Reading Akata Witch is like reading a burst in someone’s imagination. The pages are filled with magic and mythology and two cultures colliding. The author, Nnedi Okorafor, is a Nigerian-American, and the merging and separating of these two cultures is part of the intricacy of this novel. That’s right, this is a young adult novel about a young girl with magical abilities who just might be able to save the world with her trusty group of friends. The story is based on both fact and fiction, myth and reality, and this comes through on every page. Myths of spirits coming to life and greeting the human world, as well as myths of magic as old as time. Reading it as someone who grew up knowing none of these myths can be a bit disorienting, but Okorafor provides a storytelling arc that is both introductory and compelling. The story follows Sunny, a twelve-year-old girl, who just found out that she has magical abilities. Sunny and her friends must fight an evil man who is kidnapping children and attempting to bring an evil spirit back to life.
Part of the power of Okorafor’s writing comes from her main character. Sunny, unlike her friends, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha, is unaware of her magical abilities until she is twelve. Sunny is a “Free Agent.” Her powers have always been there, but they have been dormant her whole life because her parents have no magical powers. Sunny is timid, but powerful and prideful. She introduces readers to the Leopard world as she unlocks her own powers. She has to unlock her power on her own, but she has friends who guide her along the way. Through these friends and teachers, Okorafor shows young readers the power of friendship. Sunny’s friends balance each other; they feel anger for one another, but they also feel so much love. Sunny and Orlu are calm and collected, while Chichi and Sasha are passionate and spontaneous. They use their own separate abilities, but they fight alongside one another. Sunny teaches young adult readers that everyone has ability, a power within them, but they need to have courage to access it, and they need to have friends who support them.
This lesson is especially powerful for young readers who are so often not represented in literature: women and minorities. Sunny is a female character who defies the typical gender stereotypes of women present in so many novels and movies. She is a strong independent character who plays soccer with the boys, and wrestles someone to the ground if they insult her. Sunny does have a romantic interest, but this hardly interrupts her life. She is much more focused on honing her own abilities than chasing after a boy. She is also calm and focused on her goals. The setting of the novel is as unique as having an Albino-Nigerian girl as the main character. Okorafor is a Nigerian-American so she could have easily made her novel more approachable by setting it in America, but instead she chose to set it in Nigeria. From the pepper soup to the myths intricately woven into the narrative, this story is a true homage to Nigeria and the novel has a story and themes that will attract any young reader.
Sunny is unique in many ways. She is albino, but African; she is Nigerian, but born in America; and she is a Leopard, but she is also a Free Agent. Many people call her “Akata Witch” because she moved from America and many of the children believe that Albinos are witches. Despite all of these supposed weaknesses, Sunny is a strong character from the start. She uses her differences as strengths. Her light-skinned appearance makes it easier for her to become invisible. She sweeps out of her house, unheard. She is light on her feet and is able to dribble a soccer ball seamlessly around other players, dancing and laughing as she does so. This makes it easier for her to anticipate her enemy’s moves. Sunny’s initial innocence is the real power of this book, because it touches on every child’s innocent, fearful nature. Sunny is afraid to experience this world that she has never known in the same way that children are afraid of the world outside of their own homes. Okorafor teaches that magical ability is based on lineage and bloodlines, but more than that it is based on strength. Sunny truly finds her abilities when she finds the power to focus and look inside of herself. Because even though she is albino and an outcast at the beginning of the novel, in the end she literally has the sun inside of her and the power to banish all evil.
Nnedi Okorafor writes African-based science fiction, fantasy and magical realism for children and adults. She was born in the United States to two Nigerian parents and weaves African mythology and settings throughout her novels. Okorafor has written five young adult novels and two children’s books: Zahrah the Windseeker (2004), winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature; The Shadow Speaker (2007), winner of the CBS Parallax Award; Long Juju Man (2009), winner of the Macmillian Writer’s Prize for Africa; Akata Witch (2011), an Amazon.com Best Book of the Year; Iridessa and the Secret of the Never Mine (2012); and Akata Witch 2, which will come out this year. Okorafor has also written six adult novels: Who Fears Death (2010), winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel; Kabu-Kabu (2013); Lagoon (2014); and The Man (to be published in Nigeria). She has written one play, Full Moon (2005), produced in Chicago, and one screenplay, Wrapped in Magic (2011), filmed and produced in Nigeria. Many of her novels have been optioned for films. Okorafor is a professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Buffalo and currently lives in Illinois with her daughter.