I saw yesterday on a blog I follow that Diana Wynne Jones died this past weekend. For those familiar with children’s literature, you probably know the name already. For those not, I’ve heard her described as “the queen of British children’s fantasy.” She was an incredible and prolific author–I’ve read more than twenty of her books, and they are truly excellent. If I’m browsing at the library and not turning up much, I’ll often wander over to her shelf. There aren’t many authors I do that with, and she’s probably the most reliable that I’ll find something sitting there I want to take home with me. She was still publishing–with one more due out later in this year–and it’s a wrench to realize there will be no more new books. She’s an author I will definitely miss.
By weird coincidence, I already had a review of one of her books planned for this week. It now seems especially appropriate.
Witch Week was the first book I ever read by Diana Wynne Jones, and I read it long before I discovered her as an author. I read it when I was young enough to not know who Guy Fawkes was when he came up (more reading of British classics solved that gap in my knowledge!) Years later I happened across another Diana Wynne Jones book–though now I can’t remember which–and started searching for her others, thinking I had found a wonderful new author. And she is wonderful–but not so new, as I discovered that I had already read Witch Week. Which only leaves me to wonder why I hadn’t looked for more of her books earlier!
Witch Week is set in a world very like our own, except that some people have magic–and witches are routinely burned at the stake. The story occurs at a boarding school, where an accusation has been made that someone in a class is a witch.
Laying out the plot makes it sound all very dark and grim, like The Crucible, perhaps. But that’s not how it is at all. There are a few serious moments, but the book is a comedy. The boarding school does create a more bleak backdrop than most of Diana Wynne Jones’ books (which tend to be set in a quaint village or a lordly manor or some truly fantastical other world), but the plot is predominantly funny.
Various students discover throughout the book that they have magic, but that doesn’t mean they’re experts at using their new powers. Riding a broomstick involves a lot of scrambling to stay on it, and arguments with the broom about where to go. Casting a spell to summon a missing pair of shoes brings every shoe in the school raining down–thousands and thousands of shoes. Using magic usually has funny results–and the suspense is kept up because it could have tragic results too.
Witch Week is part of the Crestomanci series, about Crestomanci the nine-lived enchanter, who keeps magic in order across many worlds. It’s more independent than most of the books in the series though–he only has a supporting role. And obviously I never realized it was a series the first time I read it.
Witch Week is not a bad place to start with Diana Wynne Jones. Charmed Life is actually the first of the Crestomanci series, so you might be better served starting there. Or you could begin with one of her independent ones–a particular favorite of mine is A Tale of Time City. But whatever you pick up, you’re not likely to go too far wrong. In all those books I’ve read by her, since the days when I just read Witch Week, though of course I liked some better than others, I think I can pretty well recommend them all.
Author’s site: http://www.dianawynnejones.com/dwjflash.htm
Official fansite: http://www.leemac.freeserve.co.uk/