Grandmothers Are Magical by James Nicol

In my novel The Apprentice Witch, Arianwyn has an incredibly close relationship with her grandmother. She’s a witch, an ex-member of the council of elders, and the owner of Stronelli’s book store, a specialist magic book shop where Arianwyn has been raised since her mother died and her father re-joined the army to escape his own grief. She’s also strong and not to be underestimated just because she is a grandmother. She certainly wouldn’t get eaten by a wolf in a fairytale!


There was one simple reason (well two, actually) for making Grandma such a strong, empowered and pivotal character in the story of The Apprentice Witch, and they were my own grandmothers. My two wonderful, funny, kind, clever nanas, Mollie and Beryl.



My parents separated when I was quite young, and as a consequence, I spent a lot of time with both my grandmothers. These were the most glorious times. They were both quite different from each other. One wore and apron and baked, the other wore leopard print and danced! But for all their differences they both shared a skill or gift as natural storytellers. They were excellent at observing the foibles and curiosities of the people around them. They knew hundreds of entertaining and thrilling and heart-breaking stories all from their own lives or from their families.


They both lived through the second World War, and as my two grandfathers passed away when I was quite young, the stories about that time that I heard were not the stories of soldiers, battles, and fighting, but of the domestic life from that time—the lives of those at home and how the war impacted on them. The stories they told were filled with adventure, romance and comedy. Stories about air raids, rationing, kind strangers from faraway lands, dances with handsome soldiers and airmen. They all seemed to blend into the stories I was reading in books. The world of my grandmothers’ World War II lives to me, as a young child in the 80s and 90s, seemed like another place from “a long time ago. . .”


When I imagined the time period that The Apprentice Witch would be set in, although it all happens in a fantasy world, the 1930s and 40s seemed like the only option for me. I could see what the insides of houses looked like, I knew what people wore, and what everything in the world looked like, largely down to the stories my grandmothers had told me and the family photos they shared.


The truly wonderful thing about them, though, was that they understood the importance of allowing children to be children, to give us time to imagine. They encouraged us to dream, play and create—and to not grow up too fast. I’m really trying not to!


My Nana Mollie was the person who made me a reader. As a young child, I was not considered to be a great reader, but our reading schemes here in the UK during the ‘80s were far from inspiring. When Nana handed me a copy of The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, something about the story entirely captured my imagination and it was the first novel I read all on my own from start to finish. The sense of achievement at reaching the end was like climbing a mountain, and once I’d started I couldn’t stop.


Without my two grandmothers I wouldn’t have become a reader or a book lover. I wouldn’t have daydreamed, doodled, and written my first stories—or written any stories, perhaps? I wouldn’t have had a curiosity (or maybe a nosiness) about other people, or appreciated that not all stories have to be on the epic scale.


Our grandparents are unique and wonderful and offer a richness to our lives nobody else can. I am so thankful that I was able to spend so much time with my grandmothers. Their stories and their lives have coloured my own in the most amazing way. I hope they would have seen a glimmer of themselves and their lives in Arianwyn’s grandma and in the world of The Apprentice Witch.


James Nicol has loved books and stories his whole life. As a child he spent hours absorbed in novels, watching epic 1980s cartoons, or adventuring in the wood at the bottom of the garden. He lives on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens with his partner and a black-and-white cockapoo called Bonnie. THE APPRENTICE WITCH is his children’s debut. You can visit him at @jamesenicol.