The best thing about writing about wicked witches is that they can be awful. Delightfully, relentlessly awful. I love stories that treat serious subjects with a dash of humor, and writing about people with a lot of power who aren’t afraid to wield it can lead you either into too-serious situations—or into something hilarious. In my Seriously Wicked series, for example, wicked witch Sarmine occasionally has some worthy goals—she’s a clean energy advocate, for example—but her methods of getting there are ridiculous and extreme.
When I’m reading about witches, I’m drawn to this same mix of bright and terrible.
Five more delightfully witchy books, in no particular order:
The Witches — Roald Dahl
Of course this is dark humor—it’s Roald Dahl. But in addition to his regular brand of decadent nastiness—like saying the witches will turn you into a slug and then your mother will step on you—this book is really rather brutal. The witches turn our hero into a mouse halfway through—and he never gets changed back. He decides it’s not so bad, he’s got a lovely tail for swinging—in one of the book’s most joyous moments, he is absolutely reveling in the sheer delight of suddenly having a tail and being able to fully use it—and then a cook throws a cleaver at him and bang, off comes two inches of it. And then, at the end, his grandmother points out to him that mice don’t actually live very long. Ah well, he says, because grandmother doesn’t have too long left herself, and he doesn’t want to live past her. I mean, this book is funny, but it is dark. Witches will ruin your life.
The Witch Family — Eleanor Estes
This book is flat-out delightful. It starts out “One day, Old Witch, the head witch of all the witches, was banished. Amy, just an ordinary real girl, not a witch, said Old Witch would have to go away.” And there is the charm of this story. It shifts gracefully back and forth between seven year old Amy, drawing pictures of nasty Old Witch at her kitchen table, and the scenes up on Old Witch’s hill. Amy soon writes a little girl into Old Witch’s banishment, and we see Old Witch struggle to become good. The book never does anything as gauche as come right out and say that Old Witch is in Amy’s imagination, and the charm and humor comes in with all the things you can tell Amy has thought up about witch life: the real live spelling bee, the witch school where you have to work sums backwards, the witch girl’s birthday party decorated with lizards and toads. This 1960 book holds up remarkably well (although there are a couple jarring mentions of a character going in costume for Halloween as a “little Chinese girl”). Otherwise, just as delightful as when I read it at seven, and I was still thrillingly appalled at the scene where the witch eats up all the sawdust Easter bunnies and painted rocks, thinking she’s eating real bunnies and eggs.
Kat, Incorrigible — Stephanie Burgis
Regency witches! A dash of Georgette Heyer, a smidge of classic fairy tale—well, at least there’s a cranky stepmother and three daughters, the eldest of whom is about to be married off to a very nasty man who may have killed his first wife. In this case, the protagonists are witches and the villain all too human, but the charm and humor still come in the form of using your new powers to cast some accidentally bad spells. Youngest sister Kat might cut her hair, disguise herself as a boy, and run away to save her sisters from murder and financial ruin—or she might just become a witch like her mother, instead. Backfiring love spells, funny identity spells, and a witchy heroine who isn’t afraid to give a fine lady a punch in the nose.
Witch Week — Diana Wynne Jones
There are so many wonderful Jones books that would qualify for this list. Howl’s Moving Castle has many hilarious moments between cranky witch Sophie and warlock Howl. Charmed Life has Chrestomanci stalking around in his bathrobe and the beginning efforts of three young witches: nasty Gwendolyn and seemingly priggish Roger and Julia. But Witch Week has a Simon Says game that comes true, brooms that are determined to take kids riding, the shoes that go missing and come back in a rain of several thousand shoes, and so on. The dark underpinnings here are that it is not safe to be a witch. Witches are burned in this world. And yet the underdog kids who find they have some powers stubbornly want to exercise them anyway. (And in one case, going too far, as one of the bullied witch-kids becomes a bully.) As with all Jones’ books, you think, here is a true thing.
Equal Rites — Terry Pratchett
I’m going to confess right here and now that this is the first Terry Pratchett book I have ever read. Somehow I missed him growing up, and then went right on not getting around to it on my imaginary TBR pile (even bigger than the physical one, which is staggering). So this rec will be no news to most of you. There were many choice moments straight off, but the first time I laughed out loud was when Granny Weatherwax brazenly explains that an elephant is a kind of a badger. After all, you don’t keep up your forest-witch status by admitting ignorance. The story—about a young girl trying to cope with being—not a witch, but the first female wizard—just gets more and more fun from there. After all, if you have wild uncontrollable powers, you’d better learn to tame them, or Bad Things will happen.
Honorable Mention: Okay, so it isn’t a book, but my favorite cinematic guilty funny witch pleasure is of course Teen Witch. The 1989 clothes! The songs! The rap! My friends and I maaaaay have watched this nearly as many times as we watched Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Remember, kids, if you find that you’ve suddenly gained amazing witch powers, you’d better also learn how to use them responsibly, so you don’t turn into someone wicked yourself.
These are some of my favorites, but there are a bunch more I didn’t mention, or that I haven’t even read yet! Tell me about your favorite funny wicked witches so I can go read them (or watch them)!
Originally published in October 2016
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin trilogy from Tor Books, and the Seriously Wicked series from Tor Teen. Her stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Tor.com, Analog, and more, and are collected in On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories, from Fairwood Press. She is one of the co-hosts of Escape Pod, and her narrations have appeared all over, including Podcastle, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and her Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake. She lives with her family in Portland, Oregon.