Image: Six teenage girls hold wands and face the viewer in silhouette with an orange-pink sunset sky behind them. Text: "The Witches of Willow Cove. Josh Roberts."

KidLit Book Review: The Witches of Willow Cove by Josh Roberts


Synopsis

Six teenage witches. One mysterious stranger. A secret that could destroy them all.

It’s not easy being a teenage witch. Seventh grader Abby Shepherd is just getting the hang of it when weird stuff starts happening all around her hometown of Willow Cove. Green slime bubbling to life in science class. Giant snakes slithering around the middle school gym. Her best friend suddenly keeping secrets and telling lies.

Things only begin to make sense when a stranger named Miss Winters reveals that Abby isn’t the only young witch in town—and that Willow Cove is home to a secret past that connects them all. Miss Winters, herself a witch, even offers to teach Abby and the others everything she knows about witchcraft.

But as Abby learns more about Miss Winters’ past, she begins to suspect her new mentor is keeping secrets of her own. Can Abby trust her, or does Miss Winters have something wicked planned for the young witches of Willow Cove?


Details

  • Title: The Witches of Willow Cove
  • Author: Josh Roberts
  • Cover Artists: Levente Szabo, art; Milorad Savanović, design
  • Publisher: Owl Hollow Press
  • ISBN: 194565449X
  • Publication Date: May 26, 2020
  • For Ages: 8-12
  • Category: Middle Grade
  • Spooky-Scary or Spooky-Fun? ☠️ Scary.

I’d like to thank Josh Roberts and Owl Hollow Press for providing an advance copy in exchange for review consideration. (Note: All quotes come from an advance copy and may not match the final release.)


Review

The Witches of Willow Cove is an eerie, suspenseful middle grade novel that explores complex questions of family and identity. It follows six very different teenage girls who discover that they are witches and that their powers are tied to a secret in the town’s history. The setting is delightfully spooky: a New England town close to Salem (home, of course, to the infamous witch trials) that features weeping hemlock trees, mist and fog that are constantly rolling in from the sea, mysterious caves, and a haunted mental institution. A thrilling and satisfying standalone work that nevertheless leaves the story wide open for a sequel, this book is an assured debut from author Josh Roberts.

The diverse characters display the complexity of identity that kids grapple with as they grow older, both in terms of their demographic makeup and the painful schism that often occurs around middle school, when kids split off into cliques and/or become pigeonholed by other people’s perceptions of them. Protagonist Abby Shepherd discovers on her thirteenth birthday that she is a witch (and that she is not the only witch in town), but she is not defined by that alone. As Abby’s new witchcraft mentor Miss Winters tells her, you are more than just one thing. But society often wants to put you in an easily defined box, making it hard to bring the disparate threads of your existence together into one whole person. My favorite example of this is Zeus, the star football player who chafes under his coach’s expectations and suffers from crushing loneliness. He desperately wants to be one of the Three Musketeers again with Abby and her best friend Robby, but lately he’s been on the outside looking in, a feeling that most people who survived middle school will surely remember.

Though Abby and Robby are best friends, they spend most of the book estranged as they deal with changes in their lives due to adolescence and the extraordinary circumstances of discovering a coven in their hometown. The book alternates between Abby and Robby’s points of view, creating a push-pull dynamic that really ratchets up the suspense. Before the reader has a chance to get exasperated with the genre trope of never discussing the weird supernatural happenings with anyone who could help you, though, new girl in town (and Robby’s girlfriend) Becca becomes the MVP with this line: “What we really need to do is put all our heads together and compare notes.” It’s a sly and satisfying way to bring the entire Scooby Gang together, and I pumped my fist when I read it.

One of the things I appreciated most about the book was its emphasis on the value of platonic friendships. The adults in their lives expect Abby, Robby, and Becca to be some kind of angsty teenage love triangle, but the kids maturely shut that down. There is no pettiness or rivalry between Abby and Becca, and both Abby and Robby make it clear that they love each other very much as “just friends.” Later in the book, though, Robby’s dad makes a profound point that there’s no such thing as “just friends”—friendship is such a deep, important part of life that to minimize it with the word “just” is to miss the point of being a friend.

Another element of the story that really resonated with me was its respect for magic, portraying it as a natural phenomenon that can peacefully coexist with science. The book suggests that the potential for magic is always all around us; you just have to be perceptive and open to believing in it. As Miss Winters says, “Magic is the act of knitting the ordinary threads of the natural world into something extraordinary.” She even uses knitting terminology (casting on and casting off) to discuss spellcasting, which particularly spoke to me as a knitter. This crafty imagery is evocative and exciting, and it’s a thrill to watch Abby and her friends explore their abilities after they discover that they are witches.

Though Miss Winters is positioned as the villain from the opening pages, there is a great deal of nuance to her character. She teaches the new witches all about their powers and takes a decidedly feminist approach to their historical studies, telling Abby that the haunted mental institution she calls home was never really about helping people with mental illnesses:

They used to lock up women like us in this place. Maybe you didn’t know that. They called it a mental hospital, but prison is a far better word. They caged people here, mostly women…It’s what this town has always done with unusual women, no different than hanging them from trees, strapping them to posts, crushing them, stoning them, burning them—always trying to put an end to their unusualness. Or worse, to cure them of it.

Miss Winters is a complex, ambiguous villain who blurs the lines between good and evil and shows what grief and prejudice can do to a person. The Witches of Willow Cove refuses to give easy answers to its readers, allowing its rich characters to depict the complexity of life in all its joys and sorrows. I’m very hopeful for a sequel, because this novel is a fun, thrilling read that will leave you wanting to spend a lot more time in the magical world of Willow Cove.


Rating

This will make a perfect Halloween read. I give this book 5 out of 5 coffins.

5 Coffins


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