The seventh and last book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out in July of 2007. Remember how sad you were when you read it all quickly and got to the end, and realized there was no more of that universe to immerse yourself in? That wasn’t just me, right?
I loved reading the Harry Potter stories, just as I loved reading The Chronicles of Narnia, Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series and Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles as a kid. Something about fantasy novels would tickle my imagination like nothing else. But I always felt a twinge of sadness at reaching the end of a book (okay, let’s face it – I still feel this way when I finish a good one). When a book sets the stage for a possible sequel or series, that sadness is ameliorated a bit!
That’s just one reason I really enjoyed reading Nnedi Okorafor’s YA fantasy novel Akata Witch.
The premise is familiar; a young girl comes of age in challenging circumstances. That young girl, Sunny, is a social pariah for a number of reasons. Born in America to Nigerian parents, her family only relocated to their homeland just prior to the narrative. Not only that, but Sunny is an albino. She can’t even play outside with other kids, because she’ll burn too badly in the sunshine. Sunny manages to make a ragtag group of friends, and Even an inexperienced reader can probably recognize where this is going, but knowing the way doesn’t make the journey any less fun, engaging, and imaginative.
The coolest thing about this particular work is that it takes readers to a completely atypical setting with a relatable protagonist. Africa is often exoticised in the U.S., even in history and social studies classes, but Okorafor’s writing helps make it a real place in the minds of young readers, and one that’s not so different from where many American kids live. But whether readers focus on the similarities or differences between their experiences and Sunny’s, they’ll find a totally new kind of magical world built up on a mythology that hasn’t been overdone yet in media.
Sunny and her friends do face off against a truly terrifying villain – a serial killer motivated by black magic, or “bad juju,” which might make it inappropriate for readers younger than 4th or 5th grade, but older readers – even early high school students – should find a lot to enjoy about this novel. And my favorite part – the sequel, tentatively titled Breaking Kola, should coming out soon.
Akata Witch was also a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, An Amazon.com Best Book of the Year, a YALSA Best Book of the Year, and a Junior Library Guild selection, so you don’t have to rely on my word. But if you or your students do read it, drop me a line and tell me what you think!