Imogen Russell Williams chooses.
Witches recur perennially in the pages of children’s literature, whether as fairy-tale villains, or, more recently, as aspirational figures, especially in junior fantasy. The conception of witches as malevolent females, seeking to devour or destroy children by the use of evil magic, is increasingly balanced by the idea of witch as an appealing career option – many children dream of developing and honing supernatural powers, or of attending a magical school. (Most of the fictional witches I have chosen are benign, or at least ambiguous, oscillating back and forth over the line dividing good from evil – there is one old-school baddie, however, in Lewis’ White Witch.)
The Little Broomstick
Mary Stewart, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-1444940190, £6.99 pbk
Best known for romantic mystery novels and the Merlin trilogy, Mary Stewart is also the author of three superb books for children, of which The Little Broomstick (recently adapted into an animated film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower) is the best. Plain, lonely Mary Smith, doomed to a dreary autumnal sojourn with Great Aunt Charlotte, discovers her inherent power when a small black cat leads her, via a magic flower and the titular broomstick, to Endor College, a witches’ school where Mary poses as a pupil. But formidable headmistress Madam Mumblechook, and the sinister transformations she oversees, present grave peril…Stewart’s assured writing is atmospheric and crackling with menace, emphasised by chapter-head line-drawings from the inimitable Shirley Hughes.
The Worst Witch, and sequels
Jill Murphy, Puffin, various, £5.99 pbk
This amazingly long-lived series has only just reached its culmination – the final book, First Prize for the Worst Witch, came out in 2018, forty-four years after Mildred Hubble’s first appearance at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. Hapless, clumsy, well-intentioned Mildred, perpetual target of Miss Hardbroom’s sarcasm and star pupil Ethel’s ire, will surely be making the wrong potion, waking up frog-shaped, and defending her misfit tabby cat to the delight of generations to come. Murphy’s own illustrations perfectly evoke a sense of chilly stone, itchy uniform and perpetually untied bootlaces.
Diana Wynne Jones, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978-0007267699, £6.99 pbk
In a rogue alternate splinter of reality, witchcraft is illegal. At Larwood House, a school intended to suppress magic rather than to train it, many pupils have had parents burned as witches. The students are constantly scrutinised for manifestations of prohibited power – so it’s a serious matter when Mr Crossley receives an ominous note, reading ‘Someone in this class is a witch’… An impression of drab, pervasive danger, acutely observed boarding-school dynamics, and an appearance by the dashing Chrestomanci, nine-lifed enchanter and arbiter of the multiverse’s magic, make for a witch story elegantly balanced between real and imagined worlds.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and sequels
J.K. Rowling, Bloomsbury, various editions
While Rowling may be indebted to those who first built magical schools in fiction, none of her predecessors did so on quite such a comprehensive scale, or offered so vivid and detailed a fantastical refuge. Imagining life as a young witch or wizard at Hogwarts – choosing which wand, which broom, which subjects, which Quidditch position, and, most of all, which House – continues to enthral new readers, eagerly awaiting the arrival of an owl with their Hogwarts admission letter. There are many ways to be a witch in Rowling’s world – clever (Hermione Granger), eccentric (Luna Lovegood), or even old-school screeching evil hag (Bellatrix Lestrange). In the huge illustrated editions, Jim Kay’s gorgeous painterly work transports the reader still deeper into the world of the school (his green-clad oil painting of a severe Minerva McGonagall suggests a witch of piercing acumen, and in full control of her considerable power.)
Hansel and Gretel
Bethan Woollvin, Bethan Woollvin, Two Hoots, 978-1509842698, £11.99 hbk
Woollvin’s picture-books are invariably subversive, and this one is no exception, featuring Willow, an (almost) endlessly patient witch who struggles to contain the depredations of two greedy and ill-mannered children. Because Willow is a good witch, she remains calm as Hansel and Gretel eat her house and damage her possessions – until she can maintain her composure no longer. The dismayed faces of the two children – turned, at last, into cookies for their crimes – and the killer last line (“Because Willow was not always a good witch”) play delectably with the idea of what it might take to push even the best of witches into using their powers for evil.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
C.S. Lewis, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978-0007323128, £5.99 pbk
The White Witch is an outright supervillain, a ‘wicked tyrant’ who keeps an entire magical realm perpetually bound in ice, and murders its true ruler. Her fatal charm and formidable gift for reading character, playing on Edmund’s isolation and jealousy to tempt him into betraying his siblings, give the book much of its unforgettable frigid peril; without the paranoid fear she imparts (‘Even some of the trees are on Her side”’), the idea of a fantasy land at the back of a wardrobe would be nothing more than a charming whimsy. (She has also caused countless children to believe Turkish Delight more delicious than it actually is, and subsequently to be disappointed.)
Celia Rees, Bloomsbury, 978-1408800263, £7.99 pbk
When Mary Newbury’s grandmother is hanged as a witch, she narrowly avoids the same fate, escaping to the New World only to find the same dangerous suspicions rising around her. Is a woman with the power to heal doomed to be forever persecuted? In this compelling story, told through a seventeenth-century diary discovered in the present day, Rees examines misogyny, mistrust, and the ways in which communities police their women’s knowledge, bodies and freedom.
Margaret Mahy, Orion Children’s Books, 978-1510105058, £7.99 pbk
This terrifying, romantic coming-of-age story, set in suburban New Zealand, features Laura, a teenage girl contending with an ancient, devouring force that seeks to drain her little brother’s life. To save Jacko, Laura must allow her own nature to be changed – from ‘sensitive’ to full-blown witch – by the mysterious Carlisle women, and their still more mysterious son Sorry, by whom Laura has been fascinated for months. The Changeover won the Carnegie Medal in 1984, but its complex, thrilling themes of power, identity and choice are still deeply resonant today.
The Wee Free Men
Terry Pratchett, illus Laura Ellen Anderson, Corgi Children’s Books, 978-0552576307, £7.99 pbk
The dauntless shepherd-witch Tiffany Aching is one of the late Terry Pratchett’s sparkiest and most satisfying characters, and the Discworld stories in which she stars are the perfect entry point to his wider oeuvre for young fantasy lovers. During Tiffany’s first outing she discovers, aged 9, that her ability to see things differently may mean she is her people’s witch; makes an alliance with the boisterous Nac Mac Feegle, small but unstoppable blue Scots pictsies; and saves her little brother from the monstrous Queen of the Fairies. Gutsy, clear-sighted, sometimes pig-headed, Tiffany is a courageous, intelligent and commonsensical witch, and a compelling heroine.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Kelly Barnhill, Piccadilly Press, 978-1848126473, £6.99 pbk
The people of the Protectorate leave a baby as yearly tribute for the forest witch, a sacrifice which they hope will preserve them from her depredations. But Xan the witch, a kindly creature who lives with a poetic swamp monster and a tiny dragon, merely takes the babies to adoptive families on the other side of the forest, feeding them starlight on the way. When she inadvertently nourishes one baby with moonlight, though, she fills her up with magic; and this child, Luna, Xan decides to keep, locking her magic inside her until she is thirteen. But as Luna’s powers begin to emerge, a young man from the Protectorate sets out, determined to free his people by killing the witch…Barnhill’s gorgeous, poetic, humorous Newbery-winner focuses on perception distorted by fear, and on growing into and accepting one’s changing self.
Imogen Russell Williams is a journalist and editorial consultant specialising in children’s literature and YA.