Monday, May 2, 2011

The Witches (Book)

Author: Roald Dahl. Illustrator: Quentin Blake. Release date: 1983. Publisher: Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 9780141322643.
Plot summary: After the death of his parents in a tragic car accident, a young boy and his loving grandmother move from Norway to England to start a new life. Before they go, the grandmother warns the boy to beware of the witches. Witches are demons who disguise themselves to look like human women. They have no hair and must constantly wear wigs that give them horrible scalp-rash. They have no toes and must force their squared off feet into tiny and uncomfortable shoes. They must always wear gloves to disguise their long, clawed fingers. And their eyes change colors when closely inspected. Most of all, witches hate children and want nothing more than to kill them. The grandmother explains that she lost several friends as a girl to witches, and warns her grandson that witches can sniff out children very easily. One day after they’ve moved to England, the boy is building a tree-house when he encounters a woman he is sure is a witch. The witch tries to lure him down from the tree, but he stays put until his grandmother comes. Already on guard, the grandmother and boy travel to a luxury hotel on the English coast for a vacation. While exploring the hotel, the boy stumbles upon the annual convention of the RSPCC or Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. While hiding in the conference room, he discovers the women are actually witches who have come together to meet with the Grand High Witch. The witches have a plan to kill all of England’s children with a potion, Formula 86, which will turn anyone who drinks it into a mouse. Can the boy stop the witches in time to save all the children in England?

Review: The always original Roald Dahl delivers one of his most fun and clever stories in The Witches. Witches often appear in stories, but are never quite so sinister as in this tale. They disguise themselves as regular women, even nice women, but are perpetually homicidal. The description of how they look is so dark it is almost comical. From clawed hands to missing toes, they sound absolutely terrifying, but in a fun way. The grandmother and boy’s encounter with the “RSPCC” at the ritzy English coastal hotel is equally as entertaining. Overall, this is a fun story that tweens will definitely enjoy. Since it was first published, it has appeared often on the ALA’s list of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books due to violence and dark tones. Today’s tweens, however, are undoubtedly savvy enough to realize that the violence is very cartoon and the story is actually quite light hearted. Violence has, unfortunately, become engrained in our society to a bigger degree than it was in 1983, and The Witches is far tamer than what tweens are exposed to on an almost daily basis.

Genre: Fiction/Humor/Horror

Reading level: Grades 3-7

Similar titles:  Other Roald Dahl titles.

Personal thoughts: I think this book is hilarious. I loved it as a child and as an adult I can appreciate Roald Dahl’s writing style even more. It is full of ironic and dark humor that I truly think will not be lost on the majority of tween readers. It is very engaging and would make an ideal choice for reluctant readers as well.

Themes: Witches, magic, adventure.

Awards/Reviews: Considered a classic piece of children’s literature.

Series Information: N/A

Character information:
Boy – The unnamed protagonist. He lives with his grandmother after his parents are killed and becomes involved in a battle against the evil witches of England.
Grandmother – Becomes her grandson’s guardian after his parents’ death. She is kind, loving, and wants to keep her grandson safe from the witches. She is very knowledgeable about witches and lost several friends to them as a young girl.
The Grand High Witch – The leader of the witches, she is described as the most evil woman in the world.

Annotation: What would you do if you stumbled upon a group of witches with a plan to turn all of England’s children into mice? Could you stop them, even if you had already been turned into a mouse yourself?

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