Book Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

A gorgeous story of magical realism in modern-day Nigeria that captivated me.

3.5/5 stars


synopsis for reviews 2

What Sunny Saw in the Flames transports the reader to a magical place where nothing is quite as it seems. Born in New York, but living in Aba, Nigeria, twelve-year old Sunny is understandably a little lost. She is albino and thus, incredibly sensitive to the sun. All Sunny wants to do is be able to play football and get through another day of school without being bullied. But once she befriends Orlu and Chichi, Sunny is plunged in to the world of the Leopard People, where your worst defect becomes your greatest asset. Together, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi and Sasha form the youngest ever Oha Coven. Their mission is to track down Black Hat Otokoto, the man responsible for kidnapping and maiming children. Will Sunny be able to overcome the killer with powers stronger than her own, or will the future she saw in the flames become reality?

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my thoughts for reviews 1

I picked up this book wanting something different, wanting to break out of the bubble of what I usually read. Akata Witch was exactly what I needed.

The first thing that drew me into this book was Sunny, our protagonist. She had a clear voice that made me connect with her from page one. Sunny, an albino who lived in New York until she was nine and then moved back to Nigeria, is a constant outsider. She struggled to know how she fit into her new country, Nigerian ethnically but raised as an American. Her confusion and frustration was only amplified when she gets dragged into the magical world of Leopard People, where she continues to be an outsider and an anomaly. Though I have no personal connection to her struggles, her character was written in such an honest and open way that I felt deeply empathetic to her pain.

It is worth noting that “akata” is a nasty slur for African Americans in Nigeria. Using it in the title was a bold choice by the author, but one that captures the outsider nature of the main character perfectly.

Through Sunny’s character and the story as a whole, Akata Witch gives a vivid window into the complexities of Nigeria’s cultures. Now, I’m about as white as possible, so I came into this novel with my only real knowledge about Nigeria’s cultures coming from my art history class’s African art unit. Still, this book helped me understand more than just the broad strokes of life in Nigeria, discussing the nuances of the region, like the way different ethnic groups interact. Akata Witch immersed me in Sunny’s culture, making it accessible and familiar.

Though it is written for a middle grade audience, it does not shy away from discussing the complexities of Sunny’s life, including the sexism and prejudice she faces as an American albino girl in Nigeria. With other African American characters, the story even touches on issues of racism in America.

But Akata Witch’s setting goes beyond than modern day Nigeria with the story’s magical realism elements. I’ve seen a lot of reviewers saying that this book’s fantasy world building is nothing more than Harry Potter set in Nigeria, but I think that criticism is superficial and unfair.

Yes, Sunny is an outsider Chosen One suddenly drawn into a complex magical world, but the world that she becomes a part of is drastically different from HP. To refuse to see the complexities of the author’s world-building, combining multiple Nigerian ethnic beliefs with her own twists, to paint it as simply HP all over is naive and frankly disheartening.

I loved the magical elements of this book. They were quirky and compelling, combining Nigerian cultural traditions with a playful magic system that stretched across the globe. I loved that the author chose to have the magical system based entirely around the acquisition of knowledge. Some of the world building felt almost like a video game (in a good way), and I would say it is more fair to compare this book’s world to Ready Player One than HP (but that might just be me).

I also loved the positivity of the magical system, which is rooted in the idea that flaws in the “real” world are the roots of one’s power in the Leopard world. Sunny’s albinism, which people sneer at for making her a “ghost,” allows her to turn invisible, and her friend’s dyslexia allows him to reverse the effects of magic. I felt like this was a nice twist to work into a middle grade book, although to older readers it may feel somewhat obvious.

The side characters were really successful for me. I loved the group that Sunny befriends, because they were not perfect for each other. They bugged each other and pushed each other, adding a realistic dynamic to the story that would have been lacking if they had gotten along immediately. Each character, even the more minor ones, had a clear personality and presence.

I found the author’s writing style to be welcoming and smooth. Her imagery and characterization were impressive, bringing the story to life. Still, I had trouble with the pacing of this novel, which stems mostly from the fact that this book is middle grade.

I don’t read a lot of middle grade. I did not realize that this book was MG until I had started it, and while I still loved the story, I think I would have liked it more if I were not so committed to the YA genre’s style.

The exposition of this book was careful and thorough, taking up most of the first half. I loved that I got a clear understanding of the world and its magic, but after a while, the constant exposition started to hinder the pacing of the story for me. The story structure just felt like it was written for a younger audience, sacrificing swift pacing to make everything abundantly understandable.

This is nothing against the author or the story. Once I realized that it was a MG story and adjusted my expectations, I had fun with all of the world-building that dominated the story.

Would I have enjoyed the story more if it was faster, grittier, and darker? Maybe, but probably not. It would have been more like what I usually read, but it would have lost the playful charm that made me love this book in the first place.

The ending of this book saved it for me. The pacing sped up and the story started to tug at my heart-strings. The main subplot, which had felt underdeveloped throughout, came to the forefront and gave the book the drama it needed for a powerful ending.

Still, I wanted more from the ending. I felt like Sunny never really transformed or mastered being a Leopard Person. While that worked well with her outsider status and her constant self-doubt, it held the story back from having that cathartic, triumphant ending that I felt Sunny deserved.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone that is looking to broaden their reading horizons this year. Keep in mind that this is a middle grade book and appreciate it for its creativity and playfulness—and for its deft handling of sensitive cultural and societal conflicts—and you will love this story.

As I cannot possibly do this book justice, here is a review written by a Nigerian reviewer that comments thoroughly on the African cultural influences in this book. (Warning: it has minor spoilers) Also, here is a review written by an Ibgo (Sunny’s ethnicity) blogger.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you think you will read this book in the future?

Problematic Moments and Trigger Warnings: (A new section where I call out books for problematic moments and alert readers to possible triggers. Please note I am by no means an expert on either, but I will do my best to research the books I review as I write this section. I added this to help readers, but I cannot promise it will be perfect. I am still learning, and any critiques you have will be greatly appreciated. If I missed something in either category, tell me and I’ll edit the review to include it.)

Problematic Moments: Honestly, this book does not have anything blatantly problematic. There is a strong theme of physical punishment throughout that made me really uncomfortable, but I know that different cultures have different attitudes toward it, so this is more of a heads-up than a criticism.

Edit: Also, the handling of disabilities in this book is ableist. I am able-bodied, but reading posts by disabled bloggers discussing magic’s relationship with disabilities made me realize that the connection between disabilities and magical powers in this book is somewhat ableist. Also, Sunny’s disability goes away halfway through the story, which is definitely ableist in the sense of a “magical cure.”

Trigger warnings: This book is pretty tame, but TWs for physical punishment, (a little bit of) mental health stigma, and sexism (though most of the sexism is called out on page).

Discussion Post: You Cannot Read Them All, So Make the Books You Do Read Count

One of my goals for 2017 is to read more diversely, but I do not think I can say I accomplished that goal if I do not follow with a second, related resolution: read less problematic books.

Yes, we can have problematic favorites. I have a lot of them. I’m doing my best to understand their problems and to reshape my view of some of my favorite books based on others’ critiques. I have a whole lot of privilege in my life, but I’m trying to look past it and to become a more aware, conscientious reader.

In this spirit, I have been adding diverse books to my TBR while scratching others off it when they are called out for harmful representation. Some of the books I have ex-ed out are upcoming releases, but most of them are books that have existed for a while and that I meant to read eventually.

A lot of the books I crossed off my TBR list were ones that I was never extremely passionate about reading anyway. It does not feel like a big loss to make a mental note to avoid a book that I had not yet felt compelled to pick up, especially if it had existed for months or years already.

But other books? They are written by favorite authors. They are continuations of beloved series. They are books that I wanted to rush to defend when people first called them problematic.

Thankfully, I listened instead of jumping in rashly, and now I see where other people were coming from. It was a rough transition, but one I’m proud of making.

There was one thing that I constantly had to remind myself of throughout the process:

I can read any book. There are hundreds of thousands of books out there, with new ones being published every month. There is literally no such thing as a “must read”—no matter how hyped a book is, or how much I love the author’s other work.

I keep seeing favorite authors’ books being criticized, especially when new releases are announced. I’ll be honest: my first impulse is to ignore the criticisms. It’s my favorite author, I think. How could I not read everything they write?

But then I catch myself, and remind myself that I don’t have to read anything

If I don’t read a favorite author’s new book, does it actually matter? If I don’t read a hyped book, who cares?

I’m the one who will be experiencing the stories. I’m the one who will be giving up my time and money to enjoy the work of authors. What books other people think I should read—even if that “other person” is just Me from a year ago—should not matter. That’s part of growing as a reader and as a person.

I read about 50 books of my choice a year. That’s a tiny drop in comparison to the ocean of books out there. That means I need to think carefully about which 50 books I decide to A) spend money on, and B) read, review, and feature on my blog.

Reminding myself that there is no way for me to read every book that exists helps me deal with not reading books that I always assumed I’d read. With so many non-problematic (or at least less problematic) books out there, why would I give my time, energy, and support to blatantly problematic books?

I can read anything. And every time I remind myself of that, the excuses for continuing my dedication to problematic favorites get less and less believable.

What do you think? Was this post relatable? Have you given up any favorite authors when they were called out? Do you think this advice will be helpful in the future?

Top Ten Diverse Books I’m Excited to Read in 2017

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

Reading more diversely is my main reading goal for 2017. There are books I own that I want to read, backlist books that I have been meaning to get to for ages, and upcoming releases that promise that the future of YA is a lot more diverse than its past. These are of course not the only diverse books I want to read this year, but a place to start at least.

Books I Own

1. When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore



2. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor



3. If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth



4. Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova



Backlist Books I Want to Own

5. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

cover simon vs the homo sapiens agenda


6. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz



7. Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour



Upcoming Releases

8. You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner



9. When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon



10. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee



11. Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee and K.E. Ormsbee



12. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas



Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which diverse books do you want to read this year?

What Looking For Myself in Books Taught Me About the Need for Diversity

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the need for more diversity in YA literature. I’m excited that every time I go on my Twitter feed, someone is saying something new about the importance of characters breaking the standard white/cis/hetero mold. What really helped me grasp the enormity of the change that needs to occur was reading other people’s personal stories about the effect non-diverse stories have had on their lives and their identities.

I have seen countless bloggers talk about their desire to see themselves represented in their favorite books and to read their own stories. Hearing so many different bloggers express this frustration got me thinking about whether I actually see myself in the books I read.

On one hand, the answer is an unequivocal and incredibly privileged YES. I’m a white teenage girl—quite literally the default for YA protagonists. Nearly every book I pick up has a main character whose skin I could slip into, and it is only through hearing other people talk about not being able to do this that I’ve realized how lucky I have been.

On the other hand, I’m an introvert with a deep-seated fear of standing up to authority or society. I touched on this in a post I wrote about reading YA as a girl who cries a lot, but I’m going to explore it more now. Keep in mind that this is just me rambling to myself, trying to get my thoughts in order, and if something I say rubs you the wrong way, please tell me, because the point of this is to grow as a person.

My favorite protagonists are dramatically not introverts. They are the badass women who stand up for what they believe in, defy authority, flirt with skill instead of self-consciousness, and sass everyone in their general vicinity. And honestly? I love reading about them. They are everything I am not, but they also make for amazing stories.

So when I started really thinking and realized how few main characters I relate to, I thought I didn’t care. Girls like me don’t bring kingdoms to their knees or go on spur-of-the-moment life-changing road trips, but those are the stories I wand to read. Reading is an escape, a chance to be someone I’m not…so why would I care that I don’t get to read about myself?

But then I really started thinking about it, and I realized that my favorite protagonists are the ones I can relate to. The shy girls who do brave things anyway. The quiet girls who save the world but never get over that doubting voice in the back of their head. The girls who count on extroverted best friends to get them to do crazy things, because there is no way they would do them themselves.

When I think about the characters whose stories captured me the most, the ones that truly grabbed my heart, they all have characters I can actually relate to. Of course, other stories with different protagonists capture me as well, but never in the same way.

I also realized something else. Sometimes, in stories with brash, unabashed protagonists, there are scenes that are so awkward, so painfully socially cringey, that I actually have to stop reading and remind myself that it isn’t real. That the main character is braver than I am. That the main character can deal with awkwardness better than I can.

Scenes like these are so common in literature that I don’t question them anymore; they’re just a roller coaster I have to get through to enjoy the rest of the story.

And yet…why am I willing to struggle through scenes that make every socially awkward nerve in my body scream because I assume other people find those scenes fun?

The answer, of course, is that the larger stories are worth it. Still, it was only by realizing how much I’ve shoved aside what I personally like in the name of enjoying the author’s overall story that I started to understand what it would be like if you had to do that for something as fundamental as the main character’s identity.

I have it easy. No matter how out-of-touch I feel with a protagonist, I still 99% of the time relate to them in terms of gender, sexuality, and/or race. Nevertheless, it was important for me to explore the times I didn’t relate to the protagonist to empathize with others as they beg authors to write their own stories.

It is easy as a white/cis/hetero person to see people talking about diversity and feel like you don’t have a place in (or a right to take part in) the discussion. However, I think if we all looked at ourselves closer, we would find some part of us that empathizes with the frustrations people are sharing right now. It would probably seem like a small change, but this discussion needs all the empathy it can get right now.

Why We Need Diverse Entertainment

I wrote this piece for my school’s newspaper about the need for diverse entertainment. It is more formal than most of things I post on this blog, but I wanted to share it, because this is definitely a discussion being had in the bookish world, and the current push for diverse literature is a movement I fully support.

Diversity has become the buzzword of the entertainment industry. Sexually, racially, and physically diverse characters are taking center stage in new movies, TV shows, and especially in young adult books. This sudden uptick in wide-ranging representation poses an important question: do we really need this much diversity in our entertainment?

Advocates of diverse entertainment argue that the answer to this question is an obvious YES. By creating storylines that feature characters that break the normal straight, white, and physically enviable mold, writers offer their readers a unique chance: to read their own story.

LGBTQ+ people should be able to read love stories that are not solely heterosexual. People struggling with body image should be able to recognize their figures on television, instead of watching a parade of golden ratio women take leading roles. Non-white people should be able to see members of their culture as protagonists instead of token background characters. People suffering from mental illnesses or living with disabilities should be included in fictional narratives as more than inspiration for the “more able” main character.

The simple answer is yes, we need to push for diversity, because it is not yet a reality in the entertainment industry.

Moreover, we need diversity in entertainment because the current landscape is a myth. The world is not made up of straight, white size-two women and muscled men with all other races and identities crammed in the background. In a tweet on Oct. 11, children’s book author Laura Ruby eloquently illustrated this point.

“If books are here to teach kids about the world, what does it mean when books don’t reflect the world?” she asked.

It is the twenty-first century, a time of rising social movements advocating equality of all types. How many Black Lives Matter protests must we see before we realize that the sentiment extends beyond cop-related violence? How many Pride parades have to dominate cities before we realize that the LGBTQ+ movement is not a niche issue? How many body-positive ad campaigns have to spread like wildfire across social media platforms before we realize that people are tired of the size-zero ideal?

We need diversity in entertainment because without it, social equality will forever be handicapped. The entertainment we consume is a reflection of who we are—and one of the most potentially powerful forces of change in our lives. Until the entertainment industry pushes the exclusive boundaries that they have imposed on themselves, consumers remain trapped in an unrealistic world. There is immense potential to change minds in entertainment, because seeing diversity brought to life directly contradicts the hatred and fear of ignorant masses.

We need diversity in entertainment because we live in a time of change, and diverse art is both the cause and effect of this movement.