Could you imagine your life without Chinese or Mexican food? It is almost unthinkable, and yet, we do not seek to flavor our reading as much as we do our food. Most fantasy these days has a general “Western” flavor: Harry Potter easily comes to mind, with its goblins and wizards, its witches and magical creatures. We sort of know what is going to happen in these kinds of books. And that’s why Akata Witch is so refreshing: almost nothing happens as expected, and most certainly, when it does, it tastes differently.
Sharing books with your four-year-old is easy; usually they come with a lot of pictures, the text is short, and you can even memorize the book after a few readings. Sharing a book with your twelve-year-old is much, much harder: do they still want you to read to them? Out loud? Maybe … maybe not. It doesn’t matter; this book can be shared in any way you choose: you can give it to them after reading it first, or you can read it together. The good thing is: you can talk about it later, because it will both interest you and your kids. And there is a lot to talk about.
Sunny is an albino girl who was raised in the United States but know lives in Nigeria. She has two older brothers, a father that doesn’t like her very much, and a mother who is very worried about security and Black Hat Ototo, a cruel man who kidnaps children all over the country. She is bullied at school because of her skin, and that is where the name of the novel comes from: Akata means ‘wild animal’ and it is a kind of insult. However, she will soon discover several things: that she can do a special kind of magic called juju; that two of her school mates, Orlu and Chichi, can do the same; and that she comes from a line of Leopard people, the ones able to do magic, different from normal human beings (whom they call Lambs). She then will receive an education, visiting the libraries and magic places where the Leopard people live, but the magic is Nigerian, not Western, and everything will now be different for her.
Sunny is a strong character. She plays soccer with her brothers and is better at it than them; she has to control her temper and learn not to display her hidden magical face to the normal people. Whenever she learns a magic lesson, chittim fall from the sky. The least valuable of them are small and made of gold, the most valuable are big and made of brass. With them, she can buy interesting things at the Leopard den. The book tastes slightly familiar and then surprises you. When you expect something to happen, (a dragon, or magic wands, for example) something entirely different occurs, (for instance: termite mounds, masquerades, a knife that open magical air pouches …) and that is why it’s such a good book. The Nigerian and often Igbo traditions come to life, in a subtle and spiced way that we can accept as universal. After all, the Chinese and Mexican food we have learned to like is not exactly the same in China or Mexico.
Nnedi Okorafor has Nigerian (Igbo) parents and teaches creative literature at Chicago State University. Her first book for adults, Who Fears Death, received the World Fantasy Award. She has also won a Parallax Award, a Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, and several others. This book has made the Junior Library Guild Selection, and been nominated for the Andre Norton Award. She writes great Science Fiction too, both foradults and YA readers. You can visit her at her website: www.nnedi.com.
The second book in the Akata Witch series, Breaking Kola, is due to come out this year.
Title: Akata Witch
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Genre: Fantasy YA novel
Editorial: Viking/Penguin Group
Image by Jillian Tamaki, Photo courtesy Viking/Penguin