This homage to the Hansel and Gretel story concerns a brother and sister, eleven-year-old inventor Sol and eight-year-old Connie, have just moved to a new town with their father and new stepmother. Their stepmother is not a big hit with the kids - she's made Connie get rid of her beloved cat (Connie's sure her stepmother was lying when she said she was allergic), and she threw out Connie's bedroom furniture so that Connie now must share a bunk-bed with her brother. Their father isn't terribly affectionate, either, and since his new wife has been around, things have gotten worse.
When Connie and Sol take a walk and stop to pet a neighbor's friendly dog, Sol is disturbed by the bone that the dog is carrying in its mouth. He can't stop thinking about it, and when they pass the library, they go inside to do a little research. What he discovers confirms his suspicions - the dog had been gnawing on a human bone. But there must be a logical explanation, right? Maybe there is, but it's not going to be - pardon the pun - very palatable.
Parallels to the Hansel and Gretel story are immediately apparent, but there is more to the tale than that. There are actual characters - and descendants of the characters - from the story, and the reader learns chilling facts about the children that the witch who lives next door finds so very tasty. Parents are actually willingly handing their children to her for various reasons - she cannot take them otherwise; it's against the rules. Of course, Sol and Connie have no reason to suspect their parents might be considering handing them over to a child-eating witch. But if they don't figure out what's going on , they may soon find themselves served up with gravy and a curly parsley garnish.
I read this book aloud to my children (nine and eleven years old), and they definitely got a kick out of the combination of ghoulish humor and horror, similar in tone to Roald Dahl's The Witches, which I read to them several years ago. We all enjoyed the fact that Sol and Connie acted like children, and had a believable relationship. Sol is clearly a very bright boy, academically, but he has a few things to learn about human nature. Connie is impulsive and dishonest when it serves her ends, but she does love her big brother, and sometimes it's not a bad thing to be feisty and rash.
My children enjoyed this, and I did, too, although I found it left us with many unanswered questions. Some of the loose strings were more annoying than others, because when they were left unaddressed, they appeared to simply be contrived plot devices. Others made me wonder if, perhaps, there is a sequel in the works. My children, however, were perfectly satisfied with the ending, which I have to admit was immensely entertaining. Kids with a taste for the gruesome should have fun with this one, as well as those who enjoy a creative, fantastical tale.
The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children by Keith McGowan; illustrated by Yoko Tanaka (Christy Ottaviano Books, 2009)
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A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy: "The Witch's Guide is full of risks. It's not just the jokes for the grownups, the eating children, the satire of parenting where it's better to get rid of the child than to parent; but also in giving Sol and Connie depth of character."
Killin' Time Reading: "This book starts out so promisingly, but by the end it's just lost it."