- Finding the Flow (yes, no, partial): partial
- Cla$$room Library (single, book group, whole class): middle school book group
In the first book of Akata Witch, Sunny, a smart, skeptical, athletic twelve-year-old lives in Nigeria. Born in America, of Igbo decent, and albino she is considered “akata” (foreign born but literally “wild animal”) and does not quite “fit” in Nigeria, where she lives with her family. But do teens ever feel like they truly fit in? And isn’t growing up about finding and embracing who you “really” are?
The beauty of Akata Witch is that readers discover alongside Sunny, a strong female protagonist, who she is becoming. Readers feel her anxiety, frustration, and confidence as she finds comfort in her beautiful (and transforming) skin and as she learns to navigate and integrate two very different worlds.
In one world, Sunny attends “regular” school with bullies and homework, and her home life is fairly typical with a tense father-daughter relationship and an aloof older brother. The mystery here is why her family moved to Nigeria when her mother refuses to talk about her grandmother’s past in this country.
And there is another world beyond, within, and across her “regular” world to which Sunny catches a glimpse, a haunting vision of doom. With the help of three new friends — Chichi, Orlu, and Sasha –and a teacher, Sunny discovers she is one of the Leopard People, who has access to the spirit world, a world of spells, juju, shape-changing, and dimensional travel. Sunny possesses magical abilities. As a teacher, I like to think all of our students have some hidden potential, some beautiful gift just waiting for them to claim it, so witnessing Sunny find her footing with this unfamiliar ability was a wonder and delight.
To make sense of her whole self, Sunny begins to navigate these two worlds — one “real” with the Lambs (regular people) and one in the spirit world called Leopard Knocks, reached by crossing an invisible bridge. Unlike regular school where students earn grades for taking tests, Leopard People earn chittim, a form of currency, for figuring out a spell or mastering a skill, but Sunny has a larger purpose. Her arrival to Nigeria and discovery of her gifts is quite timely. She and her magical friends are being trained for a mission to stop a serial killer name Black Hat Otokoto, who is stealing and killing children as human sacrifices to unleash a powerful dark force.
And here is where we can say that if you like fantasy, if you like Harry Potter and if you like rich, imaginative settings, you will appreciate the imaginative world of Akata Witch. Like the Muggles of Harry Potter, Akata Witch has Lambs, but unlike Harry Potter, Sunny does not get her abilities from her parents, who are Lambs. Just as Hogwarts was once unfamiliar and new, Leopard Knocks is like no place you’ve ever ventured, so tread slowly as you discover this world. Okorafor is of Nigerian descent, so the mythology is based on actual Nigerian myths, and the cultural detail is also true to life. This book, then, offers a rich cultural experience without being didactic, in my view.
One strength of this story is its feminist edge. Sunny is strong, skeptical, and fearless. She has the power of knowing she can take out her school bully, yet she uses it cleverly to adjust the power balance. She plays soccer, and in one scene the boys doubt her ability only to be amazed. And the young Sunny and her friends are charged with a mission that more experienced sorcerers could not manage, which gives agency to the young ensemble. Another strength is the “spirit face” that Leopard People can conjure up, a personal manifestation which when revealed is compared to seeing them naked. I read this has both vulnerable and powerful (and quite appropriate for teens deciding which face to show the world).
Finding the Flow: As a reader, I had a bit of a hard time finding the flow (thus the “partial” rating). I am new to Okorafor’s work and Nigerian culture, so I had to slow down and reread certain passages, which is not a bad thing. I’d like to know more about why chittim or currency is used in exchange for learning for the Leopard People, and why when someone breaks the “rules,” the punishment is physical. In this imaginative world, I had hoped for something beyond Western forms of reward and punishment. Perhaps I missed something here.
Classroom Library: As for the classroom, I think this book is for experienced fantasy readers. I think middle school students will relate to Sunny and her friends as they follow the rules of school and home while trying to figure out who they really are. As far as fantasy books go, this is fairly short (368 pages), so it would be great for a motivated book group. For a whole class read, however, I think it is might be too long to tackle. Have you read Akata Witch whole class? Tell us about it.