You know when you pick up a book because you think it’ll be a light, fun romp but your expectations aren’t exactly high? That was me, picking this book out of a sale section mostly due to it’s rad cover art. And about ten pages into The Babysitters Coven I had already messaged a group chat of girlfriends (including fellow book reviewer Christina Ladd) to sing the praises of this book. Rarely has a book injected such a concentrated dose of pure, uncut fun into my veins. Author Kate Williams has packed every sentence of this short book with character, humour, and tropy goodness.
I won’t claim that anything in this book is particularly innovative and I don’t think the author would either. Seventeen year old Esme Pearl is an adorkable loser who realizes that she has magical powers. It’s hardly a groundbreaking plot but Williams does an excellent job navigating tropes to create something that is infused with it’s own vibe. Despite characters falling into obvious classic roles (Janis the Best Friend, Cassandra the New Girl, Dion the Hot Guy) nobody feels particularly flat or boring. Are they paragons of character development? No. Is that what anybody is here for? Probably not. Are they still entertaining and fun? Definitely.
In a plot cribbed fairly heavily from Buffy the Vampire Slayer Esme and Cassandra find that they are part of a longstanding order of women called Sitters with magic powers destined to protect the world. There is a Portal (definitely not a Hellmouth, no sirree) to a shadow dimension called The Negative that needs some minding. Don’t worry, the characters also realize that it’s basically the plot of Buffy. Williams manages to insert great tongue in cheek references to existing properties while still putting enough of her own spin on things to keep it interesting. One important distinction that definitely adds some flavour: Sitters don’t kill. Esme and Cassandra need to figure out how to accomplish their goals in more creative ways than stabbing and blowing everything up. The magic system is also pretty fun and unique, including things like psychic control of cheese and modern spell components like vape pens. In one Highly Relatable scene Esme uses her powers to get herself out of gym class.
One of the most significant successes of this book is that it didn’t make me, a 32 year old Millenial reading about teenagers, feel ancient. And that is not an easy line to walk (looking at you Gearbreakers), but the Babysitters Coven strolls it neatly. The characters speak in Gen Z slang but make “retro” references. Janis and Esme go thrift shopping to fuel their themed looks like “Sylvia Plath goes to Prom” and “Car Crash Survivor”. Esme’s internal monologue is quippy and hilarious without veering too hard into Mystifying Youth Stuff. There is just enough that the book would appeal to a wide variety of audiences.
Besides Buffy there were two really big cultural icons that this book reminded me of: Cher Horowitz and Sabrina Spellman (circa The Chilling Adventures). Once Esme starts to develop her powers she uses magic to make her closet spit out outfits almost exactly the way Cher uses a computer to manage hers in Clueless. Like Sabrina, Esme must figure out how to balance her normal teen life with her Sitter life, and how to hide her powers from her normie best friend. Again, I think Williams is one hundred percent aware of what she’s doing, pulling in both 90s and current references to make a tasty melange that anybody can identify with. And like Buffy, Cher, and Sabrina, Esme is no slouch when it comes to protecting her friends, family and outfit.
The book manages to pack some impressive emotional notes in as well. Esme’s mother is mentally ill and lives in a locked ward, her dad is often emotionally absent because of it. Her best (and really only) friend is scouting universities out of town, something that Esme can never afford. You really feel the deep sadness and fear that she will lose her best friend and wither away in her boring small town forever branded “The Girl With the Crazy Mom.”
Sometimes we want books that challenge us, frighten us, thrill us. But also sometimes we want books that gently float our minds in serotonin. It’s something that I like to refer to as Brain Candy (also applies to TV, movies, video games etc.). Brain Candy doesn’t make you think very hard and you can just let the fun of it wash over you. The Babysitters Coven is definitely Brain Candy of the highest order, and I look forward to the sequels tucking me in at night, telling me everything is going to be okay, and describing how cute Esme’s dog is.