t noticed, and another writer might bring fresh and sparky dialogue that captures Jarell perfectly. By pooling our varying strengths, we end up making something very special. As one, we are able to create something much larger than ourselves. Putting our heads and hearts together to make Future Hero has been a magical experience.
Ulfrika, for instance, was created by a team made up of researchers, writers and storyliners. It is a unique world, rich in myth and legend, and full of magic and technology. Writers are collaborative creatures, so brainstorming a mythical world through an Afrofuturist lens can be extremely fun when we get to bounce ideas around the room.
It is also important to us that the writers on Future Hero share the same background as Jarell, so when we write Jarell’s story, we know we’re bringing our own authentic life experiences to the table.
Early in the first book, it seems like everyone is asking Jarell what makes him so special, in a condescending way. It’s so much fun and so meaningful to see him begin to understand that he really is special as he finds community and connects to his roots. What do you hope readers take away from his journey?
Jarell, like his ancestor Kundi, is selfless, loyal, and kind. When Jarell discovers that he is Ulfrika’s long-awaited Future Hero – and that he has inherited a powerful magic staff – he does not attempt to seek fame or fortune. He doesn’t get bigheaded or arrogant. If someone is in danger, he puts his own mission on hold to help them first. He is as kind to animals as he is to people. Jarell earns the respect of his Ulfrikan peers not through his mantle but through his actions, which show that he has a brave and gentle heart.
When Jarell successfully completes his missions in Ulfrika, he goes home. In our world, Jarell hasn’t got magic powers. No one knows he is the Future Hero. His older brother thinks Jarell is uncool, and so do the other kids at school. He spends most of his time alone, or with his cousin Omari, and he prefers drawing to video games. But that doesn’t mean Jarell isn’t just as special in our world as he is in Ulfrika, even if people don’t realise how powerful he is. Special means something different in our world. It’s what happens when we stay true to ourselves. Here, we keep our magic in our hearts.
I hope readers are inspired by Jarell’s assurance in himself. We must never compromise who we are inside for other people. We must continue to respond to cruelty with kindness. And we must each keep our heads held high, because we are all special in our own way.
What makes us special is what makes us different.
You’ve talked about the importance of showing that there’s not just one story for children of color. What drew you to Afrofuturism as a lens for the Future Hero series?
When I am not writing novels as Jasmine Richards or Remi Blackwood I am running a fiction studio called Storymix. With this collective of creatives we are focused on centering kids of color in stories that are full of joy and adventure.
I wanted to place Jarell in a cool, futuristic universe, but I also wanted this universe to celebrate his proud and long ancestry. I wanted Jarell to find himself in an ultra-advanced, aspirational world inspired by the African continent and African diaspora, a world where stands out not by his appearance but by his own inner strength.
Afrofuturism was the perfect lens for the Future Hero series because the possibilities with it were endless – it allowed me to collaborate with my team on creating a world that found its power in its future technology and its magic in its ancient past.
The ancient-kingdom future of Ulfrika honors the real-world African past and the real-world African future. The reader – and Jarell – can find reprieve in these books by entering a world unburdened by a violent and hateful history, and where possibilities for people like him, too, are endless.
What was your favorite part of writing about Jarell?
With Jarell, I wanted to create a hero that reminded me of my son and my nephew, or of my brother when he was young. Jarell is a normal kid with a gentle heart and a strong moral compass. At the start of the series, he’d much rather spend time on his own, drawing illustrations from a fantasy world of his own creation.
But when he discovers that this fantasy world is real, and that he is Ulfrika’s only hope, he is able to take on the mantle of Future Hero admirably well. He is the hero we would all want watching out for us.
My favorite part about writing Jarell is how much more confident is when he gets back home. No one knows it, but this is a boy halfway to defeating an evil sorcerer. The only thing that changes is his belief in himself. He is just as gentle and kind and artsy as he was before.
What can readers expect as the series continues?
I think readers will be hugely excited to hear that tensions will escalate, new creatures and beasts will be introduced, and the reason for Legsy’s banishment from Ulfrika will finally be revealed…The stakes are high.
All alongside perilous adventure, dangerous quests, and lots and lots of action.