Oh My Gods by Alexandra Sheppard | Teen, Fantasy | 385 pages | Scholastic | Review by Tia Albert
As a big fan of novels based on Greek mythology, I was very excited to read Alexandra Sheppard’s debut, Oh My Gods. The coming-of-age novel tells the story of fourteen-year-old Helen Thomas. After the tragic death of her mother when she was ten years old, Helen lived under the care of her maternal grandmother known as Grandma Thomas. But when her grandmother is no longer able to take care of her, Helen relocates to North London to live with her Dad and sister who just so happen to be Zeus, ruler of the gods and Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, living undercover in the mortal world. Chaos and hilarity ensue as Helen tries to not only adjust to her new life but also find her place within her immortal family.
What I loved about Oh My Gods was that Sheppard had centered such a unique voice to tell this story. In fact, I don’t think there’s ever been a Greek mythology-based novel with a Black British female protagonist, so this is a monumental step towards mending the ‘diversity’ problem in children’s and YA (Young Adult) publishing. Although the novel is light in subject matter, Sheppard does not shy away from highlighting Helen’s blackness and addressing important issues about identity and belonging.
Black Girl Problems
One of the main challenges that Helen faces, is her feelings of loneliness and not belonging within her new family dynamic. But Helen doesn’t feel like an outsider just because she is half-mortal, has no powers herself, and barely knows her Dad and sister. She also feels this way because she is a half-Jamaican, black teenager. Her Dad, sister and the rest of her immortal half-siblings all have the ability to change their appearance at will, including their race. Despite this, they all appear as white. Helen is very conscious of the racial and cultural differences between her and her family. In one chapter, she remembers when she tried to hug her half-brother Apollo who fist-bumped her instead. This is something that might not hold meaning to the average (white) reader but to black readers, the scenario is all too familiar. A similar scenario occurs when Apollo visits the family home after his holiday, and Helen hopes that he does not compare his new tan with her natural skin tone. Again, black readers may instantly relate to these daily micro-aggressions in ways that white readers may not.
Hard Dough Bread & Cornmeal
Sheppard also highlights Helen’s Jamaican heritage, which adds layers to Helen’s loneliness. When Helen visits Grandma Thomas in Derby for Christmas, it is clear that she misses Jamaican food. I could not help but smile when Helen became really excited about being able to eat hard dough bread and cornmeal porridge again. As I am of West Indian heritage as well, these two foods are always eaten in my family home and it was a nice touch by Sheppard, who is also half-Jamaican, to add these cultural elements in. By addressing these issues, Sheppard allows the reader to gain a rare insight on what life may be like for a young Black British girl growing up.
Diversity in Publishing
Overall, Oh my Gods is a refreshingly fun read that centres a unique voice in a clever and imaginative way. In the current publishing climate, we definitely need more novels like this. In 2017, a CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) Reflecting Realities report found that out of 9,115 children’s books, only 1% of them published in the UK had a BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) main character. Although some children’s publishers have tried to improve this, there is still a lot of work to be done to remedy the lack of diversity and inclusion in the industry. Oh My Gods is a step in the right direction. I am glad that young Black girls now have a book that reflects them and brings their experiences to the forefront.