Top 100 Children’s Novels #81: The Witches by Roald Dahl
Now here then is a book that I remember very well from my old childhood. It’s strange that when kids ask me for books that are scary (but not too scary) that this doesn’t immediately pop into my brain. It wasn’t just that The Witches had frightening elements to it. It was blissfully distuuuuurbing. What these witches did to innocent little children was by turns grotesque as hypnotic. You want to look away. You just can’t figure out how.
The plot from the publisher reads, “Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. This spine-chilling story will tell you all you need to know about the cunning masqueraders, and bring you face-to-face with a true hero, a wonderful old grandmother who smokes cigars.”
In the article Spell-Binding Dahl: Considering Roald Dahl’s Fantasy (found in Change and Renewal in Children’s Literature) Eileen Donaldson draws a fascinating parallel between this book and Dahl’s own life:
“This book seems to be the closest to Dahl’s own life in that he spins much of the anxiety and the growing up of his own younger years into it; the grandmother is very old and when she catches pneumonia, there is the panic of memory tacked onto it. In Boy, Dahl describes his own grandmother’s bout of pneumonia and the echoes in The Witches are remarkable. (Perhaps it is also interesting that this particular character does not have a name of his own; he could just as easily be named Roald.)”
It’s true that the boy in this book is merely . . . the boy. Most Dahl characters not only get names but their names are in the titles of the books. Not this kid.
Speaking of titles, at a ALA Convention I attended years ago I spoke with a fellow librarian who knew Dahl when he was writing this book. “He wanted to call it The Mouse and the Witches“, she said, “and I tried to talk him out of it. We already had The Mouse and the Motorcycle and The Mouse and His Child, after all. He later just named it The Witches.” And she shrugged. Maybe she had something to do with that? We may never know.
The Witches came it at #27 on ALA’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. The reasons? Witchcraft, of course. No word yet on how it’ll fare on the list of books from 2000-2010. My suspicion, however, is that in the era of Harry Potter bans, The Witches may not seem to be quite as subversive as it once was.
There’s a very strange pairing of Roald Dahl characters with runway outfits. The one for The Witches is strangely inappropriate for work, though. You have been warned.
Generally speaking, when Quentin Blake does a cover, nobody else has a shot at it.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course. This cover was included in a blog post about Guillermo Del Toro’s desire to do a stop animated version of The Witches. No word on where it came from.
Also, illustrator Leighton Johns did this fabulous horror cover of the book that I just can’t help but include as well.
Johns explains how he created the image here. Further sketches inspired by the book are here. Be sure to check out his Skulduggery Pleasant, Tintin, Airman, and Mortal Engines for similar fabulous fare.
Finally, here is a poor quality trailer for the film. Somebody please explain to me why the heck you’d make the surprise ending of the film (which is not in the book) the beginning of a trailer for that same film?
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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