It was rather bittersweet on my birthday to unwrap Earwig and the Witch, by Diana Wynne Jones (June 2011 in the UK, HarperCollins, 144 pages) as it the last book she published. But I bravely enjoyed it, nonetheless, despite the fact that it is very much a book for children younger than me, which is to say elementary school kids of eight or so.
Earwig was left on the doorstep of St. Morwald's Home for Children as an infant, with the following cryptic 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."
And although the matron of the home decided that Earwig was not a suitable name, and changed it to Erica Wigg, Earwig she remained. No one ever came back to claim her, and she grew up in great contentment amoung the other orphans, particularly enjoying the company of her best friend Custard (aka John Coster). Her preternatural powers of persuasion ensure that everything runs exactly as she plans it, and so, when grownups come to visit with an eye for taken children home with them, Earwig does her best to be unappealing.
But alas for Earwig, her fate is sealed one day when a very strange couple comes to the orphanage. A couple not in the least little bit nice or ordinary, who are not in the least deterred by her efforts to appear unloveable, and who take her away with them. The woman is Bella Yaga, a witch, and the "man," known as the Mandrake, is something even more scary and powerful, so much so that even Bella Yaga is careful not to disturb them.
Trapped in her new home, and forced to slave away for Bella Yaga, grinding bones into powder and such like, Earwig wonders if she will ever get her own way again. But thanks to her indomitable spirit, and her gift for reshaping circumstances to suit herself, along with the help of Bella Yaga's familiar (a rather nice talking cat), Earwig manages to pick up just enough magic to change things for the better.
It's diverting and appealing and engaging as all get out, once one recovers from the disappointment of the largeness of the font and the generous spacing of the lines. It is classic DWJ, and I enjoyed it. In particular the character of the Mandrake was a delight--I didn't know what to make of him at all, and found him quite as frightening as Earwig did, but by the end I liked him almost best of all (though I do so wish we got to find out more about him!).
Here's a typical supper at Earwig's new home:
"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. She was glad that he did not seem to notice she was there." (pp 47-49, with a full page illustration in between).
Whether you are a DWJ fan or not, this is a great one for any young readers, with enough zest and fun in the storytelling to make it diverting for us older fans (even though I did want more....there are many unanswered questions).
Viz the illustrations--there are lots of black and white drawings by Marion Lindsay in the UK version, which is what I read; they are fine, I guess, but I tend not to notice them when I read, and then when I go back to them, I've already made my own pictures in my mind. The U.S. version, which comes out Jan. 31, 2012, will be illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, and I'm curious to see what he makes of it all! Based on the US cover, shown at right, I'm thinking I made the right choice (for me at least) in getting the UK edition. Zelinsky's Earwig looks kind of scary herself....and she's not. I liked her lots!