Once a Witch
A Guide for Book Discussion and Classroom Use
ABOUT THE BOOK
Tamsin Greene doesn’t fit – not with her large, quirky and extremely Talented network of extended family, and not with outsiders who judge her family’s strangeness. Born into a family of witches, Tamsin appears to be utterly without the Talent that defines each member of her family, regardless of the fact that her grandmother predicted on the day she was born that she would be the most Talented among them, a “beacon.”
While Tamsin escapes to boarding school in Manhattan for much of the year where she is able to blend in with regular people, she does spend vacations back home in little Hedgerow with her family: her father who can control the weather, her mother who moves at the speed of light, and her “perfect” older sister Rowena who can charm everyone with her honey-sweet voice.
When a strange professor comes into her grandmother’s bookstore while Tamsin is working one night and mistakes her for the Talented Rowena, Tamsin agrees to help him find an heirloom that’s been missing from his family for decades. The search turns out to be much more than it initially seems and sets in motion a chain of events that are far more dangerous that Tamsin ever imagined – for herself, her family, and her friend Gabriel who has recently returned to Hedgerow after years away. Tamsin and Gabriel’s search leads them back and forth in time, and their discoveries unlock secrets that threaten to shake the foundations of Tamsin’s family.
INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR
1. Even though Tamsin is a witch, her character is a very realistic 17-year-old girl. How did you create this complicated character?
By thinking very carefully about what she wants (to be Talented like the rest of her family and to be accepted by them). And by giving her character flaws. All realistic characters have desires, flaws, and contrasting traits. Tamsin is complicated because she’s contradictory. She wants to be close to her family and yet she holds them at arm’s length. She wants to be Talented, but the old saying “be careful what you wish for” applies here.
2. Why did you decide to use New York City as the setting for a fantasy book about witches?
Since I’ve lived in New York City for several years now, it’s definitely seeped into my writing life. The diversity, the masses of people, the feeling that you’re never alone and yet at the same time, you can be perfectly anonymous and blend in. Tamsin craves all that as an escape from the small town in which she grew up where she is definitely labeled as odd. Plus, I have a feeling that a modern-day witch would feel right at home in New York City.
3. Do you plan to write more books about Tamsin and her family?
Yes! I’m working on the sequel—Always a Witch. It contains more magical Talents, time travel, undercover spy work, and, of course, romance!
Have you ever felt like you are “different” from everyone you know? Do you see your differences as weaknesses or strengths? Why?
1. Tamsin’s thoughts sometimes contradict what she says and how she acts. Do you ever find yourself thinking something very different than your actions might convey?
2. At the beginning of the book, Tamsin tells us that she doesn’t like her name – that unlike ‘Rowena,’which rolls off the tongue, ‘Tamsin’ “falls with a splat” (p. 16). Does this sentiment reveal anything about how Tamsin views herself? Do her feelings about her name, and herself, change over the course of the book? Do you feel that your name fits you? Why or why not?
3. Woven through Once a Witch is the story of Tamsin’s relationship with her unconventional family. While Tamsin’s family is different from others in the obvious fact that they are witches, there are some more subtle differences that make Tamsin uncomfortable as well. What else, besides magic, is unconventional about Tamsin’s family? IS there any such thing as a typical family? How would you describe your own family?
4. Tamsin often feels like she doesn’t belong to her magical family because of her apparent lack of Talent. Do you think that Tamsin herself does anything to put distance between herself and her family? Does she try to deny the very real differences that exist between her and regular people? How?
5. Why does Tamsin lie to Alistair in the bookstore when he mistakes her for Rowena? What would you have done?
6. Why didn’t Tamsin write to Gabriel when his family left Hedgerow?
7. Alistair seems nice enough when he first enters the bookstore. MacCullough uses foreshadowing throughout the early chapters to make readers begin to feel a bit uneasy about him. Locate and discuss some of these examples.
8. The witch community forbids the use of the Talent of ‘traveling’ through time. Why do they insist that it’s a bad idea to use this Talent? If you had this Talent, would you use it? What time period would you visit, and why?
9. Why does Tamsin push Gabriel away, even though it’s clear that she really likes him? Have you ever done this?
10. How does Rowena feel about her sister? Is she really as critical of Tamsin as Tamsin thinks?
11. MacCullough mentions that Tamsin and Rowena were much closer as young girls, before it became clear that Tamsin’s Talent wasn’t going to show up in time for her eighth birthday. Why did their relationship change at that point? If you have siblings, how have your relationships changed as you’ve gotten older?
12. Tamsin procrastinates calling home to let her family know about the mess she’s become involved in. What do you do when you procrastinate? Does it make what you are avoiding better or worse?
13. Tamsin and Agatha have what appears to be a very warm and close friendship – all except for the fact that Agatha has no idea exactly how different Tamsin’s family actually is. Why hasn’t Tamsin told her the whole truth? How might their relationship change if she did tell her the whole truth?
14. Will Tamsin ever feel like she fits in? How does the discovery of her Talent change her relationships with her extended family at Hedgerow? Why do her relatives seem to be wary of her?
15. Why do you suppose MacCullough chose to have the Domani always take the form of a timepiece?
16. At the end of the book, Tamsin has to make a very difficult decision. Would you have made the same choice as she did? How else might you have handled this situation?
17. One series of complications is resolved at the end of Once a Witch, but we are left with the feeling that there is more to come. After Tamsin and Gabriel’s initiation ceremony, Tamsin asks her grandmother, “How much time to I have?” What do you suppose she means? What do you think she is planning to do?
Carolyn MacCullough’s writing is brought to life in part by her use of simile and metaphor – for example, “James watched my sister like a child watches a night light in a darkened room” (p.39), and “. . . a young mother is cooing into a red bullet of a baby stroller” (p. 122). Collect other examples of MacCullough’s similes and metaphors. How does this kind of description add to the story?
MacCullough interweaves descriptions of various ceremonies and rituals throughout the book. Does your family or your group of friends have any rituals or traditions that are very important to you? Either write about a ritual that already exists in your life, or create a new one and write about that. If you could invent your own talent, what would it be, and why? Write about it.
Tamsin and Gabriel travel to two different time periods, 1899 and 1939, in New York City’s history to find the Domani. In order to include historically accurate details (gas lamps in 1899, for example), Carolyn MacCullough researched those time periods. One can learn a great deal about everyday life long ago from reading ordinary newspapers. Choose a date from either 1899 or 1939 and read a local newspaper from that date. Most libraries’ archives contain local papers that go back that far. What do you learn, not just from reading the current events articles of the day, but from the advertisements and classified sections as well? Describe a typical day in your town from the year you have chosen, using what you have learned.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carolyn MacCullough received her MFA in creative writing from the New School and is the author of three previous young adult novels. She lives with her husband in Brooklyn, and you can visit her online at www.carolynmaccullough.com or www.onceawitch.com
Discussion Guide created by: Zoe Ryder White