My new funny series Bella Broomstick is about a young witch who is so bad at magic, she is expelled from the Magic Realm and sent off in disgrace to the Person World to be fostered by human beings instead.
Writing about a witch was wonderfully liberating for my plot, as I always had that extra element of magic to play with. And with magic comes chaos …. If spells made things better they would be no fun for the writer or the reader. But, nine times out of ten, no matter how well-meaning, magic ups the stakes and makes things far worse than they were before. Once you take a vanishing potion; for instance, you can’t just stop being invisible when it suits you.
Perhaps this explains the enduring appeal of witches and wizards in children’s fiction. From the youngest picture books – like Meg and Mog, Winnie the Witch or Room on The Broom – the benign but bumbling witch is a familiar figure with her pointy hat askew and cloak flying out behind her. She is usually accompanied by her long-suffering cat, bat or frog. That animal friendship is another great appeal at the heart of witch stories. Certainly, the minute Bella swept into my imagination, her show-off kitten, naughty Rascal, was clinging upside down to the broomstick right behind her.
As children begin to read for themselves the rich tradition of witches continues with The Worst Witch series and Harry Potter, of course, to name just two. Behind these friendly central characters, lurks the longer darker tradition of Macbeth’s crones or terrible fairy tale figures like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. Close your eyes now and I bet you can instantly picture Walt Disney’s terrifying wicked witch holding out the shiny red apple to Snow White. Remember those finger nails …. Yikes! Frightening but fascinating too. Even when that ‘evil’ heritage is stripped away and we see friendly witches at the heart of stories, I think something of that darkness always remains. It may be in the strange rules and moral uncertainty of the world they come from or in nothing more than a little whiff of naughtiness, but it is there. These are witches, not sparkly fairies, after all. The appeal is different … and slightly more dangerous.
The use of magic reflects fundamental questions at the heart of children’s fiction and in the child’s own development too. “What if I could solve this complex emotional problem simply by waving a wand?” the writer and child seem to ask themselves. It is never that simple, of course. Think of the glorious comic havoc caused every time Samantha twitched her nose in the television series Bewitched. In the end it is never the scope of magic which is the truly interesting bit. It is its limitations. Magic cannot bring people back to life, force them to fall in love with you or provide limitless gold – those things, like friendship, must be fought for, suffered through or hoped and dreamed of. It is the emotional growth of the character, not nifty wand work, which always triumphs and brings satisfaction in the end … But how brilliant to have a bubbling cauldron of magical fun with potions, spells and flying broomsticks along the way.
Thanks for that piece Lou! We’re really enjoying Bella Broomstick as a read aloud – it’s got nice pacing, and is ideal for Smallest (age 6). She’s fascinated by witches having read many of the books mentioned above.
Bella Broomstick publishes tomorrow and is available from Amazon (Bella Broomstick) and all good bookshops.
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