Into My Bookshelf: Which Witch?

Still on my short bookshelf, I have to confess that we’re going to have to come back to a few books. Four, as a matter of fact. Three are Neil Gaiman books given to me by an ex-boyfriend that I’ve yet to read, one James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, which my mother got me years and years ago for a birthday and I honestly don’t recall a word of. They’re on my list, and I’ll return to them as soon as possible.

Instead, we’re moving on to yet another one of my childhood favorites, Eva Ibbotsen’s Which Witch?

Yes, I was a very predictable child. I liked magic stories. It probably didn’t hurt when Harry Potter came along. We’ll come to those books eventually, but let’s focus on this one.

This book was released in 1979, which in my mind makes it a children’s classic, and if I ever have children I’m passing this gem on.

The main character is a white witch, Belladonna, who lives in a world where magic is supposed to be dark. She wants to marry Arriman the Awful, who is looking for a wife in his hometown in order to fulfill a prophecy he thinks refers to a son he doesn’t yet have. She’s rescued a boy named Terence from an awful orphanage and he agrees to help her win the hand of this dark sorcerer. How? The impossibly difficult task of necromancy.

To top it off, they’ve got to battle the desires of an evil enchantress who is intent on winning, and the fact that Belladonna’s supposed familiar goes missing just before the competition.

I won’t say that there are unpredictable twists and turns, because as an adult it is all very obvious. But the wonderful thing about well-written children’s books is that they’re not obvious to the children, and even when they are obvious to adults they’re still a riveting joy to read. This is definitely one of those books. It’s a bit silly, but in an incredibly charming way. The characters are exaggerated just enough to be comical, but not so much that it’s painful to read.

This is one of the few books from my childhood that I would read over and over and over again without pause if I could. I would recommend it to literally every child at the right reading level, and if they weren’t a the right reading level I’d read it to any child who would sit still long enough.

I think the most charming thing about this story is that it’s uplifting, and even though it uses some familiar tropes it uses them as pieces of a larger story, not as the primary story in and of itself (which is something I’ll say in another post, coming once I finally get it back from my sister…. Probably the favorite book of my entire childhood).

So if you haven’t come across this book, I really do encourage you to check it out. I’d love to get thoughts of other readers of it! It’s always a good day to reminisce about childhood favorites.




Writing Outside Your Life Experience

One of the oldest, most repeated axioms in writing is, “Write what you know.”

There are some definite advantages to taking this vein. Obviously, when we write about things we have experienced we bring our own experiential knowledge to the table, something that increases accuracy and ability to improvise around the truth. We know our hometown better than most places in the world, for example. We know our high school best friend better than a stranger we see on the subway. Our ability to create settings and characters based on what we know is vastly improved, and this helps to create more viable, believable characters and settings.

Sometimes, though, we have to step outside our experience. If we didn’t, horror stories and mysteries would be pretty empty of excitement. Surrealism in literature would (probably) not exist. And great writers like Tolstoy would never write in the point of view of a woman, much less a dog.

The point is, art isn’t about exploring what we already know from the viewpoint we always see it in. It’s about looking at the world in different ways, or imagining other worlds. This involves stepping outside of our life experiences, and there are lots of ways to do this.

World-building is a common one, creating something entirely new. But this is very difficult to do anymore. Most fantasy comes out feeling a bit too much like Middle-Earth, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily new, either. And really, even writers like George R. R. Martin and Tolkien are basing their fantasy worlds off of history or politics that are familiar to them (War of the Roses, anyone?)

We don’t start with a blank slate when we sit down to write, and it’s important to remember our experiences and our studies whenever we try to create. But it’s also important to think about things outside the box.

One of my best friends as a writer is research. Natalie Cannon, for example, is a wealth of information on horses, medieval history, monks, and things of that nature. When I write anything about any of these things, it would be pretty stupid not to ask her many, many questions. Consequently, if you are writing about horses and don’t actually know much about them, I encourage you to check out her blog. She’s doing a series on horses for writers.

Recently, I’ve been working on a story that intersects heavily with drug culture. And in spite of my being a fairly adventurous artistic soul, I’ve never really done drugs. Especially the things this story covers, like LSD and cocaine. My ignorance was so much that until a week or so ago, I didn’t even know how people took LSD, or what exactly the appeal was in cocaine.

So I took advantage of my resources. As someone who went to college, I definitely knew people who did drugs (of many sorts), and people who knew people. I contacted some of these people for questioning, and they gave me all kinds of information: how LSD is taken, what the point of cocaine actually is, what some of their trips were like, etc. One person (a reader of mine, actually), happily told me about a website where I could read about the drug trips of other people with various drugs and drug combinations.

The internet. I’m telling you. You can find anything on here.

So yes, write what you know. But even if it’s something you don’t know, or maybe even can’t know (like exactly how a female might think about something), call in your resources. Interview people who know things, read about things, read about people who know things, and become savvy with the internet.

And when all else fails, as one of my writing teachers, Kevin Moffatt once said, make it up. You’re an artist. You’re not obligated to accuracy. Sometimes a convincing bluff goes a long way.

Into my Bookshelf: Seven-Day Magic

Welcome back to my bookshelf! Today we are going over the last of the Edward Eager books: Seven-Day Magic. In several ways, this is the weirdest book in the series – certainly the most unique – and in several of those ways, it’s a definite contender for my favorite.

First of all, Seven-Day Magic is the only book in the series with a set of children who aren’t present in the other books. I won’t say that it’s a stand-alone story, because their adventures intersect with the adventures from previous stories (as we have become accustomed to in recent books). Still, we aren’t getting a pair of stories. This may have been his original intention, to have another, eighth book with these same four children, however Seven-Day Magic was the last book Eager ever wrote, so we will never know.

The story surrounds four children who check out a book on their summer holiday, and they find that it contains magical power. If you ever wanted a book to introduce children to the magic of reading, this is a good place to start. The actual book they check out has magical properties, containing the adventures they inhabit, including the tales of previous books.

The appeal of this to a chronic reader is obvious. While I have developed a wariness of libraries among my other phobias (because there is just something unnatural about a building that quiet), the idea of a book that holds the secret to magical adventures is definitely an idea any bibliophilic child would appreciate. I don’t know how many public libraries still have summer reading experiences for children, to encourage reading lots and lots of books, but that was literally the only thing that ever got me into a library (except the occasional book sale, because those used books are just SO CHEAP it’s worth braving the library and its eerie silence, in groups, naturally). It inspired me to devour books at a rate that alarmed many an adult, something I wish I still had the time and energy to do.

Some of the most magical and influential reads of my life were devoured during summer reading. Finnish Folktales, for example, which later led me to the Kalevala. I’m sure I’m not the only one who was drawn into reading by the promise of prizes and, you know, beating all my siblings and friends.

Even if your library doesn’t have this program – or your community somehow doesn’t have a library – you can still get your children interested in reading, through the immortal excellence of Edward Eager, capped off with this excellent addition to his work: Seven-Day Magic.