Magic in Brown Paper

I grew up on a small island in the Salish Sea. In the summers, which were usually dry and warm, I spent much of my time swimming, scrambling over oyster beaches and rocky islets, and washing the salt off in warm, calm lakes. In the winter, I walked or biked the wet roads around the village, played out on our verandah while listening to the pattering rain on our tin roof, and delightedly built indeterminate snow beings after the occasional, deeply welcome, snowfall. The island was peopled by an eclectic assortment of farmers, loggers, fisher folk and eccentrics, with a scattering of opportunists, snobs, artists, and the strangely weird (of course, kids’ assessments of who the really weird ones are frequently differ from their parents’, but that’s another story). For the most part, I found the island and my life there beautiful and complete, except for one thing: there was no library. Not even in our school. Neither of my parents were bookish, and, although my grandmother who lived with us read, her taste tended to the devout rather than the imaginative. When I was very small, she kindly read me stories from the Sunday School papers, which were fine, and I could persuade her on occasion to read out of a very old story book of my father’s, The Foxglove Story Book; one of its stories was about a fairy, which I would beg her to read again and again. I had an aunt in England who sent me British annuals every year at Christmas, and another who gave me a Nancy Drew every birthday. That was it. That and the backs of cereal boxes, a set of thirty year old Books of Knowledge, and purloined copies of my dad’s Star Weekly magazine. Until I discovered The Open Shelf.

Set up, I assume, by the Greater Victoria Public Library on Vancouver Island, the Open Shelf was a kind of outreach library: as soon as I found out about it, I joined. I received a catalogue of book titles, with very short, cryptic descriptions of the books; I would study it for hours, luxuriously agonizing over my choices, and then I would choose titles, up to six books at a time I believe, and mail in my request. A week or so later, the parcel of books, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, would arrive at our local post office, and I would find it waiting for me when I went to collect our mail. Those days were like Christmas Day and birthdays all in one. As soon as I got home I’d open my treasure and begin, hiding away under our stairway, or even under the kitchen table, immersing myself in all that glory.

Of course, not every book was an enchantment, but although a passionate reader, I wasn’t a particularly fastidious one (hence the cereal box reading), so I would plough on through both the good and the bad choices that I’d made. But every once in a while, the extraordinary would happen. A particular book would come my way that aligned itself to the deepest part of me; nothing felt more like real magic than that. One such book, however, entered my world through wonderful, ordinary human magic: it arrived from someone I never met, and whose name I do not know, someone who really paid attention to a young reader. One week, when I opened up my book parcel, I found a note from the librarian in charge of my account. One of the books that I had chosen was not available. However, she had taken the liberty of choosing another book for me, one that she liked very much. Because I lived by the water, and through consideration of my past book choices, she thought that I might enjoy it. Enjoy was an understatement. I breathed that book in till it felt like part of me. Fog Magic, by Julia Sauer, a 1943 Newbury Honor book, is about eleven year old Greta, who lives in a fishing village in Nova Scotia, where foggy days are considered a serious nuisance and a threat. Greta, however, is drawn to the mist, and one day she discovers why; it allows her entrance to Blue Cove, an old village which appears abandoned in sunlight, but which is magically transformed in the fog. This is the first book that I can remember that suggested that the imagined and the real are profoundly connected, that the natural world and the magical one are inextricably bound, and that they are transformed each by the other. It changed my life.

I’ve never thanked the lovely, thoughtful person who sent that book my way so many years ago; I wish I could. But whenever I talk to a child, especially about books, I try to keep in mind what was given to me when I received that note: respect, attention, consideration, and an encouraging generosity, from one reader to another.

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This is possibly a record-making moment: both of us are speechless. Not only speechless, but overwhelmed and in tears. This evening, we were given a collection of letters from some of the many wonderful home learning parents and families who have attended our book talks over the last six years.  In these letters were moving memories and beautiful stories, and an outpouring of appreciation that was (and is) absolutely staggering. Several of you told us about specific moments or titles that shaped and changed you and your loved ones, or that made one of your children into the avid reader they have become (all credit to that is really due to them and you, by the way, but we’re absolutely overjoyed to hear about it, and thrilled to have been a part of it!).

What extraordinarily kind and thoughtful people you all are to have done this: to have taken the time and energy to make us feel so valued. Ironically, for women who earn their living through language, tonight we really don’t have the words to thank you. Our hearts are full; we both feel so amazingly fortunate to know you all, and to get to be a part of your lives.


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This is not a list post (part II)

Our last list (or non-list) focused on books for those who enjoy lots of pictures with their text, who are frequently found to be between the ages of very very small and about 8 or 9 (however, these age descriptions are pretty loose: we both enjoy lots of pictures with our text, and are both significantly outside that age bracket). In this post, we’re going to take a crack at some of our favourite novels. We say “some,” as naturally there’s no way we could ever make a complete list of our favourites (as I doubt anyone could–how would such a list be finished during one’s lifetime?), and even the titles we’ve compiled thus far are far too numerous to fit into one post–but it’s a starting place.

As before, we shall begin at the beginning, with some of the glorious novels we enjoyed as children:

  • Here Comes Charlie Moon – Shirley Hughes. We know, we know–Shirley Hughes again. But can you really blame us? What could be better than a seaside mystery, with sweets, disguises, eccentrics, a perilous waxworks, and a hall of mirrors; never precious or cloying, this is a glorious adventure story that bears endless rereading.
  • The Little White Horse – Elizabeth Goudge. A shimmering wonder of a tale, it sparkles like moonlight on the sea, and glows as brightly as a hearth fire.
  • The Princess and the Goblin – George McDonald. Immerse yourself in the the world of courageous Irene, stalwart Curdie, and Irene’s mysterious and beautiful many times great grandmother.
  • The Secret of Platform 13 – Eva Ibbotson. Ever wonder where J.K. got the inspiration for her magical doorway? Look no further.
  • Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome. The book that launched a thousand log rafts…not to mention at least one summer of sleeping in the backyard every night. No childhood should be without it and its splendid companions.
  • Half Magic – Edward Eager. What would you do if you found a magic coin…but it only granted half wishes?
  • Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren. Naturally.
  • Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter – Astrid Lindgren. Ronia’s strength, courage and wisdom were an inspiration to both my daughters. A perfect book to read outside (if you happen to live near a forested glade or magic wood, so much the better). ~F
  • Jennifer Murdley’s Toad, by Bruce Coville. An unexpected treasure that has stayed with me to this day. ~M
  • Nicobobinus – Terry Jones. Land of dragons, pirate monks, and a boy who can do anything (just ask his friend Rosie)…Nicobobinus is a childhood treasure.
  • The Saga of Erik the Viking – Terry Jones. With little or nothing in common with the film of the same name, this book (and the one above) was a read-aloud staple in our house for years; an excellent introduction to Viking and Norse lore, it makes the mythical seem possible. ~F
  • And while we’re on the subject of melding history and magic…The House of Arden, by the inimitable E. Nesbit, does this to perfection. Elfrida and Edred Arden meet a magical Mouldiwarp, who takes them on a fantastic adventure through English history. ~F
  • The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster. My sister and I went through the tollbooth countless times during our childhood, and on every journey discovered something new and magical about the fantastical world of language and mathematics. (who knew math could be hilarious?) ~M
  • The Van Gogh Cafe – Cynthia Rylant. A perfect gem of a book, I still carry a copy in my bag, for those days when I need a little gentle wisdom, or to be reminded of the beauty and wonder in the everyday. ~M

To be continued…again (and again, and again.)


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Stop all the clocks…

Sir Terry Pratchett, April 28, 1948 – March 12, 2015

A star has gone out, but its light shines on. We were shocked and profoundly saddened today to learn of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett, whose dazzling displays of literary magic have enriched and illuminated our lives for so many years. As many of you will know, Sir Terry had the “embuggerance” that is Alzheimer’s, of which he is now free. His passing has left a hole in our lives that all the words in the world cannot fill, since he is no longer there to write them.

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead.”

W.H. Auden

Step out among the stars, Sir Terry, and teach them how to shine. We’ll miss you.

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Homage to the Queen


I was eight when I read my first Diana Wynne Jones novel, Charmed Life; more than 15 years later, having read almost all her canon, I consider her one of the most influential and important writers of my life. She created an abundance of extraordinary, wonderful characters, whom I love to this day; she invented a host of magnificent, magical worlds that it was my dearest wish to visit; and always, she moved and inspired me with her beautiful, brilliant stories. Perhaps, however, the most lasting gift that Diana Wynne Jones has given me is that of her language. There are certain adjectives and phrases, now a treasured part of my writing style, which I first discovered in Diana Wynne Jones books, and particular words that I cannot read or write without thinking of her. Her grace, her warmth, her ability to weave together intricate strands of poetry, mythology, compelling humanity, and true magic in engaging, elegant, easy prose, that dances along the page and makes me laugh aloud with the sheer delight of it, is something that has shaped my understanding of the written word. Jones was a woman for whom the world provided a cornucopia of trials and torments—her childhood was nothing short of Dickensian—but in reading her work, what surpasses the imagination, the cleverness, the depth and richness of her storytelling, is the incredible joy that infuses every word of it. If she had given us nothing else, her invention in A Tale of Time City of the glorious, meltingly amazing 42 Century Butter Pies, widely renowned among connoisseurs of imaginary food, would surely have been enough to secure her standing as a literary legend.

When I was ten years old, I read Howl’s Moving Castle; it immediately became one of my favourite books, but I didn’t realise then what a part it would play in my life. In this marvellous novel of fairytale curses and misperceptions, hats and scarecrows and demons, Jones uses a poem by John Donne as a spell; at age ten, I knew nothing of this 17th century icon, but his words enchanted me nonetheless—I set out to find the poem and read more like it. 11 years later, I am still under the spell of Donne’s language, his complexity, the incredibly layered nature of his writing, and the deep joy that shines through it. The same things, in fact, that have for so long inspired, shaped, and moved me in the magical, lyrical, powerful writing of the inimitable Diana Wynne Jones.

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This is not a list post (part I)


When we started this post, we had planned to write a list of 20 books that we considered the most influential in our lives; but the more we tried, the more we were troubled by our approach: for one thing, our decision to select twenty was incredibly arbitrary; for another, Freda, especially, hates “top 20” lists, because you always end up having to cut something good or important in order to make things fit. Thinking about it, we realised that this is really a problem we’ve both had for years: all too often, you end up being forced to cut something valuable in order to make things fit a certain, standardised, frame.

(Disclaimer: we’ve both worked as editors, so we also know the importance of a clean cut when necessary.)

So with that said, here is the first part of our list (unnumbered) of books that have meant something to one or both of us, and that, for one reason or another, we recommend to as many people as possible. Further lists will appear as we go.

In the beginning was…

  • Shirley Hughes. Because no childhood should be without the guiding spirits of Alfie and Annie Rose, or the marvellous adventures of the children from Trotter street.
  • Miss Rumphius – Barbara Cooney.
  • Night Cars – Teddy Jam.
  • Big Red Barn – Margaret Wise Brown.
  • Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep – Eleanor Farjeon.
  • The Dragon in the Rocks – Marie Day.
  • The Mousehole Cat – Antonia Barber.
  • Catkin – Antonia Barber. Because no one understands the mythical, mystical magic of cats like Barber does.
  • Owl Moon – Jane Yolen.
  • Anything and everything by the magnificent Janet and Allan Ahlberg, but especially Burglar Bill, whose cheery “I’ll have that!” is, to this day, a watchword in our home.
  • Jillian Jiggs – Phoebe Gilman.
  • Ox-Cart Man – Donald Hall.
  • The Tomten – Astrid Lindgren. A beautiful gift to young children, and to those who once were young children.
  • Graham Oakley. In addition to his brilliant Church Mice series, which was a staple of my childhood, Oakley also penned (and illustrated) the fabulous Foxbury Force. ~M
  • Fred – Posy Simmons.
  • Jill Barklem. Every Brambly Hedge book she ever wrote.
  • Doctor de Soto – William Steig.
  • Burnie’s Hill – Erik Blegvad.
  • Working – Helen Oxenbury. Simple as can be, I can still remember the picture of a baby covered in spinach (it struck quite a chord with our family). ~M

To be continued…(of course.)

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Welcome! Why not stay for a spell?

Hello and welcome to the brand-new home of the book witches! Those of you familiar with our talks and work as booksellers on the beautiful rain-soaked coast of western Canada will be well-aware of our enthusiasm and passion for language and literature. We believe that there is a book out there for everyone–an extraordinary story that will change your life forever–and we want to help you find it. We also love to talk about the books that have changed our lives, or made us think, or just provided us with a great deal of pleasure and entertainment, and we love to explore the myriad ideas and opportunities afforded us through the medium of the written word (or illustrated page). We’re just getting started here, so watch closely over the coming days and weeks, as the magic gets underway…


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