May 15


When I Was a Witch by Laurel Snyder

Something black

Something white

Something stolen

Something tight

Something new

Something old

Something silver

Something gold


An older girl we’ll call Kelly taught me these words, when I was 12.  She asked me to memorize them, and I did. I chanted them as I walked through the halls at school, as I fell asleep each night. They were instructions, you see, a list of items I was to assemble, a costume for my initiation. Because Kelly (according to Kelly) was a witch, and I was going to become her apprentice!


I did as she suggested. I stole a strand of gold bells from my mother’s jewelry box. I wrapped a scarf tightly around my midsection, pulled on a black sheath I found in my dress-up trunk. I wanted desperately to believe it would all work, that Kelly was truly a witch, as she claimed, and that she could indeed teach me to wield magical powers. That finally, at long last, I’d find real magic.  


I’d been searching for it a long time by that point. My best friend Susan and I had spent years stirring potions, casting spells, calling on fairies, searching for unicorns to no avail. We’d hunted mermaids in the ocean and wished on endless numbers of stars and dandelion clocks. But now… here was Kelly, who claimed to have found the secrets that had so far eluded us!


In the end, it didn’t work.  I assembled my costume, but then… what happened?  


I’m not entirely sure.  I can recall standing with Kelly and Susan in the public library, pulling Time/Life books about the occult off the shelf. I remember crouching down and reading those books together. I can picture that all so clearly, as clearly as I can remember the words Kelly made me memorize. But I don’t remember the day Kelly told us it was all a game, that she wasn’t actually a witch. Surely that must have happened, right?


Decades later, a grownup and a children’s author, I found myself doing a deep dive into some old favorites, and I happened to revisit one particular title—Jennifer Hecate Macbeth William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, by E.L. Konigberg, in which one young girl “apprentices” another as a witch, and runs her through a series of mildly gross challenges (eating onion sandwiches, for instance) as part of her initiation. Reading the book, I gasped as memories of Kelly washed over me.  


What I find fascinating about this whole memory is that I had, at the age of twelve, already read Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. I’d read all of Konigberg. I know that to be true.  So I must have guessed what Kelly was doing, right? I must have suspected…


But no. No.  This is one great power of childhood, the ability to block out logic and suspicion, in favor of hope and faith.  Whatever had happened in the Konigsberg had no bearing on my chances as a witch.  I was desperate to believe, in those years, that the world was bigger and better and more than I had experienced. That I would somehow, one day, find a special door into a better world, a world of magic.  And so I could absolutely not accept that Kelly had ripped her game from the pages of a novel.


Over the years, Susan and I discussed Kelly, and as adults do, we evaluated her. Why would she do such a thing? What did it say about her that she felt the need to manipulate two younger girls? What was she trying to get out of us? What was up with Kelly?


But you know what? I think Kelly was probably just looking for the same thing that Susan and I craved. I think that maybe, in convincing us of her powers, she was also blocking out logic and reality, tricking herself into believing. It can be hard, when you’re imagining deeply, to tell fact from fiction, even when the fiction is something you yourself have built. We all want to believe in something more, don’t we?


I’ve spent the last four years writing The Witch of Woodland, a book about a girl who believes deeply in magic, in witchcraft. Who seeks control over herself and the baffling world around her. Who tries to convince others that her magic is real, and struggles to find a way to reconcile those personal beliefs with the various logical systems of the “real world.”


But what I’m realizing right now is that in a sense, I’ve become Kelly. Haven’t I? I am a logical responsible adult. And I have never, in all these years, found proof of magic, though I live in a world that could sorely use some. I wield no special powers. The unicorns and mermaids continue to escape me. The wishes I make on stars and dandelions, when they come true, might well be coincidences. 


And yet over and over again, I write books for kids in which I try desperately to make the magic feel true. In which I attempt to write myself into a world full of hope and faith and dazzle. Something better and bigger and more. I create and tell stories, to myself and my readers. That’s what fiction is, right? An invention, a fabrication. Or an attempt to believe?


Kids often ask me why I write about magic, and I always answer them the same way: If you have a choice between a world without unicorns, and a world with unicorns, which will you choose? I choose the unicorns, I tell them. I will always choose the unicorns. I will spend my life crafting impossible fictions. Because maybe, just maybe, they’re true.


Here’s the thing: maybe we aren’t going to bring about a bigger, better, more magical world just by trying to believe in it. But I know for certain that we aren’t going to bring about a bigger, better, more magical world if we don’t.


Laurel Snyder is the beloved author of many picture books and novels for children, including the National Book Award nominee Orphan Island and the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award winner Charlie & Mouse. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in writing for children and young adults program. Laurel lives in Atlanta with her family and can be found online at

About the Book

Laurel Snyder, author of Orphan Island, returns with a story of one girl’s quest

to answer the seemingly unanswerable questions about what makes us who we are.


Hi, whoever is reading this. I’m Zipporah Chava McConnell, but everyone calls me Zippy.

    Things used to be simple—until a few weeks ago. Now my best friend, Bea, is acting funny; everyone at school thinks I’m weird; and my mom is making me start preparing for my bat mitzvah, even though we barely ever go to synagogue.

In fact, the only thing that still seems to make sense is magic.

    See, the thing is, I’m a witch. I’ve been casting spells since I was little. And even if no one else wants to believe in magic anymore, it’s always made sense to me, always felt true. But I was

still shocked the day I found a strange red book at the library and somehow…I conjured something. A girl, actually. A beautiful girl with no memory,

and wings like an angel. You probably don’t believe me, but I swear it’s the truth.

    Miriam is like no one else I’ve ever met. She’s proof that magic is real. And, it’s hard to explain this part, but I just know that we’re connected. That means it’s up to me to help Miriam figure out what she is and where she came from. If I can do that, maybe everything else in my life will start to make sense too.

Anyway, it’s worth a try.