Pip and the Wood Witch Curse, written and illustrated by Chris Mould (Albert Whitman, 2012). It's the start of a new series, one that should find many fans among 8 and 9 year old devotees (or nascent devotees) of fantasy.
Young orphan Pip is about to be sold of into a miserable, and most unwanted, life at sea. But chance smiles (perhaps) on him, and he escapes into the brutal winter night, hiding himself away in the wagon of a company of travelling players.
(At which point I though this would be another circus fantasy, with Pip mastering arcane jugging skills or some such. Boy was I wrong).
The wagon takes him to the town of Hangman's Hollow, a place as dark as its name. It is a town surrounded by a witch-filled wood--and the witches are hungry for children. But in Hangman's Hollow there are no children, save for a few tucked hidden into secret corners by their desperate parents. And Pip finds himself taken in by one such father, whose own son has been kept enclosed all his life.
Outside, sinister forces hunt for fresh victims...and Pip has caught their attention. Will the Wood Witch Curse claim him, or can he outwit it?
And it's a friendly looking book, too, for the kid leaving easier chapter books and moving toward full blown middle grade fantasy. It's short (165 pages), of smaller dimensions than, say, Harry Potter, and nicely solid. Leafing through it, the pictures catch the eye nicely--no page after page of intimidating text.
It's a good story, too, with mystery and creepiness, leavened here and there with humor (though not one I'd go out of my way to recommend to adult readers of fantasy, who aren't, after all, the intended audience). Though Pip's adventures are truly scary, he does have friends on his
side, and one is never in any real doubt that he will prevail.