An Embarrassment of Witches

Girls have always been fascinated by witchcraft, with its challenge to patriarchal norms, its feminine deities and spirits, its reclamation of otherness. Today, though, the lure seems stronger than ever. Magic answers a yearning for creativity and ritual in an increasingly controlling, conformist world. And at a time when kids are more and more concerned about the environment, a faith tradition focused on protecting nature can be empowering. (It’s not uncommon at climate-emergency marches to see signs reading, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn.”)

The female protagonists of three new middle grade novels reflect this proliferation of witchery. In THE WITCH OF WOODLAND (Walden Pond Press, 304 pp., $15.99, ages 8 to 12), Laurel Snyder’s Zipporah (Zippy) is a seventh grader after my own heart. She’s widely regarded as weird; she’s funny; she’s judgmental; she wears all black; she thinks about how to be a good writer.

Zippy’s oft-distracted parents don’t get her. And her classmates are changing in unappealing ways: “People touch tongues. That’s apparently a thing that perfectly normal people do. A thing they want to do.”

To Zippy, magic is comforting. She uses spells to get rid of zits, to become invisible to her teacher when she doesn’t know an answer, to make the light change so she doesn’t have to cross the street with the popular kids. But as she begins to study for a bat mitzvah she doesn’t want, deeply strange things happen. For one, a mysterious girl appears, and she has wings. “Actual wings. Long graceful wings.” She smells “like cinnamon and bonfire smoke. Like something from a dream.” This novel is genuinely bewitching. It’s sometimes eerie, it asks tough spiritual questions and it features a depiction of Yom Kippur services so lovely it brought tears to my eyes.

Like Zippy, 11-year-old Del (short for Delphinia) — the heroine of CONJURE ISLAND (Walden Pond Press, 320 pp., $15.99, ages 8 to 12), by Eden Royce — comes to discover the beauty in community. Del’s mom died when she was born, and her dad is deployed. When her grandmother takes ill, Del is whisked off by a great-grandmother she never knew existed to Nemmine Island, an invisible (to most folks) South Carolina barrier island brimming with Gullah Geechee lore. Del learns about the secrets her grandmother (once a famous singer) has been keeping, as well as the loss that suffuses Black people who’ve been forced into isolation from one another and their cultural heritage. She meets a huge alligator named Ol’ Lundy and a haint named Jube, makes a true friend, explores the ecosystem her ancestors once cherished that the modern world has largely destroyed. Royce evokes a near-tactile sense of this humid, green-scented place. She captures the power of conjure magic for those “who were brought to this country: afraid, trapped, without freedom, who tried to create a little bit of peace and safety in their lives.”

Twelve-year-old Ramya in Elle McNicoll’s LIKE A CHARM (Random House, 320 pp. $17.99, ages 8 to 12) shares with Del the realization that self-love can be an act of resistance. Her parents and teachers cause her to feel diminished by her dyspraxia (a disorder affecting movement and coordination). “There’s a price to being unlike other people,” she notes. “People can sense it. I grew up with faces frowning down at me in confusion and frustration.” But her difference turns out to be a superpower. She’s wired in such a way that she can “see through Glamour,” the tricks otherworldly beings use to make us see what they want us to see, and she’s immune to the persuasive force of sirens. Not only can her powers help save the world, but they may also heal her fractured Scottish family.

In Ramya’s Edinburgh, a bronze terrier statue comes to life. Kelpies (giant water horses) swim beneath the River Forth. The city’s Grassmarket has a literal grass market, with stalls selling enchanted straw, underneath it. McNicoll excels at describing surreal creatures: a tiny sprite with wings that look like autumn leaves; towering, emaciated fae with deep purple veins and oversize white eyeballs. The parallels she draws between wearing Glamour and masking — the compulsion of neurodivergent people, particularly girls, to work hard to pretend to be “normal” and agreeable — land solidly.

Stories involving spirits and witches (including “Where the Wild Things Are,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” and the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series) have triggered book bans and challenges. I initially worried that writing this review would put a target on these stories’ backs.

I forgot that in the last couple of years book banning has changed dramatically. These three novels are far more likely to be banned for featuring Black and Jewish characters than for witchcraft. According to PEN America,40 percent of challenged books last year feature major characters of color; 10 percent have “themes related to rights and activism”; and 4 percent feature religious minorities. Is it any wonder kids want to read about a magical world they have the power to improve?

Marjorie Ingall is the co-author of “Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies” and author of “Mamaleh Knows Best.”

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