So You Want to Be a Wizard
by Diane Duane
Delacorte Press, 1983
So You Want to Be a Wizard is a young adult fantasy novel from back when young adult was still a new(ish) idea, and it is arguably one of the books that helped to define the category. It begins a series that is formally known as the Young Wizards, although most people will not have a clue what that means -- most fans simply refer to them as the So You Want to Be a Wizard books.
The story starts with thirteen-year-old Nita Callahan running from bullies, and escaping into the public library. This is a familiar haunt -- very familiar -- so when a book she hasn't seen before snags her hand she takes note. It's one of the "So You Want to Be a..." career books for kids, but instead of talking about being a bus driver or a doctor it gives instructions on how to be a wizard. The book claims to have a spell on it that makes it visible only to those who are predisposed to magic, and given how quickly Nita succeeds in the first exercises, it appears that its judgement of her was correct.
She soon starts to run into other wizards, starting with Kit, a boy from her school that has his own problems with bullies and who has a reputation for being weird. They start to hang out, practicing spells to protect them from bullies, learning to talk to the trees, rocks, and cars. Unfortunately, one of their 'beginner' spells goes wrong, and they accidently summon a sentient white hole. While Khairelikoblepharehglukumeilichephreidosd'enagouni (Fred for short) is a nice guy, he can't seem to stop producing random matter, and he really doesn't belong on Earth. Their mini-quest to return him to his home nebula quickly escalates into a battle against the ultimate evil.
Because this is a old-fashioned young adult book, there isn't a lot of government oppression, school cliques, or love interest. There is bullying, parents that don't understand what's going on, and as always in YA fantasy, adults who are quite a bit less useful than one might hope. It still appears to be popular with young readers, although it is becoming a bit harder to find. Reading reviews online, I find frequent references to people finding it when looking for "more books like Harry Potter". Aside from 'kids doing magic', I don't really see a lot to connect them except that they are both good YA fantasy.
The magic in these books is a chaotic mix of traditional magic and the modern world, with some very powerful spells, such as talking to plants and rocks, requiring nothing more than meditation, while other spells require intricate patterns drawn on the ground or collections of random ingredients, including batteries, computer equipment, and rowan branches. I personally do not find this very satisfying, but the characters, the adventures, and the humor make up for the slightly incoherent metaphysics.
In 2012 a revised "New Millennium Edition" was published; I have not read this, but I understand that the technology is updated a bit (the kids have cell phones now), and the story is moved from 1983 to 2008. There are apparently small changes throughout the story, some factual corrections (the original has the gravity of Mars wrong, for example), but overall no major changes. Or so I've heard.
AR reading level: 5.9