Pros: Descriptions of witches, the annual meeting, Grandmamma's storytelling, Everything
Cons: Not recommended for really young children or those unable to separate fantasy from reality
When someone you trust claims that witches are real and then continues to describe "real" witches they somehow become scarier. Road Dahl's book The Witches opens on an ominous note, "In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about real witches." This thought sets the stage for a series of events that could leave the most cynical child looking over her shoulder and not just on All Hallows' Eve.
Our not quite eight year old narrator learns all about real witches at his Grandmamma's knees. She tells him about witches and at first, because the stories seem embellished and ridiculous, he suspects her of spinning tales. Wouldn't you doubt your own grandmother if she told about a boy who was turned to real stone such as granite, or a little girl who was placed into a painting or another who was transformed into an egg-laying chicken.
Witches abhor children and a witch's goal is to get rid of all children. While visiting his Grandmamma in Norway his parents were killed in an automobile accident near their home in England. He remained with his Grandmamma and they became best buddies but their bond was strengthened through the telling of witch stories. It was a good thing that she carefully explained how to identify a real witch.
A real witch always wears gloves (she has long claws on the tips of her fingers), her feet hurt and she has a slight limp (her feet don't have toes and the ends of her feet are square), witches are always women, witches scratch their hair a lot (they wear wigs because they're actually bald and the wigs itch), and their spit is blue. They might walk and talk like real women but they're not.
She also advised that witches can smell children and despise that smell--it smells like dog droppings and the cleaner the child is the worse the smell. It pays to be dirty when in the company of witches - and it did for our young narrator, at least it did for a while.
During a holiday along England's coast the two are staying at a lovely seaside resort. Coincidentally, the annual meeting of England's witches was taking place - at the same resort. Accidentally caught in a large meeting room, our narrator finds himself locked in a room with a group of women, and to his horror he realizes they are not who he thought. He thought they were the Royal Society for the Prevention to Cruelty to Children-that was a ruse. This was the annual meeting of the witches and the head of this meeting was The Grand High Witch of the whole world. Also to his horror he realizes that all of the stories his Grandmamma told were not fictional and he was soon to learn the tales were incomplete. There was more.
Roald Dahl was a master storyteller. BFG (Big Friendly Giant although I've often thought it was the Big Farting Giant) has long been one of my favorite children's stories but I can see how both could scare nervous children. I first met Witches (and author) while student teaching in a fourth grade classroom. The students loved both BFG and Witches in part because they contained an element of reality that made the hair on their necks stand up. Both might make them check the closet at night before bedtime, but this delicious sensation won't work for all children. For those who enjoy that slight thrill from a somewhat scary book, I really recommend Witches.
Not only does our narrator learn that witches really can smell children, he also learns what their bald heads, toes, and claws look like. Behind the locked doors of their meeting room they all took off their wigs, shoes, and gloves. He also learned that the Grand High Witch, who appeared petite and delicate as well as pretty, wore a realistic mask that covered a heinously ugly face.
"That face of hers was the most frightful and frightening thing I have ever seen. Just looking at it gave me the shakes all over. It was so crumpled and wizened, so shrunken and shrivelled, it looked as though it had been pickled in vinegar. It was a fearsome and ghastly sight. There was something terribly wrong with it, something foul and putrid and decayed. It seemed quite literally to be rotting away at the edges, and in the middle of the face, around the mouth and cheeks, I could see the skin all cankered and worm eaten, as though maggots were working away in there." Sounds like something from the original CSI television show.
While locked in the room he observed something never before seen by a non-witch (at least nobody had survived seeing this). The Grand Witch had a horrible temper and when angry a stream of metallic-like sparks would shoot out of her eyes and strike someone dead by burning them on the spot. That temper certainly kept all of the other witches obeying her every wish. He also learned of a diabolical plan to kill all of the children in England with a delayed potion that would turn them all into mice. Unfortunately, he found out what happens when children consume that potion.
I love and treasure humorously dark Halloween-type spooky stories. My time in classrooms proved that many children also enjoy this type of fiction. It's not bloody, gory, but just eerie. There's no sex, no cursing, and there's a young hero and a strong family love with his grandmother. In the end, Grandmamma and our narrator (who remains a mouse) devise a plan to rid England of witches and then to rid the world of witches. It's a delightful, well written romp through the world of fairy tales (even though this is not a fairy tale). Dahl understood how children thought and responded and he also had the ability for blending humor into his well written stories.
Alas, not everyone is comfortable with the concept of witches. This was challenged because psychologists claimed it was unrealistic (hey, it's witches that turn children into slugs or mice), it gave false ideas on how the world works (only because his writing made it seem real), and it provided a negative depiction of women (except that his Grandmamma was a strong and intelligent woman). Coincidentally, card-carrying witches in the real world were offended. More recently this has been challenged because of the depiction of witches, but in my mind they weren't presented in a light that made being a witch desirable. Dahl suggested that his critics get a sense of humor. If you read it carefully there's more to learn from this than what it feels like to be scared by a book. "It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you."
I read this book with students several times over a period of several years with both fourth and fifth grade readers. Those who were new to the book were rarely eager to put the book down. Even reluctant readers were absorbed by this story (and BFG). As a teacher I loved that they were lost in this well developed story and when done they were eager to read a second book by the same author. For me that is part of the joy of books. This continues to be banned and challenged, more now perhaps because of the concern over witches in the Harry Potter books (that also helped children become lost in the pages of a book). This was written in 1983 and many children who first read it then might now have their own ten year olds. Remember this and how much you enjoyed it. Simply put, 26 years later The Witches remains fun storytelling and a delight for nine and ten year olds as well as adults returning for memories.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~A few days remain in the annual Banned Books Write Off -- don't miss the fun, read what we've been reviewing and join the fun, either now or next year!