When I saw Akata Witch in Overdrive, it was dubbed the “Nigerian Harry Potter“. I had always been a fan of the Harry Potter movies, but didn’t care enough about the writing in the actual books. So I never truly appreciated what this could really mean to a fan of the series. But I knew enough about it to be intrigued and gave it a try.
The book is very similar to Harry Potter in a couple of ways. The main character is Sunny, an albino African-American who is bright and athletic, but always self-conscious and unsure of herself. Early on, she meets Orlu, a dyslexic and quiet classmate, and Orlu introduces Sunny to Chichi, a talkative and sure-headed girl. They also meet Sasha, an African American boy from the U.S. who prides himself in being a troublemaker. Sunny soon learns that Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha are all Leopard People, who have the power to control juju. All four characters are born with special abilities. The four learn more about juju (and for Sunny, about the Leopard People themselves), but soon realize that they will have to face a great evil in Black Hat Otokoto.
While this book certainly builds a Harry Potter-esque world, it finds ways to stand apart. There are certainly shared plot points. In place of wands that choose the wizard, each Leopard person has their own juju knife. In place of Diagon Alley, there is Leopard Knocks. While there is no prophecy indicating that Sunny is the chosen one, the Leopard elders determine that the four friends will be tasked with taking down Black Hat Otokoto, the book’s stand-in for Lord Voldemort. Okorafor wonderfully builds a universe nearly as reach as the wizarding world J.K. Rowling so masterfully crafted.
But there are some interesting differences. There is a currency in the Leopard world, called chittim. However, this chittim operates unlike any currency we will ever know. It is a quantifiable way to measure learning. Whenever someone learns something new, they are granted chittim, the bronze ones being the most valuable and the gold ones being the least. It highlights the philosophy that material wealth is subordinate to the wealth of knowledge one can gain. Further, Leopard people are born with abilities that they can perform without the help of juju, and these abilities are tied directly to things we would consider “disabilities”. For example, Orlu is dyslexic, which leads to difficulty in his regular classes. However, in the Leopard world, he is given the ability to undo any juju, similar to how his dyslexia undoes the spelling of words. The Leopard people own their perceived weaknesses and realize them as strengths. These are messages that are so important to young readers. Learning is a reward in and of itself, and your unique qualities make you stronger, and not weaker.
Will this book ever compare to Harry Potter? I wouldn’t think so. The book seems to get caught up in world building that it sometimes feels that the plot takes a backseat. The ending especially felt rushed, and as readers, I felt as ill-prepared as the characters for the ending. Further, at times, the secondary characters feel one-dimensional. But the main characters are engrossing and the universe is immersive. You get the sense that there are Leopard outposts throughout the world, and that there are sects of Leopard people with wildly varying opinions. You get an idea of the vastness of the juju that could be performed. And you realize that the Leopard world and the non-Leopard world are tightly knit. The book may not be perfect, but you care for the characters. The plot may feel rushed, but it is a lot of fun. For readers who need a comparison, Harry Potter is a fair one, but this book stands above its comparison, despite its flaws. I would certainly recommend this to other readers.