Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones.
This is the inimitable Wynne Jones’s last book, and while I’m sure I won’t say anything that hasn’t already been said, those who have somehow escaped hearing of this so far really should. Earwig lives in an orphanage, unaware that she was left there by a witch who promised to be back soon but never returned. She loves it there, loves her best friend, Custard, and especially loves that everyone there does exactly what she wants, and has perfected the art of looking unlovable when prospective parents come to visit the orphanage. One day, though, a horrible-looking couple comes in who decide that Earwig is just what they’re looking for. For the first time in her life, no one listens when Earwig says no. Soon she finds that she has been taken on as a helper by a witch. The witch really only wants an extra pair of hands, and has no intention of training Earwig herself to be a witch, while the man has a demonic temper and wants only to be left in peace. Earwig soon befriends the cat. Once she realizes that escape is out of the question, she turns her formidable will instead to getting her new “parents” to do what she wants, working together with the cat.
The book is short, sweet and quite nearly perfect. We never do learn what happened to the Earwig’s original family, but Earwig is a spunky and likeable character, despite or perhaps because of her extreme self-centeredness. She does some magic, but most of her technique is playing people off of each other, with considerable knowledge of character. I read this first to myself and then aloud to my seven-year-old, who also enjoyed it immensely. It’s geared towards a younger audience than her other books, which makes it a perfect introduction to her work for children.