Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Mildred Hubble is a trainee witch at Miss Cackle’s Academy, and she’s making an awful mess of it. She’s always getting her spells wrong and she can’t even ride a broomstick without crashing it. Will she ever make a real witch?
Thoughts: I was a fan of the Worst Witch TV show back in the day. Even rewatched a few episodes lately, just for nostalgia’s sake, and was pleased to see that while the plot was still corny and not all the acting great, the glare of nostalgia hadn’t blinded me into thinking that the show was good when in fact it wasn’t. It holds up pretty well.
So getting the chance to finally read one of the books that inspired both that show and a (from what I hear) rather ridiculous movie starring Fairuza Balk and Tim Curry, was something of a childhood dream come true. (Seriously, watch this video of Tim Curry’s song from the movie, where he does his level best to use any word that rhymes with “Halloween.” “Has anybody seen my tambourine?”)
Sadly, the dream wasn’t all I’d hoped.
The Worst Witch was originally written in 1974, so it’s older than me, and as far as books for younger children go, it passes the test of time. There’s nothing in it that would confuse modern children, no mentions of old technologies or fads or anything of the sort, which puts it a step ahead of some other novels intended for younger audiences. It’s got a timeless appeal, and can be read by kids or parents from the day it was published to today without ever having to stop and explain something obsolete.
It’s incredibly difficult to read or review this book without making some reference to Harry Potter, so I’ll just come right out and say it: this book has so much resemblence to the HP novels that it’s practically like Murphy and Rowling collaborated for a while. If I were to say to you, “It’s a book where a child goes to a boarding school to learn magic, and they have a snobby rival right from the get-go, and the Potions teacher seems to hate them bust constantly praises the main character’s rival,” most people’s minds wouldn’t jump to The Worst Witch.
This isn’t a fault of the book itself. After all, this book was written decades before the first Harry Potter novel, so nobody can accuse it of being derivative. The problem here is that the characters have no depth and their actions have no explanation. Some of this can be excused since the series is intended for a slightly younger audience that Harry Potter‘s earlier books, and not every kid is going to point out that Miss Hardbroom’s malice and cruelty seem to come from nowhere, for example (at least Snape had reasons for his animosity toward Harry), but there’s one issue that I don’t think will escape many young minds: why is Mildred the worst witch? She literally gets called that by the school’s headmistress, and the reason, at least from what I can gather from the book, is that she’s a bit clumsy and isn’t adept at all her lessons.
And even this is inconsistant. She gets reprimanded for using the incorrect ingredients in a potion (which she wasn’t allowed to have the instructions for, and her reasons for making a mistake weren’t exactly illogical — she thought she’d forgotten an ingredient and said ingredient was one of the one’s set out as an option for students to use), and yet at the end somehow still manages to be awesome enough to turn an entire group of witches into snails and save the school from disaster. No progression of character, no learning as she goes, nada. Just getting tired of being told that she sucks, running away, and then when it counts, doing something incredibly difficult on the first try. Maybe this part will go over the heads of children reading it, but as an adult, it seemed to me like poor writing.
Perhaps the series improves as it goes on. I certainly hope so. There are the seeds of something good here, and the books have gone on to become timeless classics in children’s fiction, so I hope there’s more to them than this first book suggests. And perhaps I’m expecting more from kidlit than I ought to; I don’t have too much experience in reviewing books intended for this age range, after all, and I freely admit that. It’s probably the sort of book that I would have adored reading when I was 7 or so, and I wouldn’t have seen the problems in it that I do now. I suppose that begs the question of whether a problem is really a problem if nobody sees it; if kids like it, then where’s the harm in not giving characters any depth or motivation or consistancy?
Actually, in phrasing it like that, there is a problem. It’s not impossible for these elements to be added to fiction for younger audiences. It’s not impossible to add nuance and for kids to see it and even appreciate it. Miss Hardbroom’s cruelty is the best example I can think of to illustrate this. Children may not always understand why adults are mean, occasionally malicious, or why they get away with it so often. It may seem completely random to them, as it does in this book. And in that respect, the book gets points for realistic portrayal of a young child’s perspective. But there is always a reason, even if it’s a lousy reason, because people are more complex than one-dimensional one-trait things. Helping kids understand the reasons, to show them that people aren’t merely what’s seen on the surface, might be a better lesson than, “If you really need to, you can do the impossible.”
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)