I had the same teacher for fourth and fifth grade: Mr. Shepherd. After almost 19 years of schooling, I think he still tops the best teacher list. Every day after lunchtime recess, he would read aloud to the class. He wore snazzy socks. We liked his Spider-Man socks best.
Our desks were positioned in a classroom-sized double U. We would sit at our desks, sweaty from recess, fidgeting and listening. I still remember the flies that would buzz lazily around the room and the one little fan blowing in the corner that kept them constantly on the move. Mr. Shepherd would tell us that the fastest way to cool down was to remain as still as possible. I now use that line on my boys when faced with the relentless whine of, “It’s soooo hot.” They believe it about as much as I did when I was ten.
Mr. Shepherd read us a number of books during those two school years. I remember Roald Dahl’s The BFG and James and the Giant Peach. We cried during Bridge to Terabithia and Where the Red Fern Grows. We were collectively meh about his attempt to introduce us to Steinbeck via The Red Pony, but I do applaud his vision. My absolutely, positively, all-time favorite was The Witches, also by Roald.
Fortunately the Book Elf also loves this tale and brought it to us this past December. We’ve read all our other chapter books, saving this for last as we optimistically waited for Nate to age and potentially not freak out about a witch book.
In a nutshell: The book begins just like almost every Roald Dahl book with a little boy of indeterminate age. In this book, I don’t think he even has a name, which just helps little boys to identify with him more and picture themselves in his shoes. And like all of Roald’s books, the supporting character or characters hate children. In this case, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of witches living amongst us like aliens, disguised as friendly ladies that will kill you the second they get the chance.
Now, one might object to this portrayal of a breed of evil women whose sole purpose in life is to exterminate our youth. I recommend just going with it and leaving your concerns of gender equality and unconscious bias at the door. It’s such a good story. Add it to your contextual questions and family book club debrief.
So, like most of Roald’s books and every Disney movie known to man, this unnamed boy’s parents have met an untimely demise and now the only person he has to take care of him is his Norwegian, traditionally-built, black cigar-smoking Grandmamma. Despite looking like Miss Trunchbull from Mathilda, she is very supportive and child-centered… except for her disregard for the dangers of second-hand smoke. Grandmamma also has a mysterious, storied, witch-hunting past and has warned her grandson of what to look for when spotting a witch.
Now I must pause a moment to tell you that, it seems remarkable that I can name six books I heard allowed while in the fourth grade. What is potentially even more alarming is that I was able to recall three signs of a witch, before even cracking this book open: squared-off feet, blue spit, and gloves. For reference, the other important signs include wigs and large nostrils.
I also was able to vividly recall two scenes from the book: the boy’s first encounter with a witch when he is busy building his treehouse, and another scene when he is in a hotel ballroom hiding behind a screen as he listens in on the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (RSPCC). I completely attribute this uncanny mental recall to Mr. Shepherd’s Oscar-worthy rendition of the Grand High Witch. Particularly when declaring numerous times that children smell of “dogs drrroppings!” It’s hard to place her accent, but I’d say… perhaps Balconia?
The story takes several twists and turns involving the boy, a conference of witches, and mice. I don’t want to reveal more so as not to spoil the plot. If you haven’t read it, vot arrre you vaitink forrr?
Families can talk about: What is stranger danger? What might bad guys or gals do to trick you? Do you think bad people who are trying to take you or hurt you might try to look nice? When is it OK to be nice and friendly to strangers that talk to you? Are witches real? Do you believe Nate when he says a witch snuck into my bedroom and moved our bookmark to the end of the book so that the story will be over faster? Did Mommy maybe read this book before Nate was ready? Do vee vont to vhurrry about that or do vee just care about findink out vot happens to the boy?!
The Witches courtesy of www.roalddahl.com