The Witches by Roald Dahl
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Published by Jonathan Cape, a division of Penguin Random House
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What Is It About?
The Witches is a children’s book about a little boy that goes to live with his Norwegian grandmother after his parents are killed in a car crash. His grandmother warns him about the dangers of witches and how to spot one.
“Real witches dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs.”
There are several ways to spot a witch, who are always female: they wear gloves to hide their hideous claws; all witches are bald, and therefore wear itchy wigs upon their heads; they have slightly larger nose-holes, which helps them to smell out nasty children and their “stink-waves”; the pupil of their eye continuously changes color; witches do not have toes, so the end of their feet are simply squared off; their spit and saliva is blue.
The reason for her teaching him about witches is quite simple: Witches are very dangerous and they want nothing more than to rid the entire world of children.
“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.”
When the lawyer representing the boy’s parents share their will with his grandmother, the pair of them move back to the family’s home in England. One summer, after school is over, they decide to take a vacation, heading out to the coast.
The boy has pet mice, which the hotel has threatened to drown if they see them running about, so he searches for a quiet, hidden place to train them to do acrobatic feats.
The boy finds an empty conference room and sets up behind a curtain. Suddenly a large group of women starts coming in, taking their seats before a podium. Once they’ve all filtered in, a beautiful woman stands at the front and has them lock and chain the doors.
Once they’re all safely locked in, the woman standing at the front of the room removes her face, which had been a mask, and the boy makes a horrifying realization: this is a conference of witches, and the woman who took the mask off is the infamous Grand High Witch! And he’s trapped in a locked room with them!
The boy cowers in fear, anxious for their meeting to be over so he can get back to his grandmother. He breathes a sigh of relief as they start to exit, thinking he made it safely through until one of the witches gets a whiff of a child in the room. They catch him, and they turn him into a tiny mouse, although he still thinks and speaks as the child he was.
From there, the story turns into an adventure, with the boy and his grandmother working together to rid England, and the world, of witches.
The book is illustrated by Quentin Blake, who did work for most of Roald Dahl’s books.
I grew up with Roald Dahl’s books. In the fifth grade, my teacher was obsessed with him, and every day she would read to us from one of his books. Now, at 31, I still find plenty of reasons to love his stories.
One of my favorite things about this book was the incredibly sweet relationship between the boy and his grandmother. It’s a nearly ideal family relationship, with both of them willing to do anything for the other.
Dahl’s writing style is fun to read, as you can see in this description of the witches:
“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 shriveled, 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, all around the mouth and cheeks, I could see the skin all cankered and worm-eaten, as though there were maggots working away in there.”
That is definitely a description that terrified by as a child, but one that delights me to read as an adult.
I honestly cannot tell if I like the illustrations by Quentin Blake. While my art history-degree boyfriend hates it, I find myself feeling that, while not something I would actively seek out to display on my walls, his illustrations work very well for a children’s book. They’re fun and simple.
One thing about the book that surprised me that I didn’t remember from my childhood-reading of it was it’s frank and positive depiction of death. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a conversation between Grandmamma and the boy near the end of the story where you can really see this. It’s not something that’s written about frequently in books, especially in books meant for children, so it was refreshing to see.
This book has been banned and challenged in several places, mainly for people feeling that this story teaches boys to hate women and that some of the points in the book are sexist.
There are two main points that I see when people complain about this book: misogyny, and the negative portrayal of witches.
I’m not sure if I’m somewhat biased simply because I read this book and loved it as a child, but my own opinion is that this is simply a light-hearted children’s book about a boy having an adventure. However, there are some points that can be made.
First, Grandmamma, the boy’s grandmother, is an amazing, strong woman. She isn’t afraid of anything, is immensely wise, and has a way of staying positive despite difficult circumstances. I think we can all learn a few lessons from her, and she’s a wonderful role model to look up to.
Second, the witches aren’t actually women, they just look like women.
“You don’t seem to understand that witches are not actually human beings at all. They look like humans. They talk like humans. And they are able to act like humans. But in actual fact, they are totally different animals. They are demons in human shape. That is why they have claws and bald heads and queer noses and peculiar eyes, all of which they have to conceal as best they can from the rest of the world.”
Overall, if this book makes you uncomfortable for either of the above reasons, that’s absolutely okay. We all have different backgrounds, experiences, and opinions, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Personally, I really enjoyed this story, and it’s one that I can easily see myself reading to my own children one day, albeit reminding them afterward that just because they see a woman wearing long gloves, that doesn’t mean she’s a witch.
4 out of 5 stars. This is a really enjoyable book and one that is quick to read. It’s also a great book to read near Halloween! I recommend buying this book if you’re a Roald Dahl fan, or checking it out from your local library if you’ve never read one of his books before.