Author Nnedi Okorafor is herself the American-born daughter of Nigerian parents. Akata Witch is her latest book of African magic for youth readers, focusing on the coming-of-age story of a girl divided between two worlds. Not only is Sunny divided between the United States and Nigeria, she discovers she has a gift for slipping between the physical world and the spirit world --- what her friends call the wilderness. This means she is also one of the Leopard people: “Sunny, you have friends and enemies in the spirit world,” one of the Leopard elders tells her, “for before you were born you were a person of importance there. What kind of person were you? Well, that is something you’ll have to figure out. A friend or enemy of yours showed you that vision in the candle. It changed you, no?”
Most of Akata Witch centers on Sunny’s initiation into the Leopard people and her tentative first steps in embracing her spirit face and newfound identity. The four students embark on various lessons set to them by their teacher Anatov, Defender of Frogs and All Things Natural. They take trips to the Leopard marketplace where they buy books and supplies for their lessons. They also accompany Anatov to Zuma Festival, a gathering of Leopard people from across the continent where athletic games and contests of magic are held, where important decisions are made by the most prominent members of the magical community. They travel there by “funky train,” a kind of magical, shape-shifting bus that runs off juju, but still needs the occasional push-start.
Akata Witch is much more than Harry Potter reworked into a Nigerian setting. Like its heroine who walks the knife edge between two worlds, Akata Witch is a highly original fantasy that belongs in a category of its own. Reading it is to discover a whole new world, one that restored my faith in fantasy literature and magic.
Akata Witch is not Nnedi Okorafor's first book. Okorafor has written several other imaginative fantasies for young readers, including Zahrah the Windseeker, another quest fantasy set in a world with plant-based technology, and Shadow Speaker, set in a post-nuclear disaster Sahara. For more about Nnedi Okorafor's work and life visit her website, which includes a marvelous interview with this emerging author of original speculative fiction. "I naturally see the world as a magical place," she says in the interview. "That comes out in my writing."
What are you favorite fantasy titles for youth readers? Can you recommend any other titles for youth readers set in Africa?
Sarah A. Wood, a reviewer for teenreads.com and kidsreads.com since 2003, is a lifetime reader and writer. She refuses to accept that there are people who don't like to read and stubbornly believes this is only because they have not met the right book yet.
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