Title: The Witches
Author: Roald Dahl
Released: October 27 1983
Publisher: Puffin Books
Genre: Children’s, Fantasy
Goodreads Rating: 4.17 (of 260,097 ratings)
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‘A REAL WITCH is easily the most dangerous of all the living creatures on earth.’
That’s a pretty horrifying 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 also meet a real hero, a wise old grandmother and the most gruesome, grotesque gang of witches imaginable.
The Citizens: A book with any of the following: deformed monsters, mummies, ghosts, ghouls, demons, zombies, vampires, werewolves, witches and/or goblins.
The Witches is my second selection for BPR’s Halloween Read-a-thon: Nightmare Before Book Princess Reviews. Roald Dahl is such a classic that I couldn’t see a way to skip out on one of his books for this readathon, especially since he dabbles in the horror/thriller genre. While some of his short stories (like The Elevator or Lamb to the Slaughter) would have been perfect picks for their dark tones, I went with a childhood favourite for this week.
In The Witches, our nameless main character (listed in the Cast of Characters as “Boy”) learns about the dangerous, child-hating witches from a young age thanks to his grandmother, a retired Witch Hunter. Dahl does not hold back on making witches truly terrifying creatures: their goal is to rid the world of children by turning them into birds that unknowing adults will shoot dead on hunts, or trap them in paintings where they die a lonely death. But if you have ever read a Dahl children’s book, you’ll notice that one of his greatest talents is in cloaking terrifying facts of life behind humourous prose and characters who roll with the punches. An adult can pause and say, “OMG. Yes, witches are not real, but this book is literally about adults who kidnap and murder children.” But a child will gasp and remain riveted to a thrilling story about the secret lives of witches.
What “Boy” lacks in a name, he makes up for in personality. He is sharp-witted and courageous, particularly in the face of the terrifying witches, traits that any young reader will look up to (heck, I was impressed). At the beginning of the novel, his parents are killed in a car crash … and Dahl’s writing shows an acceptance of this tragic fact of life, allowing Boy to both grieve and move forwards (without dedicating huge portions of the book to the event). Yes, this is a clear work of fiction, since the story revolves around child-snatching witches. But Dahl unflinchingly incorporates moments of “real life” almost as nods that with the sweet comes the sour.
As a young adult, I loved this book. I was thrown back to the first time I read Dahl. I can’t even remember which book I first read, or when it was, but his books were so deeply intertwined in my youth. Dahl is imaginative, he creates completely imaginary events that seem almost too plausible. I can somewhat compare his bittersweet technique to Lemony Snicket’s, where he acknowledges the happiest of moments even while incorporating dark topics (though both authors do so in different ways, to varying extents). Of course this book will succeed with children, it’s perfect for middle-grade, and I don’t see why anyone who enjoys young adult books would not find pleasure in this as well.
I didn’t even mention how Quentin Blake’s illustrations amplify the story! Blake adds images that give complexity to already humourous lines in the text, or even just increase the creep-factor given off by the witches. If you’ve seen a Roald Dahl book before, you’ll know the illustrations are kept at a minimum — they do not make the book a “picture book,” they are all used to enhance the writing.
Five crowns. This is great book for when you want a laugh, when you want to see the ingenuity of youth, when you want to admire inter-generation ties (I looove Boy and his Grandmamma). I think I’ll just have to convince my future children that these witches are legit.
Can a character’s actions always be explained by their past? Or is it sometimes just poor characterization? Let’s discuss!