[Small Chirp] Shoving our YA heroes out of the nest

A few mid-novel thoughts on Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

“You are a Leopard Person only by the will of the Supreme Creator, and as we all know, She isn’t very concerned with Her own creations.” (Akata Witch, 96)

Akata Witch (Akata Witch, #1)This post will contain only a few, mild (and out-of-context) spoilers for the book.

I am halfway through Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, a YA novel I am co-reading with the lovely lady McLicious over at comp lit and mediaphilia. When I started reading it, I wasn’t sure what to expect – I know precious little about Nigerian folklore, and only a little bit more about the culture and political situation in the country.  So far, the things that have really caught my eye (and imagination) are the small details woven into the narrative that are different from what I’ve come to expect from the YA adventure.

me: My favorite bit of the excerpts though, are the parts where the Creator is mentioned.
 
McLicious: She
 
me: Yeah, and the fact that she’s not paying attention to her creations. It’s an interesting and refreshing change from the all-knowing, all-caring creator.

This tangential characterization of the creator (just half a sentence, really, in the middle of a page) brings me to a larger, emerging theme in the story. The mentors and adults of the story are a bit like that too. Sunny’s parents care about her (well, at least the mom does), but they also give her a large amount of independence. In the magic world, the adults are even more hands off. Antonov, Sunny’s new mentor, sends Sunny and her three friends to brave peril with very little sympathy and open disclosure: “Fear? Get used to it. There will be danger; some of you may not live to complete your lessons. It’s a risk you take. This world is bigger than you and it will go on, regardless.” (Akata Witch, 119)

me:  This kind of “You’re on your own, and you better find your footing fast” is theme I’m seeing in a lot in their adventures. At first, it really frustrated me. I wasn’t okay with how…casual and dismissive the characters were to Sunny. I wanted a bit more coddling! But once I started asking myself why I was annoyed, I figured, it’s also because I expect a different dynamic from this kind of story.
 
McLicious: Yeah, it’s such an interesting perspective. And since this book still follows the kind of classic fantasy structure of having an all-knowing, wise old man to be a guide, it’s cool to have that counterpoint.

Again and again, Sunny and her friends are pointed in the right direction – and then given a shove and told to go on and stop dawdling. There’s a clear expectations that Sunny should be able to figure out how to get around a watchful parental eye to get to lessons or make her way over a deadly, rickety bridge with its hungry elemental guardian. And if she fail (and falls)? Life goes on.

Akata Witch isn’t the first book to serve up that message, and certainly not the first YA book, but this kind of thing does stand out. In a story that is Harry-Potter-meets-the-Circle-of-Magic, this much intentional agency given to kids is startling. Sure, in the Harry Potter series,  Harry, Hermione, and Ron too race through mazes full of killer chess sets, battle basilisks, and take on entire armies of soul-sucking creatures, but they do it as part of a rebellion against the expectations of their guardians (Dumbledore, other teachers, parentals). In Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, Percy is initially taken out of the dangerous world so he can learn his lessons in safety. It’s only a twist of fate and some (reluctant) divine intervention that sends him questing. Luke Skywalker is expected to finish his training with Yoda on an abandoned jungle planet before even thinking about flying off to save the world.

Overcoming adult resistance is a staple part of any quest. In each Harry Potter book, part of the trick to getting to the action bit of the story  is detecting what exactly Dumbledore (or some other adult) isn’t telling Harry so he can go ahead and track it down. In Star Wars, Luke runs off to battle Darth Vader against Yoda’s advice.

I am halfway through Akata Witch, and so far, Sunny and her friends also find themselves forced to figure out what’s happening from clues – but not because the adults are trying to shield them. Sure, Sunny is having to lie through her teeth to her parents to get to magic class, but her mentors expect her to navigate and juggle her two lives. And yes, the adults know there is danger in learning, and they send the kids out anyway.

“When Antonov saw them come in, a look of such relief passed over his face that Sunny understood then and there just how close they’d come to death.” (Akata Witch, 134)

In a world where power (and money) comes from learning, knowledge is worth that trip through the Night Runner Forest of deadly fiends.

And if I am reading non-existent themes in a story that is still only half-read, I’m kinda glad I am, because it makes me stop and think about what young adult fantasy tells us about the relationships between adults and kids, teachers and students, and between the individual and the world.

And that’s pretty awesome. 

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What do you think the role of mentor is (or should be) in YA literature?

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3 thoughts on “[Small Chirp] Shoving our YA heroes out of the nest

  1. This sounds really intriguing. I’ve always had a preference for stories where the kids had more agency and I also know nothing about Nigerian folklore; I’ll have to keep an eye out for this book.

  2. As a mother, I find it a tricky balance, that line between fostering independence and keeping a watchful eye. I have a toddler-going-on-teen who wants to do everything himself, and *I* want him to do everything for himself, so long as he’s safe. No, I do not think I could send him into the world and say “life will go on” if he makes a bit slip up. Part of me wonders if that’s a cultural thing, too…

    Well, anything that can get some deep discussion going is great. And the whole point of reading is to open our minds. Yes, I think I might have to fit this one into my list…

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