Jane Yolen’s anthology is centered around the topic of witches and holds a wide range of writing styles, whether it be poetry, short stories, retelling of legends or dialogue. This variety of these stories and their tones sometimes makes a rather mish-mashed collection; the serious stories don’t quite fit with the light-hearted ones and you feel as if they should be in separate books. On the other hand, the range means that there’s something for everyone and one gets to see the many sides of witches and their crafts. David Wilgus’ black-and-white illustrations are greatly responsible for my enjoyment of this book — he is able to create beauty and realism in each one, no matter how fantastic the subject matter is. I especially like the front and back cover — an old woman on the front, but a beautiful youthful one on the back — but the same snake-ring they wear is testimony that they’re the same person!
Yolen starts each piece of writing with a short, conversation-like introduction telling the reader how she got the inspiration for each story, what they’re about and how she went about writing them, which adds further interest to the stories themselves.
There are seventeen pieces of work altogether. The poems are: ‘The Magic House’ — a poem about the famous Gingerbread House, ‘Witch’s Cat’ — about the witch’s best-known familiar, ‘A Conversation Amoung Witches’ — a rhyming chant of the witches, ‘Pythagoras’ — about the famous wizard philosopher, ‘Weird Sisters’ — a rather dark poem that uses witches as metaphors for a young girl’s life, ‘When Love Came to Witch Alfre’ — a lighter poem about a witch who falls in love, and ‘Witch Call’ — about famous witches in history.
Also in the book are stories suited for more grown-up readers such as ‘Boris Chernevsky’s Hands’ — a science-fiction type story that stars the famous witch Baga Yaga who helps out a young man dissatisfied with his clumsy hands, and ‘Circles’ — about a young woman living in an abusive home who learns the secrets of casting witch circles and wishing on them.
Humourous stories include ‘The Passing of the Eye’ — about a politically correct knight who comes across three witches and ‘When I Grow Up, by Michael Dee’ — the essay of a boy who is about to be initiated into the family business of becoming a warlock. As well as this there is ‘Witchfinder’ — the story of a woman accused of witchcraft from many different viewpoints.
My favourites however, and in my opinion Yolen’s best, are her re-tellings of old fairytales and her creation of new ones. These are ‘The Face in the Cloth’ — the story of a young Princess struggling to become her own person despite her having her mother’s face stitched onto the hood of her cloak, and ‘The Promise’ — about two young people, Kay and Kaya, who are given a promise that they will marry only to be separated by an evil sorcerer when Kay is turned into a fish and lives (unknown to Kaya) in her fishpond. This one’s probably my favourite, along with ‘The Witch’s Ride’ — about a man who marries the town’s beauty only to wake up every morning to find himself more tired than he was the night before. His mother investigates and discovers rather startling truths about his bride…
Then there is ‘The Woman Who Loved a Bear’ — the retelling of an old Native-American story about a Cheyenne woman who meets and is protected by a large bear.
Lastly there is a the rather long story concerning Yolen’s favourite subject: Arthurian legend. In this one she distorts the tale of the Sword in the Stone a little by having ‘Merlinnus’ create the stone and the sword after Arthur is considered king. And it’s not exactly Arthur who pulls out the sword…This one isn’t exactly my favourite, but Yolen’s love of the old legends shines through with every word.
All in all, though some stories didn’t quite strike my fancy, and others were obviously borrowed from other sources (although she does try to explain herself!) this is a quite good collection of witchy stories that is sure to set off some ideas of your own, and will keep witch-loving kids occupied for some time.