Not everyone loves witch stories, but many people do. They’re characters who can right injustices with ancient magic or psychic abilities. They can fly or talk to animals or entice romantic interests. They can transform. Audiences are drawn to their power and their powers, their wisdom and their knowledge. They are women who are respected or even feared.
Growing up I was outspoken and weird; I got called “witch,” even in the early 2000s, even in suburban New York. The name, though intended to be snarky, didn’t or hurt scare me – in fact, in some ways I wished it were true. Witches, after all, have control.
I’m just one semester away from finishing my Master’s program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and was lucky enough to take a Children’s Literature class this fall with Lolly Robinson, The Horn Book Magazine‘s Creative Director Lolly Robinson. The course isn’t designed to be a historical or sociological look at children’s lit, but a contemporary view of the industry from the perspective of educators and publishers. It was one of the best classes I’ve taken in grad school, and for my final project I wrote a bibliography on one of my favorite cultural subjects: witches!
I chose to read and write about witches for this bibliography because I know there are many young readers out there who love to immerse themselves in stories about magical women, good and bad. Witches provide hope for kids who feel, at their core, essentially different from those around them. But witches are also fun and spooky and sometimes like or do gross things.
My rules: the books had to feature witch protagonists (or witch objects) who were, if not entirely good, at the very least completely cute. I wanted to submerge myself in joyful stories, not fearful ones – they are, after all, witches to love. I combed through the Horn Book Guide for well-reviewed witch books, avoiding the overly ominous ones, and then put a call out to Twitter, receiving back several good recommendations from librarians. (Just one book – A Very Brave Witch – received a poor rating from HBG. I included it in this list because I enjoyed the illustrations and because a librarian friend personally recommended it.) Google searches and book store displays filled in the rest. I wanted books for all age groups, and from varying time periods: the list covers the 1960s through today. Most of the books are fiction by choice, but I included a pair of information books to provide a wider cultural perspective on witches for young readers. I did want more non-white or non-Western characters, but only Eiko Kadono’s Japanese novel Kiki’s Delivery Service fit my themes. Next time, I would expand the moral range of the protagonists to include more opportunities for racially or culturally diverse witches.
Broom, Zoom! by Caron Lee Cohen. Illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier. 2010. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Keywords: Picture Book, Fiction, Monster, Friendship, Helping, Sharing, Flying. Grades K-3.
A little smiling witch under a big red hat; a small, green, diaper-clad monster. On a bright moonlit night, she wants to fly her broom… but her friend needs it! To clean up a flour spill, that is. They work together to clear the mess, then go for a ride through the stars. The child-like, jewel-toned drawings combined with the rhythmic, minimalist text will delight (and soothe) young readers.
Curse in Reverse by Tom Coppinger. Illustrated by Dirk Zimmer. 2003. Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster). Keywords: Picture Book, Fiction, Folktale Style, Fairytale, Kindness, Spells. Grades K-3.
When an old witch named Agnezza arrives tired and hungry in a snowy village, only the kindly, childless Tretters will help her. She rewards them with the Curse of the One-Armed Man and they live in fright for a year – only to finally realize that, while constantly holding his new baby in his left arm, Mr. Tretter is, in fact, already the One-Armed Man. This original fairy-tale is a charming puzzle piece.
Dorrie and the Blue Witch by Patricia Coombs. 1964. Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Co. Keywords: Picture Book, Fiction, Early Reader, Stranger Danger, Humor, Trickery, Mothers. Grades K-3.
In this surprisingly scary tale, Dorrie, a clever little witch girl, innocently invites a mean blue witch into her home one day while her mother is out. The snappish older woman attempts to kidnap her, so Dorrie concocts a brew to shrink the witch and store her in a bottle until mother comes home. Coombs’ curlicued, expressionistic drawings utilize just blue, yellow, and black to elicit the villain’s sinister nature and Dorrie’s fearful predicament.
Grimelda: The Very Messy Witch by Diana Murray. Illustrated by Heather Ross. 2016. Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers). Keywords: Picture Book, Fiction, Rhyming, Cleanliness, Lost Processions, Humor. Grades K-3.
Through rhyming verse, readers get to know wild-haired Grimelda, a tornado of a young witch who lives in a “house black with grime and stacked with jars of mold and slime.” She wants to make a pickle pie, but is missing her key ingredient – forcing her to finally tidy her home. The playful, visceral descriptions of a witch’s ooey-gooey lifestyle – from rot sauce to stinkweed potpourri– make for a swift, joyous read-aloud.
History’s Witches: An Illustrated Guide by Lisa Graves. 2013. Xist Publishing. Keywords: Picture Book, Nonfiction, History, Persecution, Prejudice, Feminism, Queens. Grades 2-5.
In this empathetic, feminist-minded guide, Graves briefly examines the lives of thirteen historical women – from Joan of Arc to Anne Boleyn – who were falsely accused of practicing witchcraft. Refusing to shy away from hard truths, the text plainly unpacks the political, religious, and cultural motives behind their downfalls. Her colorful, digital figure illustrations, emphasis on keywords, and detailed maps shine a light on powerful real-life women whose lives hinged on a supposed association with magic.
Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola. 1975. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Keywords: Picture Book, Fiction, Folktale Style, Italy, Magic, Grandmother, Cookery. Grades 2-4.
Little, round Strega Nona (“Grandma Witch”) cares and cures for a small village in Old Calabria. While she’s away visiting a friend, Big Anthony – her curious helper – plays around with cauldrons he shouldn’t until the whole town is covered in magical pasta! This warmly illustrated, humorous retelling of Goethe’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” reminds young readers that magic should be left to trained hands… and those who pay attention to instructions.
Trick-or-Treat, SMELL MY FEET! by Lisa Desimini. 2005. The Blue Sky Press (an imprint of Scholastic, Inc). Keywords: Picture Book, Fiction, Twins, Mischief, Potions, Humor, Halloween. Grades K-3.
Delia and Ophelia are bright green witch twins who love to torment the neighborhood children. On Halloween, their favorite holiday, they conjure up a stinky-sock potion that blocks the trick-or-treaters from getting any candy – until a pink baby booty stoppers up their tincture, shrinking them into wailing toddlers. Justice for all! The paper-cut collage illustrations evoke textures that seems to leap off the page, tantalizing readers’ fingers. Kids will appreciate the delicious irony.
A Very Brave Witch by Alison McGhee. Illustrated by Harry Bliss. 2006. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division). Keywords: Picture Book, Fiction, Fear of the Unknown, Halloween, Humor, Friendship. Grades K-3.
This Halloween story introduces the audience to a grinning, green-faced little witch who explains that most of her kind are actually afraid of humans! But our protagonist is ready to see them for herself… though not expecting to crash-land her broom in front of trick-or-treaters. The story is sparse, but the full-page, autumnal illustrations contain several winky visual Easter eggs for parents and savvy young readers: from Richard Nixon’s mug to Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg. 1992. Houghton Mifflin Company. Keywords: Picture Book, Fiction, Fairytale, Magical Objects, Neighbors, Persecution. Grades K-3.
A witch’s broom loses power mid-flight and ends up in the possession of an old widow who lives in a farmhouse. The broom turns out to be kind and useful company, assisting the woman with tasks – until a fearful neighbor comes to destroy it. How will the clever widow outwit the angry mob? Van Allsburg’s moral fable is only outshined by his gorgeous, pointillist sepia illustrations, which enrich the gentle spookiness of this fall tale.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. 2016. Algonquin Young Readers (a division of Workman Publishing). Keywords: Chapter Book, Fiction, Fantasy, Family, Memory, Coming of Age, Adoption. Grades 4-6.
Year after year a baby is left in the woods as sacrifice to an evil witch of legend. The witch, of course, is actually good and finds loving homes for the rescues. One year she accidentally “enmagicks” a newborn with moonlight and raises the extraordinary child, Luna, as her own. But why do the villagers leave their children to die? Barnhill’s emotional, unputdownable epic of loss, memory, and deceptive histories reads like poetry.
Juniper by Monica Furlong. 1990. Random House Sprinter (published by Random House, Inc.) Keywords: Chapter Book, Fiction, Fantasy, Middle Ages, British Isles, Spirituality, Coming of Age. Grades 4-6.
Ninnoc, the young daughter of a Cornish king, leaves her luxurious life to become the apprentice of a harsh wise woman in the woods. Now called Juniper, she reluctantly begins to shed her childish ways and open herself up to nature, learning how to both take and heal life. Eventually, she must choose how to manifest her power. Furlong’s scholarly historical details enliven the page and embellish “realness” of the magic.
Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono. Translation by Lynne E. Riggs. Art by Akiko Hayashi. 1985 (2003 English translation). Annick Press Ltd. Keywords: Chapter Book, Fiction, Fantasy, Japan, Leaving Home, Flying, Coming of Age. Grades 3-6.
Kiki is now twelve, and according to witch tradition, must leave home and forge her own path. With just her mother’s broom and her talking cat Jiji, Kiki flies into the unknown, settling on a faraway coastal town to start her own Witch’s Express Delivery service. Kiki’s seemingly breezy magical adventures maintain an essential undercurrent of realistic melancholy – her homesickness and awakened interest in romance are just some of her all-too-relatable growing pains.
The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes. 1960. Odyssey Classics (Harcourt, Inc.) Keywords: Chapter Book, Fiction, Fantasy, Family, Imagination. Grades 2-5.
Amy and Clarissa are six-year-olds who love to scare themselves with tales and drawings of Old Witch, whom they’ve “banquished” to a remote glass hill. Estes toggles between the girls’ peaceful suburban neighborhood and their fantasies of Old Witch, who tries to be good under the watchful eyes of her wards Little Witch Girl and Weeny Witch Baby. The book is a delightful ode to that permeable membrane between children’s reality and imagination.
Witches and Witch Hunts: A History of Persecution by Milton Meltzer. 1999. The Blue Sky Press (an imprint of Scholastic, Inc). Keywords: Chapter Book, Nonfiction, History, Witchcraft, Prejudice, Witch Hunts, Persecution. Grades 4-6.
Meltzer surveys a global (though Western-world focused) history of superstition and belief in witchcraft, uncovering the innumerable sociopolitical factors behind the hysteria of witch hunts and their modern genocidal equivalents. What caused the European witch hunts of the middle ages, the Salem Witch Trials, the Holocaust, or the Red Scare? His knowledgeable, accessible prose – while scrutinizing dark and unsavory chapters in human history – expertly dismantles mob mentality and misogyny for young readers.
The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy. 1974. Candlewick Press. Keywords: Chapter Book, Fiction, Fantasy, School, Friendship, Magic, Mischief, Perseverance. Grades: 2-4.
Poor Mildred Hubble is the unluckiest pupil at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. Her brews fizzle, her spells go awry, and she can’t seem to fly her broomstick in proper formation. But just as she appears on the brink of expulsion, she finds she might be the only person who can save the school. Murphy’s fun, simple vignettes of magical boarding school life offer welcome lightness to a genre overcommitted to dark and epic storytelling.