Moth Hush, the protagonist of Emma Steinkellner’s THE OKAY WITCH (Aladdin, 272 pp., $20.99; ages 10 and up), is a typical 13-year-old girl living with her single mother in the fictional town of Founder’s Bluff, Mass. During a Halloween-themed lesson at school, Moth (dressed in a witch costume, naturally) learns the history of the Founder’s Bluff Witch Hunt, a centuries-old Salem-like event that pitted the town’s founding settlers against outsiders thought to possess evil magic. The knowledge triggers something deep within Moth, and she starts to experience supernatural powers beyond her control. When bullies come for her after class she is able to take their voices away. Frightened, she turns to her mother, who reveals the secret she’s kept from Moth her entire life: They are really a family of witches. And not just that, they are descendants of the very witches driven out of Founder’s Bluff.
As you might expect, much twisting and turning follows as Moth takes it upon herself to learn more about what happened to the witches of Founder’s Bluff. In the meantime, as her powers continue to develop, Moth must decide whether to pursue her dream of being a witch, or obey her mother, who forbids it.
Readers who enjoy contemporary enchanted-teenager stories like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” will find some familiar tropes. Moth befriends a sassy talking cat, a magical diary transports her to another dimension and she takes the awkward first steps toward learning to fly. Steinkellner hits all the checkpoints of witchcraft-as-coming-of-age-metaphor. As Moth becomes confident of her powers and learns more about her family history, she starts to stand up for herself and assert her independence. She begins to shake herself loose from her mother, the leaders of Founder’s Bluff and the expectations of her legacy.
While the tone is lighthearted and cheeky, Steinkellner doesn’t avoid topical notes. The settlers of Founder’s Bluff are depicted as white European colonists, while the witches are multiethnic, looking very much like residents of a modern melting-pot city. Moth and her mother, Calendula, have dark skin and frizzy hair. Why the leaders of Founder’s Bluff are so afraid of witches is never spelled out, but religious bigotry and misogyny are implied: The settlers use terms like “she-devil” and “demon slaves.” Steinkellner seems to be inviting a discussion among her young readers about the persecution of outsiders, one that echoes events they may have seen in the news.
But the most refreshing aspect of the book might be its treatment of mother-daughter relationships. Moth’s journey is as much about her bond with her mother as it is about her own destiny. Getting a look inside the diary her mother kept as a young witch helps Moth understand Calendula as a peer and a fellow radical. Their story is mirrored in Calendula’s relationship with her mother, the powerful and mysterious Sarah Hush. All too aware that with great power comes great responsibility, each mother warns of the dangers of witchcraft in their time. Each daughter must then rebel against expectations while forging a path for her own generation.
“The Okay Witch,” Steinkellner’s first solo graphic novel, has a delicate but bouncy visual style that is sure to delight readers who love to pore over facial expressions and body language, and readers looking for diverse characters will appreciate the broad range of body types and skin tones. There are many action sequences, but a cheery outlook prevails. Humor is paramount, and even in the darker moments Moth offers a spirited commentary throughout. If at times this lightness threatens to undermine the sense of peril the plot needs, on subsequent readings young readers and lovers of magic will still find this good-natured story hard to resist.
Jen Wang is the author of the graphic novels “The Prince and the Dressmaker” and “Stargazing.”
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