Saturday, February 4, 2012

A Review of Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones

Did you watch the movie, Howl's Moving Castle? It was based, of course, on a book by British fantasy writer extraordinaire, Diana Wynne Jones (see my overview of her work in this post from 2009). To the sorrow of many reader fans, Ms. Jones passed away last year after losing her fight with cancer. Earwig and the Witch, published January 31, 2012 in the U.S., is, as far as I know, her last book.

Earwig and the Witch is for younger middle grade readers and is a very slim read, but it packs a lot in a few short pages. In fact, I'm pretty sure you will find yourself wishing for a sequel once you hit the last page. In her signature style, Jones pops magic into a rather ordinary contemporary world. Meet Earwig, a girl who was left at the orphanage as a baby with the following note:
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.

The Matron promptly changed the baby's name to Erica, but it turned back to Earwig easily enough.

Earwig's best friend is a timid boy named Custard. Earwig does not want to be adopted, considering she has the whole orphanage running just how she likes it. So she is not pleased when she is adopted—by a towering man with horns only she can see and a woman with a "raggety, ribby look to her face."

Sure enough, the man is really a Mandrake and the woman is a witch looking for cheap labor. When Earwig figures out that Bella Yaga has no intention of teaching her any magic, she sets out to rearrange things. Then readers will start to understand that Earwig didn't control the orphanage with boring old magic, but by being a very clever child. Of course, it helps that she has a magic cat to help her in her new abode. (A close read will reveal glimpses of the Baba Yaga story in the bones of this one.) Here's Earwig's first supper with the Mandrake:
To Earwig's surprise, the kitchen was an ordinary kitchen, quite warm and cozy... Earwig looked at the Mandrake. He was looming in a chair at the end of the table, reading a large leather book. He looked like an ordinary man in a bad temper. Even so, he did not look like a man who would have gotten supper ready.

"And what have the demons brought us today?" Bella Yaga asked in the bright, wheedling voice she always seemed to use to the Mandrake.

"Pie and chips from Stoke-on-Trent station buffet," the Mandrake growled, without looking up.

"I hate station pie," said Bella Yaga.

The Mandrake looked up . His eyes were like dark pits. A spark of red fire glowed, deep down in each pit. "It's my favorite food," he said. The sparks in his eyes flickered and grew.

Earwig quite understood then why she was not to disturb the Mandrake.

The book has pen-and-ink illustrations by Caldecott winner Paul O. Zelinsky. They are a bit twisty and often show Earwig scowling, but then, she is a witch girl. (Her face does soften when she's petting Thomas the cat.) My favorite piece is an entire spread showing a sort of time-lapse look at Earwig rushing around the witch's workroom working on a spell—we see 11 versions of Earwig by my count.

Earwig and the Witch could have been longer, it could happily have been three books about Earwig instead of just one, but it's not. Still, Earwig and the Witch is something very nice indeed: the treasure of one last satisfying read from the marvelous Ms. Jones.

Note: I have included both the British and U.S. covers for your reference (above left and above right, respectively). Which do you like best?


Louise Bates said...

I have adored Paul O Zelinsky ever since I was ten and my parents got me a hardcover copy of E Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle which he illustrated (my first-ever hardcover - I still have it, in almost-pristine condition!). I can think of no one better to capture Diana Wynne Jones' blend of whimsy, wit, and depth!

Not sure which cover I prefer now, but I know as a kid, I would have despised the girl depicted on the US cover, while the kids on the British one would have at least made me willing to pick the book up and give it a chance. But that's just me - I also hated all the Roald Dahl book covers, so I was clearly a weird kid when it came to cover illustrations!

KateCoombs said...

E. Louise--I like the British cover better, too. But the U.S. cover does go well with the interior illos! I'm going to see if I can find that cover of The Enchanted Castle online. My copy has a very dull piece of art.

Kim Aippersbach said...

I did not know Diana Wynne Jones had a last book. And it's illustrated by Paul Zelinsky? I will be besieging my local bookstore for this one!

(I do like the British cover best, though. Maybe because it looks more like a Diana Wynne Jones book.)

Brandy said...

I can't wait to read this one.

I'm with everyone else-the British cover is the one I like best. I asked Bit to see what a kid would say and she likes the British one better too. (She is, in fact, annoyed that she will have to settle for the US one.)

rockinlibrarian said...


Just that snippet reminded me why I love her so much and now I am sad that this is the last. Even though I still haven't caught up on her backlist yet.

I like the British one best, too. It seems more purposely odd, while the American one seems like maybe it could have been just badly drawn by accident.

KateCoombs said...

The Brit cover wins! :)

Darla D said...

My copy just came in at my library, and I almost hate to read it, since it's the last one. Sniff. Definitely the British cover, though.

KateCoombs said...

Darla--I had mixed feelings, too. I really think she would have written more books about Earwig if she could have.