MAY / JUNE 2013: BY RACHEL SEXTON
The best of children’s literature has all the qualities of all good writing but also does something special. A truly great novel for children respects them. I don’t mean it’s appropriate for their age, though that’s true; the writing acknowledges the particular feelings of kids while not speaking down to them. Wonderful kid’s literature doesn’t dumb down or patronize. It recognizes that more than the morality of a story matters, the way it is presented also must appreciate a child’s imagination (and perhaps aid positively in their development). An author who consistently accomplished this was Roald Dahl, and one of the best examples of his work is The Witches. Its plotting and tone respects the intelligence and entertainment preferences of it’s young audience.
Originally published in 1983, The Witches tells the story of a boy who goes to live with his grandmother after his parents die in a car crash. His grandmother teaches him all about the real witches in their midst. At a resort in England, the boy stumbles on a convention of British witches, led by the Grand High Witch herself, and overhears their plot to kill all the children in the country. Things look bleak when they find him and turn him into a mouse, but he manages to escape. With his grandmother’s help, he turns the tables on the witches and stops their plan.
Just this brief synopsis should suggest at least one part of the appeal of The Witches to children. The exciting plot is full of the sense of peril that young readers enjoy. To begin with, these witches are a fresh creation of Dahl’s, are crafted with maximum frightening impact. They’re described as physically revolting, bald with big noses and no toes. The Grand High Witch is even more disgusting. They have the feel almost of a separate species. Kids find a certain thrill in being scared, and the witches easily do that. The details of the plot thrill the target audience as well. The boy’s encounter with the witches which results in his transformation into a mouse is quite scary, and that’s not to mention the plan of the witches itself.
But the children in the audience are engaged by more than just fear in the story. The relationship between the boy and his grandmother is quite special. There’s a clear affection between them but there’s also more than that. She treats him in an emotionally mature way, trusting him with the information needed to identify and protect himself against witches. She also takes his new mouse form in stride and cheerfully cares for him in this state at the end of the novel. Also, the boy is the one who actually carries out putting the potion that changes a human into a mouse into the witches’ food, thereby changing them into mice and getting them killed by the staff of the resort. He gets to turn into an animal and save the day; what kid wouldn’t love that?
In 1990, a film version of The Witches was directed by Nicholas Roeg. The boy is named Luke and the Grand High Witch is played by Anjelica Huston. Roeg takes full advantage of the visual opportunities that film offers to create the same feeling while watching the film that the book elicits from the reader. First, the makeup effects used to bring the witches to life on screen are perfect. The hideousness of the makeup can’t be overstated, especially for the Grand High Witch. She’s made to look like a cross between a reptile and a bald eagle on a human body. Also, the animatronics used to create the boy as a mouse are quite impressive. Kids will love to feast their eyes on these things in the film version.
The story also wisely sticks closely to the book, except for one small change. There is one of the witches who leans toward goodness, and she appears to change Luke back into a boy in the final scene. (Dahl is said to have hated this change to his novel for the film.) Though the novel reader must have felt that the boy and his grandmother planning the downfall of all the world’s witches was an appropriate resolution, the film audience gets a more visual happy ending.
Roald Dahl famously preferred children to adults; this is exemplified by the respect his works show for the intelligence and imagination of kids, and The Witches fits this description exactly. The scary thrills, the touching central relationship between the boy and his grandmother, and the exciting plot prove that Dahl knew how to write children’s literature. As if his works before and after this one, like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda, didn’t already prove it. Dahl is a rare craftsman in children’s literature, and in literature in general, in his appreciation for his target audience. ♥
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton is from Ohio and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. But what you really need to know is that she has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life and her favorite fandoms are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and Once Upon a Time. Plus, she is most described as quiet and her biggest vice is cupcakes. Oh, and her main hobby is editing fan videos.