Hello hello, one and all, aaaaaaand April Fools to you!
Nope, I don’t have my article on the importance of names done yet. I’m still waiting on some research to come from the library. While waiting, I perused a Diana Wynne Jones story that had gotten a lot of mixed press in the States:
I’m talking about the little Middle Grade fantasy Earwig and the Witch.
And by “little,” I mean little. The entire story is 117 pages with large-print font and illustrations. Like Wild Robert, the chapters jump into hijinks and misadventure quickly and wrap up just as quickly. Books like this are excellent for kids transitioning from readers to chapter books, as it has a balanced mix of simple and complex sentences as well as connecting events between chapters.
However, there are “drawbacks” to such storytelling, if you wish to call them that, for those drawbacks come to a head when a shorter story is made into a feature film. Yes, there have been some amazing films made from short stories (Shawshank Redemption, anyone?) so I’m not saying shorter stories could never be adapted. But that is the key, isn’t it?
Things have to change in a story when it changes mediums, and from what I’m hearing about the film, Studio Ghibli (who has a good history with Jones’ work) stay fairly true to the story which, if you listen to the reviewer here, is extremely detrimental to the film. Why should the audience care about a kid whose entire goal is to make grownups do what she wants? Where did this kid come from? What was up with the witch leaving this baby behind? Why is the whole story just in this witch’s house? This is a movie where almost nothing happens, etc etc etc.
After reading the book, I recalled having similar reactions to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. What IS the Beldam? How does the cat move between worlds? What’s up with those creepy rats? How on earth didn’t previous tenants wonder about that freaky-ass door that’s actually a mouth or throat that’s actually OLDER than the Beldam?
I also realized for Gaiman’s intended audience, these questions are not important to the central story: Coraline growing through her experience with the Beldam and being thankful for the parents and life she already has. That’s why the story doesn’t have Coraline discovering ancient texts about the Beldam, or meeting the Smithy who crafted the one key, or any of those things.
They. Didn’t. Matter.
Even the film adaptation of Coraline didn’t try to answer all those questions. Sure, it added some color and creepy songs to the Other Mother’s world, but the film left those loose ends, well, loose.
Something else that seems to be lost in the mix is that these stories–Coraline and Earwig and the Witch–are both Middle Grade novels. That means they are SHORT and must STAY short for its audience. Yes, yes, there are longer MG novels out there now, but if you go back a decade or two, you’ll see these length requirements were adhered to pretty closely. Anyone who’s submitted short fiction to a journal or magazine knows the importance of that length requirement: if your story is too long, it won’t even be considered.
So, after all this rambling because I don’t have to worry about word counts on a blog (though I should, according to some readers), let’s see if Earwig and the Witch really is a story where “nothing happens.”
The opening sequence that movie reviewer Stuckman praised is not actually in the book; rather, the one snippet we get of young Earwig’s backstory comes in exposition during the first scene. A “very strange couple” have come during the orphanage’s visitation day. Foster parents can come and select a child to take with them, and this “very strange couple” are the first to pay Earwig any attention.
“Erica has been with us since she was a baby,” Mrs. Briggs said brightly, seeing the way [the couple was] looking. She did not say, because she always thought it was so peculiar, that Earwig had been left on the doorstep of St. Morwald’s early one morning with a note pinned to her shawl. The note said: Got the other twelve witches all chasing me. I’ll be back for her when I’ve shook them off. It may take years. Her name is Earwig.
The Matron and the Assistant Matron scratched their heads over this. The Assistant Matron said, “If this mother’s one of thirteen, she must be a witch who has annoyed the rest of her coven.”
“Nonsense!” said the Matron.
“But,” said the Assistant Matron, “this means that the baby could be a witch as well.”
Matron said “Nonsense!” again. “There are no such things as witches.”
Mrs. Briggs had never told Earwig about the note, nor that her name really was Earwig.
I must say that I can’t blame Ghibli for imagining what that chase would have looked like and putting that scene in their film. There’s just one problem.
Earwig’s mother never appears in this story. Nor do the other witches.
Oh, Ghibli tries to tie the loose end up in their own way for the film, and from my understanding the ending feels…like a chapter break instead of an actual conclusion. So I’m not sure where Ghibli thought it could take this tale.
Honestly, I think the biggest problem people have with Earwig and the Witch is the fact the story is NOT about a girl reuniting with her mother or some other epic quest. Not all stories are grand in scale.
For some young readers, watching a child learn how to get adults to do what she wants is plenty grand already.
Because this is not a story about redemption, either; that is, the bratty Earwig does not mend her ways to become a nice, sweet girl who shares all sorts of lovey feelings for her new family. Nope. She’s still happy to have others do what she wants.
The character growth comes when Earwig wants to keep getting her way. At the orphanage, we understand that Earwig never had to do anything to get her way.
[Earwig] was perfectly happy at St. Morwald’s. She liked the clean smell of polish everywhere and the bright, sunny rooms. She liked the people there. This was because everyone, from Mrs. Briggs the Matron to the newest and smallest children, did exactly what Earwig wanted.
After the “strange couple” take Earwig to their home, she quickly learns their intentions:
“Now let’s get a few things straight. My name is Bella Yaga and I am a witch. I’ve brought you here because I need another pair of hands. If you work hard and do what you’re told like a good girl, I shan’t do anything to hurt you.”
Earwig has never had to work like this before, and of course she hates it. In dealing with a witch, though, she can’t do her typical schpiel of talking people into doing what she wants. There’s magic in the mix now, and so she’s going to have to learn magic to fight magic.
THAT is what this story is about. The title isn’t Earwig and the Lost Coven or The Intentional Orphan or Escape from Bella Yaga or Whatever Happened to Mummy Witch?
Jones wrote this story with the conflict between child and adult at the center. Plenty of kids struggle with authority as it is, even moreso when the authority is not a parent. What kid wouldn’t want their most hated teacher to look ridiculous, if only for a moment?
Jones’ Earwig and the Witch revolves around the conflict between Earwig and Bella Yaga. Anyone else, anything else, is periphery. That’s why the outside world plays little part in Earwig’s life once she’s in Yaga’s home. Even the Mandrake, the “man”–or demon, or whatever he is–of the “strange couple” does not interact with Earwig much. He is the only thing in that house more powerful than Bella Yaga, Earwig thinks…until she finally puts herself to work to learn magic with the help of Thomas, Bella Yaga’s cat.
It’s not easy to get a kid to want to work at something. Believe me, I know. 🙂 Perhaps a typical audience may not see this as growth in Earwig as a character, but for a child and one who’s worked with children, this is HUGE. Earwig has never had to work at anything before. Sure, Bella Yaga’s got her doing plenty of awful chores, be it slicing snake skins or gathering nettles from the garden, but those awful chores only motivate Earwig to learn magic quickly so she can put a spell on Bella Yaga and give her that “extra pair of hands” she wanted so badly. (You can see the earlier illustration for the result of Earwig’s work.)
When Bella Yaga rages over the new “extra hands” and sends a torrent of magic worms at Earwig, Earwig guides the worms into what she thinks is the bathroom next to her. Being a magic house, though, the walls don’t always work like normal walls, so Earwig ends up sending all the worms into the Mandrake’s room instead. Being one who can control demons and spirits and such, the Mandrake isn’t exactly one to surprise with magic worms. After lots of fire and shrieking, the Mandrake calls Earwig to come from her hiding place. Earwig readily admits that hiding the worms was a mistake, but the Mandrake knows Earwig did not make the worms and declared Bella Yaga would be training Earwig properly from now on. Earwig does not hoot or holler her victory, but instead approaches Bella Yaga with care.
She carried Thomas across the hall into the workroom. Bella Yaga, looking red and harried, was picking up broken glass and bits of mixing bowls. She turned her blue eye nastily in Earwig’s direction. Earwig said quickly, before Bella Yaga could speak,
“Please, I’ve come for my first magic lesson.”
Bella Yaga sighed angrily. “All right,” she said. “You win–for now. But I wish I knew how you did it!”
When the conflict ends, so does the story, and Jones knows it. Apart from a couple pages of wrap-up, Earwig and the Witch is over. Are we all curious about what kind of witch Earwig could grow up to be? Sure. I’m guessing Studio Ghibli was too, and that’s why they teased more to come at the end of their film.
But questions are not loose ends. Sure, I’d love to learn more about the history of the village in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” What really went down between two friends to motivate one to bury the other alive in “The Cask of Amontillado”? Whatever happened to The Misfit after he killed the family in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”?
A story has to end, and that end comes when the conflict ends. Even the big ol’ multi-book series will start and end their installments over the rise and fall of a specific conflict.
So storytellers, please do not feel like you have to answer all the questions and explore all the lands and dive into all the characters. Look at the conflict that drives your story forward, and ask yourself: Does ____ matter relate at all to this conflict? If you can’t find a good answer, then chances are, you know the answer is no. And this goes for novel writing as well as short fiction. Sure, novels do not demand thrift in words like short stories do, but if readers feel like you’re taking them on a detour from the main conflict, they’re going to start asking questions, and lots of them.
And those are questions you as a writer will have to answer.
Honestly, the research and discussion on naming characters is coming, as is a post about the wondrous music of Two Steps from Hell. More author and publisher interviews are on their way as well, and I’m also *this close* to getting Blondie to share her dragon story here.
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!