Wild and wondrous witchery
MS WIZ SUPERMODEL. By Terence Blacker. Macmillan Pounds 8.99.
MEREDITH: THE WITCH WHO WASN'T. By Dorothea Lachner. Illustrated by Christa Unzner. North-South Pounds 9.99.
It's safe to call in the witches for Hallowe'en along with the eye of newt and tongue of dog. Helen Muir, creator of Wonderwitch and her coven of buddies, has in the past received hints from her publisher that witches make schools and libraries nervous. But when we met she was fresh from two days of readings in children's libraries and thought the spectre of the cackling crone (last seen, possibly, in The Wizard of Oz) had been firmly exorcised from today's fiction.
As a child, she remembers being riveted by a stereotypical storybook witch, complete with broomstick, warty chin, bats in the hair - the kind that causes adults to shudder today. "I was terrified - she gave me nightmares - but I actually enjoyed that frisson of fear." She is currently recording her four Wonderwitch books, and working on performance personae for Wonderwitch, Wotnot, Windbag and the rest, which must go down well on the library circuit.
Helen Muir's characters would give a collective shudder at the very inkling of a warty chin. Wonderwitch and her friends are witches of a certain age who love preening and partying. The big Hallowe'en bash in Wonderwitch and the Spooks brings to mind the future lives of Eddie and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous. Helen Muir's considerable child appeal lies in the chance she offers children to indulge their fantasies. (What do witches do on a day out? Ride on the ghost train, of course.) Her rhyming spells are fun, too.
Her child characters, however, operate on the sidelines compared to the St Barnabas School crew in Terence Blacker's Ms Wiz series. Ms Wiz, former supply teacher and paranormal operative, is now in her 11th volume. She is a souped-up Mary Poppins figure, who turns up in her ex-pupils' real lives when they need her most - usually to help them take on real-life ogres such as bureaucrats and bullies. In the Supermodel story pushy, grasping parents get their come-uppance along with an exploitative spiv promoter.
There is often something to learn in these tales (in Time Flies for Ms Wiz, a suspected witch is rescued from the ducking stool in the 17th century), but the narrative thrives on its running joke - Ms Wiz claims that she longs to "go straight" but cannot bring herself to, despite having acquired a husband and a Wiz Kid.
Meredith, in Dorothea Lachner's tale, does give up the spells and finds life without them just as magical. No surprising twists here, but the moral fable about peer pressure and individuality is well disguised and the flock of witches are bursting with character.