If I were Zipporah Chava McConnell, writing an essay about The Witch of Woodland (the newest middle grade novel from Laurel Snyder, published by Walden Pond Press) for class, I’d probably talk a lot about the themes of Silence and Space. Any theme that recurs is worth mentioning, right? And isn’t it strange? A book about a 7th grader, centered on the last two things you’d ever think to associate with the cusp of the teenage years?
Silence and Space don’t have much resonance when you’re looking at 7th graders from the outside. But when you’re in that headspace, when you revert to a junior high mindset, that’s all there is: echoing emptiness in your mind, a vacuum that you don’t know whether to fill or flee from. And all you can feel is the space between yourself and others, a widening chasm of disconnection in relationships that were once so easy.
But there’s more to Snyder’s expertly voiced narrative than those straightforward themes. I want instead to talk about the tension between being and becoming. Because that’s the kind of thing I thought about all the time in 7th grade, and honestly haven’t stopped thinking about since. The onset of puberty is the epitome of becoming. The influx of hormones into the body literally changes who we are, in ways both sudden and subtle, and for smart kids who pride themselves on having answers — like Snyder’s hero, Zippy — the shift from being to becoming can feel like a 9.5 magnitude shake up.
In The Witch of Woodland, Snyder weaves that tension into Zippy’s bat mitzvah preparation. She adroitly lets the character of Rabbi Dan do the heavy lifting of introducing Zippy (and the reader) to the foundational philosophy of questioning that underpins the Jewish faith. As the story unfolds, Zippy’s notions of being — the things that ground her in her identity (being a witch, excelling in school) — are placed in direct conflict with the ways in which she is becoming. And it’s that curiosity, that questioning, that allows her to tie the two together.
I wish I had a deeper knowledge of Jewish culture and history, because I suspect there are beautiful layers to this book that I’m incapable of accessing. But I recall very similar conversations with my Episcopal priest during Confirmation classes as those Zippy has with her Rabbi. It’s exactly what a kid at that age needs: permission to not know things. Encouragement to question.
There’s more, still, than that. The delightful asides about The Truth and writing style and Ms. Marty the language and literature teacher allow the book itself (framed as Zippy capturing her own story so as not to forget) to be simultaneously being and becoming. And then there’s magic and mythology and erratic access to power, all drawn together in ways best understood by those who are at an age when it’s hard to think of anything as real. Snyder’s mastery of that 13-year-old perspective is an immersive delight, evoking memories and evincing empathy.
Which, actually, all circles back to silence and space. Zippy (and, for that matter, Snyder) chooses to fill the silence and space around her with the most powerful magic: words. In doing so, she forms connections and community. Casually, in the midst of some narration about three-quarters of the way through the book, this line slipped in: “… do you know how sometimes, the world is just too much?”
Yes, Zippy. I do know. But together, we can get through it. If we ask the right questions.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s May 2023 issues.