The Okay Witch and the Hungry Ghost by Emma Steinkellner, 256 pp, RL 4

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow

by Emma Steinkellner

Review Copy from Simon & Schuster

Magical powers are such the perfect gift to give a tween-teen characters, especially in a graphic novel, for so many reasons. Coming into one’s magical powers is the literal confirmation of what we all believe when we are little – that we are special, but we’re just not sure exactly how, and somewhere inside us this specialness is waiting to blossom – and is an ideal metaphor for the change from child to (young) adult. Magical powers also make for magnificent morality plays. Given a power to change something in your life, will you use it? And will this power corrupt you? Most adolescents wish aspects of their lives could be different and magical powers holds out the promise of real, immediate change.

Steinkellner makes superb use of these concepts in her debut graphic novel, The Okay Witch, and the sequel, The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow. What makes Steinkellner’s storytelling extra special are thoughtful challenges she skillfully layers into her novels, which travel between our world and Hecate, an alternate world and safe haven created by Moth’s maternal grandmother, Sarah, when her coven was persecuted in their adopted home of Founder’s Bluff, Massachusetts, in the 17th century. The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow begins as winter break comes to a close, a couple of months after the events of the first book. Steinkellner, gratefully, begins with a prologue, narrated by Mr. Laszlo, Moth’s familiar. Bullied and teased by her classmates, Moth is not happy about the end of vacation. Her school life gets even worse when she unknowingly twins with a teacher ridiculed by his students, a teacher her mom ends up dating. While visiting Hecate for her grandmother’s Bask, an awesomely named event, a sort of lifetime achievement award, that honors an "especially accomplished sorceress," Moth pockets a charm that will "transform its wearer into a bolder, more self-assured version of themself with increased powers of persuasion and magnetism."

Of course the nyklum (fueled by personal items left behind by the three most popular girls) charms Moth into doing very un-Moth-like things, like challenging her tormentor, Pike, by performing a High School Musical worthy song ("If I don’t bother you, why do you bother me?") on top of the cafeteria tables and even tempts her with the positive attention she will garner from straightening her hair and wearing trendy clothes instead of the comfortable wardrobe she inherits from her mother’s secondhand store. Moth even enters the town’s annual "finest young lady" competition, the criteria for which Steinkellner has a character describe as systematically racist and privileged without using those words. Moth gets everything she thinks she wants, although not exactly in the way that she wants, and finds herself in a very difficult spot. In the final chapter (chapter 13 – "Okay is Magic"!) Moth, tiara atop her head, speaks her truth to her classmates, telling them that she has, "complex feelings about being elected town sweetheart in a town that has made me so uncomfortable so often." She goes on to tell her them that she doesn’t want to stand behind a tradition that claims to celebrate the "best of Founder’s Bluff" when it has a "really narrow, close-minded, elite definition of ‘best.’" She doesn’t win over everyone with her speech, but she does find herself recognized and welcome by others also made to feel uncomfortable (or worse) for their differences.

Steinkellner brings a political strategy that was used effectively and endlessly by the last administration to the pages of The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow, giving young readers a superb example of destructive power of spreading lies, something that has been made potentially devastating in an age where social media can deliver falsehoods nonstop. At a party with the popular kids, Moth gets roped into playing a game where you make up an embarrassing lie about someone, the players chanting, we’re "gonna guess your secret! It could or could not be true! But whether it’s false or whether it’s true, we’ll still think about it when we think of you!" It rattled me to see this played out by middle school kids in a basement and remember back to my own adolescence and the dumb things we said about other kids that stuck with them for years. And it’s downright chilling to think that today, these lies can be turned into posts and memes and more that will endure in the digital world like a plastic bag in a landfill. I hope that readers make this connection and gain some insight and thoughtfulness. 

Steinkellner’s illustrations are, once again, superb. Despite being set in a mostly white town, diverse characters are at the forefront. Her palette in the wintry East Coast town is filled with cool colors, offset by bold, earthy reds and browns and a magical magenta haze that emanates from the hip looking demon inside the nyklum charm. Moth, in her corduroys, plaid shirts and sweater vests, is an adorable nerd who can also pull off a princess-y dress for the Valentine’s dance. I hope we get to see more of Moth Hush as she grows into her magical powers and makes her way through middle school!

July 6, 2021 at 01:04PM Tanya