Diana Wynne Jones
Sophie Hatter is the eldest of a hat merchant’s three daughters. In fairy tale lore, this means that she will be the family’s failure, so she lives her life preparing her sisters for the exciting lives they are sure to lead. When their father dies, their step-mother finds the sisters apprenticeships—the youngest, Martha, goes to learn magic, pretty Lettie goes to Cesari’s Pastry shop where she is sure to find a beau, and Sophie is set to inherit the hat shop. But there is magic afoot, with the Wizard Howl’s moving castle wandering the Wastes around Market Chipping (it’s said that he eats young women’s hearts) and rumours that the terrifying Witch of the Wastes has returned. When the Witch of the Wastes enters the hat shop and curses Sophie to be an old woman, she must set out and have her own adventure!
Why you should read it:
This book straddles the line between children’s lit and young adult lit. It is a well-written fantasy novel that will be reachable by anyone, at any time, of any age. The plot is simple and easy to follow, and follows the tropes of a coming-of-age story. Wynne Jones often uses advanced (or rather, old-fashioned) vocabulary and has created a framework regarding alternate dimensions and the potential of travel between them that makes sense in the context of the book (especially if you don’t think about it too hard), but rapidly gets complicated upon further reflection.
Sophie is a young woman who is resigned to her future. Becoming an old woman liberates her, allowing her to find her determination come into her own. She says things as an old woman that she would never say as a young woman, exerts her will, and makes strong decisions, some good, some bad. She is a quiet woman—near the beginning of the novel, she is called a mouse. She is that rare character—a strong, shy heroine.
I found it really easy to relate to Sophie—being the eldest of three girls resonates when you have two younger sisters. I really wish I had found this book in junior high—I think it would have made a far bigger impact then!
For me, the hardest part about reading Howl’s Moving Castle was that I came to this book from the credits of Miyazaki’s 2004 film based on the book. Miyazaki used many of the major elements of the book—Sophie is a hatter, her step-mother has a similar character, and she has a sister working at Cesari’s—but changed other elements in major ways—Sophie’s sister (Martha) is removed, Howl’s apprentice (Michael) is a child rather than a teen, and the ending is completely different. I would recommend reading the book first so that the differences in Miyazaki’s interpretation don’t mar the rich imagery evoked by Wynne Jones’ prose.
There are two more books in this series, Castle in the Sky, and The House of Many Ways, both excellent if the ending just isn’t enough for you!
Cross-posted to Books off the Shelf.