My Life In Books: The Witches

We’re going slightly out of order here because I didn’t read this book as a child. However, as it’s a children’s book, I thought it was best to publish this post at the end of my section on children’s books, before I move on to the books I read in puberty.

Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES was published in 1983, at which point I was 13 and had decided I was far too old for kid’s books. Such irony here, as I got to be a grown up and decided I wasn’t too old for kids’ books after all.

When I was 19 I had a job working in a book shop in central London. In some ways I really enjoyed the job – I loved being surrounded by books, I loved putting the books in alphabetical order (one of my favouring pastimes), and we were free to borrow all the books we liked from the shop. There was also a 40% staff discount if we wanted to buy any. What I didn’t like, though, was having to deal with customers. In the end I decided customer service probably wasn’t for me.

Anway, staff members had to take turns being on ‘cash register duty’. As the cash register could not be left unattended, if you were on this shift you had to sit there until relief arrived, whether there were customers or not. If the shop was quiet, in these days before computers at every work station and mobile phones, it could be pretty boring. There were always piles of books around the till, so if there were no customers to serve I would reach for whatever book was handy – no matter what it was – just to have something to read. One such occasion, THE WITCHES was to hand, so I read it in one particularly quiet afternoon whilst on ‘cash register’ duty.

I think THE WITCHES still holds up as a marvellous kid’s book. It has the archetypal Dahl violence – the protagonist is a young boy (in the book he is never named) whose parents are killed in a traffic accident. It contains some delightfully subversive messages – for instance, as witches can sniff out children, and the scent of a clean child is much stronger, it’s better for children not to bathe too often.

As usual in a Roald Dahl book, there are adults being very nasty to children – possibly this is the most extreme example, as the witches are out to eradicate every child in Britain. The protagonist also goes through a rough time. Not only does he find himself an orphan, the witches turn him into a mouse and he has to foil their dastardly plot in this form. The boy, with the help of his grandmother, manages to defeat the witches, tipping the potion the witches planned to use to turn all children into mice into the witches’ soup. All the witches turn into mice at their banquet, and they are destroyed by the hotel staff who think they have a serious rodent problem.

What I really like about this book is that it has a somewhat bittersweet ending. Although all the witches are defeated, the boy remains a mouse. But he’s happy to remain so. He still has his grandmother, and she loves him dearly, and he decides it doesn’t matter what you look like as long as you have someone who loves you. And although he won’t have a long life as a mouse, it means he won’t have to out-live his grandmother and face years being alone.

The film version, predictably, changed the ending to a somewhat saccharin version where one of the witches decides to be a good witch instead of an evil one, and turns the main character back into a boy. I much prefer the book’s ending. It teaches you that things don’t always go the way you want them to but they generally work out OK in the end, and that’s a very important lesson to learn.

This post brings me to the end of the first part of this series – books of childhood. But there are still plenty of books left for me to talk about, and in the next part I will be moving onto the books that made an impact on me as a teenager.

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