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One Good Thing: Witch Week, a bookish treat for the witches and weirdos in all of us

Diana Wynne Jones’s classic is a joyful love letter to middle school weirdos.

The cover of the Diana Wynne Jones book Witch Week.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

“Someone in this class is a witch,” says the anonymous note that kicks off everything in Diana Wynne Jones’s immortal 1982 middle-grade fantasy novel Witch Week.

The idea that someone at Larwood School might be a witch is a very serious accusation in the world of Witch Week, where magic is both real and a capital offense. The book otherwise takes place in a world that is nearly identical to Britain in the 1980s, except that “Magic it!” is the rudest swear a child can think of, and there are somber reports on the radio about witch burnings.

Yet magic keeps breaking out joyfully and anarchically all throughout the grim boarding school misery of Larwood. The dorms are frigid, the popular kids are sadistic and bogart the warm seats by the radiators, and the food smells unappetizingly of sink drains — but at night the kids feast on contraband food hidden beneath the floorboards, and one boy’s sneakers turn into a black forest gateaux. A flock of wild birds swoops in to disrupt the drudgery of morning hymn singing. And one girl makes good use of her hideous mauve bed sheets by wrapping them around herself during a midnight flight on her broomstick, which cuddles up to her like a pet pony.

The girl in question is Nan Pilgrim, one of Witch Week’s two central point-of-view characters. The second is Charles Morgan, and while other perspectives occasionally slip onto the page — through journal entries or just straightforward perspective switches — it’s Nan and Charles, those oddballs and weirdos, who are at the heart of this story.

Both Charles and Nan harbor a creeping suspicion that they themselves might be the witch in their classroom, although neither one of them can account for all the magic floating around Larwood. (Charles conjures the birds, and Nan rides the broomstick.) They also know that they’re the kinds of kids who their classmates would consider to be obvious witches — namely, losers.

Charles wears glasses that give him a blank, creepy stare, which he uses aggressively against anyone he considers a threat. To stop himself from doing magic accidentally, he burns a blister into his finger so he’ll always remember that it hurts to be burned, which he will be if he’s outed as a witch. Meanwhile, Nan — a classic middle-grade heroine if ever there was one — is fat and bespectacled and short-tempered, and she never can climb the rope in gym class.

Witches at a boarding school will inevitably bring Harry Potter to mind, but Witch Week predates J.K. Rowling’s series by 15 years, and it’s a different kind of story entirely. It takes place somewhere grimier and sadder than Harry’s glittering wizard world, and the kids are meaner. Larwood School is so gray and dingy that when magic appears, it reads like a pure jolt of color across the page: There, at last, something to light up the world with.

Witch Week is also technically part of a series of its own. Ostensibly, Witch Week is the third volume in Jones’s Chrestomanci series, about a wizard named Chrestomanci who travels between worlds to fix up various magical problems. But this book stands on its own to the point that, as a child, I was shocked to learn after reading it that it was supposed to be part of a series. While Chrestomanci shows up in Witch Week, the book tells you straightforwardly everything you need to know about him. And he’s there in a strictly advisory capacity to the children, who are the true main characters.

That goes especially for Nan, who as a bookworm and a writer is the obvious reader’s surrogate. And it’s Nan who has the clearest understanding of the toxic power dynamics of middle schools everywhere. Here’s her absolute barnburner of a journal entry on her class’s social structure:

I do not know if 6B is average or not, but this is how they are. They are divided into girls and boys with an invisible line down the middle of the room and people only cross that line when teachers make them. Girls are divided into real girls (Theresa Mullett) and imitations (Estelle Green). And me. Boys are divided into real boys (Simon Silverson), brutes (Daniel Smith) and unreal boys (Nirupam Singh). And Charles Morgan. And Brian Wentworth. What makes you a real girl or boy is that no one laughs at you. If you are imitation or unreal, the rules give you a right to exist provided that you do what the real ones or brutes say. What makes you into me or Charles Morgan is that the rules allow all the girls to be better than me and all the boys better than Charles Morgan. They are allowed to cross the invisible line to prove this. Everyone is allowed to cross the invisible line to be nasty to Brian Wentworth.

Wasn’t everyone’s seventh grade classroom like this? Those real boys and girls like beautiful aliens, flushed with power they had no idea how to handle. Everyone else relegated to the level of breathless hanger-on or enforcer. Unreal kids fending for themselves if they managed to scare up the charisma to make being alone look like a choice rather than a default. And then those sad and terrified few at the bottom, the “ands” stuck there in the class of their own.

Witch Week has no time for the real boys and girls: Theresa and Simon are both petty bullies. Moreover, it has no time for the brutes. It’s a book for the leftovers, the unreal boys, the “and” kids, and even the imitations if they can make up their minds to stop imitating. (Sweet Estelle Green, condemned by Nan as a poor imitation of Theresa the bully, has one of the loveliest arcs in the book.) Witch Week is a book for the weirdos and the oddballs — which, Jones makes clear in her triumphant denouement, includes just about everybody. That’s why this book is so deeply endearing to readers of any age.

Hurrah for the “and” kids, hurrah for the weirdos. I hear they’re witches.

For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.