I started reaidng this book to my girls in October for our second Halloween read, after Bradbury's The Halloween Tree, and it was well received (although the 9-year-old seemed to like it more than the 7-year-old). It is a darkly comic tale about a little boy whose parents die, and his beloved Norwegian grandmother becomes his guardian. While he'd much prefer to live in Norway with her, his parents had made it clear that they wished him to attend school in England, and so his grandmother moves there to live with him. He doesn't mind school, but he loves spending time with his grandmother, who tells him all kinds of strange and interesting stories, particularly about what seems to be her favorite topic: witches. And these are not storybook witches, either - they are real, dangerous creatures masquerading as nice women. They abhor children, and in fact their sole purpose in life appears to be doing away with as many children as they possibly can.
The first part of the book is rather episodic and consists of his grandmother's stories about how to identify a witch (which it is nearly impossible to do with certainty), and darkly humorous cautionary tales about what happened to ignorant children who met up with witches and did not realize it until it was too late. The boy isn't quite sure whether or not his grandmother is really telling the truth, but she does have a finger missing on one hand, and although she refuses to talk about it, he suspects it might have had something to do with a witch.
The story really takes off when he and his grandmother stay at a seaside resort, and he stumbles onto a meeting of what appear to be nice women from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children - but he learns to his astonishment and horror that they are actually witches assembled for their annual meeting with the head witch of all the witches in the world, the most horrible, wicked, evil witch ever: the Grand High Witch! Not only that, but he overhears their dastardly plot to rid England of every last child in one fell swoop.
This book is often challenged in libraries because it is dark and a bit disturbing, but it is also funny as well - that is a combination that seems to baffle and upset some adult readers. But I'd venture to say it wouldn't bother too many children. After all, aren't they always being told cautionary tales about people who act nice and look nice but really are out to harm them in some nebulous, unexplained way? At least here the villains are clear, and while bad things indeed happen, there is a definite sense that the strength derived from the loving relationship between the boy and his grandmother is something not even a legion of wicked witches will be able to withstand. And that, I think, is a comforting notion.
This made for a great read-aloud, and Quentin Blake's whimsical illustrations were a perfect complement to the text, the cartoonish images serving to remind the reader that it is, after all, a story not to be taken too seriously. We had a wonderful time wrapping up our Halloween season (which extended well into November with this read) with this exciting, funny novel.
I saw the film with Anjelica Huston years ago, and enjoyed it (although I thought it was a shame that they changed the ending that way) - and I just learned that there is a new stop-motion animation version of the film in the works, which will certainly be something to look forward to. In the meantime, I'll watch the first version with my girls and see what they think of it.
The Witches by Roald Dahl (Farrar, 1983)
Also reviewed at:
Maw Books Blog: "The Witches was a fun read that I look forward to reading with my kids when they are older."
The Movieholic and Bibliophile's Blog: "An amazing book- as the judges of the Whitbread Award were rumored to have described it as “deliciously disgusting,” and most decidedly dark as well. "
Nothing of Importance: "I honestly can't tell you how much I enjoyed this book. It was a pure delight, but definitely not a delight of the sugar-coated variety."