I recently moved houses and “pared down” my book collection. I gave away 8 bags of books, and when the movers came I still had 16 boxes for them to haul… (!!!). Jessi Zabarsky's young adult graphic novel Witchlight moved with me, and I’m glad I finally got around to picking it up. The combination of girls doing things, a Black main character, cooking, sword-fighting, and witchy magic was delightful, escapist, and just the thing to kick off my first summer as a teacher.

witchlight by jessi zabarsky book cover
Love—loss—witches—this YA fantasy graphic novel has it all! This thoughtful, emotional story will entrance you with its moving story and organic artwork. 

Lelek is a witch. That’s all Sanja knows when she meets Lelek in the marketplace. But Lelek is hiding something — and as her life begins to intersect with Sanja’s, all that she’s kept to herself starts to come to light. Secrets, friendship, and magic all come together as Lelek gets closer and closer to uncovering the truth about her past... 

Witchlight is a wonderful adventure filled with friendship, family, falling in love, and dealing with the hardest bits of your past all along the way.

Sanja and Lelek’s world is one of small hamlets, markets, and magic. When Sanja (a good cook and fighter from a family that values boys and violence) and Lelek (a witch! you can tell by the candle over her head!) meet for the first time, assumptions are made, challenged, and eventually the two join forces on an epic quest. Along the way they search for truths and find fragile friendship, interesting people, and eventually love (yes, this is a gentle queer love story!).

Zabarsky’s storytelling heavily centers the two main characters, Sanja and Lelek, with fleshed out secondary characters joining the storyline only rarely. The timeline of their journey is nebulous (over a season or maybe two?), but flashbacks and/or dream sequences referencing both characters’ pasts offer clarity about what shaped them and why they might be willing to join forces. The slow reveal of Lelek’s past trauma especially engages the reader’s interest and information reveals and reactions keep the narrative moving forward.

The heart of Witchlight is its depiction of Sanja and Lelek’s relationship: learning to compromise and learning to trust and making real mistakes – the kind that can break fragile friendships – and figuring out how to move past that. One of the themes that runs through the book is that while there are those who are fearful and make awful choices because of that fear, people are essentially good, or they can learn to be, and that it is human to extend them grace.  Another thread that was present but not fully fleshed out: that it is important to find nonviolent ways of being.

Also of note: Lelek’s witchy creativity and setting healthy boundaries in relationships! This really is a wholesome, lovely sort of book, with character growth and relationship growth and companionship and food. So cozy! I want a series of books about the various side characters that Sanja and Lelek meet on the way!  They don’t get much page time but the art and thought that went into creating each of them shows that there’s backstory there!

Speaking of art, it is very striking, and a definite strength of the graphic novel. Author-illustrator Zabarsky works in ink on paper, then colors digitally. The most impressive bit is the way that Zabarsky plays with lighting, as Lelek has a candle (light source!) atop her head. The color palette shifts throughout the journey, but each combination feels warm, if you know what I mean. Most of the way magic works in this world is shown through artwork, and not included in dialogue – overall the book feels a little light on words. That’s okay, obviously – because the art tells its own story.

In all, Witchlight is an appealing story of friendship, healing, and love, and it’s hygge as all get out. If you want a warm blanket of a book, this is it!

Recommended for: fans of graphic novels, readers who enjoy upper middle grade and young adult books, and anyone who liked Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy and/or Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu’s Mooncakes.
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