I picked Roald Dahl’s The Witches as a story to read with Toby as it was one that had lingered in my memory from childhood.
I remember well feeling frightened reading it but not so frightened that I didn’t want to keep turning the pages. As Toby enjoys the thrill of scary stories I thought it was a story that would grip him. However, I had no idea that it had been heavily criticised at its time of publication for encouraging misogyny.
To recap the story is one in which an orphaned boy goes to live with his grandmother who shares with him her stories and knowledge of witches – demons who live among us disguised as women. These witches hate children and want to rid the world of them and the grandmother reveals chilling tales of mysteries involving children who have disappeared.
This part of the story sets the scene nicely, building up just the right amount of suspense and foreboding for what may lie ahead. It is genuinely chilling. I felt it might have been just a bit too scary for six-year-old Toby who lay in his bed paralysed with fear hanging on every word.
The boy and his grandmother then take a holiday together in a hotel in a seaside resort like Bournemouth where the child accidentally stumbles upon a witches’ convention. He gets caught and transformed into a mouse – and this part seemed very upsetting for Toby and I questioned whether I should continue.
His transformation into a mouse is written with hope and optimism, however, which helps the young reader handle such a dramatic event happening to the book’s hero – a character that they would undoubtedly identify with. As a mouse the boy becomes heroic and comes up with a successful plan to unleash revenge on the witches.
So back to the question of whether it’s misogynistic. My sexism radar is usually finely tuned and I had no concerns that I was turning my son against the whole of womankind with this story. The witches were less women and more creations befitting of a horror plot. Plus, the boy’s grandmother was beautifully drawn as a character – strong, fiesty, caring, intelligent – not just as a female character but as an elderly character and let’s face it the elderly are seriously under-represented in fiction.
There was the odd moment where sexism crept in. For example when the grandmother tells her grandson that she phoned the hotel pretending she was the “head of police” and her grandson responds with “but how did they believe you, they would have known you’re a woman” or words to that effect. That’s the sort of casual sexism that’s far more dangerous than a pack of scary female characters.
I was slightly uncomfortable with the fact that the Grand High Witch’s accent was sort of Russian/German/Eastern European; it felt like it was skirting close to stereotyping although it was immense fun to read aloud!
The first half of this novel was completely gripping and Toby and I couldn’t wait to read it to find out what was happening each night. Our interest dipped slightly half way through and I think it started to stray into the ridiculous and then meandered towards a weak ending. Too much of this story was told through conversations between characters, and if a lesser known author had produced that work I reckon they’d be told to rework it into a tighter plot. But hey, by this point Roald Dahl was a fairly established bestseller so what would I know?
I really liked the relationship between the grandmother and the boy, though. That was beautifully written, and it’s interesting to learn that the grandmother’s character was based on Dahl’s own mother. Genuine tenderness shone through those passages, and given that the story was quite dark and scary, these sections really added some heart.
Overall it was fun, exciting and a worthy read, if a little flawed. I’d think twice about reading it to sensitive children under seven but it might be a good one for an older child to read by themselves.
Read-a-loud-ability: 4/5 (even with a really terrible cold and half a voice)
Fun factor: 4/5
Fidget factor: 1/5
Fear factor: 4/5
Page turnability: 4/5
Mum’s final score: 8/10 – exciting and gripping but not as well crafted as I remember
Toby’s final score: 7/10 – the first half had him captivated but he lost some interest in the second half. He also found some scenes upsetting.