Friday, October 30, 2009

Enter Three Witches...

Part One

It's Halloween, so we really should address a burning question: Who are the best—or rather worst—witches of all time in children's literature? Obviously, we have to turn to fairy tales to get started. (Sorry, William! No bards allowed, despite the post title.) This move quickly produces the top two: the nameless Hansel and Gretel witch and the Russian witch, Baba Yaga.

Oh, wait, there's a broomstick jaggling across the sky, writing in hideous smoky letters, and it's not spelling out "Surrender Dorothy"; it's making a bid for number three. Well, the Wicked Witch of the West is number one in American culture, but in children's lit, she has to settle for number three. The movie Wicked Witch of the West is such a powerful image that she seems to have overtaken the print version originally created by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Besides, I give you two words: gingerbread house. It's right up there with glass slippers and poisoned apples as a fairy tale icon. The witch's trickery is scary in and of itself, but so is the juxtaposition of two stereotypes, kindly old grandmother who cooks for you with evil old witch who wants to cook you. The best retellings of Hansel and Gretel I've seen are James Marshall's classic and Paul O. Zelinsky's 1985 Caldecott Honor winner. Another intriguing version is Anthony Browne's—he's an illustrator perhaps best known for characters who are melancholy monkeys and gorillas. I also like Michael Morpurgo's lengthy retelling of the folktale, beautifully illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark. Morpurgo is the former Children's Laureate of Britain, and he adds some unusual twists to the story. Another impressive version is Newbery award-winning author Cynthia Rylant's retelling, illustrated by Jen Corace.

Now, some people might argue that Baba Yaga can't snag the number two spot on our list of witches because she's not especially well known, but instead, let's consider the criterion of scariness. Please include the cannibalism factor, which, you will note, is shared by the H&GW and Baba Yaga. Not by the Wicked Witch of the West. She just wants to kill people and take over the world—which happens regularly on prime-time TV, whether you're watching cop shows or the nightly news.

But eating little kids? Let's all shudder in unison!

Though I bow to the familiarity aspect of the witch from Hansel and Gretel, I personally like Baba Yaga for number one. This witch is scary-cool. She has iron teeth and flies around in a giant mortar, steering with the pestle. What's more, she lives in a hut that walks through the forest on chicken feet. When it stays in one place, the fence around her house is made of human bones topped off with skull torches.

For this story, I recommend Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, a retelling by Marianna Mayer with illustrations by Kinuko Y. Craft. The art's gorgeous, though I have to say, the portrait of the witch is so scary that the artist added a little joke at the bottom to lighten it up. The story basically consists of a wicked stepmother sending Vasilisa into the forest to borrow fire from the witch. Neither the stepmother nor the witch knows that the girl has a magic doll, a gift from her dead mother, that will help her prevail. Mayer's version includes the second part of the story, in which, having escaped Baba Yaga's clutches, Vasilisa makes a shirt for the tsar and ends up marrying him.

Another book I adore is a shorter variation that includes different fairy tale conventions: e.g., kindness to animals—and gates—pays off, and a flung mirror turns into a lake. (The same version of the story is the centerpiece of a 1997 film called Lawn Dogs, featuring Sam Rockwell and a young Mischa Barton.) Bony Legs is the title, and it's also the name of the witch in this easy reader, though the house on chicken feet and interest in eating little girls clearly marks her as Baba Yaga. Kids in K-2 and struggling older readers really like Bony Legs. Part of the fun is that the witch instructs the girl to take a bath so that her dinner will be nice and clean... but the cat helps our heroine trick old Bony Legs.

I also own an out-of-print book called Baba Yaga and the Wise Doll, retold by Hiawyn Oram and illustrated by Ruth Brown. The Vasilisa character in Oram's version is much younger, and she is called Too Nice. By the end of the story, she learns not to be quite such a pushover. [Update: Check out this post by author Lucy Coats about Baba Yaga at Seven Miles of Steel Thistle.]

So the Hansel and Gretel witch, Baba Yaga, and the Wicked Witch of the West are my top three. And, speaking of poisoned apples, Snow White's stepmother is number four. (She should probably be tied for #3, but witches aren't much for sharing.) There are a lot of versions of this one, but I like the one retold by Josephine Poole and illustrated by Angela Barrett. Nancy Ekholm Burkert's version won a Caldecott Honor in 1973. Charles Santore's Snow White is really lovely, too—take a look at the painting of of the princess fallen on the floor of the dwarfs' cottage, for example. The inimitable Trina Schart Hyman has also illustrated Snow White, with the retelling done by Paul Heins.

Number five is probably the witch in Rapunzel, who confiscates the baby of a salad thief. When the child is older, the witch imprisons her in a tower, with the only access the girl's long braid. Upon discovering that a prince has been visiting her charge, the furious witch dumps Rapunzel in the desert and then ambushes the girl's suitor, pushing him from the high window. He ends up being blinded on the brambles at the foot of the tower. Eww. See Paul O. Zelinsky's Caldecott-winning edition. (Or try a spoof, Leah Wilcox and Lydia Monk's Falling for Rapunzel. No witch, but very funny!)

For number six, let's say the sea witch from Hans Christian Anderson's story, The Little Mermaid. I don't have a favorite edition, though Charles Santore and Lisbeth Zwerger have both illustrated it.

Since I felt the ghost of Walt Disney breathing down my neck with numbers four and six, for number seven I'll pick an obscure witch from the Brothers Grimm tale, "Jorinda and Joringel." The crone hobbles around the forest turning young girls into birds, which she collects in cages in a huge room inside the tumbledown castle where she resides. When a courting couple walks too close to the hag's lair, Jorinda is turned into a nightingale while Joringel is frozen helplessly in place till moonrise. It is only by means of a dream that the boy eventually finds the key to freeing his love—and all of the other girls trapped in the castle. ("The Blue Light" or "The Tinderbox" is another Grimms' story with a witch in it.)

For number eight, how about a witch from Isaac Bashevis Singer's original Jewish folktale, The Fearsome Inn? Doboshova is an innkeeper who, with her devilish husband, enchants and robs travelers. She also keeps three young girls prisoner to serve guests. But the new guests are no ordinary youths... This story, illustrated by Nonny Hogrogrian, won a Newbery Honor award in 1968.

I'll admit I'm partial to wicked witches, but the good ones deserve a turn here, too. Number nine can be Strega Nona, Tomie DePaola's cheery Italian creation.

Witch number ten is another nice one. We meet her in The Talking Eggs: A Folktale from the American South, retold by Robert D. San Souci and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. I read all the great picture books I could get my hands on to a first grade class one year, and I kid you not: This 1990 Caldecott Honor book beat out every single one of the others. Maybe it's because the strange old woman in the woods is able to take off her head and set it on her lap to comb her hair, or because the eggs out in the henhouse can talk. Also, the mean sister gets her comeuppance. (The original Grimms' tale is "Mother Hulda," by the way. Since the woman in that story is in charge of snowfall, she strikes me as a minor deity as much as a witch.)

And because every Top Ten list should have a number eleven, I'll add Audrey and Don Wood's Heckedy Peg to my collection of witches. She's the title character in an original "folktale" that involves—you guessed it, a cannibalistic witch. As is typical of the Woods' collaborations, the illustrations in Heckedy Peg are simply glorious. A witch kidnaps seven children while their mother is away and turns them into food. She is just about to start her feast when the mother shows up. Then a rather unusual guessing game begins.

Part Two

Of course, other than The Wizard of Oz, I haven't even touched on middle grade fiction, where we find countless wonderful and horrifying witches. I'll mention several, though I'll stop with the rankings already. To begin with, pointy black hats off to the witch from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. The White Witch is a standout, not only because she stars in a classic, but because she memorably uses Turkish Delight to bribe young Edward into treachery. (She is also reminiscent of Hans Christian Anderson's cool-as-ice Snow Queen, a witchy character I probably should have listed above.)

My own favorite witch in middle grade fiction is Tiffany Aching from Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and Wintersmith. Pratchett's best witch ever is actually from his Discworld books for grown-ups, and Granny Weatherwax makes cameo appearances in the Tiffany Aching books. Tiffany seems like a young Granny Weatherwax at times, but I do think she holds her own in these books for young readers, a strong character in her own right.

Another notable witch in middle grade fiction is Mrs. Coulter from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The woman is eventually revealed to be the mother of our heroine, Lyra Belacqua. Mrs. Coulter's greed and evil are only tempered by her secret love for her child. (I'll admit that Mrs. Coulter may not technically be a witch, but she is awfully witchy!)

And who can forget the title characters from Roald Dahl's book, The Witches? Dahl does something fresh with the idea, of course, giving us witches who can smell children—and hate the smell. The witches have no hair, so they must wear wigs, and they wear gloves to disguise their clawed hands. They have no toes, either. Perhaps most deliciously creepy of all, witches have bright blue saliva. As a group, Dahl's witches are dedicated to destroying as many children as they can, in an organized campaign.

Considering the Harry Potter books have been vilified for having witches in them, I can hardly neglect to mention them. Not counting talented young witch Hermione Granger, the best of the good witches is no doubt Minerva McGonagell, with Sirius Black's evil cousin Bellatrix Lestrange "winning" as the worst of the bad witches in the series.

A book that should make you laugh is Eva Ibbotson's Which Witch, about a wizard named Arriman the Awful who is in need of a wife. What follows is a mixed-up version of the Dating Game, complete with magic, cheaters and nefarious behind-the-scenes plotting.

Eleanor Estes' The Witch Family is a cackling classic. Though bits of it may seem cloying to today's readers, the good parts are really good. In other words, certain second and third grade girls will eat this up. It's the story of two girls inventing an old witch who is so scary that she takes on a life of her own, but eventually she is tamed by the addition of a witch girl and even a witch baby to her household. This one's just plain cute!

I might as well throw in Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which won the Newbery in 1959. Even though the book is only about an accused witch, it skillfully raises the specter of the Salem Witch Trials, showing us how easily someone who's a little different can be flagged as a witch. Plus it's a really good story, albeit a little dense for today's rush-rush young readers.

And let's not forget the Witch of the Waste from Howl's Moving Castle, a book I talked about in last week's post on Diana Wynne Jones.

A few more witchy picks, mostly picture books: editor Daisy Wallace and Trina Schart Hyman's Witch Poems, The Witches' Supermarket and The Witch's Walking Stick by Susan Meddaugh, Guess What? by Mem Fox and Vivienne Goodman, and Shake Dem Halloween Bones by W. Nikola-Lisa and Mike Reed. So there you have it, a cavalcade of witches plus a non-witchy bonus (Shake Dem Halloween Bones, a very fun read aloud). Please feel free to suggest other good witch books in the comments section!

By the way, I spent this morning carving pumpkins with my students, a thoroughly satisfying endeavor. The kids are planning to be zombies, vampires, and green Barneys for Halloween. Their favorite candy seems to be a tie between Reese's and Snickers.

Here's witching you a Happy Halloween!

Note for Worried Parents: If witches are offensive to you for religious reasons, then this post simply isn't for you. If they aren't, you may still find some of the books a little alarming. For example, the other day I overheard a parent worrying that Hansel and Gretel might be too scary for their child. What I've found, say, in reading Bony Legs to first graders, is that they just peg the witch as a bad guy and cheer for the girl as she makes her escape. I guess my point is, most kids don't seem too concerned that tomorrow they will run across a house on chicken feet inhabited by a cannibal witch. But if your child is very sensitive, you know best! (I would say that if the Disney witches scare your child, then so will these books. If not, then not.)

Update: Two more classic witches in the picture book category are Patricia Coombs's Dorrie and The Witch Next Door by Norman Bridwell, the creator of Clifford, the big red dog. Patricia Coombs is no relation, though I was once mistaken for her! I also read a review that reminded me of a middle grades classic, The Wednesday Witch by Ruth Chew, so look for that at your library.


Saints and Spinners said...

I'm coming to this late, but I want to add another book I thought you might enjoy: The Witch Family, by Eleanor Estes.

When I was growing up, I loved books about witches, especially ones with witch children.

Kate Coombs said...


Great minds think alike! It's there! Yes, there aren't really that many books about young witches. Then again, I've been mistaken for Patricia Coombs, who wrote picture books about a witch girl whose name, I believe, was Dorrie.

By the way, I like your blue fairy doll...