As a little girl who loved to read, I was offered a parade of books about other little girlsmany of whom also loved to readto find myself in. There was saccharine Heidi, feisty Anne of Green Gables, spoiled Mary in The Little Princess. They were precocious, they rebelled, but their non-fatal flaw was always rectified by the books end. Jo March got hold of her temper; Harriet the Spy learned not to be such an asshole to her friends.
The fictional girl I actually related to was preternaturally cranky and loved to complain. She wore the same gray dress every day. She was shy with strangers, irritable with loved ones. She got mad, snooped in everyones business, but also worried about everyone constantly. She was anxious about everything from her future to her familys well-being. Oh, and she was an 18-year-old in a 90-year-olds body.
Reading Diana Wynne Joness novel Howls Moving Castle (1986) might have been the first time I felt a deep connection to a protagonist. Sophie Hatter, the books main character, is a plain young woman cursed to live as an old woman. Shes also a character who falls victim to fairy tale tropes simply because she believes in them.
Sophie is the daughter of a hatter and the eldest of three sisters. This fact is crucial. In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three, the book begins. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.
If you want to empower a young girl, an internet search seems to suggest, you can simply purchase a book.
Sophie, we learn, is a denizen of a fairy tale land, and shes convinced that its tropes will govern her life. Shes obsessed with her doomed fate as the eldest, bemoaning that she is not even the child of a poor woodcutter, which might have given her some chance of success. Her mother dies early, in typical fairy tale fashion, and her father remarries Fanny, the mother of the third sister (fortunately, Sophie and her sister Lettie narrowly avoid the fate of becoming Ugly Stepsisters).
The plot really begins when Sophies father dies and Fanny sends the older girls to make their fortunes, leaving Sophie to work in the family hat shop. She takes to it in her resigned fashion, convinced its the best she can do, and starts wearing only gray and talking to the hats shes trimming, rather than to the customers. When the books glamorous villain, the Witch of the Waste, appears in the shop one day, an altercation ensues and the Witch puts Sophie under a curse that transforms her into an old woman.
But rather than falling into despair, this transformation frees Sophie from the expectations shed mapped onto her lifethere are no stories about old ladies seeking their fortune, so shes free. She tells herself in the mirror, This is much more like you really are.
Soon, Sophies adventures lead her to the home of Wizard Howl, rumored to be a great and terrible wizard who lures young ladies and eats their hearts. He lives in a clattering, smoke-chugging moving castle made of cinderblocks that floats above the hills near Sophies village. When Sophie stops in the castle to rest, she meets Calcifer the fire demon, who seems to belong to Howl and does much of the castles magic, making it move around the hills and controlling its strange door that opens in four different places, depending on which way the door handle is turned. Calcifer makes a deal with Sophie: hell try to break her spell if she helps him escape his contract with Howl.
Some of these empowerment-forward books feel to me like posturing for the gaze of a secondary, hidden readera parent or a political adversary, perhaps.
The book is a fun, breezy ride, half fantasy adventure, half domestic farce; the intimately described moving castle becomes a cozy home for both the reader and Sophie. Staying on the pretext of acting as Howls much-needed cleaning lady, Sophie is unapologetically concerned with the feminized domestic, always scrubbing and darning and sweeping, exploring her talents in horticulture and sewing.
Young readers used to protagonists their own age end up following this unlikely heroinean old crone stomping around, complaining of aches and pains and demanding respect, all while cleaning and snooping through a wizards house and serving up bacon sandwiches for dinner.
Meanwhile, the titular wizard upsets fairy tale gender norms. Howl is proud and haughty, obsessed with chasing women, and overly precious about his looks. Hes petulant and throws tantrums when things dont go his way. He knows theres a curse or prophecy hanging over his head that hinges on a certain date, and he still goes out and gets drunk with his rugby team the night before.
The big reveal of the book, the narrative trick, is that Sophie is a witch herself. Her particular brand of magic is described as talking life into things. A quirky character traither habit of talking to inanimate objectsturns out to be a key element of the book: her walking stick is essentially a magic wand, the fake spells she sold townspeople on Howls behalf actually work, and of course, she is the one keeping herself old. The witchs original curse had already been liftedbut by repeatedly telling herself and everyone around her what she was, she made it true.
If you want to empower a young girl, an internet search seems to suggest, you can simply purchase a book. Amazon carries an entire section of Empowering Books for Young Girls; Barnes & Noble, Scholastic, and A Mighty Girl, among others, offer lists to the same effect. A quick Google search yields plenty of results, and though Robert Munschs 1980 Paper Bag Princess shows up, most other top hits seem to have been published post-2016. Many of the titles have worlds like trailblazer, rebel, confident; some are compendiums of famous women in science or throughout history; several are by Chelsea Clinton.
Even as a child, many books gave me the distinct impression that I was reading something about kids rather than for kids. An overly didactic book can accidentally limit its scope rather than expand it. And while theres nothing intrinsically wrong with hoping to bolster young girls or correct sexist narratives from previous generations, some of these empowerment-forward books feel to me like posturing for the gaze of a secondary, hidden readera parent or a political adversary, perhapsrather than the genuine outgrowth of a desire to tell stories.
In his essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children, C.S. Lewis describes a kind of childrens literature that grows collaboratively between author and child. The printed story grows out of a story told to a particular child … [Y]ou are dealing with a concrete person, this child who, of course, differs from all other children. He continues, asserting that through the telling, the two participants modify each other. You would become slightly different because you were talking to a child and the child would become slightly different because it was being talked to by an adult. A community, a composite personality, is created and out of that the story grows.
This reminds me of how Sophie herself changes through her interactions with others in the novel. Her spats with Howl teach her that she is opinionated, not demure; her conniving with the fire demon reveals her intelligence and magical ability; her misapprehensions of her sisters shows her that just because shes the oldest doesnt mean she knows everything.
By the end, a community grows around her, literally: she stands in the castle surrounded by her friends and family members, all of them working out how they know each other. When Sophie is reunited with Fanny, she realizes shed been putting her in the role of evil stepmother: She should have known Fanny better, she reflects. She was ashamed. Wynne Jones resists both the urge to play into the evil stepmother trope and to directly subvert it. Rather, she tells us that Fannylike nearly all the books charactersis neither wicked nor good, just an imperfect person with her own motivations and interests.
As much asHowls is about the interpretation of stories, its also about creating our own.
Another fairy tale trope plays out, as well: Sophie and Howl fall in love. But the book dances between falling for and subverting this cliche. Its Sophie who saves the wizard, by returning his heart to him; their love is not swooning but a realization borne of time spent growing closer to each other. In Wynne Joness version of a fairy-tale ending, Sophie knew that living happily ever after with Howl would be a good deal more eventful than any story made it sound, though she was determined to try.
Sophies journey mirrored the ways I felt changed by my readings of the book through my childhood. It spoke to me as a shy girl with a tendency to rely too much on what she read in books to tell her what life should be like. But the revelation of Sophies magic also opened up the possibility that I could shape my own identity. Like Sophie, I could speak things into existence.
Despite all I learned from Sophies story, I see the book as more than a morality taleits lack of didacticism ironically made it more influential to me. The books dedication seems to reflect some version of C.S. Lewiss ethos: This one is for Stephen, Wynne Jones writes. The idea for this book was suggested by a boy in a school I was visiting, who asked me to write a book called The Moving Castle. I wrote down the name and put it in such a safe place that I have been unable to find it ever since. I would like to thank him very much.
Howls Moving Castle is the rare story that centers around a girls imaginative abilities without succumbing to mere whimsy. Sophies imagination is powerful, even when used unconsciously. Yet discovering her magic isnt just about finding her powerits a perspective shift. Shed been so convinced of her path as the eldest daughter that she limited her own possibilities.
The book subtly hints at where Sophies iron-clad worldview comes from. Were told that she read a great deal, and very soon realized how little chance she had of an interesting future.
The books grand conclusion is less about change than self-revelation.
Howls dramatizes a fundamental tension of childhood, between the cultural expectations produced by the media kids consume (much of which is explicitly meant to be instructive) and the futures and desires in their own minds. While many childrens books follow protagonists who are readers themselves, this suspicion of stories feels rare for the genre. Sophie looks to stories to tell her what her life will be, and she buys into it entirely, to her detriment.
As much as Howls is about the interpretation of stories, its also about creating our own. We tell ourselves liesor, to be more generous, storiesabout who we are all the time. Thats the strange beauty of words: they both hold and confer power. We speak things into existence.
The curse that Howl is under, which Sophie originally misidentifies as a spell, is really a poem by John Donne, written on a childs homework assignment. (Go and catch a falling star, / Get with child a mandrakes root, / Show me where the past years are, / Or who cleft the devils foot, / Teach me to hear mermaids singing, / Or to keep off envys stinging, / And find / What wind / Serves to advance and honest mind. Tell what this is about and write a second verse yourself.) Even Donnes poetry, even curses, Wynne Jones seems to be saying, are not above revision.
Ultimately, what I most related to as a kid was Sophies own fallibility in grasping the contours of her burgeoning identity. Sophie opened my eyes to the magic of our self-creation as children, the limits of following familiar narratives, and the inherent power we each possess, no matter if were brave or careful, smart or stubborn, brash or thoughtful. The books grand conclusion is less about change than self-revelation. Perhaps all childrens books are meant to teach something, but Howls Moving Castle shows that real magic lies in the storys collaboration with the child who reads it. Like Sophie, the most gratifying lessons I learned were the ones I figured out myself.