And I'm not even counting as work the new reading I'm doing for the fantasy class. I love it, but I do feel like I'm holding auditions when I read these novels. Fortunately, they won't get their feelings hurt if I don't pick them. This year, I've changed the rules a little. I used to have a firm only-in-print-paperbacks rule to keep textbook costs down. But I'm bending that rule now, assigning about 5 books that are so new they are only out in hardback, with the expectation that, since it's a LEEP course, many folks will get them from libraries. That's a reasonable expectation for all my classes these days, I've found, as economics make it more expensive to go to school. So I'll ask my students to buy or borrow the 35 novels we'll read in fall, knowing that many of them will just want to buy them anyway. And pointing out the hardback-only books as good ones to try to borrow! This is one of those....
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
This is a new twist on one of my favorite "genres:" children's group capers. I just love stories where a bunch of people crowd around together, each of them uniquely portrayed, but with a well-developed group dynamic too. (Diana Wynne Jones, Hillary McKay, Trenton Stewart, and many more authors write in this "genre.") Akata Witch is set in Africa, where protagonist Sunny is Nigerian-born, American-raised, and then has come back to Nigeria. She's also albino, and gets picked on a lot at school because of it. Her friend Orlu introduces her to Chichi, and things pick up when they initiate her into the Leopard people, revealing that she is even more different than she previously knew. Sunny's magical abilities make her a natural-born Leopard, a person with spiritual abilities that manifest in the physical world (as distinct from the Lambs, those born without special powers). The threesome becomes a fabulous evil-fighting foursome with the addition of Sasha, whose American family has sent him to live with his African relatives because of his rebelliousness. The balance of the group is key. They are two boys (Orlu and Sasha) and two girls (Sunny and Chichi), two Africans (Orlu and Chichi), one African-American (Sasha), and Sunny, who feels American having lived there for her first nine years of life, but is also Igbo and Nigerian. Sunny "walks between" different worlds, with her mixed background and fair albino skin. The diversity of the group gives a flavor for the Nigerian setting; each does magic in his or her native tongue, and that's Igbo for Orlu, Efik for Chichi, English for Sasha and Sunny. As they travel around, they also meet people who speak accented English from all over the world, a trope that Okorafor uses subtly to emphasize the diversity of people who come from Africa.
Okorafor strikes the right balance for readers in the late middle grades (generally 6th and up) between Sunny's introspection about her deceased grandmother's status as a Leopard and the group's adventures. They learn swiftly together, traveling to Leopard Knocks, the secret home of the Leopard people who are born with special abilities, visiting the teacher Anatov, buying books from the magic bookstore... there's a hint of Rowling's Diagon Alley here. Each of them finds a teacher who will continue their instruction as they grow. Well, each of them but Sunny, who has met the woman she hopes will become her teacher under bad circumstances. Sunny frightened her chronically bullying classmate by revealing her spirit face, thereby breaking one of the central codes of the Leopard people. She meets her teacher while under punishment for this violation.
But they have to grow fast, because bigger things are afoot than Sunny's misbehavior: the fab foursome is desperately needed because there is an evil man, a serial killer and maimer of children, on the loose in Nigeria, and he must be defeated. In fact, he is reading himself to summon world-devastating evil. Overall, I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys a solid fantasy read. The characters are delightful, well-drawn while being action-oriented kids up for an adventure. There's a more ominous sense of danger here than in many fantasy books for young people: "More is at stake than your lives" (p. 310) comes up multiple times. Early on, Anatov chides: "It's as I taught you. The world is bigger and more important than you." While it's more fearsome, it's also a more humbling and humble perspective than most fantasy writers take. Yes, you are here to save the world, but the world would also go on without you. There's weightiness but also balance in that thought.