Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Viking, 2011 (currently available)
Face Value: This is a great cover. Love the illustration of the girl, love the white background and the use of color. No headless stock image here: the girl on this cover was clearly drawn by somebody who read the book first.
Does it Break the Slate? YES! Sunny Nwazue shatters the slate. In fact, she might be my new hero. This girl is tough – she has to be to deal with the teasing and harassment she gets from her schoolmates in Nigeria being both Albino and American raised, not to mention the dismissive treatment from her father and brothers. She’s also incredibly smart (best in her class), very practical, an all star soccer player, and one of the Leopard People (meaning she has magical abilities). She’s thoughtful, fierce and brave. If I had to fight a battle between good and evil, well, I would absolutely want Sunny on my side, not to mention the rest of her Oha coven.
Who would we give it to? I think I’d start with Harry Potter fans. Don’t get me wrong – Akata Witch is a fantastically unconventional story, and Nnedi Okorafor blends fantasy with realism in a totally original way, leaving you with a story like nothing you’ve come across before. Still, there are some serious Harry Potter elements at play. Sunny is an outcast, misunderstood and dismissed by her family and classmates. But when she discovers her powers and a community of others who share them, she embarks on a journey of learning how to use her juju, saves her friends and community and figures out a whole lot about herself in the process. If you have any interest in fantasy, or in magical coming of age stories, I recommend that you get your hands on this book immediately. Plus, it’s always great to read a fantasy story that includes: 1) non-white characters 2) a non-American or European setting and 3) not only a strong female protagonist, but strong female supporting characters. Put it in your library today!
“My name is Sunny Nwazue and I confuse people.” This line hooked me immediately. Sunny, born to Nigerian parents in New York City who moved back to Nigeria when she was nine years old, is an Albino. Her light skin, yellow hair and pale eyes stand out sharply in Nigeria, and people don’t know how to deal with her difference. So they don’t.
Sunny has a lot to contend with, because she doesn’t feel like she fits in anywhere, really. She’s Igbo and Nigerian by blood, but her classmates and teacher consider her too “American.” Plus, being Albino means that all too many people (including her father) dismiss her as an outsider. Her classmates call her akata, a “terrible word that “meant bush animal and was used to refer to black Americans or foreign born blacks.” In this passage, in the prologue, she describes one of her constant battles:
“Being albino made the sun my enemy; my skin burned so easily that I felt nearly flammable. That’s why, though I was really good at soccer, I couldn’t join the boys when they played after school. Although they wouldn’t have let me anyway, being a girl. Very narrow-minded. I had to play at night, with my brothers, when they felt like it.”
But then everything changes. Sunny’s friend Orlu recognizes something in her, and brings it to the attention of his friend Chichi and their teacher. Quickly, Sunny finds out that she is, like Chichi and Orlu, one of the Leopard People, capable of juju and a part of the magical world. Unlike her friends though, Sunny is a Free Agent, not born into a family of other Leopard People. So, armed with the book Fast Facts for Free Agents and her new cohort of students (Chichi, Orlu and Sasha, an American who has been sent to Nigeria by his family to learn about his abilities), Sunny starts learning and it transforms her world.
The rules of this magical world are carefully established, which I always appreciate in a magic book. I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, but I’ll clarify – as a reader, if I’m reading about magic, or otherworldly elements, I want to know the rules for the characters, so that I can understand the reality of this particular magic, it’s limits and it’s potential. It allows me to fully immerse myself in the magic of the story. This is particularly true when, as with Akata Witch, we’re dealing with magic that is present it what is ostensibly the “real world.” Okorafor does a wonderful job of establishing this world for us. Some of my favorite details include:
1) The Leopard People value knowledge above all else. Accordingly, their currency, chittim, is dispensed when new knowledge is gained. When Sunny masters a new technique, she finds a pile of chittim appears. And, even better, it’s not the person with the most knowledge who has the most currency – it’s about how much knowledge is gained. So any Leopard Person who is constantly attempting and learning new things will always be well off.
2) The magic world is fantastic and thrilling, but it’s also dangerous. Sunny and her classmates are constantly in mortal danger as part of their lessons – that’s simply expected and part of the way they learn. When one of them breaks the rules, the repercussions are immediate and frightening. The respect for knowledge that I mentioned before means that it is prioritized – over everything else, including personal safety. As Sunny is told in the middle of the book “There are more valuable things in life than safety and comfort. Learn. You owe it to yourself.”
3) This is a magical world where women are just as powerful, capable and respected as men. However, this is a magical world placed in a contemporary reality. And so, even within the world, Sunny has to contend with sexism and negative expectations based on her gender. But luckily (and awesomely) she defies these expectations.
Sunny’s identity as a Leopard Person and a free agent define her, and she begins to come into her own, understand herself and stand up for herself once she discovers that part of her identity. But it doesn’t replace the other aspects of her identity. Sunny’s character is informed by her intelligence, her Albinism, her Nigerian roots and her American upbringing, her crazy good soccer skills, her love of reading, by being the only daughter in a family of boys. What this means is, basically that her discovery of her magical talent doesn’t, well, magically, fix her life. It helps, certainly. It gives her a community of people who understand her, gives her friends and the strength to stand up for herself. But one of Sunny’s most triumphant moments takes place on the soccer field, with no magic involved whatsoever. It’s more like the magic gives her the means to come into her own identity. Once she understands that part of herself, she can access all of these other things, and really become the person that she is meant to be. And through that learning, all of these other things and people become part of who she is.
Reviewed from Library Copy.
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