Michelle Harrison is the award-winning author of The Thirteen Treasures. Here, she talks about her new book A Pinch of Magic, her favourite childhood books and the joys of reading aloud to children…
Without giving too much away, can you tell us a bit about your new book A Pinch of Magic?
It’s the story of the Widdershins sisters, Betty, Fliss and Charlie, who set out to undo a deadly family curse. The sisters have also inherited three magical objects: a carpet bag, a set of nesting dolls and a mirror. But will the objects help them to break the curse, or lead to more trouble?
I really enjoyed The Other Alice. How is A Pinch of Magic similar to your other books? How is it different?
All of my stories can be classed as magical realism, being set in the real world (or at least a world that feels familiar) with magical aspects creeping in. They all have dark, spooky elements, but with touches of humour. A Pinch of Magic feels more firmly middle grade. In the past (with The Other Alice in particular) I’ve ended up with stories that are somewhere between middle grade and YA. One thing that’s different with Pinch is the setting. It’s a little more ambiguous and leaning more into fantasy than my previous stories.
The story follows the adventures of three sisters. How did your relationship with your two older sisters help you when writing? How much of life with your sisters is included in the book?
My sisters have had a huge influence on my writing. They read to me when I was small, which encouraged my love of stories. They also drew pictures to go with those stories, and have great imaginations. There’s so much of our relationship in the Widdershins sisters, which really seems to have struck a chord with readers. The sisters are largely based on us, in fact, with all our strengths and flaws . . . with a few tweaks, of course.
I know you have a degree in illustration. I wondered how this affects and impacts upon your writing?
I’d say my background in art has made me a very ‘visual’ writer. My ideas are often sparked by something I’ve seen, an example being my first novel, Thirteen Treasures. I got the initial idea from a book called Faeries (illustrated by Brian Froud and Alan Lee). The paintings were so beautiful I was instantly inspired. While writing is now my focus, illustration is something I still enjoy and I usually manage to get a few into my books ̶ as is the case with A Pinch of Magic!
What did you edit out of this book? Why?
Lots! The edits were pretty hefty. But two things of significance were chapters told from other points of view. In the early drafts, there was a chapter from the perspective of Colton, who’s a prisoner the Widdershins sisters visit. My editors thought it gave too much away and that it was better to keep him more mysterious. The second was a chapter from Fliss’s point of view, when the girls are separated later in the story. We felt it was important to keep the focus on Betty.
What advice would you give to teachers about how to develop reading for pleasure in their classrooms and schools?
Make time to read to the children and ask them fun questions, such as riddles or word play to think about when they go home. The ‘pleasure’ part is key. They need to learn to love stories when the pressure of learning to read and write for themselves is not there. I remember being read to in class and in assemblies, and spending hours one evening trying to figure out a riddle set by my teacher while we were reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She’d asked us all to think about what ‘square sweets that look round’ could be! We all had to design our own chocolate bar, too, which made the story extra exciting.
What advice do you have for the parents of children who only seem to read one type of book?
I was one of these children myself! My reading material was incredibly narrow, even though I read constantly. I reread the Famous Fives, Malory Towers and St Clere’s stories over and over again because Enid Blyton books were all we had in the house. Apart from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and a few Roald Dahl books, I read little else until I was a teenager, and then it was almost exclusively Point Horror! As long as children are reading, I say leave them to it. Make suggestions, but don’t pressure. They’ll move on when they’re ready.
Even if children say they don’t like reading, all the classes I’ve read to seem to instantly fall silent! Why do you think children enjoy being read to so much?
I think it’s because children are so open to possibilities and magic. They’re naturally curious, and stories are a great way of expanding their worlds to other people and places. There’s also such a lovely bond that reading brings, because it’s a time of undivided attention between you and a child that makes them feel loved, safe and special.
How would you envisage teachers using your book in their classrooms? What age group is it aimed at? Do any activities or ideas spring to mind?
There are plenty of ways this books could be used in a classroom, particularly in the areas of imagination and descriptive writing. It’s aimed at children of 9-12 (depending on ability). A few suggestions are:
- Imagine and describe your own three magical objects.
- Research the history of witches in Britain: find examples of what sort of things could lead to an accusation of witchcraft, and what a ‘trial’ involved.
- Research superstitions and their origins, and list five that aren’t in the book.
- Create a ‘mood board’ of a particular scene, chapter, or even the entire book. This is done by using textures and images such as found natural objects, scraps of fabric and cut outs from cards and magazines to give a feel for the story. This also helps with description and encourages children to think visually.
- Write a diary entry for one of the sisters on the night they are given their magical object, and have learned of the curse. What would they be thinking and feeling?
Finally, can you describe your new book A Pinch of Magic in three words?
Magical, sisterhood, adventure!