Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones
originally published 1982
Bullseye/Knopf, 1st printing, 1988
Genre: Fantasy, young adult, children’s lit, juvenalia
Synopsis & Review: Strange things are happening at Larwood House, a boarding school for witch orphans and other troublesome children. The day before Halloween, Mr Crossley receives an anonymous note: SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH. The problem is, anyone in 6B–excepting perhaps model students Theresa Mullet and Simon Silverson–could be a witch. There’s the odd girl out, dumpy Nan Pilgrim, and loner Brian Wentworth, as well as the bad Dan Smith and the nasty Charles Morgan. And in these troubled times, Mr Crossley would like nothing more than to avoid the notice of the inquisitors. After all, witchcraft has been illegal in England for nearly four centuries now, since the first Witchcraft Edict of 1612, but the bonfires still burn, and anyone caught helping a witch will be sent to prison. It doesn’t stop with the note, either.
When flocks of birds interrupt 6B’s music class, and every pair of shoes in the entire school is summoned to the quadrangle suddenly overnight, even the students know there’s a witch about. Suspicion falls upon Nan once her classmates find out she’s been named after–and is a descendant of–the Archwitch Dulcinea, and the rest of the girls begin tormenting her. At the same time, Charles begins to suspect that he just might be the witch, but it soon becomes evident that there’s too much magic around for just one witch. When Brian Wentworth disappears, suspicion falls upon the with–whomever it may be–and inquisitors are called in. Fearing for her life, Nan enlists the help of a classmate, and soon what’s left of the Witches’ Underground is involved, too. Will everyone at Larwood House be tortured and imprisoned? Or will a powerful spell save 6B?
Witch Week was a birthday present for me when I was nine or ten, and since then, I always read it during Witch Week as a celebration of my birthday (1 November). I could read it any time of the year, though, because it’s just enchanting. (WORDPLAY!) Actually, it’s kind of shocking that I have never read anything else by Diana Wynne Jones. I’ll go ahead and blame the Hawaii State Library System for that grievous error (though I do see that they have plenty of her work now).
Here’s the thing, though: Witch Week (and the rest of the Chrestomanci series, so I hear) faces inevitable comparisons to Harry Potter. You’ve got witchcraft, England, prepubescent kids, boarding school, so on and so forth. And I gather there are also parallels between Harry Potter and Christopher Chant (we won’t even begin discussing Tim Hunter). I came pretty late to the Harry Potter party, possibly to my detriment, because I just cannot love those books the way so many people do. Maybe it’s because I had already given my heart to such good juvenile fantasy (Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, for example)–but I know people who love both. I tolerated Harry Potter through the entire series (which I read in exchange for a friend finally watching The Neverending Story–I did not come out the winner here, folks), but tolerated was it. Sorry.
I’m going to try not to draw odious comparisons here, but things I love about Witch Week include: Fully-developed, complex, often damaged characters–be they child or adult. None of the characters were caricatures; adversaries tend to be narrow-minded and/or stupid instead of UNSPEAKABLY EEEVILLL, and the protagonists all have their share of faults. Wynne Jones doesn’t condescend to her audience, avoiding a patronizing tone. The world the writes is very real, and she deftly mixes magic into it, without going for the obvious joke or relying on cutsey conceits. The relationships between the children are almost horrifyingly real, from the open hostility experienced by Brian, to the indifference of other children witnessing brutality. The children are selfish, venal, and often plain daft, but they’re also enormously relatable. (Nan’s gym episode–and the anxiety she feels when they pen her in the washroom–is a viscerally humiliating one, and a difficult scene to read. And I cannot tell you how many people have thought I was giving them stink eye a la Charles Morgan.) It’s well-paced, moving along at a snappy rate, and extremely engaging.
Witch Week is an enormously clever, funny, imaginative novel, and I highly recommend it. And I will be sure to investigate the rest of the Chrestomanci books, at the very least!
Read also: The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper, Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Sorcery & Cecilia by Patricia C Wrede and Caroline Stevemer, Lizard Music by Daniel Manus Pinkwater, A Walk in Wolf Wood by Mary Stewart
Cover: It’s based on the book, sort of. You have schoolchildren riding various implements, against a night sky, but it’s the wrong children on the wrong implements. I do love the girl in the plaid skirt’s ensemble, though.
They stood there, while Miss Cadwallader was saying grace, looking out over the heads of the rest of the school, not very far below, but far enough to make a lot of difference. Perhaps I’m going to faint, Nan thought hopefully. She still knew she was going to behave badly, but she felt very odd as well – and fainting was a fairly respectable way of behaving badly.
She was still conscious at the end of grace. She sat down with the rest, between the glowering Charles and Nirupam. Nirupam had gone pale yellow with dread. To their relief, Miss Cadwallader at once turned to the important lord and began making gracious conversation with him. The ladies from the kitchen brought round a little tray of bowls and handed everybody one.
What was this? It was certainly not a usual part of school dinner. They looked suspiciously at the bowls. They were full of yellow stuff, not quite covering little pink things.
‘I believe it may be prawns,’ Nirupam said dubiously, ‘For a starter.’
Here Miss Cadwallader reached forth a gracious hand. Their heads at once craned round to see what implement she was going to eat out of the bowl with. Her hand picked up a fork. They picked up forks too. Nan poked hers cautiously into her bowl. Instantly she began to behave badly. She could not stop herself. ‘I think it’s custard,’ she said loudly, ‘Do prawns mix with custard?’ She put one of the pink things into her mouth. It felt rubbery. ‘Chewing gum?’ she asked. ‘No, I think they’re jointed worms. Worms in custard.’
‘Shut up!’ Nirupam hissed.
4 November – 5 November