June 06, 2019
(++++) TOIL AND TROUBLE
Calling All Witches! The Girls Who Left Their Mark on the Wizarding World. By Laurie Calkhoven. Illustrated by Violet Tobacco. Scholastic. $14.99.
The world that J.K. Rowling built around Harry Potter has its own form of “girl power,” and that is what is celebrated in this book about girls and women who were important in the eight-film Harry Potter sequence and the Fantastic Beasts spinoffs. Using mostly illustrations by Violet Tobacco, but including some stills from the movies as well, the book offers brief “biographies” of dozens of women, sometimes as individuals and sometimes within the context in which they appeared in the films: “Girls Who Ruled the Quidditch Patch,” “Tough Mothers,” “Women Who Ran the Wizarding World,” and so forth.
Inevitably, the book starts with Hermione Granger, to whom eight full pages are devoted – far more than to anyone else. “Hermione had a world to save, and she didn’t care what anyone thought about it,” reads a typical bit of the somewhat breathless text here. In addition to the basics about Hermione and her tremendous skills, there are pages called “Eight Times Hermione Came to the Rescue,” “Seven Times Hermione Overcame Obstacles,” and more. These give film fans plenty of opportunities to relive high points of the various movies: her use of the Time-Turner in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, her destruction of a rogue bludger in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, her organizing of Dumbledore’s Army in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and many others. But the section on Hermione is just the start of a series of pages focused on familiar-to-fans characters, including fellow students Luna Lovegood and Ginny Weasley, Hogwarts professors Minerva McGonagall, Sybill Trelawney and Pomona Sprout, and others. In fact, it is the portraits of the less-central characters that are often the most interesting elements in Calling All Witches! Filmgoers (and readers of Rowling’s novels) may not remember that Professor Sprout’s first name was Pomona, or that healer Madame Pomfrey also had a first name (Poppy). Nor will readers necessarily remember Quidditch-patch stars Katie Bell, Angelina Johnson or Alicia Spinnet – but this book gives each of them her due (in brief, to be sure, but that is better than nothing!).
There are a few times that the book goes beyond personality profiles to give extra information on the world of Harry Potter. The Quidditch section is notable for this: it has a page called “Major Quidditch Moments” and another called “Quidditch Positions,” the latter being especially helpful for readers who learned about the game only through the action-focused films rather than the more-explanatory novels. And it is not only the positive, heroic characters profiled here – there are some evil female characters in Rowling’s novels and the films made from them, and they also appear in Calling All Witches! The odious Dolores Umbridge, who forced Harry to use his own blood to scratch messages into his skin in one of the creepiest scenes in the films (and books), gets three pages detailing her villainy. Bellatrix Lestrange, the closest thing on screen to the traditional notion of an evil, cackling witch, is here as well, as is the somewhat more ambiguous Narcissa Malfoy – younger sister of Bellatrix, as fans may or may not remember.
It is certainly true that this book never pretends to be more than a once-over-lightly look at female characters in the films made from Rowling’s books. And it is true that the richness of the novels’ descriptions and of the visual scene-setting in the movies never comes through here: the entire climactic Battle of Hogwarts, for example, is described in half a page that merely mentions the roles of various girls and women in it. But this is not a book for people unfamiliar with the world of Harry Potter: it is strictly for those who already know that world well, in particular those who know it through the movies rather than the more-in-depth novels. Straightforward movie-souvenir books are rather common and tend to be disappointing, but there is more to Calling All Witches! It is not just a collection of film scenes with little or no connective copy: it is a calling-out of specific characters and specific elements of the films, allowing readers to refocus on the movies and the stories they tell while seeing them from the perspective of the female characters in them. Rowling’s world may have Harry Potter at its center, but the girls and women in the books and films are absolute necessities in the stories – not hangers-on, but full-fledged and crucial characters in their own right. And that is the “girl power” that comes through clearly in this book.