DWJ ReRead · Fantasy

Witch’s Business by Diana Wynne Jones

witchsbusinessI really prefer the UK title of this book, Wilkins’ Tooth. But my copy have yet to arrive (I only ordered it together with Wild Robert a couple of days ago, as a birthday present to myself) and I was feeling quite desperate to read it – funny, considering all those times I avoided getting it in my school days – when I remembered having a large number of DWJ ebooks in a folder somewhere. Someone gave them to me, and while I did put Howl’s Moving Castle and Enchanted Glass in my iBooks, I mostly forgot I had the rest of them. I own most of the print books, anyway. So I went through the laptop, found the folder, and was disappointed with the lack of Wilkins’s Tooth when I remembered its alternate title – and lucky me, I had Witch’s Business after all!

This book is Diana Wynne Jones’ first book for children, and her second book after Changeover. When I decided to do a DWJ re-read I knew I’ll have to skip Changeover, because (1) the cheapest edition I could find is 50 USD, and (2) I doubt there’s a library here that has Charmed Life (perhaps, if I’m lucky, I might find Howl, since it was made into a movie), so finding Changeover is definitely out of the question. I’m not going to dwell on the state of our libraries, though, because this post is about Wilkins’ Tooth.

As I mentioned earlier, I avoided this as a kid, just as I avoided Wild Robert and Enna Hittims, for the same economical reason – it was a short book, and it had cost just as much as the ones twice or thrice its size. (Of course, then it went out of print and I regretted not getting it) UK paperbacks were sold for about RM7 back then, and I had fifty cents a day for my allowance. I would skip lunch and save up my allowance to get a book every two, three weeks or so. I was a fast reader, and my mother would get me one book a month, leaving me with a two book a month quota – I got the thicker books when I could, just so I could spend a longer time reading.

Now, of course, I’m not sure why I hadn’t read this book til now. Being Diana Wynne Jones’ first children’s book, it did fall short when compared to the sophistication of her later works. But it still had that unmistakable charm that all DWJ books have, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s still leagues ahead of many middle grade fiction being published now.

After all, there is the fact that the main six characters are (1) made of an equal number of girls and boys, and (2) includes Vernon, a POC character – without making a big deal of the fact that Jess, Frankie and Jenny are girls and that Vernon’s black. It’s not that these parts of their identity are glossed over or anything like that, but that the writing stays clear of stereotypes and makes them all very normal, believable children. The narrative clues in the reader to issues like poverty, class differences and bullying without coming off as an issue book, and without turning the working class characters into mere tragic victims to be saved, or the bullies into cookie-cutter bad guys to be defeated and never heard of again.

And then, of course, my favourite thing in a book – fairy tale tropes. DWJ always does fantasy and fairy tales in a way that feels very organic to me. The magic in this book isn’t something that suddenly comes into the character’s world unannounced, or something in a different world that the character has to jump into. The witch is someone who lives in their neighborhood, and when they accept that witchcraft is at work, they gather to discuss what they know of spells and the breaking of them. I like this, and the fact that they go through a lot of fairytale-like things, like the bargains made by Frank and Jess throughout the story, and the trick in the title and the wording of their first bargain, underlining the importance of true names.

I’ve read somewhere about DWJ’s fiction being read as critiques of the genre. I don’t remember much about where I read that and the context of it, but I was reminded of it, reading this book. I found the ending too clean – and simple, especially compared to her later works – but at the same time admired her use of Puss in Boots. I don’t remember reading a DWJ that takes on a complete fairytale without giving it some kind of twist, so that’s potentially disappointing to some, I think. It certainly can be seen as contrived, driving home the point that the knowledge of fairy tales help children in navigating real life, which is a very DWJ-like message, even if the delivery isn’t as subtle as I’m used to.

Note:
1. The e-book version that I read is from 2007, and I’ve read that there might have been changes to this version from the original 1973 text. Since this is a US version I expect some words might be different, including the words used in place of Buster’s swearing (I find zombie-bits, disemboweled, and scum-bellied quite amusing, though, so I didn’t mind) and possible slurs from Buster/other characters towards Vernon.
2. I say this is DWJ’s first children’s book because it’s her debut children’s title, but she wrote Eight Days of Luke (and, I think, The Ogre Downstairs) before Wilkins’ Tooth.

Other Reviews:
Aelia Reads | Here There Be Books | Readers By Night

– previously posted on Weebly


DWJ RE-READ no.01 | this book was first published in 1973
next book: The Ogre Downstairs

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