Review written by Jonathan Lavallee
Howl’s Moving Castle takes place in a Kingdom, somewhere. The eldest of three has read all the tales and she knows that she’s destined for failure—the eldest ones always are, especially when there are two younger siblings and your father has remarried. Even if your stepmom does her best to try to treat all of you equally.
This is the life that Sophie Hatter lives until her father dies. Her stepmother sends the to youngest away to good apprenticeships and keeps Sophie with her at the Hat Shop that her family has owned for generations. She ends up finishing off hats in the back of the shop, meek and quietly talking to the hats because she doesn’t really have anyone else to talk to in the shop.
That’s when the Witch of the Wastes come in and curses young Sophie Hatter and turns her into an old woman. This causes her to escape and go to the one place she can think of where she might find help, the Wizard Howl and his moving castle. Now that’s she’s an old woman she isn’t too worried that the Wizard is going to devour her soul, he apparently only does that to young women.
When she arrives at the castle, she sets herself up as his housekeeper and Michael (Howl’s young apprentice), Calcifer (Howl’s Fire Demon), and the mysterious wizard Howl himself. Howl shows himself to be far different than Sophie expects. Howl is fickle, careless, selfish, and a coward. He spends his time falling in love, until the young woman in question falls in love with him and then he has to move on.
Howl hopes that he can avoid being made the Royal Wizard to go searching after the previous Royal Wizard, and the Prince who has been captured by the Witch of the Wastes. Mainly this is because the Witch has cast a curse on Howl as well, and when all of it is fulfilled he will end up in her clutches again. If that happens, Sophie’s hopes of having the spell broken end as well.
Diana Wynne Jones, as an author has always been able to impart the power and the whimsy of magic through her writing. Magic is always mysterious, it’s always incomprehensible, but you never totally need to know what’s going on to appreciate it. She also creates marvelous characters that draw you into the story, even if they have a limited amount of things to say, or a limited amount of time in the story.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Sophie’s family is pretty complex despite the fact that they are really only together for the first few pages, but there’s a really interesting line that Martha says to Sophie the one time Sophie musters up the courage to visit her sister. The line is “You don’t have to be mean to exploit someone” and it’s referencing the fact that Hattie, Sophie’s stepmom, is taking advantage of how nice Sophie is. Your kids might get upset at the fact that Sophie does a lot of the work and gets very little in the exchange.
Howl is notoriously bad about his relationships, it’s how he gets into trouble with The Witch of the Wastes. Part of that is because he actually doesn’t have a heart, but that doesn’t mean that his “get them to love him and then leave them” tactics aren’t harmful, even if Howl is ultimately quite charming.
Also, the end of the book when Sophie and Howl are restored and are sharing a moment they make this exchange:
Sophie: “You’ll just exploit me.”
Howl: “And you’ll cut up my suits in return.”
Could be a bit problematic for younger readers.
This story is a great one for your slightly older tween, probably between ten and twelve. There isn’t a lot of action that happens in the book—a lot of what takes places happens between the characters as they spend their time dealing with Howl or trying to figure out what’s going on. Sophie spends a lot of time wondering why she’s a lot bolder as an old woman than she was as a younger girl. There’s also a lot of wondering how to break contracts and curses, so if your child is an explosions-a-minute kind of kid then they might not be as into this book as others.
However, if they do stick it out they should be really thrilled by the characters. Sophie, as an old woman, takes delight in the fact that she feels that she doesn’t have to be worried about offending people and frequently speaks her mind. Howl is wonderfully mysterious and amusingly petulant, and the Witch of the Wastes feels like a very palpable threat whenever she makes an appearance.
The language of the story is light and playful, there aren’t a lot of words that your tween will find too troubling or difficult. The pace is also always moving, even if the action is all taking place internally. It truly is a joy to read.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Published in 1986 by Harper Collins
Read the paperback version