Roald Dahl is still the master of children’s fiction.
Reading The Witches as an adult is just as enjoyable as I remember it being as a kid.
The story is narrated in first person by the Boy, whose name we are never told. He lives with his cigar smoking Grandma, a nice touch so ensure she’s not the stereotype knitting Granny. She warns him about the witches who live disguised in society and whose goal it is to eradicate all the children from the world.
The dark tale is told with warmth and humour and just the right amount of grizzlyness for children.
I made my first short film based on The Witches as a film project at high school. We took the premise from the book, that witches have square toes and wear gloves and wigs, and wrote a film about discovering the supply teacher was a witch, ‘Square toed shoes!’
Dahl is a master with the sounds of language often making up words or giving them new meaning in sentences that are meant to be read aloud.
‘One child a week is fifty-two a year. Squish them and squiggle them and make them disappear’
The recipe for Delayed Action Mouse Maker includes:
‘A Gruntle’s egg, the claw of a crrrabcrrruncher, and the beak of a blabbersnitch.’ Read that out loud and hear how wonderful the language is for children.
The genius of The Witches is how far he takes the plot. Half way through there is a scene where the boy accidently gets locked in the room with a group of witches having their annual convention. *WARNING SPOILER ALERT. It is a tense few chapters as he hides at the back and listens to their scheming, witnessing another boy being turned into a mouse. The convention is drawing to an end and you think he will get out of the room and report all he has heard to Grandma, wrong. The Witches sniff him out and he is brought on stage to have the Mouse Maker formula administered.
As the reader you still think he will get away, that Grandma will come to the rescue or something will happen to allow his escape. But this is where Dahl’s genius as a storyteller comes into play. The High Witch administers the formula and the Boy, the lead protagonist, is turned onto a mouse. Most other books would have the hero rescued, but no, Dahl has the worst thing that can happen to the hero, happen. From here on in, the book is a roller-coaster ride. You have absolutely no idea where the story will go. The rules of the hero don’t apply and therefore anything is possible. I was hooked and stayed up to 2am to finish, something I haven’t done with an adult book since The Song of Fire and Ice series.
As a writer of children’s fiction this is the kind of storytelling I aspire too. The unexpected and the bizarre.
Then there’s the fabulous illustrations by Quentin Blake that formed such a familiar part of my childhood. It was like reminiscing with an old friend and remembering why you’ve been friends for so long. I particularly love the character sketches from the witches’ conference, each unique well-dressed lady, and how slightly grotesque they become with the removal of the wigs and gloves to reveal their bald heads and claw like fingernails.
If you’ve not read The Witches in years, or ever, then I thoroughly recommend it. Read it to your kids, read it for yourself and get lost in Roald Dahls imagination.
What are your favourite books from childhood? I’d love to know.