Harry Potter


"Publishers pitch the witch"

by Karen MacPherson ("PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE," August 17, 2001)


Three hundred years ago, witches were hanged or burned at the stake.
Today, witchcraft is celebrated as a hot teen trend in movies and television shows such as "The Craft," "Charmed" and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." Now, book publishers are hoping to cash in on this fascination, fanned by the record sales of the series featuring a boy wizard named Harry Potter.
In recent months, four publishers have begun new paperback fiction series centered on teen-age girls' involvement in witchcraft.
Three series are being written for teen-agers: the "Sweep" series by Cate Tiernan, published by Penguin Putnam; "Circle of Three" by Isobel Bird, published by Avon; and "Daughters of the Moon" by Lynne Ewing, published by Volo, an imprint of Hyperion Publishers.
The fourth series, called "Twitches," is being written by H.B. Gilmour and Randi Reisfeld and is aimed at preteens. "Twitches" is published by Scholastic, regarded as the key player in series books, given its success with "Goosebumps," "The Baby-Sitters Club," "Animorphs," "Dear America" and, of course, "Harry Potter."
The new witchcraft-themed books are written in a fast-paced, often-cliched style and feature cliffhanger chapter endings and stock characters. The stories are built around many of the same elements found in classic teen literature: the search for self, the thrill of first love and the power of peer pressure.
Cloaking such traditional themes in witchcraft gives the new series an exotic edge that plays well with teen readers, children's book experts say.
Scholastic publisher and editor-in-chief Jean Feiwel said the new series have merely tapped into an increased teen interest in witches.
"It's almost gotten -- dare I say it -- acceptable," Miss Feiwel said.
"There's no doubt that fantasy and wizards have become more popular because of Harry Potter. There's also been a trickle-down effect from the adult interest in New Age practices."
Practicing witches are amused by this trend in teen books.
"It's nice to see that we are not always the bad guys anymore," laughed Wren Walker, co-founder of "The Witches' Voice," an umbrella Web site for witchcraft groups.
Miss Walker added she doubts that teens who are seriously interested in witchcraft would be interested in the fictional series. Instead, they would want to read nonfiction books about witchcraft and Wicca, a religion that is a modern form of witchcraft.
But Miss Walker also noted that Wiccans generally require anyone under the age of 18 to obtain parental permission before he or she is allowed to become a member of a coven, or Wicca group.
"We don't encourage young teens to sneak around and do this behind their parents' backs. We do encourage them to sit down with their parents and talk about it openly," Miss Walker said. "In fact, we actually steer more people away than we ask to join us. It's not for everyone, just as Christianity or Buddhism isn't for everyone."
The intensified teen interest in witchcraft mirrors a surge of general interest in spirituality among young adults, publishers say. Books about spirituality for teens, particularly teen Bibles and teen books about Wicca, are selling strongly, according to Publishers Weekly.
Some experts say teen girls are particularly drawn to the goddess and nature worship that is an integral part of Wicca.
"Teen-agers, especially teen-age females, have traditionally gone through a phase of interest in and participation in forms of folk magic," said Bill Ellis, associate professor of English and American studies at Pennsylvania State University at Hazleton and author of the book "Raising the Devil."
"It's a way of creating a fantasy world where women can take charge of things that in real-world society they often are not allowed to take charge of. It's also a common way of satisfying a certain adolescent curiosity for the supernatural."
It's clear the new series have struck a responsive chord in young readers. Publishers report the books are selling so well that the writers have been given contracts to write more volumes.
The new witchcraft series feature provocative covers highlighting occult themes and titles such as "Blood Witch," "What the Cards Said" and "Night Shade."
Each series presents a different twist on witchcraft. In "Twitches" and "Daughters of the Moon," for example, the writers have fused mythology with witchcraft and elements of the New-Age craze to create their own fantasy religions.
With its light tone and focus on twin witches, "Twitches," written in preteen lingo ("We are so going to win this game!"), is billed as a cross between "The Parent Trap" and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."
The intense "Daughters of the Moon" series, on the other hand, has a Hispanic edge and is set in the nightmarish gang world of Los Angeles. The moon provides both literal and figurative light as the teen girl characters battle against the evil Atrox.
In the other two new series, "Sweep" and "Circle of Three," the teen characters become members of Wicca. The stories highlight Wicca's two main tenets: The "Wiccan Rede," which states "Do as you will, as long as it harms no one," and the "Three-Fold Rule," which asserts that any good or harm a person does to another returns magnified three times.
The "Sweep" books are written in the first person, as teen-ager Morgan Rowland details her efforts to deal with her discovery that she is a "blood" witch, related to one of the ancient witch clans. In the "Circle of Three" series, the books tell of a teen trio's adventures in exploring the world of witchcraft.
So far, publishers say, there has not been any noticeable backlash from parents to the new witchcraft series, unlike the uproar from some conservative Christians over the supposed occult influence in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" books.
But publishers are well aware that many parents are adamantly opposed to permitting their children to read about witchcraft.
"There definitely is part of the country that won't like anything to do with witches," Miss Feiwel said. "I don't think there is anything that is objectionable in 'Twitches.' But that's why the book packaging is so important.
Anita Silvey, a longtime children's book editor and author of "Children's Books and The Creators," said the books about witchcraft and teens dabbling in Wicca "are bound to upset the gatekeepers parents, teachers, librarians and reviewers."
"But young-adult books, particularly those issued in paperback, have always stood outside of the gatekeepers," she said.
Miss Silvey added that she believes the witchcraft series are merely a fad.
"These kinds of things come and go. They have their moment and vanish."