How do you follow on from a read as complex and challenging as the Man Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings? Well, I went back to basics with an illustrated children’s classic. Yes, that’s right, Roald Dahl’s The Witches, was what I decided to read next.
The Witches was never really one of Dahl’s books which I remember reading much when I was younger. The Twits, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG; these were all books I have much more vivid memories of, but none necessarily of The Witches. I was actually pleased by this, and it meant that in many ways it felt like I was reading this book for the first time again, not really having many preconceptions, bare an overarching view of the general plot.
This story follows a young, recently orphaned boy, who finds himself under the guardianship of his much loved Norwegian Grandmother. As she begins to tell her grandson fantastic and frightening tales, he beings to learn about witches, the real kind, the ones whose aim is to get rid of all the children in the world. Worse still, these witches are almost impossible to identify among normal humans. As this boy continues his life with his grandmother, they find themselves face to face with none other than the Grand High Witch of All the World, and they must take deadly chances to stop her evil plans. All in all, a child’s (and many an adults) fantastical dream!
What I like about the new Puffin editions of Roald Dahl’s books is that the first page introduces the characters in lovely illustrations. This is not only great for kinds to be able to help flesh out their own imagination, but may help younger ones who are new to the experience of reading. Likewise, the first page of the story is extremely effective in drawing the reader in. The author states:
‘…this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES. The most important thing you should know about REAL WITCHES is this. Listen very carefully. Never forget what is coming’ (p. 1).
I love this introduction! By referencing stereotypical ideas of witches and then telling the reading to disregard everything they thought they knew, it creates suspense and intrigue. The imperatives when we are told to ‘listen very carefully’, creates an intimate atmosphere, making the reader feel as if we are being directly spoken to, and that this message is meant for us. As you can imagine, this book is just crying to be read aloud and shared, much as fairy-tales would have first been when stories were told through the oral tradition. One part in particular which I loved was when we are told that because the witches look normal, they could be anyone we know around us. The narrator tells us ‘she might even – and this will make you jump – she might even be your lovely school teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment’ (p. 5). How brilliant is this? It brings the reading experience into a much more interactive role, and is just one of the many instances of the ways Roald Dahl understood how to entertain.
One of the things which is great about Dahl in general, but particularly in this book, is the pacing of the plot. Things move very quickly, meaning that younger readers do not have the time to become bored or drift away from the story. Something terrifying or exciting is nearly always happening, and so naturally you want to read on. Similarly to this is the way that Dahl does not have a massive cast of characters. Obviously this makes the reading experience easier, but as these are short books, it also means that room is freed up for greater character development of the ones which are there.
Through his books readers will definitely be able to see how very closely linked Dahl stayed to the idea of childhood. He has the ability to think like a child, creating stories which are tailor made for young ages. At one point, the boy of the story tells how he ‘couldn’t believe my grandmother would be lying to me. She went to church every morning of the week and she said grace before every meal, and somebody who did that would never tell lies.’ (p. 26). It’s small thought patterns such as this which highlight Dahl’s ability to think like a child, to see the world with the simplicity which they often do, something which all adults know only too well is far too short lived.
Whilst Dahl’s stories are brilliant by themselves, one of the things which really add to the experience are the anecdotes, or small side stories, which he tells. One which I found amusing from this book stated how:
‘A boy at school called Ashton had had nits in his hair last term and the matron had made him dip his whole head in turpentine. It killed the nits all right, but it nearly killed Ashton as well. Half the skin came away from his scalp’ (p. 56). These small side notes really enrich the story, imparting just the right amount of shock and terror to thrill readers.
It’s easy to see that Roald Dahl’s imagination was superb, and this book showcases this in all its glory. Young or old, his books do not confirm to an age rating, having a lasting quality which can be shared again and again.
What are you favourite Roald Dahl books?