"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Children's/YA: The Witches

Dahl, Roald. The Witches. New York: Puffin, 1983. 208 pages.

"'A REAL WITCH is easily the most terrifying thing on earth.' That's a pretty thought. More horrifying still is that real witches don't even look like witches. They don't ride around on broomsticks. They don't even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, despicable, scheming harridans who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you're face to face with one? Read this story and you'll find out all you need to know. You'll meet a real hero, a wise old grandmother and the most gruesome, grotesque gang of witches imaginable!"

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Trustworthy Adult. The grandmother in this story is every child's dream authority figure.  She tells you all those deliciously scary stories that parents don't want children to hear.  She takes you on fun vacations.  And when your confrontations with witches go sour, she loves you anyway.  Who wouldn't want that?
  • Exciting Story. Let's face it, this book is a wonderful adventure story for children. It has a wonderful everyman hero and a whole cast of dastardly villains. If the boy was Harrison Ford and the witches were secretly Nazis, it could be an Indiana Jones movie. Well, almost. But it's that kind of black and white, unapologetic adventure tale, but for kids.
  • The Witches. The witches as described in the book, are fairly terrifying. Any child taking it seriously would be looking sideways at all women forever, looking for enlarged nostrils or toeless feet, or signs of a wig, or blue spit. While this doesn't seem to be a problem with most children, it is worth keeping in mind.

As the macabre, particularly when amusing, has never bothered me (after all, children turn into mice every day, right? Right?), I loved this book when I was little, and I enjoy it just as much now.  Dahl has a gift for creating stories that have a basis of plausibility and sort of sneak into the realm of fantasy. After all, the witches basically look normal. And the things that they do to children are just so sneaky...

But like all of Dahl's books, it picks  one of the many lessons that children (in this case, beware of strangers) and expands it far beyond practicality or reality, the point of which presumably is to teach children the lesson without actually seeming like it. After all, no child wants to be disappeared by a witch.  The book also makes children intelligent and capable individuals.  Even when less than fortunate things happen to the hero, he keeps his wits about him and outsmarts the bad guys. What child wouldn't love to be as smart as adults? Which I think is the secret of all great writers for young audiences: they never underestimate children as characters or talk down to them as an audience.  In The Witches, Dahl does this admirably, creating a story with both a kind and understanding adult and a heroic child, creating the perfect fantasy world.

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