Monk Inyang unveils urban fantasy novel set in Newark for middle school-aged kids Published October 18, 2018 | Rachel Wagner
Monk Inyang signs copies of Nightmare Detective: The Skeleton King at his Newark Public Library book launch. Photo courtesy of Monk Inyang. (Click or tap to enlarge.)
My nephew slept over at my house the night before the launch of Newark native Monk Inyang’s new book, Nightmare Detective: The Skeleton King, at Newark Public Library. My nephew is the same age as my son, and every five minutes one of the boys called me into his bedroom because one hit the other or said something the other didn’t like. I was the best referee I could be, but I also admonished them to talk to each other more: try to figure it out between yourselves first before you drag other people into it.
I didn’t realize how prominent that theme would be in Nightmare Detective, a young adult/middle-grade novel set in Newark’s North Ward, near Branch Brook Park. In it, the main character, 12-year-old Uko Hill, finds himself in Pangea, a dream world he inhabits in his sleep. It’s there that he meets a retiring Nightmare Detective, Toni, who invites him to begin training to become one too. The role of Nightmare Detectives: to help other kids escape their bad dreams. The detectives mirror Uko’s real life friend group, who work together to solve problems in the waking world.
As Inyang said at his book launch, it’s important to “find your people.”
There is something uniquely political about children and young adult fantasy books, like Inyang’s, whose central theme deals with creating and navigating a different reality. Learning about the alternative world generates insights about the real one. The writers of other recent young adult novels, like The Hate U Give and Children of Blood and Bone, have said they are forms of activism meant to address how the police state kills black people. Inyang said he didn’t want to do anything stereotypically tragic in his book just because the novel is located in Newark. Instead, he set out to “write the type of stories I loved to read when I was that age, but with issues and characters that related more to me.” Figuring out how to deal with somewhat more prosaic traumas, like seeing someone get hit by a car, takes precedence Nightmare Detective.
The front cover of Nightmare Detective. The book, set in Newark, and in its characters’ dreams, is the first in a planned trilogy.
Another major theme in Nightmare Detective is battling insecurities. Uko has to be willing to fight against The Skeleton King, a part of him that represents his self-doubt. But in addition to vanquishing his personal demons or those of his clients, Nightmare Detectives also fight against bigger and more literal villains, like the Coyotes.
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The Coyotes charge for their protection services and are mostly comprised of people who didn’t retire when they were supposed to. These bad guys mark the presence of inescapable, oppressive (and creepy) adults, who Inyang said were influenced by the music he listened to while he wrote the book. A character named Chief was reminiscent of Notorious B.I.G., and some of the fighting scenes were inspired by Nas’s diss track “Ether.” I could hear Biggie’s “Gimme The Loot” when Chief threatened Uko in one passage. “A man once owed me something that he refused to pay,” said Chief, so he stalked the dreams of the debtor’s mother, and “that woman did not live through that dream.” Beyond the bad guys, though, the lessons about self-confidence in this novel call back to the ego and braggadocio characteristic of hip-hop. Deep down, the fantasy is about being tough enough to survive in a capitalist society.
Inyang speaks about his book during his Newark Public Library launch event. Photo courtesy of Monk Inyang.
But beyond all the fantasy stuff, the language effectively roots the book in real life, with the characters blending Nigerianisms with New Jerseyisms. Uko calls his parents “Mommy and Daddy, like every other Nigerian kid he knew,” but he’s also prone to Jersey talk. (Read: “I don’t know about all that.”) Inyang told me the dialogue came “from growing up in the city and using language and styles of talking that don’t get dated.”
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Inyang is a married father of two and Wall Street analyst. He noticed the negative effects that setbacks and self-doubt caused in his career, and how they played out in his children’s lives. Those themes are embedded in Nightmare Detective. Photo courtesy of Monk Inyang.
For his part, Inyang, who is also an MBA and investor relations professional, is engaged in ongoing world building for Nightmare Detective on his website, monkinyag.com. That’s where you’ll find “The Oral History of Pangea,” a fictional blog series where a “dream scribe,” appropriately named The Griot, interviews a different citizen of Pangea each week. The entries include historical references and steadily add context and contour to the fictional world Inyang created. Gwen Haley, for example, is a heroic fighter pilot in the Pangean dream world, but in the waking world she’s inmate #456981 at Robyn Island Correctional Facility—an apparent reference to Robben Island, the location off of Capetown, South Africa where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years.
Nightmare Detective is ultimately a coming-of-age story that frames middle school identity as an awkward quest to find independence. A voice like Inyang’s is much needed for all types of young readers—it’s also a strong piece of relatable local literature merged with a fantasy world rich in symbolism.
“The Skeleton King” is the first book of the “Nightmare Detective” trilogy, a series that celebrates diversity, coming-of-age, and self-confidence for middle school readers between ages 9 and 13.