If there’s a perfect confluence between the continued boom of middle-grade graphic novels and beloved childrens’ Halloween movies, it’s The Okay Witch. A young girl named Moth is the star of this particular show, the odd one out at her school and the victim of getting both widely ignored and bullied in turns. Moth lives with her mom Calendula in Founder’s Bluff, Massachusetts; between their names, the setting, and the title of the book it’s pretty easy to guess that Moth’s mundane life won’t be mundane for much longer.
Founder’s Bluff, like Salem and many other small New England towns, has a history of witch hunting that’s woven tightly into the town’s politics. Moth, conscious of the sea of differences between her and the rest of kids in Founder’s Bluff, finds herself at odds with almost everyone around her. The other kids don’t appreciate her commitment to historical accuracy as they put on a pageant extolling the virtues of the witch hunt, and her mother is cagey about her family’s own involvement.
As the story unfolds, Moth discovers she has magic powers and struggles to deal with the dangers they seem to bring to people she cares about, no matter what she does. Her mom doesn’t want to get involved, her best friend Charlie is wrapped up in his own drama, and Moth ends up feeling very alone. When she discovers just how deep her family’s roots are in Founder’s Bluff, it throws them all into an even more dangerous situation—and only Moth’s new powers can save them.
It’s not a wholly unfamiliar story, but that’s definitely to the book’s benefit. It’s the heir of movies like Hocus Pocus and Halloweentown, full of people who uncover secrets and work hard to keep each other safe. The rhythms are familiar, but the steps that Moth and her family dance feel fresh thanks to careful choices made by creator Emma Steinkellner. Though she has illustrated other work, this is the first graphic novel she’s both written and drawn. Her talent with body language and facial expressions elevates The Okay Witch from a fun read into something vibrant and exciting to pick up and flip through. Moth’s face is almost elastic, stretching to out-sized reactions that are comical and appealing. Moth and Calendula are big personalities that convey their affection for each other without reservation, and it’s comforting to see a kid’s book where the parent isn’t just supportive, but largely in on the action.
Steinkellner’s skill at building up Moth’s world shouldn’t go unnoticed. Part of what makes The Okay Witch remarkable in the face of so many Halloween- and witch-themed stories is the intention with which the characters are framed. Moth and Calendula’s role as witches, their isolation and separation from the rest of Founder’s Bluff, is a clear metaphor for the fact that they’re also women of color. Moth herself remarks on the role of sexism and race in the treatment of witches during the early days of her hometown. It isn’t an overbearing or constant presence on the page, but instead a graceful inclusion that helps bind the story together tighter. The Okay Witch is a more than worthwhile addition to the Halloween canon for kids, and definitely worth picking up as fall slides into winter.