Every once in a while I get frustrated with all the middle-grade and young-adult fantasy books I read that have a cast of all White kids. When that happens, I start searching for stories that have a character of color in the lead, especially a Black protagonist. Last year sometime I got lucky and found Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch. Here’s what I thought of it.
Akata Witch is middle-grade, fantasy novel about an albino Nigerian-American girl, Sunny, who discovers that she is part of a secret, magical world — the Leopard People.
The story is set in Nigeria and is infused with Nigerian culture and bits of its folklore. Magic is referred to as juju and its side-effects can be dire. Sunny is introduced to this secret magic society by her friends Orlu and Chichi. She soon starts taking night classes to improve her magical abilities and meets Sasha, an American boy, there who joins their group. The four are trained together to combat the evil Black Hat Otokoto, who has been kidnapping children for his nefarious means.
This was a fun read. It’s similar to Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series what with the hidden magical society, dangerous adventures, and the character discovering that she’s special and has to take magic lessons. Those familiar elements drew my interest but it’s the culture that the story is set in that hooked me.
Okorafor did a great job of drawing the reader into the setting and making her feel as if she was in Nigeria experiencing the crazy adventures with Sunny and her friends. I believe young Black readers will appreciate this story because they can see themselves, their ideas and experiences reflected in it. Okorafor touches on various issues prevalent within the African diaspora, though lightly. She includes gender inequality in how Sunny is treated by her parents and the boys she plays soccer with. She includes feelings of displacement, which is seen when Sunny becomes conflicted about who she is and where she belongs (is she Nigerian or American? Nigerian American?). She even includes the tension between cultures within the African diaspora in the tense moments between Orlu and Sasha. So though this is similar to many middle-grade and young-adult fantasy novels, it’s also unique in that it’s grounded in Black culture.
However, that doesn’t mean that others of different cultural backgrounds will not be able to understand or enjoy the story. Feeling displaced or confused about one’s identity is universal and is something all people can relate to. The story also touches on bullying and the benefits of knowledge, which is tied to the magic system (whenever a person learns something new, she earns chittim, which is the currency for the magic society).
The magic world in Akata Witch is now one of my favorites. I love that it’s powered by knowledge and that spirits and ancestors are central to it. Even so, I believe that it could be fleshed out a little more (or maybe I just think so because I want to know more about it). In this magic system, those who are special have two selves: their human self and their spirit self. I found it interesting that spirit self is not always the same gender as the human self but I like that characteristics of the spirit are seen in the human.
Since Sunny is a “free agent,” someone who does not have a direct spirit line with an ancestor to receive their special abilities (not passed from mother or father to daughter), she is given a book to inform her about the Leopard society. That book cracked me up, especially when Sunny read ingredients for magical meals like Tainted Pepper Soup that have so many warnings that it seems pointless to make. I love that Maggi soup cubes are listed in the ingredients.
Another thing I love about this magic world is the wasp artist, which is a bug that literally lives for its art. If you don’t show appreciation for its creations, it stings you to paralyze you so you can’t do anything but watch it build its final masterpiece and die dramatically. Lmao! I’d love to have a bug like that. Okay, last favorite thing (and it’s my favorite of the favorites): the funky train. It’s like the taxi for the magic world. Some might say it’s similar to the Knight Bus in Harry Potter, but it reminded me more of the minibuses and taxis I took to school when I was younger. That funky train and its driver are zany and hilarious. I love them!
Much as I enjoyed the story, it did have some problems. It’s fast paced but sometimes I think certain explanations were sacrificed to further the plot. I also wasn’t impressed by the big battle scene at the end like I should be. The football soccer match was much more interesting.
I am eager to read the next book, though. In the battle scene, they were all supposed to work together but it seems to me that they worked in pairs instead. I wonder if the pairing will become an issue in other books.
It’s a quick, fun read and I recommend it, especially if you enjoy the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson series.
“Home will never be the same once you know what you are.”
“Prejudice begets prejudice, you see. Knowledge does not always evolve into wisdom.”
“Men always blame the woman when a child dissatisfies him.”