Akata Witch is the story of Sunny, an albino Igbo girl who recently moved to Nigeria from the United States. As if she doesn’t already feel enough like she doesn’t fit in, she learns that she’s a Leopard person, which means she is capable of juju and other magical type things. She becomes friends with other Leopard kids, but they all come from Leopard families, so they’ve been raised in the culture and can talk with their parents about it. Sunny has to keep it secret from her family.
Mostly the novel is about Sunny and her friends—Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha—working with their mentors and teachers, and as Sunny learns more about the Leopard world, the reader learns along with her. However, there’s also an overarching plot about a ritual killer that only Sunny and her friends can stop. I’m almost tempted to call it a subplot because it’s mostly treated so casually, but it does play a crucial role in the climax of the novel.
Sunny lives in a very dangerous world, with death a constant threat. A lot of the themes are on the older edge of tween, but it’s a modern fantasy that doesn’t take place in the US or Britain, so it may well be worth letting your younger reader push themselves a bit if they’re interested in Akata Witch.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Violence against kids
The ritual killer targets kids. He’s attacked nearly 20 kids, killing many of them and maiming others. Many of these happen before the novel opens, but during the course of the book he gouges out the eyes of a seven year old and cuts the ears off a 6 year old. It’s a little graphic for the faint of heart. In the final ritual that he’s doing, he kills two toddlers, although thanks to the magic of Orlu they’re brought back to life and returned uninjured to their parents.
Caning, flogging, and other corporal punishment is totally typical and accepted. It’s a common punishment for disobeying Leopard laws. It’s often used as a threat, but both Sasha and Chichi have been beaten. Sunny’s English teacher asks her to beat the hands of her classmates because they don’t write as well as she does (this is twisted on so many levels). She refuses and her classmates are angry because the teacher still beats them—they think Sunny wouldn’t have hit them so hard. Sunny’s dad hits her frequently. She does stand up to him in the end, dodging his blows and informing him that this dynamic is over.
Violence against everyone else
Magic is dangerous, and death is a frequent risk. It’s clear that the adults and mentors of the Leopard world are prepared to explain to the kids’ parents why their kids are never coming home. Thankfully that never actually happens.
There are several brutal fights at school. Sunny is frequently beaten up, until she figures out how to stand up for herself, which she does by breaking a Leopard rule and getting in tons of trouble.
Juju is done with a knife, although it’s not inherently violent. When your juju injures another person (even a bad person when you’re in a fight against them) you get a sympathetic wound yourself, although this heals more quickly than a normal wound. Death can strengthen magic, so killing people is something that evil Leopard people do. The ritual killer cuts his own throat with his juju knife to bring an evil being into the world.
There’s a wrestling match to the death at a festival. It’s the championship, so it’s the best scholar warriors facing off against each other. Most people think this is awesome, but the four kids are absolutely horrified. Sunny met the losing wrestler before the match, so there’s a personal connection when he dies. He becomes a guardian angel, so he will live on, but we see his widow mourning him, even if she doesn’t seem shocked by the outcome.
Sunny’s dad wishes she was a boy and punishes her for not being one. He treats her very differently than he treats her brothers—he never slaps the boys like he slaps her.
Soccer is for boys. Girls shouldn’t even like it. Sunny blows everyone’s mind when she manages to get on a team and show up the boys. Someone points out that she’s made it easier for other girls to play in the future, and the boys say that’s true, as long as the girls play as well as Sunny does. Sunny wonders why girls are held to a higher standard than boys.
Sunny physically cannot tell her family about the whole Leopard thing—she’s magically bound so she can’t say anything. She sneaks out of the house on a regular basis, because she can’t explain where she’s going and probably couldn’t get permission anyway. Sometimes she has to actually lie to her parents, and she hates that.
Sunny’s mom won’t talk to her about her grandmother. Eventually, the secrets come out, although much of it is learning that her grandmother used to keep tons of secrets from her family. Sunny and her mom have a better understanding of each other after this, though.
Sunny is an albino. She lived in the United States. She’s a Leopard in a Lamb (non-magical) family. She’s a free-agent Leopard among people born into Leopard families. She’s the unwanted daughter in a family of sons. In every way, she’s an outcast, until she finds her group of friends and eventually learns more about her grandmother, which brings her closer to her mother.
Some women are Nimm, which means they choose not to marry (although they can still have relationships, and many are mothers). A lot of people don’t really understand this choice, and Nimm are often looked at as odd.
Sex and kissing
It’s known that some kids were born out of wedlock. Sunny is aware that sexually transmitted diseases exist. Sunny’s dad fears she’ll come home pregnant if he doesn’t keep her under control.
Some of the kids kiss. Nothing is discussed in detail, although there’s a little romantic tension.
The primary religions in the region are Christian and Islam, and there are trappings of both mentioned from time to time. Sunny’s mother is Catholic. Lots of other religions are mentioned in passing, but not in any detail. Religion doesn’t seem to be in conflict with magic.
A magical bus is driven by a guy who calls himself Jesus’s General and the bus is covered with Christian sayings. Apparently when the bus drives in Muslim areas, the quotes change accordingly.
The Supreme Being is a she.
Other various things
There isn’t a lot of swearing, but shit, ass, damn, hell, etc. all show up at least once.
There are a lot of things mentioned in passing that make this seem more appropriate for slightly older readers: HIV, venereal disease, drugs, spice cigarettes (Sasha and Chichi smoke occasionally—Sunny hates it), visions of the end of the world, etc.
Someone is caught with a gun in his possession and he good naturedly jokes about how he forgot he had it (nothing else comes of this—no reason not to think he just didn’t realize he was carrying a gun).
Chichi summons a spirit made of bugs and loses control of it—there are swarms of bugs everywhere until Orlu saves the day. Later, Sasha summons a bunch of bugs to attack someone.
The spirit world is a little freaky and very much overlapping ours. Evil beings try to cross the boundaries.
This is a great book for older tweens who love fantasy but are a little tired of the same old story. This is a bit familiar (magical kids learning how to be magical) while still being unlike the usual stories. A lot of the issues that seem adult are dealt with so casually that it probably helps if your kid has an awareness of some of them already—kids who understand that sometimes people do terrible things to kids will probably handle the ritual killer better than kids who haven’t really processed that reality yet. This book very much depends on your kid, but overall I’d recommend it for ages 12 or 13 and up. It will appeal to both boys and girls.
This book is the November 2015 Patreon choice.
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Published in 2011 by Viking
Read my personal copy