Flashback Fridays: Are you a good witch or a bad witch? . . .

The feared Wizard of the North has decided to marry and you’re one of the eligible Witches in this supernatural version of “The Bachelor”.  The witch who performs the spell of greatest black magic will be declared the winner.    You’re totally smitten with the wizard and long to win the competition, but there’s one very big problem–you’re not a wicked witch at all, you’re a good witch.   How can you win this competition?

Do you remember:

Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson (Scholastic, c1979)

I found this book while haphazardly browsing the shelves at the library.  Eight year old me rather liked the amusing title and figured  was worth giving it a try.  So I cracked the cover and was promptly absorbed into what was likely the first humorous fantasy novels I’d ever read.  I was instantly charmed and drawn in.  As a rather sensitive reader who had a tendency to refuse to read books that obviously had sad endings (it’s amazing what you can figure out from the book flap matter.), it was with a sense of some relief that I dove into this story.  The tone promised me something fun, something magical and something that I would still be happy with when I finished the book.  I read the story straight through in  a matter of hours. Then I read the book again.  For months and maybe years after that, I regularly sought out the book on the shelf to read again, especially whenever I just wanted to curl up with something comfortable.

I can still remember the book in my hands–it was an odd duck edition–the large print edition that had wound up in with the children’s books like a cuckoo’s egg amid the smaller, less remarkable covers.  It was a hardcover volume that had an enticing cover (hey, I was 8, of course I picked up books because of their covers!).  The large-print font was one of the features that made it stand out for me, and I loved everything about that book.  Oddly enough, thinking back on it, it may have been the only Ibbotson my library had at the time.  I don’t recall seeing other titles on the shelf, and I didn’t wind up reading any of her other titles until I was in college.

I’m pretty sure this was the cover, only the text was in English, of course.

But I owe Ibbotson to introducing me not only to humorous fantasy, but pretty much introducing me to British fantasy as a whole.

This particular book is about Arriman the Awful, a fearsome wizard who is given a prophecy that is interpreted to mean he must marry–and the sort of person he should marry would have to be a witch of the darkest powers.  Hence, the competition set up among the local witches.  Belladonna is a part of the local coven by default–she’s the only white witch around, so hanging out with others of the magical persuasion is better than nothing.  Still, she can’t really manage dark magic.  She’s more the bluebirds, roses and rainbows type.  That might not be much of an issue, except that she has fallen head over heels for Arriman.  Now to win the competition, she’ll need to do magic of the darkest sort . . . could a dark familiar make the difference?

It’s a cozy fantasy–full of wild characters and funny moments, but with some wonderfully sweet and heartful moments too.  The perfect sort of thing for the eight year old I was who wouldn’t have been ready for the kinds of dark characters and situations that populate more dramatic fantasy.  It’s a sweet book, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.  It’s the kind of story I’d still  curl up with in bed and enjoy.  Ibbotson plays with the tropes of what’s expected of witches and wizards and delivers a story that is unlike any of them.  All the while, it’s perfectly clear that the author knows exactly what she’s doing.  The author creates a world where the tone is light, the situations are often funny, but readers still invest in the story.  Rather than a Loony Tune skit full of boisterous hilarity, the humor is gentler, with heart behind it.  The characters are not truly grand nor heroic–they’re much closer to human, with all the flaws and foibles that imples.  We’ll laugh at the argumentative sisters who can’t agree on anything, but ache for one sister who’s lost the other.  We’ll snort at the sea witch who winds up summoning a baby kraken instead of a monster, but identify with her longing to be back home.  We’ll shake our heads at Belladonna yearning to be dark instead of light–but cheer for her to win Arriman’s contest, and his love.

After all this time, and a great many books, I still love this book.  Ibbotson is one of the few writers out there who managed to craft the perfect tone for this brand of fantasy.  And fortunately for fans, most of her books have remained in print, (or have been reissued on a regular basis) so decent library ought to have her titles on the shelf.  These are the perfect sort of stories to introduce younger readers into longer fantasy works, or coax reluctant readers to try something new.  They’re also perfect for when you get that reader that’s looking for fantasy that “isn’t scary” .

I can’t wait to introduce my own kids to her works.

Ibbotson fans, please share your own favorite titles in the comments!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on March 7, 2015, in Flashback Fridays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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