Bolaji Oyejide was not a social butterfly growing up, but reading comic books inspired him to have confidence in his own talents. Now, he’s working to pass on that lesson through a series of adventure stories about uncommon superheroes.
Called “Brave Young Heroes,” the books feature underdog kids who overcome conditions such as autism, anxiety, asthma, dyslexia, homelessness and obesity. Oyejide, who lives in Raleigh, has written roughly 50 books over the past seven years and self-publishes them through Amazon. He estimates that he’s reached about 200,000 elementary and middle school-age kids.
“They all feature kid superheroes who have to overcome some adversity that makes them feel less than,” Oyejide said.
Growing up in Nigeria, Oyejide was shy and introverted, and he felt isolated from his more-outgoing peers.
Then he started reading Spider-Man comic books. Peter Parker was an awkward kid, too. The boys who picked on Peter were the ones he was saving after school as Spider-Man.
“That spoke to me because it said, 'I don't know what my superpower is, but there is hope that one day I will also be able to go out and make a difference,' " Oyejide said.
When Oyejide became a father – his sons are now 7 and 10 – he realized that he needed a way to impart those lessons to them.
Writing was a career shift for Oyejide, who came to the United States when he was 17 to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta. He studied computer science and had a long career working for companies like IBM and Red Hat. However, the 41-year-old faced setbacks when he was laid off three times, a harsh break for a high-achiever.
His wife encouraged him to take a break from his corporate career and write the superhero books, which he had been talking about for years.
“It turned into post-traumatic growth,” he said. “The greatest successes are formed through our failures.”
Rather than find an agent and search for a publisher he chose to self-publish. With his word-of-mouth success, Oyejide said he might contact a publishing house in the future. Now, he’s just trying to keep up with requests from kids who want more books. He supplements his income from the books through paid speaking events at schools and conferences, including at Disney World.
Oyejide said every book centers around a hero who has to overcome an obstacle. For instance, one hero from Mexico is able to fly but is terrified of heights. Another lives in Egypt and can control sand but has asthma.
About half of the books are written for kids ages 4 to 8 and are 30 to 40 pages each with color illustrations throughout. The other half are 100-page chapter books aimed at kids between the ages of 8 and 12.
Oyejide has partnered with different illustrators to add pictures to his books, using the website upwork.com. This site connects him with freelance artists across the U.S. and overseas.
Through social media, Oyejide has received feedback from readers around the world. He learned that one mother in France reads the books to her 5-year-old daughter every night, translating the text from English to French.
“It’s fascinating to watch the mixture of cultures,” he said. “We’re making sure these kids build resilience and empathy.”
Oyejide said that kids around the world need both “mirrors and windows.” Mirrors are heroes that kids can relate to because they look like them. These heroes allow them to aspire and build emotional resilience. Windows, on the other hand, give kids the ability to look into someone else’s life and identify with them, despite their differences.
For instance, Oyejide learned about a Hispanic child at his son’s school who did a book report on one of the Brave Young Heroes books. Instead of choosing the book featuring a Hispanic hero, the student reported on a story featuring an Egyptian girl.
Muriel Summers, principal of A.B. Combs Elementary in Raleigh where Oyejide’s children attend, said the books appeal to kids because they show that we all have the power to make a difference.
“The books send a message that you are in charge of you and that you can do great things,” she said. “You don't have to wear a costume, you don't have to have superhero powers, you can do greatness with just who you are.”
She said Oyejide has donated his entire collection of books to the school library and often visits to speak with students.
A new world of heroes
To expand the books’ reach, Oyejide is launching a new effort this year to create 12 new superheroes, each representing disadvantaged or displaced kids in countries around the world. The countries include Dominica, Kenya, Haiti, Iran and Afghanistan.
Oyejide said he wanted to do something to help with the global refugee crisis, in which more than 50 percent of displaced people are children, according to UNICEF.
“That was absolutely heartbreaking to me,” he said. “There are a lot of organizations that will provide basic needs like food, clothing and shelter, but what about the emotional resilience? What about these kids holding onto hope?”
School shootings also weigh on him. He said too often the kids responsible are labeled as loners or weird.
“When society appreciates what makes us unique, if we feel appreciated, weird kids can grow up to change the world,” he said.
To promote the books, Oyejide plans to travel to the 12 countries, starting with Dominica. He’s also traveling to Germany in June to visit a refugee camp with kids from Syria, Iran and Afghanistan.
His mission is to help kids find their identity and inspire them to change the world one day.
“It’s not what happens to us, it’s what we do with it,” he said. “These kids that go through trauma, they can get through it.”
How to find the books
“The Brave Young Heroes” books can be purchased on Amazon.com or BraveYoungHeroes.com. They cost between $8.99 and $15. Information on Bolaji Oyejide’s speaker series can also be found on his websites.