Thursday 21 November 2013

Little Witches Bewitched, by Rhiannon Lassiter. Reviewed by Cathy Butler

Ever since Mildred Hubble first entered the portals of Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches in Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch (1974), and no doubt for some centuries before that, the idea of being a witch has had a strong appeal for young girls. In a world where, both as children and as females, they might seem to have been dealt a particularly powerless hand, witchcraft offers a way to leapfrog their elders and brothers into a position of wielding secret power over people and things. With female superheroes still a rarity, the witch remains one of the few figures through which such desires can be played out. No wonder it remains the costume of choice for Trick-or-Treaters. 

To indulge the fantasy of power without responsibility is however a dubious prospect for those who wish children’s books to educate, or at any rate not deprave, their readers. It’s also a poor formula for fiction in general, which thrives on difficulty and conflict. Witches must encounter problems that are hard to solve, even with the aid of magic, and the best writers in this tradition are careful in defining the rules of the game. 

The latest contribution to this genre is Rhiannon Lassiter’s clever and engaging book, Little Witches Bewitched. Lassiter knows this territory well, and she is ingenious in her navigation of it in the five stories that make up this volume about two young girls, Dulcie and Verity, whose Halloween encounter with a witch leaves them with magical powers of their own. The two are very different characters: Dulcie, a privileged only child whose indulgent grandfather owns a castle, might not have encountered Verity, a far less confident girl used being dominated by her older sisters, had it not been for their accidental meeting during a Trick-or-Treating session, but they become allies and best friends with a speed of which only young girls are capable. During their first adventure they attempt to undo the spell that has turned them into witches, but manage only to reverse the spells that tranformed Verity’s sisters and Dulcie’s nanny into an Arabian prince, a fairy and a Snow Queen respectively at the same time. While the supporting cast forget their metamorphoses, Verity and Dulcie look forward to new adventure – with a confidence fully justified by events.

Along the way, the girls pick up male companions in the form of a ghost (borrowed from Dulcie’s grandfather) and a witch’s cat, and even indulge in a little time travel to the Elizabethan age. Perhaps my favourite joke is Shakespeare’s complaint that he is always being bothered by travellers from the future, but while such throwaway lines are there to be appreciated by adult readers the book is aimed squarely at Dulcie and Verity’s contemporaries. The girls are fascinated and excited by magic, but they know that it is only one element of their lives, to be balanced against the demands of family and friendship. Enchantment is likely to elude books that are in a perpetual state of fluster about magic, but it flees too from those that are too blasé. Little Witches Bewitched strikes a happy middle course, and I look forward to reading about Dulcie and Verity’s future adventures in practical magic.

Little Witches Bewitched by Rhiannon Lassiter
Published by Babel Library: £5.97 
ISBN: 1493661140
ISBN-13: 978-1493661145
Also available on Kindle: £4.99

Cathy Butler's latest book is Twisted Winter (A&C Black, 2013) - "A chilling collection of terrifying winter tales for the darkest nights."


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