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Friday, November 6, 2015

The Roald Dahl book you probably haven't read yet.

Dahl, Roald (1983) The Witches.  New York:  Scholastic.


Opening lines:  "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.
     "The most important thing you should know about REAL WITCHES is this.  Listen very carefully.  Never forget what is coming next.
     "REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women.  They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs.
     "That is why they are so hard to catch.
     "A real witch hates children with a red-hot sizzling hatred that is more sizzling and red hot than any hatred you could possibly imagine."

If you have read any Roald Dahl at all, you know he was an odd man.  His children's books make that quite clear.  After all, in Matilda, Mrs. Trunchbull locks children in a spiked closet.  In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, several of those rotten kids get what is coming to them.  The Witches also has moments that make adults cringe.  For example, the main character's grandmother smokes cigars. The witches in the story look like nice ladies, but are hatching a plan to kill all of the children in Europe.  And in the end, when the boy and his grandma turn the tables on the witches, the grandma suggest a final twist on the plan that will mean that all of the witches will be devoured by carnivores.  So why in the world would you want a fourth or fifth grader to read this?

For the same reason that you loved reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Dahl has an amazing ability to walk a thin line between safety and terror.  His child-protagonists are often put in positions in which their lives are at stake.  To make that threat real, there need to be real (and often fatal) consequences.  This doesn't traumatize or terrify the child-reader.  On the contrary, it draws him or her into the book.   There is a point in this book where the grandson is hiding behind a screen  in a hotel meeting room full of witches who are discussing their evil plans.  They beginning sniffing and the readers knows it is just a matter of time before they realize that he is there.  It is a delightfully scar scene.  Somehow, though, at the same time the reader is scared, the reader also knows that everything will be okay.  That's the way kids' books work.

Besides the cigar smoking grandma and the violent scary witches, there is nothing particularly offensive in this book.  Some parents might object to the presence of witches in the book, but they are teh antagonists.  This book would work well for 4th through 6th grades.

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