After a longer than anticipated break, I’m happy to be back just in time for another Creepy Kid Lit blog-tacular! Just as I did last year, I’ll spend the month of October exploring and recommending books that are particularly appropriate for these shorter fall days but that can also be enjoyed at any time of the year.
Today’s recommendation comes straight off the shelf at my new workplace… my local library! Yes indeed, from this point forward, instead of having 10 yet-to-be-read books on my nightstand, I’ll now have 50 scattered in all corners of my home. Dreams really do come true!
This creepy story can be both devoured in a single afternoon. Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones tells the story of a young girl, left on the doorstep of St. Morwald’s Home for Children when she was just a baby. However, Earwig has happily lived at the orphanage ever since. And why is she so happy, given that most orphans desire a loving family above all else? Well… you see, Earwig has a special talent for getting exactly what she wants from those around her. Now, while some may call it manipulation, for a child like Earwig, who has always had to depend on the kindness of others, I consider it resourceful.
She’s carved out a cushy life for herself at St. Morwald’s; the place always smells of fresh polish and the rooms are bright and airy. And when Earwig asks for a special dinner or to wear her most favorite sweater, the orphanage’s matron, Mrs. Briggs practically stands on her head to make it happen. Now why in the world would she ever give that life up?
But Earwig soon learns that she can’t control everything when a very strange couple arrives to consider children for adoption. Mrs. Briggs doesn’t seem to notice how odd the pair are but Earwig notices right away. The woman has one blue eye and one brown eye, blue curls, wears way too much purple lipstick and is donning a huge red hat. The man, well he must have been 8 feet tall, and it seemed to Earwig that he was concealing two long… things… under his hat. It also seemed as though the longer she looked at him, the harder it was to SEE him. How could an 8-foot man disappear while still standing right in front of you?
Earwig didn’t have much time to consider the couple before they confer briefly and determine that they will take her home with them. She tried to protest but Mrs. Briggs wasn’t hearing her. She was practically rushed out the door within minutes to live with this pair of what were certainly, monsters. For the first time in her life, Earwig was made to do something she didn’t want to do. She wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the situation!
Alas, our heroine decides that this is a challenge to be conquered, which certainly seems like a positive spin on things. As she’s led up the walk to her new home, she’s surprised to see that the home looks like any other ordinary bungalow. However, once inside, she quickly (and correctly) surmises that her new caretakers are a witch and a demon. The entire home is filthy, covered with a grime that only comes from years of neglect. The kitchen is strewn with the ingredients necessary to conduct spells, most likely evil ones.
Earwig strikes what she believes to be a deal between herself and the witch. If she agrees to serve as her assistant, Bella Yaga (the witch’s name) will teach her to use magic. Bella Yaga puts her to work straightaway, telling her that the number one rule of the house is to never, under any circumstances, disturb the Mandrake (the demon’s name). When Earwig asks what might happen if he’s disturbed, the witch shudders. After working for some time, the witch announces that the spell requires a familiar. This is when Earwig first meets Thomas, a black cat that is often lurking under Bella Yaga’s cauldron. He always runs from the witch when summoned and when he’s particularly troublesome, she threatens him with a case of worms.
When Bella Yaga is distracted, Earwig tries desperately to sneak a peek in her spell book. She’s certain there must be a spell that can help her out of this terrible predicament. But when she’s finally able to look inside, all she sees are frivolous spells that won’t help her in any way.
For a few days, Earwig learns as much as she can about her new home. For starters, she can’t seem to find a way out of it. There appears to be no front door, though she knows she came into the house through it. When she tries to find an escape route through the back yard, Bella Yaga taunts her that the Mandrake’s minions are guarding the exit and that there will be no escape.
For several days, Earwig toils in the kitchen for Bella Yaga. She still hasn’t been able to decipher a spell that will help her escape back to St. Morwald’s. Her only comfort are Thomas the cat’s nightly visits. One evening she’s keeping busy by drawing a portrait of the nasty, horrible Mandrake. She keeps being distracted by a mysterious light pulsating on the bedroom wall. ‘What is that?’ she asks and to her shock, Thomas answers back. He explains that the light is the manifestation of the Mandrake’s anger. He can see what she’s drawing through the wall and he’s not happy. It’s probably best if she stops drawing now. But how can the Mandrake be in that room when it’s the bathroom no one but Earwig uses?
Stunned that her furry companion can speak, she shakes off her questions about the bathroom. Thomas explains that he knows a fair bit about spells and that he will show her the one she’s looking for. Boldly, the pair venture to the kitchen in the middle of the night to attempt to recreate Bella Yaga’s concoctions. They spend hours gathering ingredients to create a figure resembling the witch. Earwig spends almost as much time cleaning up when they’ve finished. But the spell they’ve created… oh, it’s a doozy, meant to give Bella Yaga that extra set of hands she’s been yelling about! It’s also a protection spell, meant to keep them both safe from the witch’s wrath.
All they need now are two hairs from the witch’s head. Clever Earwig plucks them from the red hat hanging on a hook and adds them to the totem she created. Suddenly, they hear a scream from the other room. Earwig wasn’t necessarily careful when she placed the hairs on the totem so Bella Yaga now has a hand growing from her forehead and her backside! As she shrieks furiously, the witch threatens to give Earwig worms.
A few minutes later, the totem flies off of Earwig’s bed and the extra hands are no longer attached. Worms begin to pour into the room. Thomas fears that the spell has been broken but Earwig points out that the worms aren’t bothering them, therefore they are still protected. But the worms are supposed to be inside of Earwig. If Bella Yaga discovers that they are actually crawling on the floor, she’ll break the protection spell, too. Earwig has the bright idea to feed the worms through a hole she’s created in the wall shared with the bathroom. She’d gotten curious the night before and had bored a hole through it with a screwdriver. If she could only hide them in the wall…
So she does just that, feeding the worms through the hole, when suddenly… the wall turns red-hot! Then comes a growling, a howling and a roaring, forcing Earwig to cover her ears. In a rage, the wall disappears and the Mandrake appears in all of his terrifying glory, crying, ‘Worms! I’ll give her worms!’ He storms off to find Bella Yaga and they engage in a screaming match for the ages.
When a quiet finally falls over the house, the Mandrake asks Earwig to come out of hiding. He explains to her that magic worms can travel into magical rooms, which is the case with her worms entering the Mandrake’s den. He promises her that from now on, Bella Yaga will treat her as a true assistant. Earwig asks if she can attend school, too, reminding him that the house will be so much more peaceful if she’s out of the house all day. He says he’ll consider it.
The story concludes rather swiftly, after a year has passed. Earwig has settled into her new home with her strange guardians. Just as it had been in the orphanage, everyone here now did her bidding, too! The Mandrake has even started calling her Dearwig!
This is a fun story that kids will enjoy reading on their own or with an adult. Though the descriptions of Bella Yaga and the Mandrake can be unflattering, I don’t feel most children would be afraid of this story. Earwig remains in control of the situation and takes care of herself, which is admirable. Give Earwig and the Witch an afternoon to charm your spooky senses. It’s a fast, fun read to get you in the mood for all things Halloween. Happy reading!