Season of the witch: A reading list of books featuring witches and witchcraft

The witch: a figure of feminine power and independence, but also a target of social ostracism and persecution. While witches have always been mainstays of children’s fiction – as the likes of Harry Potter and The Worst Witch can attest – it’s not surprising that this current political moment has seen a resurgence of books about witches and other magical women who create meaningful and powerful connections with each other. Move over vampires, here are some spellbinding books that will bewitch, enthral and enlighten.


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Witches: What Women Do Together by Sam George-Allen

Covens. Girl bands. Ballet troupes. Convents. In all times and places, girls and women have come together in communities of vocation, of necessity, of support, to create alliances of great potential and power. In this deeply personal exploration of what women make together, Tasmanian author Sam George-Allen delves into workplaces and social groups, from female farmers to online beauty communities to the AFL women’s league, to dismantle the cultural myth of female isolation and uncover evidence that these groups are formidable.


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Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi.

British author Helen Oyeyemi is known for her surreal modern fairytales that incorporate themes of class, race, heritage and culture – her 2009 novel White Is for Witching is another prime candidate for this list. Her most recent book, Gingerbread, is not explicitly about witches, but features a witchy vibe centred on matriarchy and the passing down of stories. Inspired by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s fairytales, this sprawling family saga features an inherited gingerbread recipe, a non-existent far-away land named Druhastrana, some surprisingly verbal vegetation, and a search for a long-lost family friend who might not be human. Our reviewer Ellen describes the book as surreal and atmospheric, adding: ‘It has all the scope and sense of place you might expect from a Zadie Smith novel combined with the surrealism of a Murakami, and is strung together with stunning prose.’


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The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff

Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff’s magisterial history of the Salem witch trials tackles a primal American mystery: how did the year-long panic in the puritan colonies of Massachusetts, which resulted in the hanging of 19 men and women, come to pass? Drawing from archives, Schiff reveals the social anxieties of the time: the strains on a Puritan adolescent’s life, the authorities whose delicate agendas were at risk; and the tenuous nature of the colonies themselves. In an age where digital judgements can spread like wildfire online, Schiff’s careful exploration of how quickly the epidemic of accusations, trials, and executions span out of control is fascinating and timely.


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Circe by Madeleine Miller

The award-winning author of The Song of Achilles has recreated the same mythical magic with this powerful, feminist imagining of the story of Circe, the sorceress in Homer’s Odyssey. When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft and becomes increasingly drawn into the affairs of the men, heroes and gods who pass through her domain. Circe is an intoxicating tale of gods and heroes, magic and monsters, survival and transformation – it paints a picture of an indomitable woman that feels vivid and alive.


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Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Agnieszka loves her village but the nearby enchanted forest casts a shadow over her home. Many have been lost to the Wood and none return unchanged. An ageless wizard known as The Dragon protects the valley from the encroaching forest, but he asks a terrible price: every ten years a young woman from the village is chosen to serve as his companion, leaving behind all she loves. When Agnieszka is chosen over her beautiful friend Kasia, she resolves to escape. Both fantasy and non-fantasy readers alike will be enthralled by this magical retelling of Beauty and the Beast inspired by Eastern-European folklore. It evokes that kind of wild magic you find in the best fairytales, with detailed world-building, sympathetic characters, heart-pounding romance and visceral horror.


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The Winter of the Witch: The Winternight Trilogy

Like Naomi Novik, Katherine Arden is a skilled conjurer of fairytale retellings and her Winternight Trilogy takes place in a magical medieval Russia, where malevolent spirits, witchcraft and demons run wild. The trilogy follows Vasya, a young woman with magical abilities who grows up in a village at the edge of the wilderness of Northern Russia, and follows her in her travels, from Moscow’s Imperial courts to otherworldly fairy lands. The trilogy ended this year in January with the release of the third book, The Winter of the Witch, so now is a perfect time to snuggle up with all three volumes and revel in Arden’s stories of women who choose power in an uncertain and superstitious time.


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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa & Robert Hack

This trade paperback edition collects the first six issues of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack’s ongoing comic series, which formed the basis of the TV-show adaptation now on Netflix. On her sixteenth birthday, teen sorceress Sabrina is at a crossroads: choose between an unearthly destiny with her witchy coven or her mortal life with her school friends and boyfriend, Harvey. But a foe from her family’s past has arrived in Greendale, and she has her own deadly agenda. This comic series is a wild mix of kitschy nostalgia and pulpy horror, and Aguirre-Sacasa’s imagining of the occult society slyly comments on our own presumptions about religion, belief and social transgression in the real world. It’s a wickedly fun read for teens and adults alike.

Another graphic novel for a slightly younger age group (9+) is The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag. In this world, all witches are girls while boys are raised to be shape-shifters. But thirteen-year-old Aster is fascinated with witchery, and he is determined to find a way to practice his witchcraft, no matter how forbidden it is. Featuring a diverse cast of friends and foes, Ostertag’s book is perfect for any upper primary kids who don’t conform to gender roles and are looking to celebrate difference.

Also look out for a new YA novel in September, Kate Williams’ The Babysitters Coven, which mixes the nostalgia of The Baby-Sitters Club with the high-school hijinks of Buffy the Vampire Slayer


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The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West (publishing in September)

One title to look forward to later this year is a new collection of essays by Lindy West, the author of Shrill. Expected in September, West’s The Witches Are Coming looks at how patriarchy, intolerance, and misogyny have conquered not just politics but American popular culture itself. West is an incisive and funny writer who is able to break down complex issues in compassionate and approachable ways. If it’s as thought-provoking as Shrill, then we’re in for a treat.


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Some more recommendations


Find even more recommendations in the collections below.

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Gingerbread

Gingerbread

Helen Oyeyemi

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