April 15, 2011
There are tons of tween and YA books out there nowadays that intertwine childhood rebellion and the supernatural. (I was going to suggest this was the legacy of the Twilight books, but come to think of it, there always have been.) Nnedi Okorafor's Akata Witch stands apart from the rest, and not just because it's set in Nigeria.
Akata is a derogatory term for black Americans in the Igbo language, and its use in the title is a hint that our heroine, twelve-year-old Sunny, is a girl who feels out of place everywhere. Her parents are Nigerian, but she was born in New York, where her family lived until she was nine; the family then returned to their native land. As if that weren't enough to make her the "different" one at school, Sunny is also albino. She stands apart, she excels in school but has few friends, and the popular kids bully her. So far, the usual stuff of YA novels since time immemorial, right?
Except Sunny has these weird premonitions sometimes, warnings from the shadows in the Nigerian darkness that something bad is going to happen. And her mother, a doctor, is extremely circumspect when telling her daughter anything about her own mother, who died long before Sunny was born; Sunny has only a vague impression that she was very odd, perhaps crazy.
The pieces begin to come together when she is befriended by Orlu, a quiet boy in her class who defends her from the bullying, and his friend Chichi, a free-spirited home-schooled girl. Seeing something special in Sunny, Chichi reveals that she and Orlu and their families are practitioners of juju, known as Leopard People. They explain that while the special abilities they have are generally inherited from one's parents directly, they suspect Sunny may be what they call a "free agent," with natural talents of her own.
They're right, of course, and Sunny is soon initiated into a spectacular alternate universe of magic and danger and wonder. Soon afterward, she’s informed that she has a part to play: Along with Orlu and Chichi and a rebellious African-American boy from Chicago named Sasha, she is expected to stop a local serial killer known as Black Hat Otokoto, who has been kidnapping and killing young children locally for months.
Some elements are reminiscent of classics of magically inclined children's fiction; the divide between the magical and nonmagical worlds and people is similar to that in the Harry Potter books, for instance. But I was most put in mind of a favorite series of my own childhood: Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books. (Clearly I'm not alone; I noticed after having this thought that Le Guin provided once of the book's cover quotes.)
As that series did, Okorafor keenly portrays the convoluted mix of rebellion and growing responsibility that make the ages between childhood and adulthood so complicated. She also creates one of those fully fleshed-out alternate worlds that have long been the hallmark of the best children's series, from Lewis Carroll to Le Guin to Philip Pullman. And she is as unafraid as LeGuin was to explore grim and dark realities, which makes the climax of Akata Witch—in which the four child witches face off against Black Hat Otokoto and the even worse evil he's trying to bring into the world—truly thrilling.
But make no mistake: Okorafor marks out new territory of her own, too, with her magnificent use of Nigerian folklore; the magical realm Sunny is entering glitters with fascination. Most American readers will be completely unfamiliar with this world, but the author makes use of that fact, too, engaging our curiosity with the excitement of discovery.
It's a triumph of a novel, one that teens (and many tweens, too, I think) will devour. And happily, Okorafor seems to leave the door open for a sequel, so this may not be the last we see of Sunny and her coven. I hope it isn't—there's plenty of fuel here for what could soon be a serious classic series of its own.
[Cover image courtesy of Viking Books]