Halloween is over, but Barbara Wallace is still expecting an avalanche of spells from little witches and warlocks from around the country.
Wallace, the author of “The Trouble With Miss Switch” and “Miss Switch to the Rescue,” recently published the third book in the series about a witchy teacher at an offbeat elementary school.
In conjunction, Wallace and her publisher, Simon & Schuster, are running a contest, letting children around the country try their hand at writing and Miss Switch-style witchery. The contest encourages “Miss Switch” fans up to 13 years old to name a toadstool after a problem they would like solved using “goofy fake Latin,” then to write a three- to eight-line poem explaining what the toadstool does.
“Miss Switch writes in this awful poetry, and awfulness and funniness count,” Wallace said. “This is not a ‘count-the-beans-and-write-the-number contest. It helps to read the books, and it will take time.”
More importantly, Wallace said, the contest, and the Miss Switch books, are not in the same vein as the “Harry Potter” books and movies – “Miss Switch” is about silly fun, not about serious stories set in a magic land.
“I’m not chasing after the Harry Potter crowd,” Wallace said.
“MISS SWITCH ONLINE,” in fact, marks Wallace’s return to the series almost 30 years after the publication of the first book about the peculiar teacher at Pepperdine Elementary.
Wallace started writing the Miss Switch series after years of working on young adult mysteries like “Sparrows in the Scullery” and “Peppermints in the Parlor,” two of Wallace’s four books awarded an Edgar for best young adult mystery novel.
Those still occupy her time, she said, and a sequel to “Peppermints will be published nest year. But in the early ‘70s, “I wanted to take a break away from mysteries, and asked my publisher if it would be OK to do a funny, first-person book,” which led to “The Trouble With Miss Switch.”
In the first book, “The Trouble With Miss Switch,” Rupert P. Brown starts fifth grade at Pepperdine as a new student, only to discover that his new teacher, Miss Switch is, in fact, a witch. He and his new friend Amelia make friends with her, and help her defeat the first Computowitch, a computer harassing Miss Switch into coming up with new spells.
That book was turned into an animated special in 1980, part of the “Saturday Afternoon Special” on ABC, and the sequel, “Miss Switch to the Rescue,” followed in its steps two years later.
THOSE CARTOONS CREATED a swell of interest in the books. But until this year, the first books were long out-of-print, even as they were most sought after, in the early 1980s. Now, thought, Simon & Schuster has brought the prequels to “Miss Switch Online” back into print, under their Aladdin imprint, a fact which pleases Wallace.
“I’m delighted that Aladdin is putting those out in paperback,” she said. “It makes them more accessible to kids. But bringing those back after all these years, the fact that they’re still fun really pleases me.”
The new book brings back Computowitch as a Web site, where Rupert tries to track the activities of the witches.
The humor in the book is ample but benign, said Leslie Scully, assistant manager of A Likely Story. “There’s a funny scene where the class is doing a play of Romeo and Juliet, and the bad warlock has given them a spell so that the kids start saying really weird things,” she said.
The book was much anticipated by schools in the area, and by parents who remembered Wallace’s work from their own childhoods, Scully said. “She has been a favorite in chdilren’s books for couple decades now. I remember reading ‘Peppermints in the Parlor’ when I was growing up.”
COMPUTOWITCH WAS born in that book, but it was only recently that Wallace considered bringing the evil computer back as a Web site.
“Two years before I started writing this book, I thought about the concept for computowitch.com,” Wallace said. The name was already known from the first Miss Switch book. But as Wallace started writing a book centering on the Computowitch Web site, she was afraid someone else would register computowitch.com, and use the site for some nefarious purposes. So Wallace and her husband registered the address in 1999.
When “Miss Switch Online” was being edited last year and this year, the Web address was the cause of some consternation for Simon & Schuster’s lawyers, Wallace said.
“My editor called, and said the legal department is very distressed. There’s this computowitch.com out there, and no one knows who owns it,” she remembered. “I told her, go lie down and put a cold towel on your forehead. It’s all mine.”
Now the site is causing Wallace herself some concern. Taking the Miss Switch contest to the Internet could mean she gets 1,000s more entries in the contest than she initially anticipated.
“You’re never sure how many you’ll get when you go online,” she said. “It’s not a trip to Disney World, but kids will enter these contests just to see their names in print.”
Wallace will judge the contest herself, with the help of four school librarians from around the country. So she has a personal stake in how many spells are sent in by Miss Switch enthusiasts online. “I don’t really want an avalanche,” she said. “It will be hard to judge.”
Miss Switch Online
At the Web site www.computowitch.com, young readers of Barbara Brooks Wallace can indulge their taste for silly spells, in the Web site’s contest, open to children up to age 13.
“Think of some problem you have with school or friends, or something you want like a new pet, your room done over, to make the basketball team,” the Web site instructs.
Readers can name a toadstool that will help solve their problem, like Miss Switch uses the toadstool toadstoolius mathematicus incorrectus nomorum in Miss Switch Online.” To enter, children should write a short poem about their toadstool and send it to an Alexandria post office box.
More details about the contest are available online. Entries must be received by February 2003, after which Wallace and a panel of school librarians will choose 12 winners, to receive a Miss Switch tote bag and copies of all three “Miss Switch” books signed by Wallace.
“Miss Switch Online” is available online at amazon.com, and from brick-and-mortar stores Barnes & Noble at Potomac Yard, and A Likely Story, 1555 King St.