Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Whimsical Witches

Halloween is only a few days away, and there are more great Halloween-themed books than I could hope to write about before then. I wanted to highlight a few cute, non-scary witch stories that I've come across over the last couple of years which I hope you'll have time to share with your children or students as you get in the mood for Friday.

This year, my kids enjoyed reading A Very Brave Witch by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Harry Bliss. In this story we learn that witches fear humans (apparently for the purposes of this story, witches aren't simply humans with magical powers). This is because of the ways in which humans are different from them (aren't perceived differences the basis of most fears and stereotypes?). The most frightening difference about humans is that they aren't green-skinned, as witches are in this book. But one brave little witch thinks that humans might not be that bad and decides to visit them during Halloween. Unfortunately, she gets confused when she thinks she hears them say something about "tricking a tree" as they go from house to house. In an attempt to show them she knows how to "trick a tree" by flying around it quickly on her broom, she gets dizzy and crashes, resulting in her meeting a human girl dressed as a witch. This little brave human is impressed by the witch's flying ability and tells her she always wanted to fly. The two girls are able to see past their differences, and the book ends with the witch taking her new human friend for a ride on her broom. The use of speech balloons and the cute illustrations full of funny little details add to the appeal of this book (I especially like the witch's orange cat who reminds me a bit of one of our cats). The message is that you can't judge others based upon their appearance and that you shouldn't simply accept prejudice that others teach you. (Hoodwinked, mentioned in my previous post, is another cute witch tale with a message about looking beyond appearances.)

While we're on the subjects of looking beyond appearances and witch/non-witch relations, Mark Kimball Moulton's Miss Fiona's Stupendous Pumpkin Pies must be mentioned as another example of a non-scary Halloween picture book in which a person's value is recognized despite outward differences. Moulton's rhyming text tells the story of Miss Fiona, a witch reported to be over 400 years old, who lives in a scary old house near a graveyard. Despite this and the fact that locals clearly believe in her magical abilities, she is a treasured member of the community due to her Halloween tradition of baking pumpkin pies to share with trick-or-treating children. At midnight on Halloween, children gather at Fiona's house for a party. She serves pie and cider, tells ghost stories and even sends home extra pie with the kids for their parents. Clearly she is kind and trusted by her neighbors despite her obvious differences from them. "I must admit, Fiona's kooky, with her warts and pale green skin;/but who cares how kooky someone looks/when there's goodness deep within!" Karen Hillard Crouch's folksy illustrations have an antique effect that adds to the warmth of the story. (Read a more complete review of this book here.)

Recently, the Light (my daughter; see "What's in a name?" in the sidebar) was given a copy of The Little Red Hen, and I was reminded of sharing The Little Green Witch with her last year around Halloween. Barbara Barbieri McGrath reframes the classic tale for Halloween, substituting a little green witch for the red hen. In this version, the lazy comrades who won't share the work but want to share the results are a ghost, bat and gremlin, and rather than growing wheat and making bread, the witch grows a pumpkin and makes a pie. Martha G. Alexander's soft illustrations make these potentially spooky characters downright adorable. (Read a more complete review of this book here.)

Finally, while the above books are all picture books, I wanted to include what has become one of my absolute favorite first chapter books for Halloween--Vivian Vande Velde's Witch's Wishes. When I checked this book out of the local library last year to read to my daughter, I had never read any of Vande Velde's work. I was so delighted by it that I have since read several of her books meant for older kids and adults and become a real fan of her writing. This is a really funny story which lends itself well to being read aloud. The story is about a clumsy, forgetful and somewhat impulsive witch on her way to a Halloween party for which she is on the refreshments committee. She's running late and needs to stop by a grocery store to pick up some ingredients for mulled cider, so she ignores a rule about witches waiting for a certain amount of time after dark to fly (in order to avoid being observed). She narrowly avoids a collision with a traffic report helicopter and crashes behind the market, where she is observed falling from the sky by a little girl trick-or-treating with her brother. Instead of being scared, the little girl shows genuine concern for the witch's welfare. To show her thanks, the witch casts a spell that will allow the girl's fake magic wand (she's dressed as a fairy princess) to do real magic in the form of granting wishes for remainder of the evening, despite the protests of her sentient broom (a great character with a smart mouth--or handle, I suppose). This well-meaning but not well thought out gesture results in chaos, because every time the little girl says "I wish this or that," the thought comes true. As we all know, anyone, especially a child, may wish a lot of things impulsively, sometimes in anger, that that person doesn't really want to come true. Imagine what might happen if every wish, no matter how small or large, came true. Eventually the witch realizes her mistake and tries to set things right, only to run into further complications. I think kids will relate to the characters and situations in this book and find the story hilarious and suspenseful. (See a more detailed review of this book here.)

As always, if you have other suggestions for great non-scary witch books to share with kids or remember some good examples from your childhood, I'd love to hear about them in the comments section.

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