RogerBW's Blog

Wilkins' Tooth, Diana Wynne Jones 12 June 2022

1973 children's fantasy. It's the summer holidays; Frank and Jess need money after a chair got broken, and set up Own Back Limited, a revenge-for-hire service. But things get far too complicated far too quickly. US vt Witch's Business.

The standard problem for stories in which children make a difference is "how do we get the parents out of the way": they happen Elsewhere, or the parents are killed off, or whatever. Much simpler here: they simply don't believe in the magic that's clearly being wielded. After all, children do catch diseases and get swollen faces; mothers do go away; and the old woman who lives in a shack down by the river must surely be regarded as unfortunate more than wicked, even if she is called Biddy Iremonger (a splendid name).

There are eventually six children in the group of heroes, and I was particularly struck by the way the descriptions of some of them changed: someone is obviously scary at first meeting, someone else is obviously above himself, until the protagonists get a chance to talk with them and find out that they have their own problems.

Frank and Jess are perhaps a bit lacking in personality at times, but the other characters make up for them: Vernon from the family of West Indians who are working at the Lodge (and yes, there are racial slurs here, but they're very definitely in the mouths of the bad guys), Frankie and Jenny Adams with "great big famine eyes", and Biddy herself, who's clearly something rather more complex than a generic wicked witch transplanted into the present day. Even the bully Buster Knell has more to him than first appears.

It's not quite the full and unique Diana Wynne Jones style that would come along later – I gather that the editors wanted it much more in the mould of standard children's books of the time, and the disparate elements fight in places. I kept being surprised by people talking about sums of five and ten pence, when the story shape is clearly from before decimalisation. But it's still a great deal of fun and well worth reading as an adult.

(A year or two after this as a child I had a lot of Puffin books; I wonder why this one was never among them.)

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