Posted by: Natalie | September 9, 2010

A Book Every Child Should Read: Roald Dahl's The Witches

Needed to use Plinky again today – honestly, I have no idea where the creative spark has gone recently, but it is feeling dramatically absent. But, a good prompt – a children’s book every child should read . . .

The dearly departed Roald Dahl is the quintessential children’s author. He really did set the bar incredibly high for all us budding authors, as well as those successfully carving their path already.

Most of his children’s fiction is perfect for adult reading as well. There is nothing sentimental or ‘twee’ about his stories and they are filled with amazing feats of magic along with some truly terrifying moments. The characters he created are so vivid and entertaining and Dahl did not shrink away from depicting the truly disgusting attributes of human nature.

I often struggle to pick my favourite, they are all so remarkable. The BFG always lands high on the list, as does Matlida (I am hoping Steve has booked the birthday tickets to see the musical version at the RSC – Caroline, have a word!). Both feature little girls in quite sad and lonely worlds, but with the use of a little magic and some cracking writing, terrors and evil are vanquished. The stories take you on a mesmerising spin of fairytale wonder that no child or adult should miss.

But, at a push, I would have to say the preferred Dahl is The Witches, mostly because I find this story the most terrifying. When watching the Angelica Houston film version, I saw a lot of the back of the sofa! What child would not be happily disturbed by a gruesome gaggle of witches that hide amongst the ‘normal’ people, wiping out human children? Not only are they sinister in appearance, but they are the most deadly creature to threaten our everyday life.

As with most of the Dahl fiction, the lead characters tend to either be orphaned or in a sorry situation with regards to parents. The Witches is no different. After the death of his parents, a young boy is sent to live with his Norwegian grandmother, who begins to tell tales of the mysterious disappearings of children she has known. It turns out that witches are to blame, the worst being those living in England. The boy, like all readers of this book, instantly begins to look for signs of these ‘ladies’; the itchy scalps beneath their wigs, the broad feet with no toes hidden in pointy shoes, the long curved fingernails under a pair of gloves, and a certain despise of human children.

But, it is not so serious until they take a break to the English coast. Unbeknownst to Grandmother and child, their hotel is also home to an annual Witches conference and The Grand High Witch herself is in residence. The boy over hears plans for all the children in England to be fed magic laden sweets that will turn them into mice. The witches could then leave it to the human adults to kill all the nasty little rodents. A dastardly plan and one in which our hero undoubtedly becomes tangled.

It is a tremendous story. But one of the things I love about Dahl is that he refuses to patronise the reader. Even at the end of most of his books there is still a sadness. Although happy endings do happen and all seems on an even keel, Dahl does not once pretend that this is the end – he does not try to prove the existence of these mythical ‘happy ever after’ stories. And children really relate to this. It may be in a context which is slightly bizarre but these endings allow children to compare and reflect on their own lives. They begin to understand that you do have to work/fight for things you really want and believe in. But as I said at the top, without any hint of mushy sentiment.

They are perfect books for both boys and girls and every library across the world should contain a set. My big brother even bought me a brand new boxed set last year as my originals are now a little tatty. They have pride of place on my ‘pretty books’ shelf! And Steve bought me a limited edition print from The Witches which I absolutely adore . . .

But, if children’s fiction really isn’t your thing, then maybe try some of Roald Dahl’s adult fiction. I am yet to read any, but our house does contain several, including Kiss Kiss. If the darkness and danger that Dahl weaves so wonderfully through children’s fiction is present in his adult works, then they shouldn’t disappoint. I will (eventually) get around to reading some of his short stories and I shall let you know my thoughts when I do!

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  1. I haven’t seen the film (I will one day because I rate Huston), but The Witches is definitely my favourite Dahl! It’s the funniest, the scariest, and it has a perfect ending.

    • I was lucky enough as a child to get to watch a stage show of this in Manchester – I just remember cowering with fear yet giggling with the thrill of it at the same time. Such wonderful writing that makes brilliant shows!

      The film is obviously a little ‘Americanised’ in places, but it was filmed in a scary hotel on the opposite cliff from Tintagle Castle in Cornwall. I love that fact because you couldn’t have planned a more magical place for such a story. Makes me want to abandon the reading ship and read this again!

      Oh, I also once dressed suitably witchified when introducing this books to a class for the first time. The suspicion in their eyes was priceless!

  2. I really need to re-read some Dahl. I have only dim recollections of the books which I read many years ago and have gotten tangled up with various adaptations I have seen since. All I know is that I really, really LOVED reading Dahl as a child and I know I will as an adult too!

    • With a kiddy-wink on the way you really need to do this! I already know that when I need a nursery I am going to paint the BFG on the wall and have him blowing dream bubbles over the rest. Ambitious, but hopefully far enough into the future not to scare me with the attempt!

  3. I loved that movie when I was younger…I didn’t know it was based off a book. I also loved matilda. I remember reading it in second and third grade.

    Also, I have received my book and would like to say thank you, not just for the book but for the card too. I actually forgot it was suppose to come, so when I received a package on Tuesday I was trying to figure out who would send me something. When I opened it I had an “Oh yeah” moment. It made my day. ;p

    • Hooray! Oh I am so pleased, it turned up – and that it made your day! Good stuff.

      If you liked reading Matilda then I really would recommend the BFG and the Witches. Roald Dahl wrote so many, but these three I often tend to group together. If you look for them and can’t find, let me know and I shall see what I can do!

      Nat x

  4. I absolutely ADORE Dahl (Matilda is, I think, my ultimate favourite – Miss Honey and Matilda are just so beautifully written) but I don’t think I have ever disliked a single book of his, including his “adult” fiction.

    However, the films. OH DEAR GOD THE FILMS. Don’t ever get me started on Matilda, you’ll end up with your ear chewed off. The thing is, what is so beautiful about Dahl’s work is his words combined with the oh-so-brilliant illustrations of Quentin Blake. I can picture in my head – no need to see the book – the drawings of the little boy in the witches scampering up ladders while his Grandma watches on. For everything else? Imagination. The Head Witch will be far scarier in my mind than anything that could be “created” – though I do concede Huston is the perfect Boss Witchy.

    I suppose I find it depressing sometimes that children aren’t encouraged to use their imagination, and Dahl’s books were an endless source of imagination crack for me. I do love film – clearly, studying it as an Undergrad – but I like the idea of reading the book, and finding your own scary witch. Then watch the film, because you’ve made your own then 🙂

    (Sorry, this sounds like a dreadful rant about keeping children away from films! It’s really, really not – please don’t be offended!) xxx

    • Hee, you make me giggle!

      I think the film thing is a difficult issue – yes, it has caused something of a boost in young readers, but I agree it makes many so lazy. From my little knowledge in teaching, so many children struggle to read between the lines and use their imagination to ‘plug the gaps’ because it is not visual. It scares me that the answer could be to make books an ‘interactive online resource’ or whatever you want to term it. Slowly but surely there is a removal of these fundamental reading skills I think, but that is just my opinion. Put it this way – there’s a reason why more children leave school with horribly poor literacy levels.

      One of the worst things I have ever watched was a T4 interview at one of the Harry Potter premiers; Alex whats-is-name was interviewing Graham Norton. They both mocked the books saying ‘why bother when you can just watch the films’. I thought this was atrocious, mainly by channel 4 for actually broadcasting those comments. They were completely undermining all the good work the potter books had done for children’s fiction. Rarrrrr. Need to stop getting on a high horse!

      But yes, the Dahl films are horrific! Although I think they cast the little girl in Matilda quite well.

      Hope you well my love,

      Nat x

  5. Well, I’ve spotted at least four or five errors (mostly grammatical) because I typed that in such a rush. I apologise profusely!

  6. […] Roald Dahl’s Matlida – such a pleasure of a read. For more detail click HERE. […]

  7. […] A Book Every Child Should Read: Roald Dahl’s The Witches September 2010 10 comments 4 […]

  8. Ilove his books so much!!

  9. Haven’t read it before,
    Is it really good!
    By the way that looks like one of my nightmare withes when i was litttle!
    BIIRRDDIINNEE! birdine ARRRHH! I Know i am going to have another nightmare.

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