|Diana Wynne Jones|
Since I started The Book Zone I have been incredibly fortunate to meet some fantastic authors whose work I have loved. It is always wonderful to see how passionate they are bout their work and about encouraging kids to read. However, for me there will always be a few regrets in my world of reading, mostly related to the authors I have loved but because they are no longer with us I will never get to meet and tell them how much I loved their work. Roald Dahl is the most obvious example, but on 26 March 2011 another much loved author also joined this list, much to the great sadness of her legions of fans worldwide. I am of course talking about the legendary Diana Wynne Jones, whose Howl's Moving Castle and Castle In The Air both rank amongst my all-time favourite fantasy stories. I therefore jumped at the chance when I was contacted by Tiffany at HarperCollins asking if I would like to review Earwig and the Witch, the last book Diana wrote before passing away.
Everyone knows that orphanages are horrible places. But Earwig has a surprising amount of power over everyone else at St Morwald’s Home for Children, and loves it there. So the last thing she wants is to be sent to live with the very strange Bella Yaga…
Earwig was left at St Morwald's as a baby. Unlike the other children, she loves it there, mostly because she has the run of the place and seems to be able to persuade people to do as she wants. Then one day Earwig is chosen to live with a very strange couple: Bella Yaga, her new 'mother', is actually a horrible witch. Earwig will need all her ingenuity (and some help from a talking cat) to survive…
Earwig and the Witch is classic Diana Wynne Jones, although it is written for a younger audience than the two books I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Compared to these it is a short story (140 pages with largish text and line spacing) that would have great appeal to the 7+ age range as a self-reader who for slightly younger children as a bedtime book read by a parent. Short though it may be it is still nothing short of wonderful and it still contains many of the DWJ traits we have come to know and love: a clever, resourceful protagonist; quirky, interesting characters; lashings of mystery and magic; and humour that will make you and your child giggle incessantly. The story is also accompanied by the beautiful (and equally quirky) illustrations of Marion Lindsay, images that in my opinion capture that tone of the story perfectly.
Earwig has lived in St Morwald's Home for Children ever since she was left on its doorstep as a baby, with the following rather unusual note to explain her abandonment:
“Got the other twelve witches all chasing me. I'll be back for her when I've shook them off. It may take years. Her name is Earwig.”
Differing from many orphanages in children's fiction, St Morwald's has been a very happy place for Earwig to grow up in, although this is in no small part to her seeming ability to get the people around her to do exactly as she says. She likes it so much there that whenever it was the day when people who wanted to be foster parents came to visit the orphanage Earwig would somehow manage to make herself very “unlovable”, and avoid being chosen for fostering. Until the day that Bella Yaga the witch, and her creepy companion Mandrake come calling, and without any hesitation decide to take Earwig home with them. So begins the greatest challenge of Earwig's life so far as she must find a way of exerting her control over this sinister and darkly magical couple.
I would not be surprised if this helps book helps to create a new generation of Diana Wynne Jones fans as those who read it grow up and seek out more of her classic works.
I feel a little mean in that I have one small criticism of this book though, and that is simply that it is that the ending comes around far too soon, and seems a little rushed. I am left wondering whether it was originally intended to be a series or part of a volume of short stories featuring Earwig, especially as that note that was attached to her when she was left on the steps of the orphanage seems to suggest that there could have been a wonderful back-story for Earwig to discover in the future. That one small (and admittedly selfish) gripe aside, this book would make a wonderful present for a child, both because of its story and its beautiful cover and illustrations.