Book Review

Witch Hat Atelier, Volume 1 by Kamome Shirahama

The SBTB crew were discussing a current manga sale going on at Comixology wherein the first volumes of many, many wonderful series are marked down to .99. If you listen to the podcast, you might have heard me talk about how, when my brain is tired, it doesn’t have the energy to do all the imaginary construction of the world and environment that usually happens when I read a book. And at times when my brain is tired (like now, hello and whoa damn) I find myself gravitating toward video games or manga or anime, because the visual is constructed for me while I’m still getting the enjoyment of being immersed in a story.

When discussing the current sale, Susan said, “My rec is going to be Witch Hat Atelier, btw, because if you liked Diana Wynne Jones books it is PERFECT.”

I didn’t know that I needed the words Witch Hat Atelier in my eyeballs, but apparently I did, because my whole brain was At. Attention.

Then I saw that not only was volume 1 on sale, but it was also part of Kindle Unlimited so off I went.

Y’all.

Y’ALL.

WITCH HAT ATELIER is ADORABLE.

The set up is pretty easy to grasp, and rather familiar (ba dum-bum): Coco is a seamstress who works with her mother in a world where witches have magic, but one has to be born with magic to be a witch. Coco wishes she could be a witch, but has been told it’s impossible.

And it is impossible; the end.

Ha, I’m kidding.

A witch named Qifrey comes to her shop, then later intervenes and saves Coco’s life when she attempts magic on her own by copying from a mysterious book she’d been given years earlier. Good news: Coco can do magic. Bad news: that spell went hella wrong. Qifrey offers her a chance to learn more magic and try to fix what went wrong, and off she goes to his atelier, where three other students are learning magic, all of whom welcome Coco in different ways.

The charm of this story for me is partially in the familiarity of its structure and character, but mostly in the gorgeousness of the art, amid which moments of unexpected gravity landed on me with a thudding poignancy. I recognized so many of these characters and motifs. Coco is an enthusiastic, starry-eyed newbie in a magical world, overwhelmed and excited about everything. Her roommate is distrustful and resentful; the other students are odd in unique ways. Qifrey isn’t what he seems and he wears really interesting eyeglasses – even when I can identify how the story is working on me, it was still working. Charmed, I was, indeed.

But amid the familiarity were so many scenes that made me grin or laugh (remember to read right to left here).

For example, one of Coco’s new schoolmates is SO EXTRA:

One of Coco's fellow students thanks her for thanking her with a thumbs up and an intense expression. This girl is a LOT extra.

I just had a conversation with my son about learning styles (we are now homeschooling for the time being, and are all adjusting to online learning along with our entire school district) and how his learning methods are different from mine. This one panel echoed an entire debate we’d had:

Qifrey explains that things merely heard and read are quickly lost but things undestood and spoken aloud remain clearly etched in mind

Yes, hi, hello, I wasn’t expected this level of casual poignancy or multiple meaning in this manga but sure, that’s pretty much what my heart looks like now. In this frame, Qifrey is discussing the removal of magic use from the general populace, but I read a lot more into this part:

A heart with thorns and the caption For when man has the power to do anything then anything he will do.

This panel also hit me in my feels, all of them, every last one, which are already too close to the surface so ouch:

Coco says I'm sure anyone who draws magic like that must be a lovely person, too. Her fellow student says, Personality and skill aren't related. It's best if you don't get your hopes up.

And my favorite moment:

Qifrey telling Coco there is a magic stationers: We'll take a trip to the stationer's. The MAGIC stationers. Coco begins losing her cool: there's...there's a SHOP like that? The stationers! Even the name is lovely, oh it sounds so great. Qifrey: Um, Coco? Coco: Just a moment I'm still savoring the words.

“The Magic Stationer’s” is another assembly of words that I didn’t know would completely transfix me with charming but like “Witch Hat Atelier,” they did.

“Just a moment! I’m still savoring” pretty much sums up my experience after volume one. I’m still savoring the images, the delight of Coco absolutely losing her cool every third page, the way the illustrations zoom out into wide panels that convey wonder and awe and discouragement and impossible hope. I didn’t realize how much I needed wonder, awe, and hope. The AV Club described this story as “Harry Potter meets Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and that’s about as on target as any attempt I might make. It was exactly what I needed, and made me feel so much better after reading it.

My library, which has a wonderful manga collection and is also closed, has all the volumes in print. Of course, I can’t get to them. I’m about to buy Volume 2 digitally, so it seems that the tempting sale that tempted me was super effective. Even if I can half-predict what happens, and even if at times the familiar tropes are glaring in their familiarity – Plucky Young Girl is Plucky and Chosen For Something Mysterious! Magic Happens! There’s a Magical Stationary Shop! Taciturn Deceitful Person is Taciturn and Deceitful! –  the illustrations make me weepy-gasp, and the reassurance that hope, determination, and ingenuity is deeply welcome. I’m entirely on board for more magic and charm.

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Witch Hat Atelier, Volume 1 by Kamome Shirahama

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  1. 1
    Nancy says:
    1+

    I love this series so much! The next four books are just as fun and each one delves a little more into each student’s past. And it keeps talking about different ways to learn and practising drawing, it’s so inspiring.

  2. 2
    Deborah says:
    1+

    when my brain is tired, it doesn’t have the energy to do all the imaginary construction of the world and environment that usually happens when I read a book.

    Thank you for this. Since the lockdown started, I’ve been unable to focus on reading. Even attempts to re-read favorite titles stall out. I was a romance reader for 19 years, then switched exclusively to manga for (still romance, but manga) for 17 years, then switched back to romance novels 3 years ago. Time to pull some manga off the shelves to see if it can hold my focus.

    Oh, wait. Once of my libraries has Witch Hat Atelier in its overdrive collection. Diving in!

  3. 3
    Jennavier says:
    1+

    Man O’Malley, am I right there with you. I need all the hope and sweetness right now.

  4. 4
    Sparkle Rancher says:
    1+

    Dang I love this manga. The story gets way more interesting in the later volumes. So glad you guys like it.

  5. 5
    Avrelia says:
    1+

    I love this so much! it was my first manga – my son got book 1 as a present, and I started to read and immediately bought all available parts. It’s incredibly beautiful, and I love that the story and the characters get more and more complicated as we go along.

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