Medicine might go down with the help of a spoonful of sugar, but Mary Poppins herself would surely agree that middle grade fiction is a sweet enough medicine in its own right. It’s the genre I reach for whenever I’m feeling a little down or disillusioned; my fictional heart home. It’s a genre where it’s okay to be cheerful and upbeat, where wonder doesn’t need to be tempered by cynicism.
I’ve had this Eva Ibbotson double volume for years now, having picked it up after reading an essay of hers in a writing handbook back when I was in uni. For some reason, now felt like the right time to read it, and I’m pleased to report that my readerly instincts were correct.
Both stories in this double volume feature an irresistible, irrepressible charm; they’re buoyant, cheery and filled with that unapologetic whimsy that is so wonderfully a part of middle grade fiction. The volume opens with Not Just a Witch, in which witch Heckie sets up a well-intentioned vigilante group known as the Wickedness Hunters and sets about turning wrong-doers into animals. Off to the side we have a fun farcical love triangle (yes, yes, I said something nice about a love triangle) and a case of deception involving a young furrier doing his best to pull the, er, wool over Heckie’s eyes regarding his true intentions about his sudden interest in transforming everyone around into a rare white leopard.
It’s a deceptively slight story: everything seems bright and bubbly on the surface, but beneath the burbling surf quite a few narrative sharks circle menacingly. Heckie’s intentions might come from a positive place, but her decision to take it upon herself to mete out punishment to those she deems deserving of it is actually quite chilling. Ibbotson guides the reader through this quite gently, however, and younger readers probably won’t quite feel the creeping feeling of amorality that older readers might. Heckie gradually widens her sphere of influence, for example, identifying and punishing “wicked” people on an increasing scale; her charisma results in her having quite a powerful influence over younger characters Daniel and Sumi, and there’s a definite cult of personality going on here.
My quibble with Not Just a Witch is that the younger characters almost feel extraneous, and we don’t really get a good sense of who they are. This is Heckie’s story, and though I know it’s pretty much mandatory to have a reader-aged character in a middle grade novel, this one could have easily been just as successful, if not more so, by narrowing its focus to Heckie and her shenanigans. Kid-devoid exceptions seem to be made for animals and paranormal beings, so perhaps a witchy lead could work as well? Because, honestly, Heckie’s hilarious. Take this quote: “At first Heckie had kept this money in her mattress, but [as an animal witch] she was worried that the mice who lived there would nibble it and this would be bad for them.” Or this: Oh, I wish I was an Australian witch! Everything over there is so queer and extinct-looking!”
The hilarity and farcical mischief continues in Dial a Ghost, which is a sheer delight through and through. It’s exceptionally imaginative and deliciously silly, and is what I’d imagine Neil Gaiman might have done with The Graveyard Book had he just consumed a few bags of red jellybeans.
In need of a place to haunt, the Wilkinson family ghosts (“who became ghosts quite suddenly during the Second World War when a bomb fell on their house), sign up to the Dial a Ghost agency, which specialises in matching haunters and hauntees. Though they’ve been paired up with a couple of lovely nuns looking for some pleasant spooks to OoooooO their way around a quaint little manor, a filing mix-up sees them (rather than the commissioned Shriekers) shunted off to Helton Hall instead. The Wilkinsons settle in to manor life quite quickly, and strike up a friendly relationship with young Oliver, an orphan who’s just moved into the hall himself. But things start to get messy when Oliver’s uncle Fulton Snodde-Brittle realises the mix-up: after all, he’s paid good money for a bunch of terrifying ghosts to scare Oliver to death so that he might claim Helton for himself.
Yes, this one’s full of tropes and cliches, but Ibbotson utilises all of these with a wink and a nod, and their inclusion helps offset some of the more gruesome stuff involving the Shriekers, who are quite terrifying, as well as the all-pervasive theme of mortality that might otherwise get to be too much for young readers. There’s so much humour and warmth at play here, and for a bunch of intangible beings, the characters are nicely rounded. Choice quotes: “He was such a clever man, a German professor who had been a teacher in the university before he fell into the canal from thinking about poetry instead of looking where he was going” and “The [nuns] did, however, get the idea that their new guests [the Shriekers] were not completely happy and relaxed. ‘Of course it’s often like that with married people before breakfast,’ said Mother Margaret.”
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