Friday, October 29, 2010

Book of the Week: THE WITCHES by Roald Dahl

Happy Halloween, Esteemed Reader! I've got some great writer interviews and interviews with literary agents coming up. I'll begin posting those again as of next week and we’ll return you to your regularly scheduled ninja. But as this week is nearly over, I’m just going to push those interviews back a little longer and focus instead on a very important Book of the Week.

Why so important? The Witches by Roald Dahl is my favorite middle grade book of all time. Yes, you read that correctly, and no, I don’t consider it a slam to the other books I've reviewed. I love all middle grade books, as you know, but this is the one I read when I was in the third grade that completely seized my imagination forever and hooked me on reading for life.

If I ever answer my own 7 Questions, The Witches by Roald Dahl would be one of my top three books and Roald Dahl would probably be my choice for lunch date.

I've got a short rant for you, then we’ll get started. Recently, some smug critics have written off Dahl because a few of his books feature tinges of racism (and some full frontal racism), most notably The B.F.G. and the original version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This is just silly.

Dahl lived in a different time and his views on all subjects do not match our current social norms. If you want to avoid reading The B.F.G. for this reason, I think you’re missing out, but I understand. But to write off the author of James and the Giant Peach, The Twits, Matilda, Fantastic Mr. Fox—the list is too long—because of a disagreement in viewpoint, even on a subject as crucial as should we discriminate, is the height of absurdity.

As we aren't going to lunch—not in this life, anyway— my relationship to Dahl is simply that of reader to writer. Yes, he said some very stupid things, but he said a lot of wise things as well and his craftsmanship is impeccable. To attempt to write middle grade fiction and to ignore studying the work of Dahl would be great folly. 

Put another way, the ancient Greeks held many viewpoints and engaged in activities I could never condone. But should I skip The Odyssey? Shall I ignore Plato and Aristotle? If Roald Dahl were moving in with my black wife and her white husband, we’d probably have to set some ground rules. As that’s not the case, I’m going to continue to study his books to soak up as much of his craft as I can and appreciate him on our common ground: a love a children’s literature.


Alright then. Let’s talk about The Witches. I’ve already told you it’s my favorite middle grade book of all time, so we can dispense with the review and get straight to craft. I don’t think any children’s book ever had a greater beginning than The Witches, so I’ve decided to reproduce the first page and a half in its entirety:

A Note About Witches

In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.
But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES.
The most important thing you should know about REAL WITCHES is this. Listen very carefully. Never forget what is coming next.
REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ORDINARY JOBS.
That is why they are so hard to catch.
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.
A REAL WITCH spends all her time plotting to get rid of the children in her particular territory. Her passion is to do away with them, one by one. It is all she thinks about the whole day long. Even if she is working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman or driving round in a fancy car (and she could be doing any of these things), her mind will always be plotting and scheming and churning and burning and whizzing and phizzing with murderous bloodthirsty thoughts.
"Which child," she says to herself all day long, "exactly which child shall I choose for my next squelching?"
A REAL WITCH gets the same pleasure from squelching a child as you get from eating a plateful of strawberries and thick cream.
She reckons on doing away with one child a week. Anything less than that and she becomes grumpy.
One child a week is fifty-two a year. Squish them and squiggle them and make them disappear...

...She might even--and this will make you jump--she might even be your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment. Look carefully at that teacher. Perhaps she is smiling at the absurdity of such a suggestion. Don't let that put you off. It could be part of her cleverness.
I am not, of course, telling you for one second that your teacher actually is a witch. All I am saying is that she might be one. It is most unlikely. But--and here comes the big "but"--it it not impossible.

Wow, right? Just wow. I don’t know of a child whose attention this wouldn’t grab. Most young children have not consciously been introduced to conspiracy theories. They’re still learning the way the world officially works—aren’t we all—let alone how some would claim it works in secret. And yet, children are lied to on a regular basis and at some point they begin to pick up on it.

For those children, here is Roald Dahl, an adult willing to say things, metaphorically, it’s true, that reveal the world as it is within the relatively safe context of a story. Children are told that adults are nice, that public officials are just and have their best interest at heart (some do), and that they are safe. Adults tell children this because we wish it were true and we reason that they’ll have plenty of time to worry over the truth in adulthood.

But Dahl says that there are adults, who appear in many ways just like other adults, who want to harm and even murder children. And to be fair, there are. But lest we become morbid, let us focus on harm.

I had a grade school teacher who routinely separated children by class. The children from wealthy families who this teacher wanted to associate with were put into special programs and given preferential treatment. The children, like me, who were not, were made to know their place in society from an early age. This was a woman who meant to harm children, but who received several teaching awards and appeared a normal adult to other adults. My father-in-law could tell you stories about the way his white teachers treated him in Mississippi in the 1960s that would make Dahl’s witches seem harmless by comparison.

In every generation, there are these adults who are bad, and often other adults cannot see it. So long as there are children and adults, there will be this problem, and so The Witches is likely to stay relevant forever. Fortunately, Dahl gives us some clues as to how we can spot witches:

"...a REAL WITCH is certain always to be wearing gloves when you meet her...
"...Because she doesn't have finger-nails. Instead of finger-nails, she was thin curvy claws, like a cat, and she wears the gloves to hide them."

"A REAL WITCH always wears a wig to hide her baldness. She wears a first-class wig. And it is impossible to tell a really first-class wig from ordinary hair unless you give it a pull to see if it comes off... you can't go round pulling at the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just you try it and see what happens."

"Witches have slightly larger nose-holes than ordinary people. The rim of each nose-hole is pink and curvy, like the rim of a certain kind of sea-shell... A REAL WITCH has the most amazing powers of smell.. An absolutely clean child give off the most ghastly stench to a witch... The dirtier you are, the less you smell."

"Look carefully at the eyes, because the eyes of a REAL WITCH are different from yours and mine. Look in the middle of each eye where there is normally a little black dot. If she is a witch, the black dot will keep changing colour, and you will see fire and you will see ice dancing right in the very centre of the coloured dot. It will send shivers running all over your skin."

"Witches never have toes... They have just feet... The feet have square ends with no toes on them at all."

"Their spit is blue."

To this day, I do not trust a woman in gloves. I check to see if she has a wig or if her spit is blue or if she has difficulty walking due to a lack of toes. I'm a grown man and I do this.

The main character in The Witches, who is also our narrator, is never given a name—a trick that would certainly not work in every book, but is fantastic here. He is a young boy whose parents die—of course they do, this is Roald Dahl and the man had no patience for parents—and is sent to live with his Grandmamma, a plump old bird who smokes cigars (inspired):

"Would you like a puff on my cigar?" she said.
"I'm only seven, Grandmamma."
"I don't care what age you are," she said. "You'll never catch a cold if you smoke cigars."

Grandmamma is a witch expert and tells our hero all he needs to know to spot witches and comforts him after a near witch attack. And then the story takes a seemingly unrelated turn. The two are looking forward to a vacation in Norway when Grandmamma contracts pneumonia, so they have to settle for a more subdued trip to Hotel Magnificent. It is imperative to the plot that our protagonists travel there, but why doesn't Dahl just have them head there in the first place? Wouldn't that save time? 

Perhaps, but Dahl is a master, as I've said, and he is focused on two things: character development and misdirection.

Thanks to the pneumonia subplot, we feel more for this nameless boy who has already lost his parents and now might lose his Grandmamma as well. But more important is the misdirection. Roger Ebert once said in a review of The Exorcist that the reason that film is so scary is that it does not want to be a horror movie, meaning that the characters were so well-rounded and so focused on their individual lives that even if the scary stuff never came in, they could still have a fascinating story on their own. The detective in The Exorcist was also the basis for Colombo, and he was interesting for season after season without a single possession case to investigate.

Horror doesn't work when the characters are nothing more than monster bait waiting around with no purpose except to be menaced at the appropriate time. In order to be effective, a writer must compel us to care for their characters and their situation before the monsters come.

We care about Grandmamma and her ward and their journey to The Hotel Magnificent is interesting on its own without need of any witches. They get into a scuffle with the hotel manager and the boy trains white mice for a future circus and it's interesting. Just when we would be content to read a story about a boy and his Grandmamma and their travels with a mouse circus, just when things are interesting enough on their own and the reader is comfortable and enjoying a nice story, that's when Dahl and his monsters attack.

While our hero is training his mice at the back of a ball room, hidden lest he be discovered with mice by management, the room fills up with a meeting for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Our hero is unable to get out and so must sit through their meeting. 

And all of those in the meeting are women. 

Women wearing gloves and hats with slightly irregular nostrils. 

And do those women eventually smell our hero at the back of the room? I won’t say, but I must tell you that this sequence is the most scared I've ever been when reading a book as it was my first real brush with true horror.

And that’s where we’ll leave it. If you’re looking for a scary book to read this Halloween, this is the one for you. If you’re just looking for a great book for anytime, this is the one for you. I have one more point to make, but I’m going to finish the review here as I have to spoil the book to make it. Check back next week when we’ll discuss What Happened on Fox Street, we’ll have an interview with author Tricia Springstubb, and an interview with literary agent John Rudolph.

And now, my last point, which is filled with spoilers. If you haven’t read The Witches, stop reading now. Seriously. I’m going to ruin it. 

Okay, I warned you.

My most frequent complaint with horror fiction for kids as a kid was that much of it was condescending. The monsters weren’t really scary, they were just lonely. Or the vampire bunny sucked the juice out of veggies instead of people (I love that book, but it isn't scary). No one in those books every really got hurt, and so whatever the monster, it was an empty threat. 

And even as a child, I knew people did sometimes get hurt and to say otherwise was a lie. Not so with Dahl. He told a great truth within the lie of fiction.

The children in this story do get hurt and hurt bad. Several are murdered—in fantastical ways, sure, but still. One boy is drowned by his own father (again, under fantastical circumstances, but still). If I hadn't already talked for so long, we’d explore that event more in depth, but I believe it is one of Dahl’s sharpest critiques of parenting. 

And finally, the protagonist does not come away unscathed. If you've seen the movie version where he gets made into a real boy again, well, that’s Hollywood. But Dahl’s tale ends with him accepting his impending death within a few years. Harsh, but, but, BUT, true.

This is the point that will forever divide readers, I suppose. Some adults will think including these elements in a children’s story to be reprehensible. If I read the book for the first time now, I might even agree with them. But when I read this book as a child it endeared Dahl to me forever. Here was a writer brave enough to write the truth and I hung to his every word thereafter because adults lie, but I knew I could trust him.

I'll leave you with some videos. Most writers can only dream of inspiring this sort of enthusiasm in a reader:

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


  1. LOVE IT!!! I featured "The Witches" on my blog today ( for my post about the best villains in children's literature, in my humble opinion. :)

    Roald Dahl is awesome. I would've loved having lunch with him, too! What an amazing mind and imagination he had.

    It's hard to choose a favorite Roald Dahl book, but I think I'd have to say "James and the Giant Peach" is my favorite!

    Great post! Happy Halloween!!!

  2. Great, great review. I'll be picking this book up (again) soon. Oh, wait, I'm on the internet. I'll be picking it up in 5 seconds (thanks for the reminder).

  3. Perfect post--and book--for Halloween! Long live Dahl, or at least his books.


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