What the witch left for me

Margaret Hamilton, witchiest witch of all, was a kindergarten teacher, a Sunday school teacher, and a tireless advocate for children's education

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.

Just one of many witch books by Ruth Chew

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.









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4 responses to “What the witch left for me

  1. I remember Ruth Chew, and I had the same experience of my kids not liking her books as much as I did. I think part of it is that they feel almost historical to the kids — the seventies are a long long time ago to them. Last century even!

    Remember the teacher thinking they were cheating?

    • Oh yes, the teacher! And even the mom! The grownups were all pretty flat and mean, come to think of it. Interesting point re last century. Although N has loved some books that are much older: Pippi, Secret Garden, and so on. I think it’s quite a feat to create something that will resonate with future generations.

  2. It’s a kind of scary thing, isn’t it, offering the books one Loved as a child to one’s own children. There are quite a few books I haven’t even tried to interest them, because I don’t want to be sad if they are rejected…but on the other hand, it’s lovely when they enjoy your own favorites!

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