Earwig loves her orphanage. She has friends, good food, and the matrons always give her whatever she wants. So it comes as a huge shock when a very odd couple decides to adopt her—and what’s more, the orphanage owners force Earwig to go along. In her new home, Earwig becomes nothing more than an extra pair of hands for the witch Bella Yaga, and the man gets odder by the day (Earwig swears he’s got horns). But Earwig has never run from a challenge. With help from Thomas the cat and just the right spell, Earwig is determined to get her way once more.
Diana Wynne Jones is a genius. Earwig and the Witch has the hallmarks of a traditional middle grade magic/fantasy book: witches and demons, cat familiars and potions and magic herbs. Nothing is particularly inventive, but in Jones’ hands it feels brand new. Even Earwig—the plucky orphan with a mysterious past—radiates originality: when was the last time you encountered an orphanage-loving orphan? Everything from her name (Earwig hardly inspires poetry or heroism) to her lack of destiny (that mysterious past plays but a minor role) defies stereotype, though she does have the cleverness expected of all your favorite middle grade heroes—pair her with Roald Dahl’s Matilda and they could rule the world.
I also appreciate Earwig’s easy acceptance of magic; it keeps the plot rolling and stays entirely true to her character. Unlike Harry Potter’s “I’m a wizard?!” incredulity, Earwig’s reaction is more along the lines of, “I’m stuck in a magical house where the doors only open for Bella Yaga, and there’s a scary hornèd creature about. Grr. I shall sulk and wander aimlessly until a clever plan lodges in my brain.”
At just over 100 pages, Earwig and the Witch is short enough for a quick read. Sadly, it’s also Jones’ last book: the author passed away last year. But with all the recent attention on Jones’ legacy, many readers will discover her books for the first time, and Earwig is the perfect introduction to the author’s brand of wonderfully ordinary magic.