Those of you who only are familiar with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may not know that no one does creepy like Roald Dahl. A collection of his short stories that I read when I was eight has traumatized me for life. Okay, fine, maybe not traumatized me, but I still get goosebumps thinking about it! The Witches is terrific and plenty creepy. The most chilling part, in my opinion, is the very first chapter “A note about witches” wherein you learn that witches could be anywhere. It’s particularly devilish when he tells the reader (or listener) that a witch “might even be your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment.” It’s almost enough to make me start reading it to my class tomorrow!
This is the type of book that will send delicious shivers up and down your spine, but it will definitely be a little too scary for some younger readers and listeners. I recommend it for fourth grade and higher (partially due to the difficulty and partially due to the content) although you know your children best, and I suspect some younger children would be thrilled with the horror of it all, just as some older children may need to sleep with the light on afterward.
I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but those of you who know Dahl well, know better than to expect it to end with things going back the way they were.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – A man has a mouse run all the way up his leg and into his knickers.
Profanity – None.
Death, Violence and Gore – Dahl tells us that when a witch catches you she will not stick you with knives or knock you on the head or shoot you with a pistol. Narrator’s parents were killed in a car accident. Grandmamma has lost a thumb, and the narrator speculates that it’s due to a witch, and possibly having been forced to hold it in a teakettle until the steam melted it or it was pulled out of her hand like a tooth. Witches turn children into pheasants who are then shot and roasted and eaten for dinner. We’re told that witches in America can make grown-ups eat their own children. A treatment for lice nearly kills a boy and removes half the skin from his scalp. The Grand High Witch’s face is rotting away as though it had been nibbled by maggots. A witch who speaks against the Great High Witch is frizzled like a fritter. A witch sings “Down with children! Do them in!/Boil their bones and fry their skin!/Bish them, squish them, bash them, mash them!/Break them, shake them, slash them, smash them!” The witches talk of having a boy’s tripes for breakfast. They also speak of turning him into a mackrel and dishing him up for supper, as well as chopping off his head and tail and frying him in hot butter. To make the formula that turns children into mice, witches must cut off mouse tails with a carving knife and fry the tails in hair oil and then simmer the mice in frog juice. It is mentioned that little boys can be run over and killed or die of an awful illness.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – Grandmamma smokes cigars. She offers a puff to the narrator and when he protests that he is only seven, she says “I don’t care what age you are, you’ll never catch a cold if you smoke cigars.”
Frightening or Intense Things – The beginning of the book sets up the premise that witches can be anywhere and you’d never know by looking at them, but their goal is to squelch one child a week – 52 a year. The narrator’s grandmother says she knows of 5 children that the witches have taken. Children are turned into chickens, into stone, trapped in paintings, turned into porpoises. The grandmother gets quite ill with pneumonia. The doctor tells the narrator that if he doesn’t want his grandmother to die, he’ll keep her from going to Norway. The maid threatens to drown a pet mouse. Great High Witch orders that all children in England be rubbed out. There is a plot to put potion into candies to turn children into mice. The grand witch kicks a pair of pet mice across a room, but they are okay. When our main character has to try to defeat the witches, it’s a very dangerous undertaking. The main premise of witches can be anywhere will definitely be upsetting to some, but one of Dahl’s major points, that witches must always wear gloves, will prove to be reassuring in this day and age where women hardly ever wear gloves.