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Before I get onto the witches, I just want to say that life is good.  Very good.

A chunk of my New Year’s resolutions were to do with health and fitness.  Not being a glutton for punishment, I resolved only to do them for one super-healthy month.  The plan was to trim off a bit of festive flab.  I’m not interested in getting a whole new lifestyle.

Well I kept my promise – and tomorrow it ends!  People keep asking whether I feel better, what with cutting out the beer and all the cardio I’ve been doing.  The answer is no.  I’ve been miserable.  January 2012 has been about post-Christmas penance.  I have no long term plans to become a better person.  I am a man whose dearest pastimes include not doing cardio.

Tomorrow at midnight, I will open a single can of beer – my first drink of 2012 – and toast a very meaningless success, whereby I managed to do exactly what I set out to do without learning anything.  And then it’s back to business as usual.

Anyway – you didn’t come here to read about New Year’s resolutions.  You came to read about witches.

For the less-than-princely sum of 20p, I managed to pick up a book I’d never read by an author I admire: Not Just a Witch by Eva Ibbotson.  Ibbotson is sadly no longer with us, but she was an exceptional fantasist.  Her most famous novel was probably The Secret of Platform 13, which used a train station in the same way that Harry Potter did three years later.  Ibbotson wasn’t remotely bothered by the similarity and said she’d like to shake J.K. Rowling by the hand.

I can’t wait to get stuck into my purchase, but until then – as a sort of amuse-bouche to the main course – I want to start a round-up of the best children’s novels about witches.   I want to cover each one properly, so instead of trying to do them all in one go, I’m going to spread six titles over three blog posts.

Also, I’ve been quite strict about what constitutes a book about witches.  I’m sure Hermione Granger is a witch, but to keep the list as focussed as possible, I’ve only included books that actually have the word “witch” in the title.

Anyway.  Here’s part one.

My first pick is The Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy.  This charming but sparse series – sparse in the sense of just six books between 1974 and 2007 – is a sort of proto-Harry Potter, albeit with the genders reversed.  Mildred Hubble, the “worst witch” of the title, attends a school for witches, where she is aided by her two goofy friends.  Her lessons include potions and flying.  There is one very strict teacher, an obnoxious classmate from a more privileged background, and a kindly headmistress.  Can you see what I mean by “proto-Harry Potter”?

The series is aimed at younger readers, so it doesn’t have the same kind of grand mythology as a Goblet of Fire.  Mixed in with the text, each book has fantastic illustrations by the author herself (I think my first crush actually might have been on Mildred Hubble).  The series has spawned one or two spin-offs, including a TV movie with a young Fairuza Baulk as Mildred.

The books are truly wonderful.  Younger readers will love the Cackle Academy for Witches, even if they aren’t quite ready for Hogwarts.  It’s basically the same kind of setting, but without all the dense myth and cinematic crescendos (I’m not calling out Harry Potter, by the way – I’m a huge fan – but it’s like the difference between a delicious gloopy stew and a light tasty salad).

So, that’s The Worst Witch.

My second and very different pick is Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson.  It’s the tale of a dark wizard – the deliciously-named Arriman the Awful – who needs to pick a wife.  Rather than getting on JDate like the rest of us, he offers himself as a competition prize.  The witch who can perform the most horrible spell will get to be his wife.

Predictably, most of the witches are revolting.  The only exception is the white witch Belladonna, who is disadvantaged by the fact that she can’t actually do any black magic.  Aided by an orphan called Terrence, she is pitted against the vile Olympia, whose signature spell is a terrifying performance known as the Symphony of Death.

This is a really witty and lovable book.  The ghastliness of the other witches, the sheer absurdity of the competition, and the very unconventional plot make it a delight to read and re-read.  It’s a shame that we won’t get any more gems out of Eva Ibbotson, but she’s at least left some really brilliant books for her legacy.

That’s all for today’s blog post.  In my next one, I’ll cover The Witches by Roald Dahl and The Chimney Witches by Victoria Whitehead.