Wendy: Welcome to our discussion for Roald Dahl’s The Witches. This is the story of a boy named — um, this is where I realize the main character is unnamed! His grandmother charmingly calls him “my darling” often, but I’d never before realized he didn’t have a name. So let’s start again. This is the story of a boy who happens upon a gathering of witches (who despise children and want to wipe them off the face of the earth) while staying at a hotel in England with his Norwegian grandmother. It is a funny, sweet book that I’ve loved since I was little, so let’s begin!
Layla: Woah, mind blown. Did not realize that child was unnamed either!
Wendy: He’s given the name “Luke” in the movie, but yes, no name at all in the book.
Layla: I also forgot his grandmother was Norwegian. I forgot a lot of this story, but I did not forget the blue spittle teeth. And, like you, I loved reading this again, Wendy. I was a huge Roald Dahl fan as a kid (I remember really liking his autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood? I think?).
Wendy: I’ve been in a huge reading slump for most of this year, and for the past few months in particular. But it only took me a few pages to start giggling over this story all over again–Dahl’s writing is delightful. Did you ever see the movie version? That was a great adaptation, and Angelica Huston was the perfect Grand High Witch.
Layla: I kept trying to remember who the movie Grand High Witch was! But yes, that’s right! (I sadly remember very little about it.)
Kim: I vaguely remember reading this as a kid and enjoying it. But most of the impressions I have come from the film adaptation. My sister and I loved to watch that movie. It was just the right level of freaky, twisted, and scary without being too scary. One of my favorite things about Dahl’s books was how twisted they can be. My favorite is The Magic Finger which still makes me cackle in how messed up it is.
Wendy: The scariest thing to me about these witches: not their bald heads or their long, curved claws. IT’S THEIR TOELESS, SQUARED-OFF FEET. This freaked me out as a kid, and it still freaks me out now. So, so wrong.
Layla: For me it’s the blue spittle. I’m fascinated and freaked at the same time. Also, how useful to be able to have it double as ink …
Kim: The scariest thing to me was that the witches reminded me of some real adults! I think the book expresses and allows children to explore a very natural fear which is that adults generally hate them and wish they were not around. I think that children cycle through these feelings of being unwanted or a nuisance. Adults, often weighed down by their adult stresses can sometimes tend to treat children’s stresses, worries, and needs as yet another chore or burden. I think this book allows children, through a fantastical route, to explore this fear.
Wendy: I think you’re right about that. To make it palatable, the way the witches were portrayed was hilarious, too. Aside from being utterly revolting in their appearance and rather scary in their ways, they were also ridiculously funny with their accents and the way they were so anxious to please the Grand High Witch. “VITCHES OF INKLAND! You may rree-moof your shoes!”
Layla: In terms of humor, I also very much enjoy the recipe for Formula 86! So great in how … I don’t know if this is the right word, but literal? it is. “Take the wrrrrrong end of the telescope … and you boil it until it gets soft.”
Wendy: That bit was very clever. I also love the Quentin Blake illustrations. The quirky, rough sort of style complements the Dahl stories so well. Incidentally, I’m so jealous of our friends who live in England and can visit House of Illustration, the art gallery he founded a year ago. Look at these exhibits!
Layla: YES I LOVE THE ONE OF THE GRAND HIGH WITCH DROP KICKING THE MOUSE. (Whatever happens to those mice, btw? Do we find out William and Mary’s fates?)
Wendy: Probably best not to dwell upon that. It’s interesting that this book was banned, as many books are, for witchcraft. I know this book has been accused of misogyny as well, since it portrays all these terrible witches as women–but while the text directly points out “A witch is always a woman” it also follows with “I do not wish to speak badly of women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch,” and then continuing to say ghouls are always male. I think the lovely grandmama also is a strong counterpoint to the argument.
However, the charges probably come about in part because of the author’s personal life–he was a well-known philanderer, and was also accused of being a misogynist and anti-Semite in real life. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was accused of racism, and it’s been pointed out that “Almost every one of his numerous books rehashes the same tired plot: a meek small boy finally turns on his adult female tormentors and kills them.” Which I’d never noticed before, but seems quite true! But I will say that I’ve read some of his dark adult short stories, and my favorite “Lamb to the Slaughter” is anything but misogynistic; it could actually be read as rather feminist.
Layla: Ooh, hmm. I don’t know. At first I thought of the scene where the narrator thinks he is playing surrounded by a group of normal ladies and how he’s like, “Man, you know how women do. Just talk talk talk all the time,” and that kind of bothered me when I read it. But I mean, a more generous reading would be to say that the witches are taking advantage of gender stereotyping and that maybe this is a critique of that. (I … suspect it’s more of the former than the latter, but that’s me.) I hadn’t noticed the bit about his books rehashing the same plot – since this is the first Dahl book I’ve read as an adult, that blows my mind (again). Whoa, never noticed that.
Wendy: In any case, a complicated and perhaps abhorrent man, and one I definitely wouldn’t want young children doing a book report about–let’s keep them innocent as long as possible. It’s difficult to reconcile these charges with the wonderful books Dahl wrote, but divorcing art from creator is always difficult when your idols turn out to have feet of clay. Though it’s a bit easier if the creator is no longer living.
Kim: Oh, book banning. It blows my mind that anyone would have the audacity to dictate to others what they can and cannot read. Witchcraft! That’s not even real. Good grief. It’s fine to oppose anything on your own personal grounds for you and your own children, but there’s no right to impose that on others. It actually is hard for me to read Dahl’s works now without being influenced by the unpleasantness of his personal views.
Wendy: It’s so strange when you contrast that ugliness to the sweetness in other parts of the book. The relationship between the boy and his grandmother is so touching to me–she’s a wonderful old grandmama who smokes cigars and dotes upon him, and understands children so well. The way the relationships are portrayed also show how skillfully the author balances humor and pathos–the boy’s parents’ death in the beginning is already somber, and there are moments where I felt terribly sad for both grandma and grandson. But the Dahl cheerily sweeps you along to the next bit, so that you forget your troubles and theirs, and are left with wonderfully warm, if occasionally wistful, feelings.
Kim: It is sweet how the boy never frets for one moment there will be a change in the relationship with his grandmother. She’ll always love him just the same whether mouse or boy. The conversation at the end is also appropriately devastating. He’s happy he’s only going to live for nine more years because he doesn’t want to be without the grandmother. I also love that it ends with them cooking up their plans for how they’re going to take out the rest of the witches. A twisted, sweet camaraderie there.
Layla: This is the part that utterly destroys me. Like, how quickly he goes from being a boy to a mouse and … how little it seems to bother him? And while I love how accepting his grandmother is of that, but man, it is heartbreaking to me. (Especially during that scene when the Grand High Witch hears her talking to her grandson and the grandmother pretends that her grandson’s in the bathroom reading! And he will never do that again, wahhhh.) And the ending … I’m glad they have a plan for how to spend the rest of their days together, but I’m still bummed out by it. Though not as bummed as I am about poor Bruno Jenkins. Poor kid!
Wendy: I don’t know, Bruno might be quite happy to eat himself into oblivion, especially given his neglectful parents. I love that the author leaves both boys as mice at the end of the book. I don’t think that would happen now, we tend to like our happily ever afters, especially in children’s books and films. (If you do know of a book in which the author is this ruthless with his/her characters, do share!) And in a way, this is a happy ending, as described by the boy/mouse. But a bittersweet one to be sure, for those of us adults watching from the outside.
Layla: Oh, I mean, my fear is that Bruno gets thrown to the cat. And is picked off quickly because he doesn’t know how to survive in a mouse world. I kind of wish the grandmother and our mouse-boy-hero had taken him in. But you’re right that our expectations are different when it comes to happy endings.
Wendy: Forever 5 stars to me. I love it and giggle like mad every time I read it.
Kim: 4 stars. Weirdly, this is one of those times where the movie is so much more vivid for me. But I’ll always enjoy this book for its twisted, dark fun and for not taking the easy way out with a typically saccharine sweet ending.
Layla: 5 stars! I enjoyed the illustrations immensely and yes, this book is super dark and twisty.
Layla: I chose Alanna and here’s why: the Song of the Lioness Quartet was super important to my development as a person and a reader. (I remember going into the lovely children’s bookstore in my neighborhood and the saleslady was like, “Layla, I have just the book for you! You’re going to love this!” And she was so, so right.) This was the first fantasy series I read with a badass lady fighter as a protagonist? And it’s so good! Alanna just wants to be a knight and fight for what’s right, there’s some romance in the series, and there’s also a magical cat. What more could you want from a series?
Title: Alanna: The First Adventure
Author: Tamora Pierce
Discussion Date: Friday, November 27th
And so young Alanna of Trebond begins the journey to knighthood. Though a girl, Alanna has always craved the adventure and daring allowed only for boys; her twin brother, Thom, yearns to learn the art of magic. So one day they decide to switch places: Thom heads for the convent to learn magic; Alanna, pretending to be a boy, is on her way to the castle of King Roald to begin her training as a page.
But the road to knighthood is not an easy one. As Alanna masters the skills necessary for battle, she must also learn to control her heart and to discern her enemies from her allies.
Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna’s first adventure begins – one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and the magical destiny that will make her a legend in her land.
This is one you might have to order from the library, though both the ebook is only around $7 on Amazon right now.
Please note that this discussion takes place on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving–while we avoid posting on holidays, we figured some of you might be contentedly having a quiet day at home, too.
If you’d like to get a head start on December’s book, we’ll be reading Mary Poppins!