CBR10Bingo: Brain Candy (BINGO!)
Before this year, I wasn’t much of a YA reader. I saw myself as more of a Serious Reader, too serious for the frivolity of YA lit. And while my favorite books are still likely to be denser and heavier literary fiction and hard sci-fi, I’ve come to enjoy the balance that YA brings to my library with the quicker read and lighter tone even when the subject matter isn’t so light. Thus, the Brain Candy square was always going to be a YA book. It was just a matter of picking one.
Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch certainly hit the mark as brain candy, exactly what I needed to cleanse my palate of the bitter aftertaste left behind by my last read. Yet I can’t tell whether I’ve got a case of book-reviewer’s block or I’m just so indifferent to this book that I can’t bring myself to write anything about it, because I finished it nearly three weeks ago and haven’t been able to muster up the energy to write anything, and now I’m four reviews behind.
Sunny is a 12-year old albino girl living back in Nigeria after spending most of her early years in the United States. She’s something of an outcast, of course, with her unusual appearance and all kinds of long-held superstitions about albinos, but she’s made a few friends who turn out to be Leopard People, a secret society of magical people spread across the globe. From there on out, the book covers the same too-familiar territory we’ve all read many times before.
Sunny and her friends are educated in their powers by wise, old, stern, grouchy Leopard People who live in mythical, fantastical places hidden from other people by spells and charms. Sunny is forbidden from revealing or discussing her powers with anyone, including her family, and then of course gets in trouble when she uses her powers against bullies at school. There’s the obligatory wildly popular but mortally dangerous sporting competition. And of course, there’s an existential threat against the Leopard People that can only be defeated by the particular combination of skills possessed by this scrappy group of young novices, and their wise old mentors can’t tell them anything about what they need to do to save their people.
In the end, each kid’s special powers didn’t really matter that much when they reached the obligatory climactic battle, an oddly confused and rushed scene that was frustratingly, almost laughably vague. Until that point, I’d been holding out hope that everything would come together for a strong finish, since I appreciated much of the world-building and found Sunny to be a compelling hero. Instead, the whole thing just sputtered out, reinforcing the importance of a strong ending. In stark contrast, the other Nigeria-set YA fantasy novel I read this year, Children of Blood and Bone, was similarly formulaic in story, but the climax was so thrilling that it made up for the other shortcomings and left me wanting more.
And yet, I still have to say: representation matters. We all deserve to see ourselves portrayed as heroes in literature, in television, in movies. For teen and tween girls of African descent, I can imagine how empowering it would be to read a story with characters who look like them and share their experiences. I can imagine they would connect to these stories in the same way I connect with Carry On and Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda. I wish I’d enjoyed Akata Witch more as a whole, but then again, this book wasn’t written for me.