Diana Wynne Jones is a prolific YA author, and my favorite of her books is Howl’s Moving Castle. This story is so incredibly complex, I’ve attempt to trim down the plot to its major points for clarity’s sake.
Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three stepsisters, which is a very unfortunate position in stories. She ends up on the business end of a wicked witch’s spell and is turned into an old woman. Sophie runs off to seek her fortune, and instead ends up as the Wizard Howl’s cleaning lady. Howl is rumored to eat the hearts of beautiful young women, but Sophie just finds him to be an overly dramatic, vain, and very dirty young man – but one who takes her in anyway. Cue a missing prince, rumors of war, the wicked witch (again), a fire demon or two, a scarecrow, a dog-man, lots of disguises, lots of apprentices, 203948302 spells, some falling stars, and a castle that moves. There isn’t so much of a plot climax as an extended series of peaks – a mountain range really.
When the story opens, Sophie is resigned to her depressing fate as an eldest sister, but the spell that turns her into an old woman ends up removing her inhibitions (after all, how much worse could it get?) and she grows a spine and a double-serving of sass. Her no-nonsense, get-things-done, take-no-crap attitude is both refreshing and funny, and it pairs well with Howl’s foppish (though still loveable) moods and antics. She never worries about trying to please anyone but herself, and that honest selfishness becomes a point of power. Sophie is all about taking your lemons and making lemonade! It would be easy for her to mope about and bemoan her fate, but instead, she has adventures, finds her spirit, and kicks some butt, like a true heroine.
Favorite moments include: when Howl mopes over a bad day by oozing green slime, Sophie venting her rage with particularly potent weed-killer, the scene in which Sophie and Michael try to catch a falling star, the Wales interlude, and Howl’s freak out about his hair-dye.
I also recommend the well-done (though significantly different) movie version by Hayao Miyazaki.