Review of the Day: Little Witch Hazel, A Year in the Forest by Phoebe Wahl
I don’t think anyone really understands what “subversive” means anymore. At least not when we talk about books for kids. There was a time when children’s books, particularly picture books, could go a little wild and adults were the ones left shocked. Whether it was the horror of Slugs by David Greenberg and Victoria Chess, the unapologetic nudity of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, or the surprise ending awaiting you in books like Zeralda’s Ogre by Tomi Ungerer, books for children that upset expectations are what keep our shelves interesting. Sometimes I get worried that they’re not allowed to be surprising anymore. Everything gets churned through the same corporate press, rendering them relatively flat and samey. Maybe that’s why I get so excited when I come across something that looks innocuous, and then sneaks up on the reader in unexpected ways. There is nothing about the outward appearance of Little Witch Hazel to suggest that it is in any way subversive. Anyone might write it off as a sweet looking bedtime book. And it IS a sweet bedtime book. It’s just also smart, sassy, upsets the gender normies, is pro-breastfeeding in public, has a heroine that doesn’t shave her legs, is body positive, portrays the differently abled . . . and is about a tiny witch in the woods. Did I mention that it’s also excellent? I feel like that should factor in.
Four seasons. Four stories. Each one starring Little Witch Hazel. In the spring story “The Orphaned Egg”, Little Witch Hazel discovers just that. After taking the egg home it soon becomes a fuzzy little baby owl and she promptly names him Otis. But what happens when wild things grow too big for houses? In the summer story “The Lazy Day”, Little Witch Hazel has a million things to do . . . and a million friends determined to help her enjoy the day. The autumn story “The Haunted Stump” sets up an appropriately spooky tale, when everyone hears unearthly moans emanating from a nearby stump. Finally, in the winter story “The Blizzard” we see Little Witch Hazel making her rounds in the forest. What she doesn’t see is the approaching snow storm, and the return of an old friend. Each tale is told simply and well with art that draws you in and makes you reluctant to ever leave.
The large pages of this book clock in at 11.25” X 9.25”. There are detailed endpapers to pore over. As for the art, Wahl is working with digital illustrations that use colored-pencil textures. Not that you’d ever be able to tell. Digital art has grown so sophisticated in the last decade that this book feels distinctly handmade from start to finish. In terms of the content, there’s a definite Jill Barklem Brambly Hedge feel to the enterprise, though the art style is completely different. I’m thinking more in terms of tone. The book taps into the comfort that comes to a child when they see friendly neighbors in a woodland setting having a wonderful time with one another. This was the kind of thing that really appealed to me as a kid. Community and nature and that sense that you have a village of people willing to support one another (and you!). For this reason alone, it’s an ideal gift book. All the more reason that I was delighted to find that it did not bore me in the least. This is the kind of book designed to upset the apple cart when it comes to your standard fairy-in-the-woods tales.
A good friend of mine, and an even better author, once explained to me the allure of fairies. While princesses are so often trapped in their finery, and are strictly indoor creatures, fairies are deeply connected to nature. They get to run and fly and get dirty. They have outsized emotions for their petite statures. Remind you of anyone you know? Little Witch Hazel, one is obligated to note here, is not a fairy per se. She doesn’t even sport any wings. Even so, she is small and capable and she lives in the forest and there are plenty of fairy-obsessed young children who won’t care one jot that her name seems to indicate “witch” rather than fae. For those children, this book is bound to be beloved. And to get back to what I was saying about subversion earlier, I like books that look old-fashioned but are written with a contemporary mind at work. The little forest denizens of this book represent a range of skin tones, body types, and ages. The summer story even shows them in wheelchairs, with beards and dresses, and generally showing a wider diversity of people than you tend to see in books of this sort. It’s not showy. A lot of folks might miss it. But it is there and it is important.
This isn’t Phoebe Wahl’s first time at this rodeo. It is possible that you’ve stumbled across some of her other picture books before. The Blue House comes immediately to mind. That was a book unafraid to look old-fashioned and tell a contemporary tale of getting priced out of your neighborhood. Here, she shows why she’s one of the most interesting author/illustrators to watch. You can make pretty pictures all day, but unless your writing is up to snuff, it won’t really matter. Likewise, you might have a gift with a pen, but go halfsies on your art and it’ll make the whole book suffer. Here, Wahl marries a great text with beautiful illustrations with seemingly little effort. People always focus so much on the visual aspects of a picture book, but it’s the writing that makes or breaks everything. Wahl keeps her sentences short and at a clip, but never abandons what it is that makes a book evocative. I love lines like “The sky was a dusty shade of peach, and the frozen ground crackled under her boots.” Or how two owls sport faces, “like twin moons in the gathering dark.” She has a way with words, this one.
Children will be immersed in this world, season by season. This is a book they can return to over and over. After all, who amongst them won’t be able to relate to a small person in an outsized setting? Their adult readers, meanwhile, will identify in entirely different ways. For example, in the summer story “The Lazy Day”, Wahl does a wonderful job of showing someone getting increasingly agitated thanks, in part, to the heat. There’s a shot of Hazel with her cheeks flushed and her temper high with one bedraggled hair stuck to her forehead that hit me where I live. The book also rewards rereading. Adults will undoubtedly find themselves relieved to discover that anytime you see a book or newspaper, it’s going to have a funny name. These can be as simple as a newspaper called “The Walnut Journal” or a book called “Elf-Love Practices”, or it can be as sophisticated as “Who Rules the Woods” by (I kid you not) Gnome Chomsky. I mean, that’s worth the price of the book right there.
In the future it may not be notable that a fairy/woodsy book believes in representation. It really shouldn’t be notable now, but here we are. And what a pleasure to find a book that distinguishes itself. The kind of book you can remember more than 10 minutes after you finish it. Maybe even more importantly, a book that children will read, remember, and perhaps someday pass on to their children. Little Witch Hazel feels like the kind of book every children’s author wishes that they could write, yet so few are capable of creating themselves. A throwback. A sign of picture books to come. In the end, it’s just one of the best books of the year. Here’s hoping there’s more Little Witch Hazel in our future, then.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy checked out from library for review.
Videos: And finally, a book trailer, to give you a taste.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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