We were talking about witches one day — the wonderful Margaret Hamilton from the Wizard of Oz movie; the creepy toeless witches of Roald Dahl’s The Witches — when I suddenly remembered a book I had loved as a child. It was called What the Witch Left by Ruth Chew, and I was probably eight or so when I read it, just a little older than N. In my mind I could see the flare of a mysterious orange robe on the deep blue cover, and the two girls holding the robe and wondering at its magic. I zipped up to the computer and looked for the book online — out of print, sadly (words that twist in my novelist gut). I ordered a second-hand copy for N and waited for the surprise to arrive.
What the Witch Left, written in 1973, tells the story of Katy and her friend Louise, who discover a dresser drawer full of seemingly ordinary objects kept in storage for a grandmother’s family friend. There’s a robe, a little mirror, a pair of boots, and a pair of gloves. But soon Katy and Louise realize the objects are not ordinary at all — they are infused with magic. The gloves (they each put one on) disappear when pulled over each girl’s hand. Wearing them, Katy and Louise excel at their school writing exercises; they play piano and draw masterfully. And the vibrant robe, once donned, makes them and itself invisible. When they each put on a boot, they realize they’re able to travel vast distances with every step. The little mirror fogs and then clears, showing them anything they wish to see.
Ruth Chew, it turns out, wrote a number of witch books. She died just last year, at the ripe age of 90. According to the bio on her site, “As a child she was determined to be an artist and drew constantly. She believed that the only reason she passed high school biology was because of the drawings she made of the specimens.” Years later, as a mom of five children, Chew tried her hand at illustrating books. But when work was slow to come, she decided to write her own book, mainly so that she could illustrate it. This first witch, The Wednesday Witch, traveled not on a broomstick, but on a canister vacuum cleaner like the one Chew used at home. I suspect that little detail delighted her children.
N enjoyed What the Witch Left. But I can’t say it affected her the way it did me. It’s funny how much we invest in our own childhood experiences, and how completely we want to convey them to our children. I wanted not just to give the book to N, but to give her my take on it too, so that she could feel what I felt when she read it. But of course it doesn’t work that way, nor should it.
Chatting about this blog with my editor the other day, she began reminiscing about books she’d read as a girl, and I saw how her whole expression changed with the memory. Which just underscored for me how books can sometimes be worlds we enter, and if we’re lucky we retain the memory of traveling there. What will N’s favourites be when she looks back on her years of childhood reading? Impossible to say just now. And entirely for her to decide.