This fantasy book by Roald Dahl is published by Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Books. It has also been published by many other publishers.
The Witches is written for kids ages 7 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
An unnamed 7-year-old boy loses both parents in a car crash. He finds comfort with his Norwegian grandmother — a cigar-smoking senior with a penchant for telling tall tales. But what she tells him about witches isn't just another story.
Witches, she insists, are real. They have blue saliva and large, scalloped nostrils that allow them to smell children from long distances. They wear gloves to hide their claws, wigs to hide their hairless scalps and fancy shoes to hide their toeless feet. Flames flicker deep within their ever-changing eyes, and they have one burning desire: to rid the world of children. Recognizing a witch before she tries to squelch you is a child's only hope of survival. (Squelching refers to the tactics witches use to get rid of children.)
In accordance with the wishes of his dead parents, the boy and his grandmother move to England. While there are fewer witches in England than in Norway, English witches have a reputation for being vicious. On one occasion, the boy narrowly escapes being squelched by hiding in a tree until suppertime. The boy and his grandmother plan to spend their summer vacation in Norway, but his grandmother falls ill and is unable to go. Instead, they book two rooms at a hotel in Bournemouth, England. The boy's grandmother gives him a present of two white mice to keep him occupied during their stay.
While trying to find a quiet place where he can train his mice to walk a tightrope, the boy stumbles across an empty ballroom reserved for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (RSPCC). Assuming the meeting has already occurred, the boy hides behind a screen at the back of the room. But when the room begins to fill with women, the boy realizes they are witches in disguise. He watches the Grand High Witch take off her mask and reveal her ugly, rotting face. He sees her fry another witch to death by shooting sparks out of her eyes. He listens to her expound on her plan to squelch all of the children in England by turning them into mice, using her newly developed Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker.
The boy sees Formula 86 in action when a gluttonous boy, Bruno Jenkins, arrives and demands six chocolate bars that the Grand High Witch had promised him if he showed up at the meeting. Bruno is transformed into a mouse but runs away before the Grand High Witch can kill him. Just as the meeting is ending, a witch smells the boy hiding behind the screen. After a brief chase, he is captured and forced to swallow the contents of an entire bottle of Formula 86. He turns into a mouse and runs away to find his grandmother, who is understandably shocked at his transformation.
She recovers rapidly and helps the boy (now a mouse) hatch a vengeful plot against the witches. The mouse-boy steals a bottle of Formula 86 and pours it into the pea soup the witches will consume for dinner. Massively overdosed, the witches turn into mice in the hotel dining room and are promptly dispatched — and dismembered — by the hotel kitchen staff. The boy's grandmother returns Bruno, as a mouse, to his family.
The mouse-boy's grandmother takes him to her home in Norway where she modifies her house so he can live in it more comfortably. He learns that as a mouse, he has a shorter life span and will likely not outlive his grandmother. Far from being disappointed at the news, he is glad that he will never have to face life without her. His grandmother learns that the Grand High Witch's secret headquarters are located in a Norwegian Castle. As a mouse, the boy is now in a position to sneak into the castle and turn all the witches into mice. (Cats will then be introduced to solve the mouse problem.) He and his grandmother plan to travel the world for the rest of their lives, until they have turned every witch into a mouse.
The boy's grandmother believes her soul will go to heaven when she dies. She attends church daily and prays before every meal. Crossing your heart and praying to heaven is mentioned as a last-ditch attempt to escape being squelched. The Devil is described as a being that people know exists, even though nobody has ever seen him.
The boy is closer to his grandmother than to his parents. His grandmother respects the parents' last wishes by moving from Norway to England so the boy can continue his education at a British school. While his grandmother is a formidable woman, her unconditional love and care for the boy are apparent throughout the book.
Other belief systems
Witches, while real, are not human. They are described as animals or demons in human form and are members of an organized secret society. They have access to powerful magic, which they use primarily to squelch children in remarkably creative ways. To a witch, children smell worse than fresh dog droppings. A witchophile is described as someone who studies witches. Ghouls and barghests are mentioned.
There are several uses of heck. Other epithets include Oh heavens and Jeepers Creepers. Creative insults include boshvolloping and brainless bogvumper.
The boy's parents die in a car accident. The boy is also in the car but escapes with only a cut. The boy is traumatized by the event, but few details are mentioned. The boy's grandmother is missing a thumb. It is suggested that her thumb was lost during a childhood encounter with a witch. The boy speculates about how it could have been removed: twisted off, burned by a boiling kettle or pulled right off her hand.
Squelching is a term used to describe how a witch gets rid of a child. Some squelchings are more macabre than others. In one case, a boy is turned into a talking porpoise, but another child turns to stone and yet another child becomes a figure in an oil painting. One of the witches' favorite ways to squelch a child is to transform it into a creature that adults will kill, such as a mouse, slug or flea. Witches take special pleasure in transforming children into animals that adults will kill and then eat, such as a pheasant or mackerel. It is said that American witches turn children into hotdogs, which are then consumed — with relish — by their parents. During some squelchings, the victims' skin shrivels.
Beneath her beautiful mask, the Grand High Witch has a terrible, rotting face. She kills another witch by shooting sparks out of her eyes. The sparks burrow into the victim's skin until she is nothing but a pile of ashes that smells of burnt meat. She also sings a violent song about squelching children, expressing the desire to boil their bones, fry their skin and otherwise bash, mash, shake, slash and smash them to bits. When the boy's pet mice run into the open, the Grand High Witch kicks them viciously.
The recipe for making Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker includes chopping the tails off mice and frying them in hair oil, then simmering the mouse bodies in frog juice.
The boy feels his school is a cruel place. On one occasion, a boy with nits was forced to dip his head in turpentine, which lifted the skin off his scalp. Bruno Jenkins kills ants using a magnifying glass. The main character pushes him to make him stop. Children — and witches — are turned into mice and then killed.
When the boy's grandmother tells a taxi driver that the mouse she is speaking to is actually her grandson, the taxi driver remarks that mice are quick breeders, and she should expect great-grandchildren shortly. As a mouse, the boy runs up a man's trouser leg and then runs down the other leg. Too late, the man takes off his pants to get rid of the mouse.
The Whitbread Award, 1983; Federation of Children's Book Groups Award in the UK, 1983; The New York Times Book of the Year, 1983
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Why doesn't the main character like Bruno Jenkins?
How does the Bible say we should care for animals?
What would you do if you saw someone being cruel to animals?
- Why do people eat more than they need?
Why do people boast about how much stuff they own?
How can you keep from eating and having more than you need?
- How do the boy and his grandmother plan to get rid of all the witches?
Do you think they will succeed? Explain.
What would you do if you were in the boy's place?
Are he and his grandmother doing the right thing? Explain.
- The boy has a very close relationship with his grandmother.
Which trusted adults in your life do you most enjoy spending time with?
Do you share any special activities or traditions together?
What do you like most about these people?
What lessons could you learn from them?
Smoking: The boy's grandmother smokes cigars. She offers him one, saying that if he smokes he won't catch a cold.
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